Forget class, race, sexual preference. One big thing divides us -- earwax. According to the good folks at 23andme, a personalized genetic testing company in the U.S., earwax comes in two types: wet and dry. The wet kind is sticky and golden-hued -- maybe some of you already know this? -- and the dry stuff comes in grayish-yellow flakes. LiveScience wrote a story a while back about this, too.
When you send spit into a tube and send $399 of your hard-earned dollars to 23andme, you, too, can find out where you fall on the earwax divide. But the budding world of personalized genetic testing tells you more than what's going on in your ears. 23andme and similar companies are eager to tell you about all sorts of traits and conditions that you're supposedly genetically predisposed toward -- from innocuous stuff like whether you flush after drinking booze, to your resistance to big-time diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS.
The problem is that genes aren't always straightforward. Conditions and diseases like cancer have a host of things influencing your propensity to get them. And it's hard to tease out the influence of one factor, like your genetics, except in what are called monogenetic disorders. And I didn't even mention stuff like epigenetics. Or the fact that this industry is unregulated.
The company tries to address this concern by saying they only give customers "information about conditions and traits for which there are genetic associations supported by multiple, large, peer-reviewed studies." OK, but that "association" still seems like a fuzzy term for most consumers having a heart attack reading that their genetic risk of Parkinson's disease is pretty damn high. Marie Godfrey over at geneforum covers the issue of genetic testing at length.
I can't wrap this up without saying please, for the love of God, don't go jamming anything in your ears to examine your earwax. Seriously, even the Q-tip folks warn against it. Which makes me wonder, what exactly are Q-tips for then?
Related HowStuffWorks Articles: Why are British scientists creating a human-pig hybrid? How Epigenetics Works What is the Human Epigenome Project? How Gene Doping Works