In 2017, millions of Americans paid to send off a plastic vial of saliva and have their DNA analyzed.
My dive into the gene pool began with animal testing, meaning my three-year old hound Mabel, and a question: Is there something about her breeding that accounts for her vociferous howling when anyone approaches our home?
I’ve lived with several dogs. But I’ve never known one that objected as much as she does to the arrival of strangers bearing packages. Could her breeding account for it?
The first step was to get a DNA sample from under her dewlap. The special chicken treats that usually get her to hold still were not allowed, lest the residue prove that my dog is 100 percent Rhode Island Red. Getting the swab into her mouth between cheek and gum took a strong and wily assistant.
The verdict came by email a few weeks later. The adorable puppy that the rescue organization thought was half beagle/half Lab was actually a mix of beagle, coonhound and Chow Chow, a dog once raised for food in Asia and turned up in the western part of the U.S. in 1780.
Suddenly, Mabel’s aversion to deliveries from Chinese restaurants made sense.
I know almost nothing about my own genetic background. My parents were both only children so I have no aunts, no uncles, no cousins and so few direct relatives that when my son and his fiance asked for a list of relatives to invite to their wedding, I considered adding distant relations I have never met.
We all have our idiosyncrasies, but could some of mine be explained by genetics? Was there a good reason that I had to have braces twice before the age of 18? An explanation for why one of my feet is significantly larger than the other? Perhaps an analysis of my chromosomes would hold the answers.
My son gave me a genetic test for Christmas. I produced the requisite amount of saliva for a DNA sample, sent it off to be analyzed and waited for an answer to my questions about my forebears.
Six weeks later I received an email with the results. I am 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish from my mother’s side, 49 percent British/Irish from my father, and the other 1% is Northern European — the most boring outcome possible.
The disappointing truth is that my dog’s chromosomes are a lot more interesting than mine. My maternal grandmother was born in New Orleans and I thought it possible that she was not 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. I was wrong.
My father’s people were poor farmers in Simpson County, Kentucky and I thought it was possible there were African relations in my mix. There are none.
It’s too bad there isn’t a Hindu version that would generate a report on all of the animals I had been in previous lives.
One surprise was my Neanderthal ancestry. Neanderthals were one of the three types of early humans and before they became extinct, they apparently mixed it up with the early humans that I descended from. Since scientists documented the markers for Neanderthal ancestry in 2010, it’s been possible to identify those markers in analyzed DNA.
I hoped that I would find an explanation for what I consider my Neanderthal habits, such as my predilection for roasting vegetables over a smoky fire and my interest in hunting for food.
There was no genetic explanation for these things, but the genome-mappers at 23andMe did find markers for two traits associated with Neanderthals; I am less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate and have less back hair than most people.
Thank goodness those mysteries have been solved.
Did I go into this with unrealistic expectations? I spoke to Sheila McCormick, a molecular biologist whose husband gave her a gift of one of the first 23andMe tests back in 2012.
Like me, she wasn’t surprised by the results, which included the information that her eyes were blue, a fact she had been previously aware of. She described the information she got as “bland.” But she was glad her genetic data backed up ancestry and health information she already had.
I’ve had a few weeks to digest the results and talk to people who have also had their genes examined and I’m starting to feel more clear-eyed. My sister’s friend Sophia was thrilled to have confirmation of her Scottish and Irish roots. Why was I disappointed that my DNA sample revealed no connections to the people of Oceania?
Now I know for sure that I am the result of the sweeping immigration of people from different parts of Europe to the U.S. in the 19th century. Once they got to America, they pretty much stuck to their own kind until my parents met and produced me a century later.
We don’t have back hair, we don’t sneeze when we eat chocolate and our dogs — mutts like us — are liable to bark at strangers.