Are Genetic Testing Services Worth It?
Thinking about using a DNA sample to look at your heritage
—and predict your future?
Only a few short years ago, services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe that allow you to submit a saliva or tissue sample to find out where your ancestors came from was the stuff of science fiction. The thought of sending a genetic simple to a company like Ancestry.com and receiving a detailed report on your genetic background—including a very detailed discussion of what part of the globe your forebears hailed from.
Yet today, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe have advanced these concepts to a point where they are both scientifically possible and economically feasible. Depending on what you are trying to do, and depending on the service you choose, it is possible to begin delving into your genetic background for as little as a few hundred dollars. Those wishing for a much more detailed look at their genes can anticipate paying upwards of $2,000; however, most people do not need the level of detail that such a and analysis would bring, and are able to achieve their goals for less than $200.
This is the world of genetic mapping: the practice of using a DNA sample to look at your heritage—and predict your future. If you are considering using a genetic mapping service, here is some more information that you may find to be useful.
How Does Genetic Mapping Work?
Of course, the number of laboratories and companies offering genetic mapping services is almost limitless and growing by the day. As technology continues to advance, making genetic mapping more feasible, more and more companies are offering this service—in one form or another—available to the public.
Ancestry.com, just as other services do, will request that you provide a sample of your DNA. This is usually done by placing saliva in a tube, then sealing it and mailing it to the lab. Other DNA samples that are commonly requested include a cotton swab of the cheek and gums or a small blood sample. Regardless of the specific type of sample, the process is essentially the same: a home collection kit is mailed to the consumer, who then collects the sample and returns it through the mail. This process is convenient, fast, and simple.
Once the genetic mapping company obtains the sample, it runs one or more of a number of tests on it. The results of the tests are then compiled into a report and sent back to the consumer. Reports can be as specific as testing for a few identified conditions, or as general as a lengthy list of various conditions and diseases, along with the consumer’s propensity for developing each.
In the case of genetic mapping that is used for other purposes—such as discovering one’s ethnic background—the reports may contain information setting out the consumer’s genetic makeup and ethnic background by percentage (for example, 62% Eastern European, 17% Southeast Asian, and 11% Northern African).
Why Would You Want to Map Your Genes?
Of course, there can be any number of reasons for using such a service, depending on what it is that the consumer is interested in. These services can be a valuable part of one’s preventive healthcare strategy, or can simply be an interesting source of information.
In the case of genetic mapping reports that pertain to medical conditions or disease susceptibility, many people find them to be helpful in order to alert them to specific areas of concern. By identifying those diseases or conditions to which they are more likely to be susceptible, the genetic mapping process allows them to take preventive steps and enact rigorous monitoring procedures in order to minimize the likelihood that they will actually develop the conditions or diseases.
In the case of genetic mapping that is used to uncover one’s heritage, consumers who are seeking to find their roots may find the tests to be a valuable part of their efforts. Additionally, they can be used to assist in narrowing down a search for relatives, particularly in cases where someone was adopted at birth and is seeking to reconnect to his or her blood relations.
Sometimes, using a genetic mapping service is simply a way to help build a connection with someone else. For example, if you spend a lot of time with an elderly friend or relative, you may find that obtaining a genetic map of each person’s background gives you both something to talk about and explore together.
Other people simply want to be alerted as to any potential anomalies in their genetic makeup. For example, they may want to know if they have a certain gene mutation that would cause them to be more likely to fall prey to a certain fate—even if they have no blood relatives with a similar condition.
Whatever the specific reason for using a genetic mapping service, given the ease with which a genetic report may be obtained, along with the relatively lower cost of doing so, many people choose to obtain at least a cursory report on their overall genetic picture. Sometimes they do it for no other reason than because it is interesting and fun to do so.
A simple Internet search of genetic mapping services will return pages of results. With so many companies offering genetic mapping, it can be challenging to determine which one best suits your needs. As with so many other things, the answer is that it depends on what you are looking for.
Many have used Ancestry.com to trace their ancestors and to utilize the rich hints that can make building a family tree much easier. But now, AncestryDNA also offers genetic tracking by using a “microarray-based autosomal DNA testing” matching a person’s entire genome from over 700,000 locations.
The result will include information about your ethnicity across 26 regions/ethnicities and will identify potential relatives through DNA matching to others who have taken the AncestryDNA test. It will disclose if you are partially Native American but the results cannot be used as a substitute for legal documentation.
A company similar to Ancestry.com that combines both the ancestry and health concern tests is 23andMe. This business offers a basic test and a test with a more detailed report.
Similar to many of the other tests, it starts with a saliva sample.
Using the 23andme test provides consumers with a detailed report that provides a breakdown of their ethnicity by percentage, and can help them to determine their lineage going back as far as 1000 years. Those who opt-in are afforded the opportunity to connect with other people who share their DNA, making it possible to find blood relatives. This last option can be particularly useful to people who have been adopted and who are searching to discover their roots.
On the health risks screening front, 23andMe offers a test that screens consumers for a genetic propensity towards a number of potential conditions. These may be conditions that the consumers are more susceptible to, or it may be conditions for which consumers are carriers—meaning that they themselves don’t suffer from the condition, but they have the potential to produce offspring who would, under certain circumstances.
Other tests offered by this company include health and well-being issues (such as lactose intolerance—something that is not dangerous in and of itself, but can impact one’s well-being), genetic traits (such as the likelihood of developing male pattern baldness), and more.
Other Genetic Mapping Services
MyHeritageDNA provides two fascinating types of results:
Ethnicity Estimate: A percentage breakdown of your ancestral background, showing your ancestors’ origins from among 42 ethnicities, including Irish, Italian, North African, Japanese, East Asian, and many others. MyHeritage has the largest pool of supported ethnicities in the industry.
DNA Matching: This powerful feature uses your DNA to help you find new relatives from all around the world. Your matches, from both your mother’s and father’s side, will include information about your shared genetic sequences, and identify your estimated relationship.
GPS Origins boasts the most complete DNA Ancestry results, with a new ancestral tracking technique that can pinpoint your ancestry down to the nearest town or village! GPS Origins analyzes 800,000 genetic markers, 862 reference populations and 36 gene pools.
Colors BRCA Test
The Colors BRCA Test allows women to test their genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer, by testing the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
These tests are physician ordered, and Colors will connect you with an independent physician who can order the testing on your behalf, if appropriate.
Your test result includes access to professional genetic counselors can help explain how your results may impact you.
You can then take your clinical grade report to your healthcare provide, who can help you make a plan that reduces your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I noticed that the Colors BRCA Test has particularly positive reviews from nearly every user.
While this test is probably of more interest to women, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can impact certain male cancer risks as well:
Things You Should Consider About Genetic Testing
Of course, as with any new technology, there are considerations with genetic mapping that many people may not have encountered before. By being aware of these issues, you can go into your genetic mapping with your eyes open.
First, genetic mapping is not always 100% accurate. There exists the potential that a certain test will return a false positive—or a false negative—for a given condition. As such, you should not panic if your genetic mapping report suggests a high likelihood of developing a certain condition or contracting a certain disease. Instead, you should take it with a grain of salt and use the genetic mapping report as a basis from which to investigate further.
Another thing of which you should be aware is that some experts have criticized the validity of many of the genetic mapping tests in use today. While it is certainly possible to evaluate a given individual’s genes and use them to form a relatively accurate picture of his or her potential for developing certain conditions, the fact of the matter is that some of the tests in use simply do not have the accuracy and reliability of other, more expensive, tests.
Another thing to consider is the potential for the information gained from these tests to fall into the wrong hands. Given the current political climate in our country, it is impossible to determine if genetic mapping test results might one day be used by insurance companies to deny coverage—or charge higher premiums—to people who have been determined to be more likely to develop certain conditions. While some naysayers may say that this is an invasion of privacy and illegal, the unfortunate reality of our country is that laws frequently change to make the once-unthinkable a reality.
For this reason, if you are considering a genetic mapping test in order to discover whether you may be likely to develop certain conditions or diseases, you may wish to do it anonymously or pay attention to the privacy policies of the company selected. Ancestry.com devotes a significant amount of website space to discussing privacy. Some genetic mapping companies will allow you to purchase the kit and submit it under a random number instead of using your name. By taking steps to prevent your identity from being associated with any one genetic mapping report, you can help protect against the eventuality that the information in the report might one day be used against you.
Finally, one last consideration is that genetic mapping tests—at least insofar as they are used to provide health condition information—frequently lacked any actionable information. For example, they may tell you that you’re more likely to develop a certain condition, but they may not be able to give you any advice as to what you could do about the situation.
While some conditions, such as adult-onset diabetes, can be proactively addressed through things such as a good diet and plenty of exercise, other conditions are simply out of your control. As such, discovering that you have a tendency to develop a certain condition could end up bringing an increased level of stress in your life as you grapple to deal with something over which you have absolutely no control.
Because of this, some people have opted to engage in all the preventive actions they can—such as eating well and exercising regularly—and forgo taking any genetic mapping test. Ultimately, whether knowing that one has a likelihood of developing a certain condition about which there is nothing he or she can do is something that would cause him or her undue duress or not is a choice that every person must make for himself or herself.
This is an interesting, but really complicated, look at the differences (and similarities!) between the Autosomal DNA Testing services. The largest variation seems to be in the SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) which are the places in the genome where people differ. For 1 out of every 1000, there is no difference. Most of these SNPs don’t do very much, but some of them confer a risk of disease which can be very important.
Although there are some very significant considerations to keep in mind, most people find that genetic mapping tests are something that they feel are worthwhile. They can be fun and a great conversation started and a hobby of sorts especially if it is followed with building a family tree such as you can do through Ancestry. Having the knowledge that you are or are not likely to develop certain conditions can help you in a number of ways, from making smart food choices to engaging in proactive estate planning. But those considerations can be secondary when considering how much fun it is to know where your ancestors came from and whether it matches up with what you have been told your whole life. Understanding your ethnic and genetic background, and knowing where your ancestors come from is something that many people find both fascinating and worthwhile.
Overall, genetic mapping is a wonderful way to quickly and easily find out more about yourself, your loved ones, and the world in which you live.
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I hope this article provided some practical, empowering information.
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