Iowa Alumni Magazine | November 2016 | In Class

Finding Themselves

By Josh O'Leary
B

ryant McAllister circled the classroom and, one by one, handed his students an instrument that would begin to unlock their personal histories and unravel the intricate fibers of what makes us human.

It was a toothpick.

McAllister asked the students to gently scrape the insides of their cheeks, freeing tissue cells containing their DNA. They leaned over their tables and spit into small plastic tubes—as discreetly as one can in the middle of a classroom.

"So how many people have done this in their other classes?" asked McAllister, a UI associate professor of biology, getting a laugh from the two dozen freshmen inside the Blank Honors Center. It was "Spit Day," as McCallister calls the second session of his first-year seminar, "Who Are You? Revelations from the Personal Genome." Once they registered online and filled their vials with saliva, the students packed up their samples for shipment to 23andMe, a California-based consumer genetics testing company. In a few weeks, they'd have a genetics report delivered to their 23andMe account, detailing their ancestral makeup, personal traits like eye and hair color, and the likelihood they're a carrier of certain inherited health conditions.

Submitting a DNA sample for analysis, then parsing through the personalized data they receive, is the centerpiece of McAllister's seminar. The exercise introduces students to personal genetics and sparks discussion about the privacy, regulatory, and legal concerns that arise alongside the emerging industry. Students learn the science behind how for-profit companies like 23andMe can pinpoint ancestry and reveal other insights from a person's DNA. Even more, McAllister hopes it prompts the freshmen—at a time when they're trying to find their place in the world to reflect on who they are from scientific and humanistic perspectives.

"You not only learn about genetics, but you learn deeply about yourself in a unique way," says McAllister, an evolutionary biologist and his department's director of undergraduate studies.

Christine Tygart, a health and human physiology major, was curious about her ancestry when she enrolled in the course last year. Tygart grew up with the understanding that her family was rooted largely in France and Germany, so she was surprised when her genetic report came back showing she was 43 percent British and Irish—her most dominant heritage. Interestingly, Tygart also discovered she is part Ashkenazi, prompting her to research the history of the central European Jewish ethnic group for a paper at the end of the semester on how the DNA analysis reshaped her self-identity.

Meanwhile, 23andMe's trait, wellness, and carrier status reports reaffirmed a number of things Tygart already knew to be true. For example, her genes suggest she's more likely to consume above-average amounts of caffeine and her muscle composition is more suited to sprinting than endurance running. Tygart also identified and made contact with distant family members through the service's relative matching tool, including a fourth cousin in Oregon who helped her connect the dots on her extended family tree. "We've emailed back and forth, sent over pictures, and figured out how we're connected," Tygart says.

The one-credit-hour course is among the dozens of engaging first-year seminars at the UI spanning an array of disciplines, from cinema to sports analytics. While many freshmen spend much of their time in large lectures, the seminars are designed to allow faculty to connect with new students and encourage critical thinking in a small setting. McAllister's seminar is open to students from all areas of study, and submitting a test to 23andMe is optional. He uses his seminar budget to pay for the $199 DNA kits, so there's no added course fee. Over the course of the semester, students also take part in class discussions on the societal impact of commercial genetics testing, write blog posts on the course webpage, and learn how to analyze their genetic data beyond the reports provided by 23andMe.

After students drop their saliva tests in the mail, 23andMe—named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up a cell—extracts the DNA and uses a genotyping chip that reads about 600,000 locations in an individual's genome. The service provides more than 60 personal reports, analyzing variations in the genome to determine whether a person is a carrier of inherited conditions like cystic fibrosis or genetic traits like male pattern baldness.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, a number of direct-to-consumer genetics companies have emerged that provide at-home ancestry and wellness tests for as little as $99. Today, the commercial genetic testing market likely exceeds more than three million customers among the major providers, McAllister says. Industry leaders Ancestry and 23andMe hit milestones last year, each announcing they had genotyped their one-millionth client.

While McAllister says the science behind the companies is solid, recreational genetics is not without controversy. In 2013, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop providing health reports to consumers, expressing concern about the validity of the tests and the consequences of telling customers they are likely to develop serious diseases. After a two-year hiatus in the U.S., 23andMe received FDA approval for a scaled-back health report that instead focuses on the risks of passing on certain conditions to children.

Still, a host of complex questions persist: What happens when it becomes easy through the ever-growing databases to track down anonymous sperm donors or birth parents of adopted children? What if insurance companies gain access to genetic data and use that information to deny coverage? Should law enforcement be allowed access to private DNA databases to identify suspects in criminal cases? While Congress in 2008 passed a Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prevents health insurers and employers from using DNA information, McAllister says the loss of anonymity can be a real concern.

During his class' first session of the semester, McAllister spells out such issues. A student could discover an unexpected relationship—a previously unknown half-sibling, for instance—or learn they're more susceptible to certain health risks. He encourages the freshmen to talk things over with their parents before deciding whether to participate, since the results could affect the entire family.

"Your biological identity can now be used to reveal your personal identity," McAllister says. "With so many genetic profiles out there, if someone is trying to look for you, ultimately your identity can be revealed through others related to you and their participation in these platforms. And that's going to be increasingly the case. This is all a brave new world, and we don't know what the consequences will be in five or 10 years."

For his seminar participants, however, a chance to explore their unique genome typically outweighs those apprehensions. While genealogy is often considered a hobby for retirees, he says many students have a keen desire to learn more about their family history and themselves. For Tygart, taking part in the genetic testing gave her a sense of being part of the greater network of humanity—all tied together, yet made unique, by the contents of those 23 pairs of chromosomes.

"These results definitely changed my outlook on the idea of 'family," Tygart wrote in her essay at the end of the course. "But I think that it was a very positive change."