DNA kits by mail order – accuracy of determining your ancestry?

DNA kits

You’ve seen these advertisements on TV. Get one of these DNA kits, give them a sample of your DNA along with a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and mail it to one of the DNA testing companies. Wait some time, and they send back information about your ancestry, potential diseases, and other information.

There seems to be a strange belief that if these DNA kits say you’re 28% German, or 37% Italian, or 13% Japanese, it speaks the truth. Anecdotally, I’ve had boatloads of friends get this test done, and they take pride in their new or confirmed ethnicity. And I won’t even go into the scares some have had from the presumptive medical diagnoses made from some genetic marker found in the result.

We’re going to focus on the ethnic testing aspect of these DNA kits. But without a doubt, there’s a lot of concern out there about those tests leading to inaccurate medical diagnoses. Many genetic diseases, like diabetes, don’t have a purely genetic cause, but generally there’s a combination of genetic and environmental basis.

23andMe, one of the leading companies in mail order DNA kits, has had a roller-coaster relationship with US FDA. After all of the back and forth, the FDA has stated that 23andMe can market their tests for genetic testing, but cannot market them as diagnostic tests. I’m not sure the public will see the difference in that.

However, I’m going to focus on what bothers me about these tests – they are becoming the basis of some kind of scientific racism. We are highlighting, and sometimes misrepresenting, patterns of differences in human species by a sampling of genes.

Let’s take a look at these DNA kits – how they do the testing. How they determine these racial/ethnical characterization. And how one should interpret the results. Continue reading “DNA kits by mail order – accuracy of determining your ancestry?”

MTHFR gene mutations are the root of all health problems – and vaccines

mthfr gene mutations

I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. I love that I can Google a question like “who was the second basemen for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series?” It was Bill Mazeroski for those who care. I don’t love that you can search for “MTHFR gene mutations,” and get a lot of nonsense.

Although I think that Wikipedia needs to be used skeptically, it is a wonderful fountain of delicious knowledge. I sometimes just read random Wikipedia articles, and I enjoy the writing, scholarship and knowledge. Some articles, like World War II or the Roman Empire, are truly detailed pieces of scholarship.

But sometimes, the internet does a disservice to mankind, especially when medical information (or really disinformation) is presented as fact. Like vaccines cause autism. No, it doesn’t. Seriously, it doesn’t.

Or that chronic lyme disease actually exists. No it doesn’t.

Or that high fructose corn syrup causes obesity and diabetes. No it doesn’t (except that eating a lot of any sugar might do that).

But the newest one, at least for me, is that MTHFR gene mutations cause nearly every disease known to mankind, and is a reason why vaccines can be dangerous. Seriously, apparently MTHFR gene mutations are the root of all health evil, and the mutation is caused by…anything.

Continue reading “MTHFR gene mutations are the root of all health problems – and vaccines”

Racism sucks and isn’t scientific – opinion

This is part of my series of opinion pieces. As I’ve written, it is not meant to be supported by evidence or data – unless I link to evidence. Then it is. On the other hand, my opinions are based on tons of reading and data, so there’s that. Besides, racism sucks – obviously.

Racism or xenophobia has probably been around since humans first evolved 200,000 years ago. I’m sure Grunting Human 1 hated Grunting Human 2, because 2 had funny looking ears. Or something.

I’m sure some evolutionary biologist can explain why racism exists. It probably was a biologically favored behavioral strategy to protect one’s own group, because of access to resources. Or something like that.

But that still does not preclude the fact that racism sucks – it is dangerous, simple-minded thinking. Continue reading “Racism sucks and isn’t scientific – opinion”

Where’s the common sense in the GMO discussion?

gmo_protestMy job here is to push science, and push it hard.  And I’m not pushing “science” as some esoteric philosophy of academia, but as a relatively easy system of gathering evidence in support of (or alternatively, in refutation of) what people believe. There isn’t some button you push to get “science”, even though way too many people think that click on a Google search qualifies as science (and evidence supporting their “science”). I try to call out false equivalences, that is, that all evidence is equal, even if one side of the “debate” has low quality or even no evidence. I try to provide methods to rank evidence, so that an average reader can get an indication of the quality of evidence supporting a pseudoscientific or anti-science belief, which allows anyone to make a better critical analysis of what is written.

But sometimes, you don’t even need science. Just common sense, something woefully lacking in many of the anti-science memes that seem to easily circulate across social media these days.

When I wrote an article about Richard Dawkin’s comments on genetically modified organisms (GMO) agriculture, I got a lot of comments on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and comments here. One of those sources lead me to an article by one of the world’s top scientists, Nina Fedoroff, a Penn State University faculty member, who actually studies biotechnology, and, more specifically, in the field of transposable elements or “jumping genes,” one of the major beliefs of GMO refusers. Her scientific bonafides are public, including being past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, probably one of the most prestigious institutions in science. That she is also an alumna of Syracuse University is just a bonus.  Continue reading “Where’s the common sense in the GMO discussion?”