This past December, I decided to purchase a genetic ancestry test. This was no whimsical decision, as these tests are not cheap. However, it was something I felt that I needed to do. Being a biracial person, my racial identity has never felt quite as solid as other parts of my identity. Illustrative of this is the fact that I have identity crises at least once a week. Whereas racial identity comes easily to some people, this has never been the case for me.
Apparently, Facebook knew about my identity struggles (through creeping on my Google searches perhaps,) and one day I saw an ad for 23andMe, a “personal genome service.” Their home page displays the bold headline, “Find out what your DNA says about you and your family.” Could this be what I needed to make sense of myself?
Growing up, my parents told me that I was exactly 50 percent Italian and 50 percent Egyptian. My mom’s side had been a series of Italians marrying each other in the U.S for three generations until my mom married my dad. My dad is an immigrant from Egypt, and he always told me that his whole family for at least 400 years was Egyptian. While I didn’t really question my mom, I wasn’t entirely convinced by my dad’s story, as Egypt has historically been a major trade hub, connecting Africa, Europe, and the Middle East—and, of course, Egypt was imperialized by the United Kingdom for many years. The odds of me tracing my lineage back to the pharaohs just didn’t seem very likely.
So, when I found out about 23andMe, it seemed like I might be able to find some answers. After doing some research, and consulting with my neuroscience major housemate, I found that 23andMe was likely the most accurate personal genome service on the market right now. So, I placed my order at the beginning of finals week.
It’s worth noting that 23andMe has had its share of controversy in the past. Prior to December 2013, 23andMe provided information about predisposition to health conditions, in addition to ancestry information. There are videos on YouTube of people looking at their medical results several years ago, and it’s quite detailed. Based on your genes, 23andMe used to describe your risk for relatively common conditions such as diabetes and various cancers, but also less well-known diseases such as deep vein thrombosis and others. It also provided information about likelihood of drug sensitivity, inherited conditions, and physical traits (male pattern baldness for example). However, the FDA ruled that this service was considered a medical device, that there was not enough scientific evidence to support this service, and it has been suspended since.
It’s further worth noting that 23andMe cannot provide its service in New York as even its ancestry service is considered medical by the state and requires a special license. While they can ship it to a New York address, you have to collect your sample and mail it back from a different state. So, when my kit finally arrived, I had to drive to Connecticut (which, incidentally, is only slightly out of the way on my drive to/from Vassar). There, I sat in the parking lot of Whole Foods and had to spit into a test tube, which is much easier said than done. The kit requires that your saliva reach a fill line, not including any bubbles in your spit. As it turns out, my saliva is particularly bubbly, and so it took a solid 10 minutes to provide an adequate sample. Who knew spitting could involve so much effort?
After signing a form to affirm that I had not collected my sample in the state of New York, I sealed up the pre-paid return package and dropped it off at a post office. Then began the wait. 23andMe states that results take approximately 4 to 6 weeks, but I had read testimonials of it taking only 3 weeks. I kept my fingers crossed for 3 weeks.
At last, I received an email! My results were ready. I excitedly logged in to my 23andMe account, ready to find out where I came from. As it turns out, however, 23andMe uploads your results in two steps as they analyze your genes, and the first round of results was disturbingly broad. My maternal line was “Broadly Southern European” and my paternal line was “North African and Middle Eastern,” at least in terms of the majority of DNA. Thanks for nothing, results round one.
Before I get to my detailed results, which were uploaded several days later, I’ll explain a little bit of the biology behind the ancestry portion of 23andMe’s service. They analyze haplogroups, which are specific markers found in different populations around the world. The results “tell you what percent of your DNA comes from each of 31 populations worldwide.” Further, “The results reflect where your ancestors lived before the widespread migrations of the past few hundred years.” Cue my results!
On my maternal line, I am 47 percent Ashkenazi. What? But my mom’s whole side of the family is Catholic. My guess is that a few hundred years ago, some missionaries got to my ancestors and they migrated to the Italian peninsula, home of the Roman Catholic Pope. Seems plausible enough.
On my paternal line, I’m 45 percent North African. However, the DNA isn’t clustered in Egypt – it’s clustered in modern-day Algeria. I’m fairly surprised that it’s such a large percentage, but not that odd once I look at the rest of the breakdown on my dad’s side. I’m three percent Sub-Saharan African (mostly East African), just under one percent Middle Eastern (of the Arabian Peninsula specifically). As I had guessed, there was evidence of trade in my genes.
The remaining four to five percent of my DNA is “broadly European”, most of which is unclassified, but a small amount of both sides comes from the Iberian Peninsula. If I was going to have anything in common on both lines, this makes the most sense to me.
So, is my identity crisis solved? Not particularly. But I do know more about where my ancestors came from. While I will not claim any identity I did not previously use (i.e. though I am ethnically Jewish, I am not culturally or religiously Jewish and I am not a target of anti-Semitism.) I am happy to know that my ancestry is not as simple as my parents always told me it was. Yes, I am still Italian and Egyptian because I know that many generations of my family lived in those places. But there’s nuance too.
—Ramy Abbady ’16 is an education major.