Is it possible to test your own DNA?

13 December 2016



Dear Chris,
A few years ago you did a session where some English school children did DNA experiments. I cannot remember the full details but I think they had a DNA kit of some sort. Are they available in hobby stores in London or were they specially made up at the time? My youngest son Aonghas is currently working for Vodafone International in Newbury and he is coming back to NZ for his school mate's wedding in about a week's time, and I thought he might be able to get me such a kit so I could play around with it and see if I can make sense of my DNA. With all the work that was done on the human genome project, I am a bit skeptical that I might be able to determine anything without an elaborate medical lab.


Kerstin Goepfrich and the team discussed the possibilities of home DNA sequencing.. Kerstin - It depends a bit on why you would want to test your DNA. Is it did you want to find out about your ancestors, is it that you want to be a detective and find out about your health or your potential risk of getting a certain disease, or do you really want to get your hands dirty and try your hands as a DNA scientist?

DNA is the molecule that stores the information of life and it does that by storing the information in the sequence of the genetic alphabet. So the DNA is made up of bases A, T, C, and G and the sequence of these bases is what stores the information. So the way to obtain the most information from DNA is literally reading the bases, reading the letters of the genetic code, and this is what we call DNA sequencing.

And, unfortunately this cannot be done at home yet. Even though just two weeks back on the programme we heard that there are now portable DNA sequencers. However, getting one of those for yourself is probably not possible yet - it might be in the future.

Chris - But there are companies who will allow you, if you collect a swab, to send it to them. and they will send you back some information about your genetic makeup, and that's a sort of home kit for the home collection. But what you're saying, Kerstin, is that probably, at the moment, for the domestic market, the physical reading of DNA sequences is a bit beyond the average person's reach?

Kerstin - Even though DNA sequencing has developed at unprecedented speed, it's still something that takes a while and takes proper laboratory equipment.

Chris - Giles..

Giles - So those home testing kits that you can actually buy from 23andMe and DNAfit, the interesting thing about those is they give you some interesting pieces of information. Certainly genealogy, where you come from, ancestry, that is very, very good. The problem is not in actually generating the pieces of genetic information, which is now robust and cheap, it's actually interpreting it. And I think interpreting it has become a problem because we are now beginning to misunderstand the fundamental difference between risk and prediction. And I think although these are very good in saying broad things, say if you have this versus that you will increase your risk of something. Can you pluck anybody off the street and try and predict if this person is going to become fat, is going to breath better, that is more difficult to do.

Chris - Someone else we had on the programme two or three years ago, Anna Middleton from the Wellcome Trust, she made me think because she came and said well look, a lot of people are getting their DNA sequenced and the NHS in England is going to be sequencing a hundred thousand people imminently. And that means that a hundred thousand people, or more, are going to start learning things about their genetic cargo which immediately tells them a lot about their parents and a lot about their siblings, which neither may wish to know about. They might value that information, they may not want to know that information but the minute you know something about your own genetic makeup, you know something about your relative. Which you previously wouldn't have done

Giles - Exactly.

Giles - That's exactly right. So I think there is a whole lot of ethics questions that are actually wrapped up in it which no-one is discussing, or not enough. That it's been outpaced by the technological ability to actually look at your DNA material, certainly for the prices now available.


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