Sending a cheek swab?

2 minute read

A reader wrote me today:

I am wondering if you could suggest a general article for me to give to people who tell me how exited they are about sending a cheek swab to National Geographic for analysis. I imagine you have written something like this, but don't remember where it is. Any thoughts?

I wrote back, and thought I should share. I have an article in Slate from a couple of years ago that covers that topic:

Also, there was a NY Times article in late 2007 that basically covers the same difficulties:

I blogged about that article at the time. I also have a post from the time of the Slate article.

And my “testing” tag leads to a bunch of posts on the topic of genetic testing. I’ve never really sat down to write an FAQ on the topic, but I think it would be worth doing. Genetic Future does a very good job of covering current commercial offerings in genetic testing, a beat also covered at Eye on DNA.

If someone was thinking of sending $100 to Genographic, I have nothing against it as a form of entertainment. I think the information you get that way is, for most people, very superficial and unsurprising. Basically, they’re giving you your paternal Y chromosome lineage if you’re a man, and your mtDNA if you’re a woman. That fee pays for your test, the information they give out to you as a participant, and an extra amount that they will use to subsidize testing of various populations around the world.

But if you’re looking for the entertainment value, you will be much better off saving up $400 to send to 23andMe. That pays for a whole-genome SNP survey, including various phenotype predictions. They have all the genealogical information from the Y and mtDNA that you would get from Genographic, and it’s better-presented. Overall, it’s a much better deal, and more likely to generate something interesting to share with your friends. Of course, it costs more, but it’s a better value.

Now, for serious medical purposes, or for trying to do phenotype predictions of your children, I don’t recommend 23andMe. I honestly think that gene testing now is best treated as expensive entertainment. You might get a laugh, or learn something about your ancestry that you didn’t know. But you won’t likely learn anything that would be worthwhile to your children. Not yet, anyway. This is not an investment.

In other words, don’t spend your food money. Think of it as eight months of cable TV.