Playing Detective With DNA 33856

I get my German nose from my father's side, while my natural hair color matches my mom's. And when I go to the doctor, I can share the intimate details of my family's health history, with my concerns about macular degeneration and diabetes that appears on both sides of my gene pool.

But my daughters had no idea where they got their good looks, or what secrets their families' medical histories held. They were both adopted from China—and children adopted from China, where it is illegal to relinquish your child for adoption, have no information about their past before the day they appeared at the orphanage gate.

Until now. We decided to try 23andme, one of the country's largest DNA testers, who can provide glimpses into both the ancestry side of DNA (including finding potential relatives), and more importantly, the health side, where we can see what concerns may lie in our daughters' futures—everything from the breast cancer gene to their potential reactions to common medications. Even my husband and I decided to get tested, too, to see how many of our families' health issues are likely to affect us in the future.

It takes more than a month to go from spit test (your DNA shows up in your saliva) to results, and what we've found is fascinating for all of us. My husband discovered some Italian heritage he didn't know he had—and a connection to Norway, his dream location. My daughters know now that they'll be able to toast with champagne when they reach legal age—they don't have "Asian flush," an inability to digest alcohol properly that is a common trait in some Asian groups. Surprisingly, I lucked out in the gene pool, and pulled genes from both sides that put me at reduced risk for macular degeneration and diabetes.

The ancestry info for my girls, at this point, is both fascinating and frustrating. 23andme is working on improving results for Asian backgrounds, to show any minority groups where they may hail from, but right now, they can't differentiate beyond the fact that the girls are both "East Asian." (Not exactly a revelation for us.) But based on their haplogroups—whole groups of people who share an ancestor and snippets of DNA from thousands of years ago—we can tell a little bit more about my girls. My oldest belongs to the A4 haplogroup, which is strongest among Native Americans—but there's a tiny stronghold of A4s right around the area where my daughter was found in China. My youngest is an M7c2, a population that extends through Japan, Taiwan, and into the region in southern China where my youngest hailed. (These are especially important revelations for us, as my youngest lived in an area where factory jobs drew people from all over the country—but it seems likely she may be a "local" girl.)

So far my girls haven't found any close relatives, but it may be only a matter of time before we can make matches that way. 23andme compares our DNA with everyone in their database who is open to matches. We've been comparing DNA results with others in the adoption community, looking for potential cousins. Several projects are underway to help sample DNA from birthmothers and fathers in China—and maybe someday, we'll be able to connect with their past in that important way.

But until then, my daughters are just thrilled to know that they're less likely to freckle.

Image: DNA by Maximus256/