By DOUG ERICKSON | Lee Newspapers
MADISON — They are everywhere these days — lurking at family reunions, popping up at funerals, trolling wedding receptions.
They don’t want your blood, just your spit.
Geri Gibbons of Madison nabbed her 65-year-old uncle during his first trip to the U.S. from Scotland in September. Armed with a cotton swab, she swiped a swath of DNA-laden tissue from his mouth.
“I’m not entirely sure he knew what I was asking for,” she says, “but he didn’t seem to mind.”
Gibbons shipped her uncle’s cells to Family Tree DNA, one of about two dozen companies offering genetic ancestry tests. She has just started getting periodic e-mails back from the company alerting her to fellow test subjects who share her family’s DNA markers, an indication of a relationship somewhere in time.
For Gibbons and other recreational genealogists, DNA testing unlocks exciting possibilities. Yet the newness of commercially available genetic tests and the quick growth of the industry has some people urging restraint.
In a Science magazine report in October, several scientists and scholars said the limitations of the tests make them less informative than many realize. Pilar Ossorio, an associate professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a co-author of the Science article, said in an interview she has strong privacy concerns because genetic genealogy companies largely are unregulated.
“Once your DNA gets out there, there are a lot of things that could happen to it — a lot of different kinds of tests and studies that could be done with it — and some of those might produce information that could come back to haunt you.”
In the Science report, the authors write that most DNA tests can trace only a few of a person’s ancestors, and the tests cannot pinpoint the place of origin or social affiliation of an ancestor with certainty. While the tests can show two people are related, it’s not always clear how they’re related, Ossorio said.
“These tests may be giving people a false sense of specificity,” she said. “We’re all related to each other if you go back far enough. When somebody gets a result stating that she has an ancestor who lived in a particular location a couple of thousand years in the past, well, that ancestor could be in the family tree of half or more of the people alive today.”
The Science authors seem particularly concerned about people who may be heavily invested emotionally in learning about their race or ethnicity. There is no clear-cut connection between an individual’s DNA and his or her racial or ethnic affiliation, the authors write.
Ossorio said not all companies are up front about these limitations. “Some are very upstanding companies, others could be perpetrating fraud,” she said. She declined to name names, saying she must remain unbiased as a researcher.
Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, said he has no major problems with the Science article and shares many of the authors’ concerns, although he wishes the authors would not have lumped all companies together.
Greenspan founded Family Tree DNA in Houston in 2000 and describes it as the first company to make DNA testing available for genealogical purposes. He has watched many other firms enter the field, some with questionable business practices, he said.
“There’s no federal oversight,” he said. “It certainly wouldn’t bother me if every company had to have a licensed anthropologist on staff.”
His company includes five anthropologists and three geneticists, and can determine within a 99.9 percent likelihood that two men with exact DNA matches share a common ancestor, he said.
As for privacy, Family Tree DNA assures clients that samples are used only for agreed-upon purposes. Greenspan said he realizes that some people will simply never be comfortable giving a DNA sample.
An early participant
One of the earliest people to participate in a genetic ancestry test lives in Madison, although his participation was something of a fluke.
Dan Greenspan, 56, a UW professor of pathology, was contacted in 2000 by Bennett Greenspan, who just had founded Family Tree DNA and was researching his own roots.
Dan Greenspan submitted his DNA, becoming customer No. 163. Bennett Greenspan said his company now has tested more than 325,000 people. The two turned out not to be related.
The experience triggered an interest in genealogy in Dan Greenspan, who since has attempted to convince other relatives to submit DNA samples.
While he doesn’t have much time to devote to genealogy, Dan Greenspan said it has been fun to get e-mails alerting him to new matches. He’s discovered he’s related to a vice premier under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin as well as a top U.S. patent judge.
“You just never know who you’re going to hear from.”
Doug Erickson is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
Two useful types of DNA tests
The two most useful types of DNA tests available for genealogy purposes are the Y-DNA test and the mtDNA test, according to DNA Ancestry, one of several companies offering the tests.
The Y-DNA test looks at the Y-chromosome’s DNA, which is passed virtually unchanged from father to son. Thus, a man who provides his Y-DNA represents the Y-DNA of his father, his grandfather and so on up the paternal line.
All men have a Y chromosome and can take the test themselves. Women benefit from Y-DNA testing by having a male relative on their paternal side take the test.
Children inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mothers. The mtDNA test can tell about the ancient ancestors in an individual’s maternal line. The test also can indicate that certain individuals are not related on their maternal line, according to DNA Ancestry.
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