- Yulia Mayorova/Shutterstock
- Genealogy and DNA site Ancestry once partnered with Google’s stealthy life-extension spinoff, a company called Calico, to study the genetics of longevity.
- The new study suggests that our genes play less of a role in how long we live than previously believed.
- Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appear to play a strong role in longevity.
- But surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers suggest.
The road to achieving a long life is littered with hype. The usual life-extension suspects include pricey pills and supplements; the peculiar involve infusions of young blood and chambers pumped with sub-zero temperatures.
Then there’s science. And one scientific factor that has long been presumed to dictate much of how long we live is our DNA. For decades, it was assumed that the genes we inherit from our parents explain anywhere from 15% to 30% of the variations in longevity that are observed between people.
But a new study that came from quiet collaboration between genetics company Ancestry and a Google life-extension spinoff called Calico suggests that our genes play less of a role in our lifespan than we thought.
Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appears to play a strong role in longevity. Surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers report.
In essence, the findings suggest that people effectively transfer longevity from one generation to the next much in the same way that wealth and socioeconomic status are passed from parents to children: by choosing partners with attitudes and attributes that mirror our own, regardless of how different their DNA may be.
Picking partners who act and think like us
- seyfettin dincturk / Unsplash
For decades, researchers studying longevity and genetics had estimated that the genes we inherit from our parents play a significant role in determining how long we live. Previous studies suggested that genes account for as much as 30% of the total variability in lifespan between individuals.
But the new study from Ancestry and Calico indicates that our DNA may be much less important in determining longevity than traits and behaviors like diet, exercise, and personality. After looking at data from more than 54 million family trees and the birth and death information for over 400 million individuals, the researchers concluded that our DNA accounts for less than 10% of lifespan variability.
Instead, we pass on longevity through generations by choosing partners whose attitudes and attributes look much like our own. In research parlance, that’s known as “assortative mating.”
“The true heritability of human longevity for birth cohorts across the 1800s and early 1900s was well below 10%, and … has been generally overestimated due to the effect of assortative mating,” the scientists wrote.
Put another way, we tend to pick partners with attitudes and attributes – from eating and exercising to friendliness – that mirror our own. And as a result, we tend to live similar amounts of time, and have children who do as well.
How friendly we are and how often we work out may play a stronger role in our longevity than our DNA
Previous studies shed light on how important lifestyle factors are when it comes to how long we live. In a recent study published in the journal Circulation, for example, scientists pinpointed five lifestyle factors that appear to be linked with a significantly longer lifespan, judging by the outcomes of two long-term studies that involved about 123,000 adults.
People in the study who lived long lives tended to:
- Do at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day.
- Eat a Mediterranean diet.
- Never smoke.
- Stick to a healthy body weight.
- Drink no more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages a day.
As part of several other recent studies, scientists have uncovered a handful of personality traits that also appear to be strongly linked to longer-than-average lives. They include:
Taken together, the findings suggest that how long we live may be less a matter of what we’re born with than the circumstances in which we live and the choices that we make. Those choices, as the Ancestry and Google researchers acknowledge in their new paper, tend to be based on everything from social status to wealth and then, just like genetics, passed on from one generation to the next.
- 23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki
- Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
- Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and founder of Silicon Valley’s most popular genetics testing startup, 23andMe, said this week that she hopes the company expands its current health offering lineup.
- 23andMe, which made headlines recently on the heels of a new $300-million partnership with drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, currently offers health screenings for some of the genes involved in breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
- On Tuesday, Wojcicki said she hopes to add a new health offering that looks at how you process medications including those for depression.
- Albertsons pharmacies and gene testing startup Color Genomics currently offer that kind of test for $250-$750, but many scientists say it’s not worth the money.
Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and founder of popular Silicon Valley gene testing company 23andMe, doesn’t feel like the company is currently offering what she called a “complete product.”
That’s because the current gene testing kit – which includes health screenings for some of the genes involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer – does not include a test that looks at how you process medications including those for depression.
Those DNA tests, which assess genes involved in the break down of antidepressants in the body, are currently being offered by psychiatrists and Albertsons pharmacists in three major cities at a hefty price tag of $750. Just last month, another Silicon Valley genetics testing startup called Color Genomics began offering the test as part of its $250 kits.
And on Tuesday at a conference organized by Rock Health, one of Silicon Valley’s premier health-tech funding groups, Wojcicki said she hoped her company could include that kind of test in its product lineup soon.
But many scientists feel the tests don’t offer a clear benefit to people and in some cases are not worth the money. Among other issues, the tests may give conflicting results to the same patient for the same medication and don’t tell providers which specific medication is best, according to experts.
‘When we can bring pharmacogenomics back, then we have a complete product back’
- Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider
In the early days of 23andMe, the company included a test for depression medications in its lineup of health offerings, Wojcicki said. But in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration forced the company to stop selling those products and get federal approval on the grounds that the tests could be misinterpreted as health advice. The company was allowed to continue selling the genealogy component of its kit, which looks at ancestry.
Last year, the FDA gave the company the green light to again sell some of its health screenings. On the heels of that decision, 23andMe rolled out a limited selection of some of its original products. The most recent addition, unveiled in March, is a test for some of the genes involved in the risk of developing breast cancer, also known as BRCA genes.
Now, the company is only missing one of those original health products, Wojcicki said: a test for depression medications, also called pharmacogenomics.
“The only one we don’t have back yet is pharmacogenomics. We used to have that and we’d like to have that one come back,” Wojcicki said on Tuesday at a panel discussion at the Rock Health Summit in San Francisco.
“When we can bring pharmacogenomics back, then we have a complete product back,” she said.
It remains to be seen how the company would roll out such a test. Because 23andMe sells its tests directly to people (they can be purchased online and at a selection of drug stores), it would need to get FDA approval before selling an additional health product. The test could be incorporated into the existing health lineup, which currently includes tests for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer for $199, or it could be sold as a stand-alone test.
Color Genomics chose to incorporate its new pharmacogenomics product into its existing $250 test. Unlike 23andMe, which sells its services directly to consumers, Color requires people to order their tests through a medical provider. In addition, the company mandates talking with a professional genetics counselor and a clinical pharmacist to avoid potentially dangerous misinterpretations of the results.
Genomind and Assurex, the two companies who offer a standalone pharmacogenomics product, sell the test through psychiatrists and some pharmacists for $750.
Wojcicki did not provide further details on how much the test – should the company ultimately choose to offer it – would cost or when it would be available. A company representative also declined to offer Business Insider more information about the test. But Wojcicki said she saw the pharmacogenomics service as part of the company’s overall mission to help empower customers with more data about themselves and prevent negative health outcomes when possible.
“I think one thing genetics can do is help prevent a lot of early deaths,” Wojcicki said.
- Hollis Johnson
Perhaps you didn’t intend for that spit sample you shipped off to be used for research on antacids. But that could be what happens with some of the data that genetics-testing companies like Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix have collected from billions of customers and stored in their databases.
Both Ancestry and 23andMe have a history of sharing anonymized consumer data with private companies, also known as “third parties.” Last week, 23andMe took that policy to a new level when it announced a plan to share the genetic data of millions of consumers with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to help the company develop new drugs.
23andMe also collaborates with handful of other drug companies and with institutions like P&G Beauty, the company behind Pantene shampoo and the antacid Pepto-Bismol.
Helix, the genetics-testing company spun out of Illumina, has partnerships with roughly 25 companies as well.
Here are the private companies that the biggest genetics-testing companies share data with
Apart from its partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, 23andMe has active partnerships with at least four other large pharmaceutical companies: Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Biogen, Pfizer, and Genentech.
Another 23andMe collaborator is P&G Beauty, the company behind products like Crest toothpaste, Ivory soap, and Bounty paper towels. In addition to these private partners, 23andMe shares its data with several public academic institutions and nonprofit research groups like the University of Chicago.
Ancestry, which maintains a 5-million-person consumer database of genetic information, once partnered with Google’s stealthy life-extension spinoff Calico to study aging. But a company spokesperson told Business Insider that Ancestry is currently only partnered with universities and research institutions. These include the University of Utah and the American Society of Human Genetics.
Helix has active partnerships with about 25 companies, according to Justin Kao, Helix’s co-founder and senior vice president of business development. Kao told Business Insider that the list includes at-home lab testing startup EverlyWell and healthcare provider Geisinger Health.
But unlike Ancestry or 23andMe, which have shared the data of millions of anonymized customers with private companies, Helix does so only when the user consents via one of those company partners. EverlyWell, for example, uses Helix’s technology to offer customers at-home DNA tests for food sensitivity and metabolism, while National Geographic uses Helix for its genealogy tests. Those companies may prompt a user to opt into research that they are doing, and only then would their data be shared.
Why genetics testing companies share your data with third parties
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
A big reason genetics-testing companies share data with third parties is for research. Many scientists want to learn more about the genetic roots of various conditions and diseases in the hope that this information will lead to better treatments or even cures. Both nonprofit academic institutions and drug companies are doing this kind of work.
“We all have some disease or health issue that we care about. 23andMe has created a research platform to enable interested customers to participate in research – to not wait for solutions to appear, but for people to come together and make discoveries happen,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki wrote in a letter to customers after the deal with GlaxoSmithKline was announced. 23andMe did not respond to a request for further comment.
The average customer who chooses to let 23andMe share their data for research contributes to more than 230 studies on topics including asthma, lupus, and Parkinson’s disease, the company says.
Similarly, Ancestry’s partnership with Google’s Calico was aimed at studying the genetics of longevity, though neither company has yet published any research that resulted from the collaboration.
How to choose what data you share – or delete it altogether
When you register your spit sample with Ancestry, 23andMe, or Helix, you’re offered choices about whether you want to share your data, when, and with whom. However, privacy advocates have pointed out that these options can often be confusing.
Plus, when asking customers whether they agree to share their data with third parties, Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix all use different language to describe the choices and present the option at a different stages in the sign-up process. That can make wiping your data from any of those platforms difficult and time-consuming.
Furthermore, if a leak or hack were to happen, such incidents could allow your data to find its way elsewhere, perhaps without your knowledge.
It may also be difficult to prevent your data from being used by a new collaborator who wasn’t partnered with one of these companies when you initially signed up.
Through 23andMe’s 4-year partnership with GSK, for example, GSK gets anonymized summaries of data from customers who’ve opted to share their data for research. Privacy advocates find that vexing because the data of existing customers who may have previously opted into sharing their data could now be included as part of the larger base of data shared with GSK.
“The very setup of this venture suggests that its initiators are not quite serious about 23andMe’s customers’ informed consent,” Udo Schuklenk, a professor of bioethics at Queen’s University, told Business Insider via email.
It’s not easy to delete your information from genetics-testing platforms after you’ve signed up. (If you want to delete your genetic data from one of these sites, check out our guide). If you’ve opted to share your data for research, 23andMe could keep your physical spit sample – and the genetic data gleaned from it – for up to a decade.
- Hollis Johnson
- Genetics testing company 23andMe made headlines last week when it announced it would share consumers’ anonymized genetic data with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
- Companies like 23andMe frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions, also known as “third parties.”
- Ancestry, another popular company like 23andMe, had a partnership with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study the genetics of longevity. That partnership has now ended.
As is often the case in the world of scientific research partnerships, almost as quickly as a new deal begins, another ends.
Popular spit-in-a-tube genetics-testing company 23andMe made a splash last week when it announced a plan to share the anonymized genetic data of millions of consumers with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to help the company develop new drugs.
Ancestry, which maintains a database of genetic information built on the spit samples of more than 5 million consumers, had been partnering with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study aging and longevity. The agreement, which was finalized almost exactly three years ago, recently ended, an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider.
Apart from a 2015 press release announcing the agreement, neither company has said much about what the research partnership did.
Genetic testing companies frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions. These can include public research groups like state universities or private drug makers like GSK.
Looking at genetic data for clues to a long life
Calico was ostensibly interested in sorting through Ancestry’s treasure trove of genetic data to identify commonalities among people who live a long time. Data on individuals who live longer-than-expected lives compared to their shorter-lived family members might be especially useful. This could reveal common genetic traits among those longer-lived folks that might play a role in helping them outlast their peers.
“The Calico science team decided, what if we used a data set like what Ancestry.com has to identify people who have a longer-than-expected lifespan in their family?” Ken Chahine, the senior vice president and general manager of Ancestry, told Business Insider back in 2015.
Since then, neither company has published any research from the collaboration, but that doesn’t mean none was produced, someone familiar with Calico’s work told Business Insider.
“Ancestry previously had a relationship with Calico which focused on understanding human longevity and developing ways that all of us can lead longer and healthier lives,” an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider, adding, “This relationship has now ended.”
According to Calico, some of the results of its research with Ancestry will be published in a peer-reviewed journal soon.
Ancestry can share your anonymized genetic data with third parties like Calico if you opt-in to what the company calls an “informed consent to research.” This option comes up after you submit your spit sample during the online registration process. (If you decline the opt-in, your data will not be shared with third parties, the company says.)
Those third party groups can include for-profit private companies like Calico as well as nonprofit research groups like the University of Utah and the American Society of Human Genetics – both of which still have active partnerships with Ancestry.
How to delete your DNA data
If you choose to share your genetic data with a company like Ancestry or 23andMe, it can be a difficult decision to undo. Once you opt-in, the company will not wipe your genetic information from any “active or completed research projects,” according to its latest privacy statement.
However, if you’d like to stop your DNA data from being used for new research, you can.
Use the navigation bar at the top of the homepage to select “DNA.” On the page with your name at the top, scroll to the upper right corner, select “settings,” then go to “delete test results” on the column on the right side. Doing this will result in Ancestry deleting the following within 30 days: “All genetic information, including any derivative genetic information (ethnicity estimates, genetic relative matches, etc.) from our production, development, analytics, and research systems.”
If you want to take the additional step of having the company discard your physical spit sample, you must call member services.
- Hollis Johnson
- Popular DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe can – and frequently do – sell your data to drug makers.
- On Wednesday, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced it was acquiring a $300 million stake in 23andMe – making that connection much more explicit.
- If that new has you wondering about how your own genetic material is being used, here’s a guide to deleting your DNA sample and data from 23andMe, Ancestry, and Helix.
Popular spit-in-a-tube genetics testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe can – and frequently do – sell your data to drug makers. But on Wednesday, one of those partnerships became much more explicit: pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced it was acquiring a $300 million stake in 23andMe.
As part of a 4-year deal between the two companies, GlaxoSmithKline will comb 23andMe’s genetic data to look for potential new drugs to develop, also referred to as drug targets. It will also use the genetic data to inform how patients are selected for clinical trials.
If that news has you thinking about how your own genetic material is being used for research, know that although the DNA you submit to these services is ostensibly anonymized. However, leaks can happen, and privacy advocates note such incidents could allow your data to find its way elsewhere, perhaps without your knowledge.
Deleting your genetic data from these platforms can be a surprisingly tricky process. Here’s how to navigate removing your spit sample and DNA data from the databases maintained by 23andMe, Ancestry, and Helix.
23andMe may keep your spit and data for up to a decade
- 23andMe Instagram
The core service provided by most commercial genetic tests is built on the extraction of your DNA from your spit – that’s how you get the results about your health and ancestry information.
After registering your spit sample online with 23andMe, you will be asked if you’d like your saliva to be stored or discarded. But you are not asked the same question about your raw genetic data – the DNA extracted from your spit.
Based on the wording of a document called the “Biobanking Consent Document,” it’s a bit unclear what happens to that raw DNA once you decide to have 23andMe either store or toss your spit.
Here’s the statement’s exact language:
“By choosing to have 23andMe store either your saliva sample or DNA extracted from your saliva, you are consenting to having 23andMe and its contractors access and analyze your stored sample, using the same or more advanced technologies.”
That leaves a bit of a grey area as far as what 23andMe has the ability to keep, and how they can use your DNA information. If your spit or DNA sample is stored, the company can hold onto it for between one and 10 years, “unless we notify you otherwise,” the Biobanking Consent Document states.
Still, you can request that the company discard your spit. To do so, go to its Customer Care page, navigate to “Accounts and Registration,” scroll to the bottom of the bulleted list of options, and select the last bullet titled “Requesting Account Closure.”
Once there, you must submit a request to have your spit sample destroyed and/or have your account closed.
Ancestry won’t toss your spit unless you call, but you can delete your DNA results
- Sarah Kimmorley/Business Insider Australia
If you want to delete your DNA test results with Ancestry, use the navigation bar at the top of the homepage to select “DNA.” On the page with your name at the top, scroll to the upper right corner, select “Settings,” then go to “Delete Test Results” on the right side column.
According to the company’s latest privacy statement, doing this will result in Ancestry deleting the following within 30 days: “All genetic information, including any derivative genetic information (ethnicity estimates, genetic relative matches, etc.) from our production, development, analytics, and research systems.”
However, if you opted into Ancestry’s informed “Consent to Research” when you signed up, the company says it cannot wipe your genetic information from any “active or completed research projects.” But it will prevent your DNA from being used for new research.
To direct the company to discard your spit sample, you must call Member Services and request that they toss it.
Helix will toss your spit upon request, but can keep data ‘indefinitely’
The company also stores your saliva sample. You can request that your spit be destroyed by contacting Helix’s Customer Care. There, you’ll find a request form that looks similar to the one 23andMe uses.