Home DNA test kits hit the mainstream a few years ago, originally as a way of exploring your genetic makeup and connecting with unknown relatives. Nowadays, many tests aren't just a way of confirming whether your father is actually that handsome Swedish builder rather than the Englishman you've been calling Dad your whole life, but can also offer up a whole wealth of health information, including whether you have a predisposition towards health certain conditions, or are a carrier for any genetic variants you could pass on.
23andMe is in that latter camp, and widely considered to be one of the best DNA testing kits around. We've covered the standard test in our 23andMe review, but I wanted to give the Health + Ancestry kit a try to see what it could tell me about my ancestral past and whether I'm likely to be facing any horrible diseases in my future.
Like most home DNA test kits, the 23andMe's key to unlocking the magical secrets of your past and gazing into the mists of your future is a plastic tube full of spit. You get a neat little box posted through your door, containing said tube and instructions as to what to do with it. The process is simple, if kind of gross. You just need to spit into the tube until you reach the marker line. I underestimated the amount of saliva required and thought I could just do it surreptitiously at my desk, but this turned out to be an error. You then screw the cap firmly on, releasing some mysterious liquid into your saliva-pool, pop it back into the box it arrived in, stick it in the post and await your results.
Let's start with ancestry. As far as I know, my family is entirely from various corners of the UK. My 23andMe test showed that… my family is entirely from various corners of the UK. Country Dublin is about as exotic as it gets in this arm of the Hamilton clan.
My ancestry composition also suggested a tiny bit of non-UK DNA might be mixed in: 0.2% Spanish and Portuguese, and an intriguing 0.4% Bengali and Northeast Indian. (Official response from my mother: "Well I have no idea what that could be.")
It wasn't exactly falling-out-of-your-seat, scheduling-a-serious-discussion-with-parents kind of stuff for me. If your family is more diverse, or, say, there was an enigmatic Swedish builder kicking around at the time of your conception, I can see this part could be really fascinating. The breakdown gets pretty specific in terms of country and even region. If your parents, or indeed children, do a test too, you can use that to see what heritage comes from which side, too.
There's more information to explore here, including maternal haplogroup (tracing the female line in your family tree) and – if you're a man – your paternal haplogroup too. It gets quite scientific at this point, so there's plenty to dig into if genetics is an interest for you, but 23andMe has also smartly included factoids that are understandable to everyone. For instance, I have a common ancestor with Marie Antoinette and Prince Philip. I also discovered that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 93% of other 23andMe customers. That equates to less than ~2%, but, it has been pointed out to me, that still seems like quite a lot.
Let's move on to health. The health predisposition section explores the genetic factors that might influence your chances of developing certain conditions, such as Celiac disease, late-onset Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Type 2 Diabetes. My report picked up a variant for a specific eye condition my grandmother suffered from, which speaks to the reliability of the results.
There's a clear disclaimer – or 'tutorial' – you need to click through explaining how the conclusions are reached, and making it clear that a predisposition does not equal a diagnosis and equally, a lack of predisposition doesn't mean you're safe. Despite that, I can see that being presented with 'variant detected' for something like Parkinson's isn't exactly going to brighten your day. So it's worth thinking about what doors you're potentially opening if you decide to go for the Health version of this DNA test – and remember, you can just opt for an Ancestry + Traits bundle for the less serious stuff.
23andMe will also reveal your carrier status for 45 different genetic variants, none of which I'd ever heard of before. This will tell you if you carry a variant that might not affect your health, but could affect the health of any current or future offspring. Again, worth approaching with a certain amount of caution.
Looking for something more lighthearted? Head to the Traits section. Here, 23andMe will try and predict a whole load of things about your physical appearance, from whether you're likely to have dimples, to the colour of your hair and eyes, to… er… your type of ear wax and whether or not it thinks you have a unibrow. It got me almost spot-on, right down to how much hair I had when I was born.
This section will tell you, based on your DNA, how likely you are to have certain taste and smell characteristics – your sweet/salty preference, and whether you're likely to dislike 'cilantro', for example – as well as your predisposition to various miscellaneous traits like a fear of heights and how often you get bitten by mosquitoes. You'd be forgiven for being sceptical about the link between DNA and some of these traits, but 23andMe includes a clear explainer of how it reached each conclusion, along with links to medical papers where you can dig in further if you like. Its conclusions for me weren't entirely correct in this section.
Finally, there's a Wellness section. This explores how your DNA might affect your body's response to things like diet, sleep and exercise. Basically, if your wellness odds are stacked against you or not. For instance, I'm less likely to be a deep sleeper and predisposed to weigh more than average. Cheers, genes.
That's a speedy overview of what My23andMe can do, but there's plenty more to dig into in each section, especially if you're interested in the science behind behind it all. And of course, it doesn't have to end with your DNA report; the original concept was that it would be used to help you trace and connect with unknown ancestors.
A 23andMe DNA test would make a great gift for a difficult-to-buy-for family member, and especially one who's interested in biology or genetics. In the run up to the holidays there are often deals to take the price down, too.