Friday, October 18, 2013

Me and my DNA

Most people at this point have heard of 23 and Me, the personal genetics company that--for $99--maps your DNA and reports back where your ancestors came from and what genetic diseases you may be a carrier for.

I've long been tempted to have my "genes done," so when our rabbi invited our synagogue to a genetics seminar (taught by a geneticist from among the congregation) and dangled a free membership to 23 and Me, I jumped at the opportunity (and not just because the session overlapped with Zoe's Hebrew school class and got up out of the house for yet another showing). Why free? Apparently the founder of 23 and Me spoke at the Conference of Reform Rabbis and offered all of them 100 free memberships to bring back to their communities.

Why rabbis? Jews belong to a particularly small gene pool and are thus much more likely to be carriers for genetic diseases like breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer and heart-breaking childhood conditions like Tay-Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis. Although interestingly enough, Jews do so much pre-pregnancy genetic counseling and prenatal testing that our Tay-Sachs incidence numbers are now lower than that of the general population. In fact, our gene pool is so small that pretty much all Jewish women are descendants of four female individuals. 

"Are those four women Sarah, Rebecca, Leah...?" a woman in the audience asked. "No," answered the rabbi, who went on to explain that while most Jewish men can trace their patrilineal lines back to Africa, those Jewish ancestors likely "left Africa and found nice non-Jewish wives in Europe."

As a product of intermarriage myself (Jewish mother and 5th generation Nebraskan dad), I can't wait to get the results of my 23 and Me test. I'm hoping that my diverse DNA won't show a lot of scary disease  markers, but I'd rather be aware and prepared than not.