M

ore and more companies are offering consumers a peek inside their genome for a few hundred bucks — but DNA isn’t destiny, as comedian Chelsea Handler has learned.

She spoke with genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter on her Netflix show “Chelsea” on Thursday, after his company, Human Longevity, sequenced all 6.4 billion letters of her genome. From that data, Venter’s team sketched out what they thought Handler must have looked like when she was a teenager.

It was way off.

advertisement

“But wait, that’s not what I looked like when I was 16,” Handler said.

Geneticists are indeed working on ways to digitally mock up a person’s face based on his or her DNA, but the science is still in its nascence. While it’s possible to analyze thousands of genetic markers, much of the modeling comes from information about the person’s gender and ethnic background. The results are intriguing, sure, but don’t seem all that accurate, as Handler pointed out.

Venter, however, refused to admit defeat.

He said he’d searched the internet and came across a picture of Handler “that kind of looked like that.”

He also correctly projected that her eyes should be gray-blue. (They are.) And he said he could tell from her DNA that she’s got a penchant for risk-taking. (She does.)

But Venter did acknowledge that Handler actually doesn’t “live up to her genetic potential” in one realm. According to his analysis of her DNA, she’s programmed to weigh 166 pounds. Thanks to a steadfast avoidance of gluten-laden carbs, Handler doesn’t come close. (As it turns out, her diet might help her in other ways, too: Venter said her genes indicate that she’s prone to gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.)

Genetic testing is being used these days to sell all kinds of products, from wine (supposedly selected to match your genetic taste preferences) to nutritional supplements to exercising plans. The science behind many of those ventures, however, is admittedly sketchy. The tests may be on more solid ground when used to identify an individual’s elevated risk to contract certain diseases or pass them on to their children.

Venter found one such mutation in Handler:  She has a deletion on one copy of the cystic fibrosis gene. So, Venter said, if Handler chose to have children — something she’s not currently interested in — she’d want her partner to get tested, as well.

Sequencing done by companies like Human Longevity, 23andMe, and Ancestry.com also help consumers identify their ethnic heritage.

Handler, for instance, has a polyglot background that includes elements of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and European heritage. She’s also 1.65 percent Neanderthal.

“So your ancestors got around,” Venter said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the type of genetic testing used to market customized wine and other products.

Newsletters

Sign up for The Readout: A guide to what's new in biotech

Please enter a valid email address.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • As I former breeder of show dogs I know that the the top breeders will not accept a breeding dog without a complete genetic analysis that might pick up genetic defects. May even be an AKC requirement by now. We spend a lot more on patients born with severe genetic abnormalities that could have in part been prevented by screening of potential parents along with genetic counseling. The problem is that people make emotional decisions in the face of facts, so that people will play genetic roulette and get pregnant even though they may be a genetic carrier.

    Breeders also require a three generation pedigree to spot potential problems in a particular line and use selective breeding techniques to minimize chances of problem. Hence absolutely no inbreeding, a sound piece of advice I would give to folks who live in a unnamed state that begins with West and ends with Virginia.

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine.