DNA FEVER: Tracing Our Roots by Sheri Warren Sankner

DNA FEVER: Tracing Our Roots

Articles have appeared in countless publications, including The New York Times. Renowned Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the ancestry of influencers on PBS, ”Finding Your Roots.” We are bombarded with magazine ads and compelling commercials and testimonials on TV everyday.

Case in point. There’s Kyle, the lederhosen-wearing guy who always thought he was German. But when ancestry.com didn’t show links to his German heritage, he discovered ties to the British Isles. After having his DNA tested through AncestryDNA, he finds that 52% of his DNA is from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Long story short, Kyle traded in his lederhosen for a kilt.

Then, the catchy tune, “Getting to Know You,” accompanies Nicole’s journey to find her “roots.” Nicole travels to East Asia, West Africa and Scandinavia that she discovered are part of her heritage with a 23andMe DNA test. As she dances, plays chess and explores the globe, 23andMe encourages you to visit its website to learn how your DNA connects you to the world.

Genealogy is our latest obsession. American Demographics reports that 113 million Americans have started tracing their roots. Once you could discover your roots by spending a day with a chatty, old relative, who would provide keys to your family history. Many create a family tree in school. With Internet research sites like billiongraves.com, familysearch.org, cyndislist.com, and genealogy.com, it’s easier to dig into your family’s past. Subscription-based ancestry.com (with its 20 billion records and 5 million users) and myheritage.com, with its extensive searchable database and online community, boast millions of visitors everyday.

The latest trend is direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits. DNA testing is big business. Millions have purchased these kits, sending saliva samples to laboratories and paying $100 to $350 for an analysis in about eight weeks. Grand View Research anticipates the market will reach USD $10.04 billion by 2022. North America is the largest market segment. According to the Genetics Home Reference (GHR) website, “the growing market for direct-to-consumer genetic testing may promote awareness of genetic diseases, allow consumers to take a more proactive role in their health care, and offer a means for people to learn about their ancestral origins. At-home genetic tests, however, have significant risks and limitations. Consumers are vulnerable to being misled by the results of unproven or invalid tests. Without guidance from a healthcare provider, they may make important decisions about treatment or prevention based on inaccurate, incomplete, or misunderstood information about their health.”

Tracing your DNA is not just about discovering countries of origin or filling in the branches of your family tree, it’s become a tool for health-conscious individuals. The genetic testing company, 23andMe can now tell if your genes are linked to 10 diseases or medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and celiac disease — all without your doctor’s involvement. The company’s DNA service is the first direct-to-consumer test to receive FDA approval.

Results are far from conclusive. The genetic health risks revealed by 23andMe’s kit can’t tell if you will definitely develop a disease or condition because not all genes for certain diseases are known. Environment plays a significant role. “While the information can be used to help people make decisions about their lifestyles or inform discussions with healthcare providers, it should not be used to take drastic actions,” the FDA warns.

Wirecutter.com recently rated at-home DNA kits available today. After 80 hours of research, reporting, and evaluating results from a panel of testers representing every major population group, they recommend Ancestry.com as the best DNA testing service if you are curious about your ethnicity or searching for contemporary relatives. “All five DNA services we tested involve compromises, and you should keep in mind that the TV ads for these companies suggest a level of certainty that is well beyond the science upon which current tests are based. But Ancestry.com presents your data in a way that is easier to understand than many of its rivals, makes use of the largest database of DNA participants we’ve seen, and is among the lowest-priced services we tested.”

Dr. Lawrence Brody, director, Division of Genomics and Society at the National Institutes of Health warns about making fundamental decisions based on notions of ethnicity and race in an article on wirecutter.com. Dr. Brody points out that biologically, our ancestral differences reflect only a small difference in DNA. In fact,99.9 percent of our genetic makeup is identical for all humans. And of the remaining 0.1 percent that actually is different, 85 percent of those distinctions are unrelated to characteristics we relate to ethnicity or race. So when you submit a DNA sample to trace your ethnicity, you should keep in mind that we’re dealing with a really small amount of genes that could possibly be different between human beings, 0.015 percent, to be exact.”

Doctors, forensic scientists, genetic counselors, and law enforcement were once the only professionals who could order DNA tests. But while times have changed, buyers should beware! The medical field isn’t sold on the results you receive from your at-home saliva swab. Genetic testing provides only one piece of the health puzzle — other genetic and environmental factors, your lifestyle, and your family’s medical history also impact your risk of developing many disorders. So, be careful what you’re looking for if you try at-home DNA tests. You may not always like or understand the implications of your results.

Books & DNA Kits Available on Amazon
All books available at Amazon.com. Click on title for more information.
How to Do Everything: Genealogy, Fourth Edition
by George G. Morgan
Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com: How to Find Your Family History on the No. 1 Genealogy Website
by Nancy Hendrickson
The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy
by Blaine Bettinger
Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree
by Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner
AncestryDNA: Genetic Testing – DNA Ancestry Test Kit
23andMe DNA Test – Ancestry Personal Genetic Service

Articles and Websites
US National Library of Medicine
CDC: Direct to Consumer Genetic Testing:: Think Before You Spit
Grandview Research – DNA Testing Market – Industry Analysis
NY Times – With a Simple DNA Test, Family Histories are Rewritten
NY Times – DNA Tests, and Sometimes Surprising Results
Thewirecutter.com – The Best DNA Ancestry Testing Kit
Theguardian.com – What I learned from home DNA testing


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