Down the DNA rabbit hole
Honoring the Ancestors #2: Results of AncestryDNA test
This is part 2 of Honoring the Ancestors, a series about reconnecting to those that came before us.
A few weeks back Minette and I bought AncestryDNA tests at a discount on their Father’s Day sale and then eagerly awaited the results. As of this writing mine had arrived but Minette’s had not, much to her chagrin. As part of my project to honor my ancestors, I wanted to dive deeper into my genetic makeup and where I came from.
Our genes are quite literally made up of what our ancestors provided. While the ability to find cilantro palatable and to avoid smelly urine after eating asparagus can’t really be considered superpowers, things like genes found in endurance athletes are. Of course they also show us where our weaknesses are: macular degeneration anyone? Tendency to heart disease? Yep.
They also show us where we came from in the world, giving us a clearer picture of our background. While we can never really know their experiences it can give us clues to our epigenetic background: war, famine, and other environmental stresses can impact our genome through generations. We can look at the history of our ancestral regions and wonder.
Ethnicity Inheritance and Communities. Ancestry.com does a great job here, where possible providing historical context with stories about what was happening in your ancestral areas at given time periods. It even ties it to specific people in the family tree at a given time period. These ties are built from inherited DNA (the Ethnicity Inheritance part) as well as DNA shared with people in specific geographical areas (the Communities part).
Here’s an example from the history of The Midlands (the area of England where much of my people come from) in the time before some of my ancestors decided to immigrate to Canada:
1875–1900 Overcrowded & on the Move Although the standard of living in the Midlands was higher than in other parts of England, conditions were still generally hard in both the countryside and cities. Houses built too closely together without sanitation, such as Birmingham’s notorious “back-to-backs,” left many urban families living in slums, crammed together in tiny rooms. Faced with poverty and unsanitary living conditions, migration increased as people hoped for greater prosperity. But things were improving. In 1875 a public health act required all new houses to be connected to drainage and supplied with clean running water, and local authorities had to dispose of sewage and refuse.
I’ll be able to use that to add context to the ancestral stories I talked about here.
On a whim I submitted my AncestryDNA results to mytrueancestry.com’s free tier which purports to “take your DNA results one step further through the use of advanced archaeogenetics”. It’s a bit of a crazy website and it’s hard to tell exactly what they are showing me. I think it’s telling me that I have Bronze Age background in Celtic Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, and Czechia. Clearly I can use that at my next chain mail fitting and when I choose between a spadone and a broadsword. I did end up with the “Hunter Gatherer Gene” (CLTCL1 SNP rs1061325(T;T)) so maybe it came from those folks.
Traits, and a peek at the world of free online DNA analysis. My first impression of AncestryDNA’s reporting of my genetic traits (things like “Cilantro Aversion” and “Lactose Intolerance”) was that they seemed pretty vanilla. I was excited to see that I had traits for DNA differences commonly found in endurance athletes as well as the ability to more easily raise VO2max through regular exercise. As someone who self-identifies as an introvert the reported trait of “more extroverted” seemed bizarre. Many of the other traits were just a little underwhelming: I don’t care much that my DNA shows I tend to have typical levels of B12 or that I might sneeze when exposed to bright light (I don’t).
It wasn’t until I took a little journey into some free online DNA analysis tools that I began to understand why AncestryDNA’s trait reports are not very broad.
Like mytrueancestry.com above, there are many, many online DNA analyzers that will take your AncestryDNA or 23AndMe raw results and produce much more information about your genetic traits. Like mytrueancestry.com, many of those results are tenuous (at best) and need a lot of investigation and context to understand what they are showing. Most of them also have paid tiers to unlock even more information.
After downloading the raw DNA analysis results from AncestryDNA I used genomelink, geneticgenie, and codegen.eu. Each had their own way of displaying the results. Codegen.eu’s was the most science-y and overwhelming, partly because they show all results and don’t have a paid tier.
I was seeing more information than AncestryDNA provided and I was happy. I saw traits related to heart disease, empathy, alcoholism and heavy drinking, Barrett’s esophagus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, difficult to hypnotize, and higher HDL cholesterol that all agreed with personal and family health histories. Then I saw pointers toward greater and lower risks of bipolar, schizophrenia. One of the tools showed I had a propensity towards less athletic endurance. Another showed I was at greater risk for anxiety but then asked a set of questions about my personal history and decided, well, not really.
How does an average human interpret this data, especially when different analyses yield completely opposing results? We’re faced with sifting through each trait analysis with a fine-toothed comb to see if it’s a “weak association”, to see the quality and sample size of the study or studies that the trait is based on. Are we willing to bet personal health outcomes on a study of 5 Croatian cyclists? AncestryDNA seems to win here in that they are only presenting traits that have a basis in stronger science. Why would I pay $14 for 200+ traits in genomelink when they are presenting me information that is hard to verify, all packaged up in pretty little icons?
FoundMyFitness, in which I backpedal a bit. I’ve been a fan of Dr. Rhonda Patrick for a while from listening to her talk about Health on various podcasts. She’s a cell biologist and is quite public facing. Like the services above, her lab will take your AncestryDNA results and analyze them - for $25 - and give you a detailed report. I did pay for this one, and I trust the results because they come from her lab, because they are science-laden and not watered down, and because they include actionable lifestyle changes for genetic differences that might need them. I guess my purchase says something about trust.
Here’s an example of the information provided for the APOE gene that showed up for me (alas, a higher risk of Alzheimer’s):
Diet and Lifestyle Modifications that Change Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Sleep There is a bypass around the poor APOE4-mediated amyloid-ß clearance. The other way amyloid-ß plaques are cleared from the brain is through the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is activated in sleep, during which cerebrospinal fluid diffuses into the brain and carries away waste products including amyloid plaques. Poor quality or insufficient sleep prevents glymphatic system activation and leads to greater amyloid plaque accumulation, particularly in APOE4-positive individuals. Conversely, good sleep quality and sleep consolidation lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and pathology associated with it in people with the APOE4 allele. Physical Activity Regular exercise lowers the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in APOE4 positive individuals. APOE4-positive individuals that were physically active for three or more days per week (ranging from brisk walking, jogging or swimming for 15 min or more, regular jogging, running, bicycling or swimming for 30 min or more, or playing sports such as handball or tennis for an hour or more) were protected from hippocampal atrophy and Alzheimer’s disease. Fish Dietary fish intake slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease APOE4 carriers. Individuals with the APOE4 allele who have high dietary intakes of fish have improved brain neuropathology on measures related to Alzheimer’s disease. Alcohol/Smoking Frequent alcohol drinking and smoking increase dementia risk in APOE4-positive individuals.
Armed with the trait information from AncestryDNA and FoundMyFitness I have the confidence to take some concrete steps in changing my behavior (nutrition, supplementation, sleep, & exercise) to work with the DNA that my ancestors worked so hard to pass on to me.
Strong99 is about not just living longer but thriving longer: adapting our lifestyles to suit our genetics will help both of those things.
Total cost: $75
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