Are You What Your Spit Says You Are?

Once upon a time there was this guy. The guy had been adopted as a newborn into a nice, loving family. The guy spent much time wondering not who his birth parents were so much as where they came from.

For many years he watched others revel in their heritages with the knowledge that his were forever sealed in a file that could only be accessed by a judge’s court order. If those files even existed.

But if one is patient enough, technology will catch up – and the answers could be out there.


OK, so yes, the guy is me. Adopted in a sealed record state, the process of which was over seen by a local pediatrician who by all accounts, may not have even gone through any formal channels.

The process was quite clandestine as I understand it. According to my grandmother, my parents drove my great-grandmother’s Ford falcon (I always wondered why I loved that car) to the hospital (so as not to be recognizable) and my mother wore a veil so the birth mother would never see her face. I’ve never discussed it with my parents, and grandma could spin a tale or two so, who knows?

But whatever the true circumstances, the situation left me adrift in a sea of uncertainty about exactly who I am.

Long time readers of the blog will know that I am very taken to Irish and Scottish traditions, and on occasion when others have asked if I’m Irish or Scottish I’ve had to simply shrug and say, “I don’t know, but I love the music”.

In fact, a girl I knew a long time ago told me, “It’s obviously in your soul, it doesn’t matter if it’s in your blood.”  I accepted that as true for the most part, if only because it gave me some validation to continue throwing Irish parties and going to Highland Games.

After all, I love bagpipes. There’s an old joke, “what’s the difference between an onion and bagpipes? No one cries when you cut up bagpipes!”  I never found that joke funny. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

However, all the possible answers to my questions were delivered to me by Tracey at Christmas in the form of a small colorful box. Her sister had done one of those“spit in the tube” genealogy tests that are all the rage now and thought that it would be a great thing for me to try, so she picked up a test kit from 23andMe.

Oh sure, I know that the results from these tests have some statistical variation (translated from scientific speech – can vary immensely depending on how one looks at the results) as demonstrated in the case of the identical triplets who all took the same test. But in a broad sense, these tests have built up a pretty good database, and should easily identify large chunks of a person’s heritage.

I was excited, I was intrigued – and I let it sit.

There it was, the possible answers to all my questions in front of me, but an odd feeling had come over me.

Not knowing my heritage had always given me the freedom to adopt those that I found personally appealing. But once I knew the truth, there would be no turning back. Was finding out the answer worth knowing what the answer was not?

I put off the test until after Saint Patrick’s Day, just to have one more celebration in blissful ignorance just in case my decedents came from Liechtenstein and I’d have to more the party to August 15th. Once it had come and gone, and once I felt I was ready, I sent in my sample.

For those of you who have never come across how this test works, it is very simple. You spit in a little vial until you reach the fill line, seal it up and send it in. The lab does the rest.

Simple that is unless you are not much of a spitter or have a dry mouth. Then I would assume that collecting about the 3 milliliters of saliva needed might be quite the task. But, if you’re one of those people who could do that in one spit – well damn, dude.

Once I dropped my sample in the mail all I had to do was wait, and wonder. I would sometimes find myself thinking about what the results would be, and imagine what my perfect set of results would conclude:

DNA Wish

Some days I’d have more fun with this than others, obviously.

Then, just last week I got the email that said my results were in (23andMe has you register your kit before you send in your sample and then does everything on line once they receive your sample and I warn you, they do send quite a few emails) so I rushed to the site and opened my report.

And I should say, I’m pretty happy with it. The lack of any Time Lord genes is a little disappointing but other than that the results are right were I’d hoped plus just enough sprinkling of surprises to make the whole endeavor interesting.

DNA Truth

Of course, as I stated these tests aren’t 100% conclusive in all areas. For instance, the test has a few categories that are regional break downs of Europe. In these situations (or specifically mine) they could tell that, with 50% confidence (more on that in a bit) 23.1% of my DNA comes from the Northwestern region of Europe, but they were not able to specifically identify the specific general country or none of the specified countries individually found was higher than 50%.

Also,the default confidence limits for the report are set to 50% (speculative), as you increase the confidence limits, percentiles start to get reassigned which can drastically change the results. For instance, by increasing my confidence limits to 90% (conservative), my report changes significantly to only include British/Irish (11.1%), Finnish (1.2%), French/German (0.8%), Northwestern Europe(58.3%), and Europe (26.8%).

Why? When you look at a DNA marker they might be able to say with 50% confidence that it is British/Irish. But can they say it with 90% confidence? Maybe not, so the marker gets shifted over to a more general category, which in this case is Northwestern Europe which 23andMe designates as British & Irish, Scandinavian, Finnish, and French & German, collectively.

Another interesting find from the test results (oh, Tracey is going to have fun with this) is that my DNA contains 309 variants that can be attributed to Neanderthals, and although this accounts for less than 4% of my total DNA, it is more than 92% of the other customers of 23andMe, and only 88 variants away from the most they’ve ever recorded. That probably all boils down to not much, but they were able to identify that apparently, I can attribute some of my height to these variants.

The report contains quite a bit more info which, to be honest, I’m going to have to sit down a lot longer with and digest. DNA was never my strong suit in school, in fact it was never even strong enough to be my weakest suit.

If you want a little more bang for your buck, you can also do health screening through 23andME, and for no extra charge, DNA matching with other 23andMe customers.

All in all, this was a fun little exercise. I learned a little bit more about myself, and I don’t have to cancel next year’s Saint Patrick’s Day party. Not that I was going to do that anyway – after all, August is already a pretty full month for us.

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