Brooke and OTM producer PJ Vogt prepare to send their saliva off to 23andMe, a company that analyzes DNA information. Before they prepare their samples, Brooke and PJ talk with OTM senior producer Katya Rogers, and former OTM producer Jamie York about what they hope to find out from their genetic testing, what they’re concerned about discovering, and the value of having their genetic information online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don’t know much about my history before my grandparents arrived here from Europe, but I carry some of that history in my genes, history that goes way back to when homo sapiens mixed with the Neanderthals. If you send 99 bucks and some saliva to a DNA analysis and databank like 23andMe, they’ll send you your genetic history, even information about unknown third cousins in, say, Iowa or Ireland. And they’ll also send you a set of probabilities, of your odds of developing certain diseases, of being sensitive to certain medications, of sneezing in sunlight, and so on. They’ll also keep and continue to crunch your genetic data. I decided to send saliva to 23andMe, and so did OTM Producer PJ Vogt. When we got the test kits, we went into the studio to talk about it. You’ll also hear Senior Producer Katya Rogers and former OTM Producer Jamie York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay so, let's tear them open.
PJ VOGT: All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: PJ?
PJ VOGT: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you want to do this?
PJ VOGT: Well, it's basically just for very small and petty reasons, and I feel like maybe I'm uncorking something that I haven't thought hard enough about. You know that I drink a lot of Diet Coke every day?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, yeah.
PJ VOGT: And I read this thing where Peter Orszag, who used to be Obama's budget guy, he also does. And he took this test and found out that he has a – this is really medical looking – he has a genetic thing that lets him metabolize caffeine faster. So this thing that he’s doing actually make sense because of his chemistry or whatever. The other thing is I'm in a fight with my mom about a food allergy that she believes that I have, that I don't believe that I have, and it would be nice to have proof.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's why you wanted to do this?
PJ VOGT: That’s what got me started on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For me, it’s pretty different.
PJ VOGT: What’s yours?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, initially, I just wanted to know how much Neanderthal DNA I had. But I also think that I'll find all sorts of information useful. I mean, the big difference – well, there are lots of differences - between us, PJ, but one of them is 30 years, and for you, the likelihood of, say, developing Alzheimer's is more academic than I think it is for me.
PJ VOGT: Doesn’t that make you kind of not want to do it, though? I mean, if you can't do anything to prevent these things, then –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you’re on the alert for it, then you don't have to go through the agonizing process of dragging everyone else through it for a prolonged period of time when you don't actually have any real quality of life.
PJ VOGT: But you do have to go through the agony of like, I don’t know, knowing that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I started wearing black on my 13th birthday, PJ. [LAUGHS]
In fact, it will, I hope, give me a greater appreciation for the good health that I currently have.
KATYA ROGERS: Okay, so you guys are sitting there talking about what you want from the test. What about your families, don’t they have any say in it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No! [LAUGHS]
KATYA ROGERS: Nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, the information is for me. I don't have to share any of this with anybody, if I don't want to.
KATYA ROGERS: I wouldn’t do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not? KATYA ROGERS: Because if I did it and I found out something that was gonna be coming down the line at me, like Parkinson's or something, when would I tell my kids or my partner? That's gonna be his life, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say I don't - get it. I always want to know.
PJ VOGT: One of my friends that I grew up with had cystic fibrosis, so knew that there was a clock ticking, and it was really defining. Like it was the thing - you know, the first thing you’d say about a person would be that. Like knowing probably how you're going to die and when you're going to die, I don’t think it does make you live more or appreciate things more. I think I have this fantasy that I would find out that I knew how much time I had, in doing that I would spend it better than knowing abstractly that I’m going to die, and I don’t think that's true. I think death kind of crowds everything else out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sitting next to you right now is Jamie York. I’m just wondering, your father was adopted, right?
JAMIE YORK: My father was adopted twice. My mother's father was adopted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that leaves you with no knowledge of like three-quarters of your genetic code. Would you be interested in doing something like this?
JAMIE YORK: No. I find the prospect of it absolutely terrifying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why? JAMIE YORK: I don't want to know what's coming. I can, I can rationally understand the argument. I don't have the psychological fortitude to compartmentalize that information. You know, my mom died when she was 56 so, by your argument, if I had known that she had a high propensity for something that might kill her when she was young then, in theory, I could have made use of that information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: More to the point, she could have.
JAMIE YORK: She could have. But I don't think she could have lived her life differently, and I don't think I could have sort of managed that information. I think it would - haunt me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JAMIE YORK: My probably greatest fear is something like Huntington's that comes on in your late forties and is irreversible and untreatable. I don't want any part of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think that fundamentally what motivates me, more than anything, is curiosity.
JAMIE YORK: You’d get such a firm foundation of existential dread –
- that there’s nothing that could really disrupt it. Is that what you’re saying?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, pretty much.
JAMIE YORK: Yeah. It’s kind of a cliché, but I think it probably just heightens our kind of emotional predispositions anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like anything else.
JAMIE YORK: Yeah.
PJ VOGT: Yeah, once you know you can find out, you have to find out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Should we spit? [SPITTING SOUND]
PJ VOGT: Okay. I’m doin’ it now. [LAUGHS] This is radio gold. People are really gonna like the sound [LAUGHING] of spitting in the plastic tubes. [SPITTING SOUNDS] Is yours turning red?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nnh-hnh, [NEGATIVE]
PJ VOGT: Hm! Probably doesn’t mean anything. [SPITTING SOUND] Am I bleeding?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s taking forever.
PJ VOGT: Yeah. It says nothing about – red.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s probably blood. You’ll probably be fine.
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHING] "It’s probably blood, you’ll probably be fine."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay.
PJ VOGT: All right. I keep my sample, you keep your sample. [LAUGHS] Oh, so Brooke, we’re not –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PJ VOGT: First of all, we didn’t do this in the state of New York, ‘cause we’re not legally allowed to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not?
PJ VOGT: Because New York has strict regulations about who’s allowed to test and collect DNA, so we did this in another state where that’s legal, and then we’re gonna find out our futures.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, [LAUGHS] we won’t. We’ll just find out a set of probabilities. [LAUGHS]
PJ VOGT: I want to know exactly what’s gonna happen. [LAUGHS]
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