investigating our DNA
My Beautiful Genome is a book that everyone should read. And I mean, everyone. Lone Frank does a beautiful, moving account of her journey of self-discovery through understanding her DNA.
Like many of us, Lone has a family history of depression. She describes the specific genotypes she has, which make her more prone to what Sir Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog’. It’s equal parts fascinating and difficult to accept that what we inherit from our parents will play out in the emotional, mental and physical arena of our lives. Still, susceptibility to certain illnesses doesn’t mean we’re doomed by our DNA. There are unique factors that need to combine in order for health conditions to manifest.
DNA doesn’t only tell you about your health. With the advent of 23andMe, the everyday person can post a cheek swab and also get his or her ancestry analysed. The database of 23AndMe users is growing, and it’s exciting to think that the rigid lines of ethnicity we hold around ourselves may actually be more fluid than we think. For example, with the racial politics in America, it’s moving to see that a woman who appears European is actually a distant cousin to an African-American man. We have more in common than we realise.
Racial politics is no stranger to Australia. Despite many generations of immigrants coming from different parts of the world, there is the predictable pattern of media flare-ups against the latest target group. Take for example the notorious shock jocks spewing vitriol about different racial minority groups. Imagine the irony if he were to find out that he’s actually distantly related to the very same people he’s vilifying.
Racial politics aside, I would love to know more about my own ancestry. All I know is that I’m a mix of mostly Malay, some Indian and Chinese. When I was much younger, I remember my paternal grandmother telling me that her father came from Bombay. That’s just one example of where my ancestors lived before they settled in Malaysia and Singapore. It would be fascinating to trace the paths my ancestors took, hundreds of years ago, because these connections remind me that I belong to something larger than myself.
Here’s a quote from the 23andMe website:
‘Ancestry Composition is our update to the Ancestry Painting feature that tells you what percent of your DNA comes from each of 22 populations worldwide. The analysis includes DNA you received from all of your ancestors, on both sides of your family. The results reflect where your ancestors lived 500 years ago, before the advent of intercontinental travel.’
How exciting is that? As a first-generation migrant from Singapore to Australia, this is my leg of the journey throughout this world. I come from a long legacy of other travellers, and learning more about them will help me learn more about myself.
When I told my family that I was considering sending my DNA to be genotyped, the responses I got from them varied. One of my brothers was excited and offered to pay for part of it. My youngest sister was keen to learn about the ancestry aspect of our DNA.
‘If there’s anything bad in our genome,’ my middle sister, a junior doctor said, ‘don’t tell me.’
‘What do you mean by bad?’
‘The irreversible stuff. Like Huntington’s.’
My sister has seen some painful and irreversible illnesses throughout the course of her work. As a family, we know a reasonable amount about the risk factors in our family tree – diabetes and heart disease, to name two – but it would be awful to find out if there were other illnesses that could not be altered by lifestyle changes. That’s the dark side of knowing too much. What would you do if you knew your genes had the potential to cripple you, irreversibly? Some of us would rather not know. I belong to the camp that would rather know and prepare for it.
There are also some serious ethical questions surrounding that kind of information. There’s nothing more private than your DNA. 23andMe has a water-tight privacy statement that assures all members that their DNA information will be safe. But there is a caveat:
‘Except as otherwise set forth herein, we will never release your individual-level Genetic and/or Self-Reported Information to a third party without asking for and receiving your explicit consent to do so, unless required by law.’
This could be problematic. I don’t imagine the US Government wanting to seize my genetic information, but the fact that they could is slightly alarming. If I’m careful about my bank account details and my privacy online, I sure ought to be very careful about my genetic code.
With all this in mind, I haven’t finalised my decision to send my cheek swab to 23andMe. The possibilities of learning more about my health and ancestry are tempting. However, I’m not comforted by the thought of having my most private genetic information in the hands of an organisation and subject to the laws of another country. So at this point in time, I’m caught in between curiosity and caution. When one of them wins out, I’ll decide to post my cheek swab, or remain where I am.
By Raidah Shah Idil