If you’ve ever gargled with mouthwash, felt a canker sore with your finger, or rubbed the inside of your mouth with the tip of your tongue, you’ve played with the raw material you need to hack your DNA.
Provided you have the right equipment, you can use this material to learn some mind-blowing things about yourself, from where your ancestors came from to how susceptible you are to certain diseases.
A few months ago, I decided to do just that.
Collecting my DNA
At a community lab in Brooklyn, I collected a few of my genes by swabbing the inside of my mouth with a Q-tip. Once I had enough of my own DNA, I could test myself — right there in the lab — for a special mutation that meant I would be more resistant to HIV. The test is one of several that the lab, called Genspace, helps people do. It’s mainly for fun, but the results can be life changing.
As I swirled the plastic stick around the inside of my mouth, Ellen Jorgensen, the lab’s founder, came over: “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “You need to be pretty rough.”
Mouth cells are constantly renewing themselves, making the moist, cavernous interior ground zero for recovering fresh DNA. After a few minutes of vigorous smearing, I spun the wet end of my Q-tip into a tiny vial of clear liquid that Jorgensen had brought out on a tray.
The liquid would help protect the DNA inside my cells when I subjected them to the next step in the process: boiling. Once that was done, I had to copy them, so I’d have enough raw material to run the HIV mutation test.
Using a touchpad at the front of a genetic copier called a PCR machine, Jorgensen punched in a sequence that would tell the machine to cycle through a series of three temperatures meant to coax my genes into copying themselves. (When heated, my chunk of double-stranded, helix-shaped DNA unwinds so that its two strands float side-by-side. Then, using these unwound strands as templates, special proteins attach to the ends to help with the duplication process.)
My strands, which I placed inside the machine that night, would continue to copy one another into the evening, long after the last of the lab’s residents left for home.
Checking for HIV resistance
The next day, we used a black light to look at my DNA, which I’d dyed blue and separated using electricity, which pulls the different sized DNA strands apart. There, we could see if I was missing the telltale segment of genetic material that would tell me I had the special tweak in my genes (a mutation in a gene called CCR5) that would make me more resistant to HIV.
Holding up my strand of genetic material to the light, I felt a tinge of excitement. But as I squinted at the black light to try and make out my results, Jorgensen called out from behind me: “Looks like you’re normal.”
Perhaps sensing my disappointment, Jorgensen was quick to let me know we’d be looking at much more of my DNA soon, but not here. Since we were short on time, Jorgensen packaged up my DNA and drove it over to a company in New Jersey called Genewiz, where they’d analyse the rest of my genes for about $US15.
This isn’t whole genome sequencing, which looks at all of your DNA. Instead, the process Genewiz uses is a popular method called SNP (pronounced “snip”) sequencing, which scans for single genetic variations that are linked to specific traits like hair and eye colour, susceptibility to certain diseases, and ancestry.
We’d have our results tomorrow night.
Finding out where my ancestors came from
Back at the lab the next day, Jorgensen projected our genetic results — which she’d saved on a USB drive — onto a screen at the front of the lab. We used the information to look at our genealogy.
This was exciting for me, especially because I know so little about my family history. My mum was adopted and my dad has very little information about his ancestors, so the genealogical trail pretty much dead ends at my grandparents.
My DNA suggested that my ancestors were likely members of the tribes of hunter-gatherers who settled in Scandinavia more than 4,000 years ago.
This was just the beginning of all the information I could explore. I could look at everything from my suggested likelihood of developing Parkinson’s, for example, to my estimated chances of going bald.
For now, of course, these results are simply rough sketches. Exactly what certain genes can tell us about our risk of disease remains very limited. We know, for example, that certain genetic mutations are tied to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer and type 1 diabetes. But we still don’t know how exactly these mutations influence these diseases, or why.
As the cost of opening up our cells and studying our genes drops and the science of interpreting the information contained inside improves, we will only learn more.