In which I start to ascertain my genetic ancestry

December 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

Thanks to a friend who told me that the 23andMe company is running a big sale on DNA kits that give you not only a readout of the presumed ancestral composition of your genome, but the much of the sequence itself, and, if you wish, what diseases you’re prone to get.  I have sprung $79 (usually $99) to get the “traits and ancestry” kit.  I didn’t want to know whether I’ll get Alzheimer’s or die from some horrible cancer, so I didn’t choose the $129 (usually $199) “health + ancestry” kit, which includes the DNA data plus those SNPs associated with various diseases.

The cheaper alternative still has lots of useful information, including the ability to scan large parts of your genome if you want to look for particularly interesting genes. It will give you a guesstimate of your ancestry (they have data for 200+ regions) and tell you the probability that you have various physical traits, like brown eyes or attached earlobes. And if you register your DNA at the site (optional), you may be able to find some lost relatives.

All in all, it’s a bargain for $79, and this would have been inconceivable two decades ago.  You can order at the link below. I think it would make a swell holiday gift for someone, as who isn’t interested in their genetic background?

I did this years ago for my Y chromosome to find out if I was a “Kohen“—one of the groups of Jews who have special status in the synagogue, taking care of the Torah and the like. Kohanim are elite Jews, regarded as “priests” and the job is passed from father to son, starting with the supposed Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses. That means that there is an unbroken lineage of Kohanim-specific Y chromosomes going back to the distant past. Yes, there’s been some pollution due to lack of sons or illicit canoodling, but there is a definite genetic sequence of the Y associated with being a Kohen. These people often bear the name “Cohan” or “Cohen” today, but while all Kohanim bear those names, not all Cohens or Cohans are members of the kohanim, as there are pretenders—those who use the name without the job. “Coyne” might have been a corruption of “kohen”, so I wanted to know

Well, I found out that I am a faux kohen: although my Y-chromosome ancestry is Eastern European Jewish, I don’t have the genetic signature of the Kohanim. So it goes.

Now, however, I will get a readout of my entire genome, not just the Y. What will it be? Surely mostly eastern European Jew, but there may be some real Irish genes in me, too, as my lineage does include an Irish goy in the 18th century.  And how Neanderthal am I? Do my brow ridges suggest a higher level of Neanderthal genes than normal (about 2%, I think)?

You can guess below, but I do suggest that a DNA testing kit is a great idea for a present.  All you do is pay the fee, and the kit comes within a few days. You spit into a plastic tube and put a special top on the tube that releases a liquid that mixes with your saliva. Remove that device, cap the tube and shake it, put it into a special plastic bag, and then return it, postpaid, in the box in which it came. Easy peasy!

Click below to order if you wish. And guess what I’ll turn out to be, genome-wise!

 

Ready to find out what “I” am (LOL):

72 thoughts on “In which I start to ascertain my genetic ancestry

  1. My wife and I took the DNA test from Ancestry.com. Hers was a normal mix of British Isles/French/German ancestry. Me? 100% European Jewish, which is how Ancestry.com described it. I guess that explains my academic/career successes and my less than optimal health. Genetics might not be destiny, but I think the evidence is pretty clear they are a powerful influence on life outcomes.

    I have also been interested in the 23andMe testing. Your post may have nudged me a little more to do it.

    https://disaffectedmusings.com/about

      1. Hey, I’m only 92% white. Did the the kit years ago, as my father would boast that our ancestors “came over on the Mayflower,” etc. My brother could pass as black. (But only to very stupid white people.) So I got it to challenge his theory a bit.

        Other beliefs, such as he was Pocahontas in a past life, we just ignored.

  2. I wish I could trust that – both the truth and the implications – but I can’t. Not only have we seen news stories about DNA companies inventing false heritage, but we have seen governments stopping at nothing to imprison people. The US used the allegedly anonymous Census to round up Japanese Americans during WWII. DNA data can be used to identify not only you, but also your family members.

    1. Well, I disagree with you. Your data are anonymized, and people have found their relatives this way (I know one), plus they are pretty accurate if you already know about your heritage. No, I’m not worried that they’ll round me up and put me in a concentration camp.

      Go back and read that link you cited; it said that what you claim is mostly false. Did you read it? If so, then correct yourself on this site.

      1. > No, I’m not worried that they’ll round me up and put me in a concentration camp.

        Sir, you live in a more liberal environment than I do. I have lived under two theocratic absolute monarchies. Precedents exist.

      2. I also disagree.

        A very close family person via marriage has discovered all sorts of stuff which would have been almost impossible before, because of having been adopted. They have been a genealogical expert for decades, and an assiduous researcher on their own and many other peoples’ genealogy—and have written more than one book on related subjects.

        The discipline of genealogical research has changed enormously and become less difficult with the existence of the internet, as well as with DNA testing. One downside is the many who seem to not want to put in enough work, but rather have beliefs about their own ancestry, with very thin to non-existent evidence in favour. Of course, as European background persons, they are direct descendants of Charlemagne, but seem to not wish to know, therefore ‘do not know’, that so is virtually everybody else now alive in Europe and North America whose majority of ancestors recently were European.

        See (dedicated to Steve Jones) Rutherford’s ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’, whose initial chapter is entitled ‘Mobile and Horny’–and which discusses a long known but surprising fact that many people who lived as little as 3500 years ago are direct ancestors of every human without exception alive today, as I’ve mentioned before, of all Inuit, of all Aussie aboriginals as well as Amazonian ones, as well as of me and you. See pp. 161-5.

      3. I wonder how they can tell who is a “Cohen”? Do they have the DNA of a true “Cohen” from way, way back to compare?

        1. I think that’s relatively simple. You just need to get samples from a representative set of modern Cohens who are rabbis and look for the commonality. It is a role passed down from father to son so it maps to they Y chromosome inheritance.

    2. EDIT: Most of the stories about misreporting are urban legends, but according to Snopes, the stories are ‘mostly false’, not ‘entirely false’. “An anonymous purported employee of an unnamed DNA testing company claimed that on two occasions, less than one percent African ancestry was added to testing results, typically when their findings totaled under 100 percent.

    3. Did you read your own link? It debunks the story about DNA companies inventing false heritage.

      If you don’t want to be identified, I suggest you get off the Internet right now, wipe your computer’s hard disk destructively and throw away your mobile phone if you’ve got one.

      1. Very collegial, thanks. No solution is perfectly safe, but I try to mitigate my risks as best I can. I am not going to take the time to describe the experiences co-workers of mine, members of religious, sexual, and political minorities, have had while living in the Middle East. They weren’t able to avoid being online (Many governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to make it illegal to leave the house without a smartphone!) but were still able to avoid entrapment. Did you know that people actively catfish dating sites in order to have people arrested? The question then becomes how to be smart and safe.

        1. Fact of the matter is that if the Nefarious Ones You Fear (I’m not saying they don’t exist) want your DNA they will have very little trouble getting it. You will likely not even know about the aquisistion.

          1. Not mine specifically. It also sells out other human beings. Imagine if my DNA in a database were similar enough to something found at a crime scene that I ended up selling out a sibling, parent, or offspring; it could focus attention on them. Similarly, the more apps people install on smartphones, the more they sell out their friends and family members. App developers, malware or otherwise, as well as anyone who inherits control of the app several years from now, has access to your contact database and is able to spam them. I would be curious to learn about my DNA, but not enough to infringe on the privacy of anyone else I might be related to.

            About the only way I could conceivably trust something like this is to do it entirely in a third-party country I never plan on visiting.

            1. Can you elaborate on the moral basis of your position that you would not want your DNA sequences to be used forensically to help solve a murder? One must have the freedom to decide whether to cooperate with police investigations beyond what can be subpoenaed, sure. But it just seems odd to me that one would avoid recreational DNA testing out of fear that it might end up bringing a killer to justice. If you saw one of your relatives murdering someone, wouldn’t you rat him out and to hell with his privacy?.

              Worries about theft of records and contacts are real things, certainly.

  3. Having done 23andMe, Ancestry, FTDNA, and the original Spencer Wells National Geographic version, I guess I loves me some DNA!

    One recommendation I would offer folks… do your spit-in-the-tube activity in the morning before you’ve brushed your teeth. I’ve had a couple of failures when, because of my eagerness, I just did the spitting as soon as I got the kit. Twice I’ve been told, by 23andMe, that I just couldn’t get results from them, despite having successfully tested with them when they originally offered tests. I was told at the time of my first “failure” that some ten percent of samples like mine fail. I’ve no idea if that is really true because I felt that I was talking with a customer support person who really didn’t understand the technology at all.

    1. They will send you a replacement free. Once. If the replacement fails they will either refund your money or tell you “the next time it fails, you forfeit the price of the kit”. I know this from personal experience.

    2. My instructions said not to eat or drink for 30 minutes before the test.

      … otherwise you’d turn out to be 90% descended from a chicken, cow, or cauliflower that comprised your last meal. Instead of sharing 50% of your ancestry with the cauliflower and more with the chicken and cow.

  4. I did this years ago and I bought the health kit as well. I was worried about having the BRCA deleterious mutations having gotten cancer a bit early. Those turned out to be negative. I do have a higher likelihood of macular degeneration (my dad does too) which worries me as I have pathological myopia and cataracts because of it (will probably get the cataract operation next year) while my dad has pretty good eye sight. All this eye and cancer stuff started in my 40s. I tell my parents all the time that they lied about my age and I’m actually ten years older and that maybe they are brother and sister-in-law (the DNA tests said otherwise though as they have done 23 and Me as well). With my dad being adopted, we know not all that much about who we are related to and new “relatives” pop up on there all the time….however they are always fairly distant with the closest being 2nd cousins.

    1. The cataract surgery is no big deal. I’ve had it for both eyes. As an added bonus, it has allowed me to go without a corrective lens for one eye. And there’s the knowledge that I’m on the bionic path.

      1. Yes I have additional complications because of my condition. I am at increased risk of retinal tears because of the extreme myopia. The cataracts are different for me in that they form right at the centre where cataracts due to aging form at the sides.

    2. I, too, have a higher likelihood of macular degeneration. 23andMe confirmed this but I already thought it was highly likely since my mom had it and several other relatives on her side do, too.

  5. >Who isn’t interested in their genetic background?

    Indigenous peoples of North America aren’t. They already know the Creator put them here as land stewards at the beginning of time, which makes them different from all other peoples on earth. They don’t need lab tests to confuse the issue.

    I’m glad you are interested and I hope you will find the results suitable for sharing with us.

    1. Is it really necessary for you to make a snide and borderline racist remark about indigenous people? Not everyone thinks the same BTW and I’ve met several atheist indigenous people.

  6. I’ll be interested in your results. I took one of these tests several years ago and the results were entirely useless — the ancestry part was way too vague and the relatives part identified nothing I could follow up.

  7. I got one of these kits as a Christmas present when they first came out. They update the results extracted from the original saliva sample quite often. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, or until they go out of business or change their terms. They are always asking me to fill out questionnaires. I do it probably 50% of the time but they get tiresome. My ancestry was not too surprising. I did find one relative that I didn’t know about but even that’s not too surprising as I have spent virtually zero time creating a family tree. It’s just not something I’m into. The one big lesson from the experience is that very little is really known about the human genome or, to put it more positively, there’s a huge amount yet to be learned. Even that was something I already knew. Still, it’s a bit of fun, especially if someone buys one for you.

    1. I was able to get confirmation of something I suspected from genealogy research, that my Y chromosome and surname track to Wales. That was via FTDNA. I got connected to a couple of very distant cousins via that test. They turned out to be MAGA types, unfortunately. 23andMe, which is a whole genome type of test, hardly even picks up on that part of my ancestry. My genome is swamped by German and Swiss folk.

      Mitochondrial DNA is really boring, IMO, since there is very little change over very long times and it is only one thin thread, like Y DNA, ignoring the vast majority of your ancestors.

        1. Maybe not. Several people I have known for many, many years have never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like. It’s like they’ve been “programmed” for it!

  8. I just sent off my basepaws (https://basepaws.com/) for two of my cats. They do similar things for cats. Basic breed mix and basic health checks.

    I had a discussion with the CEO and Chief Technical Officer before I ordered from them. They had included a “Wild” type as well, comparing domestic cats to tigers, lions, jaguars, etc. I disagreed that this was a useful and even really possible, since the base divergence of the small cats and big cats was several mya. I linked them to some studies…

    Anyway, because of that, they added a disclaimer that it’s just for fun.

    They do serious research with the DNA and ask several survey questions about the cats to possibly relate behaviors, attitude, and physical traits back to DNA.

    1. I had a discussion with the CEO and Chief Technical Officer before I ordered from them. They had included a “Wild” type as well, comparing domestic cats to tigers, lions, jaguars, etc. I disagreed that this was a useful and even really possible, since the base divergence of the small cats and big cats was several mya.

      A more interesting comparison might be against, say, an Egyptian “cat mummy” (if one could find a suitable example, and get permission to sample it), perhaps museum specimens of Scottish “wildcat” versus “Scandinavian wildcat” (if there is such a thing), maybe that Cypress cat burial that came up a few weeks ago. All with the usual caveats of selecting genuine tissue, bacterial contamination, etc.
      As I recall, there are a couple of sub-species discussed in the “cat burial” story, from “Levantine” origins. The “standard story” for cat domestication is F.sylvestris lybica from North Africa, but there are a couple of other central Asian candidates too suspected of some interbreeding. Are there other extant (or recently extinct) small felines that would be appropriate comparison targets? An Andean one was introduced on Caturday, wasn’t it?

    2. I just checked. BasePaws is available on Amazon with 4.5 / 5 stars (and the same holiday sale price). However, a lot of the actual reviews are much more negative, complaining about how generic, confusing, and inaccurate the results actually are. Their DNA database is reportedly too small. Fakespot analyzed the reviews and gave it a C rating.

    3. DNAmydog was a waste of time & money. My small dog looks like she is mostly deer head chihuahua but with funny markings so we got her tested. Results were cattle dog, spitz, and maltese. No chihuahua. I think the databases that pet companies use are often poor, and the test results are only as good as the database they’re compared to.

      23andme has a huge database, and it’s often used for excellent research on human health and disease. Everyone who gets their genotyping done and fills out the questionnaires contributes to that research database.

  9. My daughter got me a kit for my 60th, from a different company, and it has revealed some astonishing unknowns. I’ve had a range of conversations with people I am very closely related to, and had no idea beforehand that it was so. We are talking half-siblings here!

  10. I’ve been researching my family history since my undergraduate days in London in the 1980s, when it involved sitting for hours in a darkened basement beneath the Public Record Office trying to read the handwriting on microfilmed census records from the mid 19th century. These days, I can read the same records (and many more) online without leaving home.

    My ancestors were all English agricultural labourers in the late 1600s, which is as far back as many parish records go. I suspect that a genomic analysis would be rather dull as a result.

  11. Despite being the progeny of a long line of southern Methodist circuit preachers I gradually came to believe I was Jewish because I have all the stereotypical characteristics, big schnoz, kinky hair, short muscular build, bad coordination, acerbic wit, and a preponderance of Jewish friends. Then my aunt, on her deathbed, said I was actually the son of an itinerant Jewish lingerie salesman. That was it, I was convinced until I took an AncestryDNA test. It showed that I had zero Jewish ancestry, and that I was almost entirely northern English in origin. I didn’t believe it so I took a 23&Me test. The results were identical, but also indicated that I have almost twice the Neandertal percentage of the average Honkey American. Now that’s something to be proud of!

  12. Thanks for bringing this up. I got basic 23andMe 2+ years ago, as part of joining an organization for a condition known to be autosomal dominant, although with extremely varied age and severity of presentation (age 67.5 in my case). I hadn’t looked at my ancestry findings since then, but did so today, and they’ve apparently been able to provide increased detail in that short time.

    Initially it was 48+% “northern European” and 48+% Ashkenazi, and 2.5% “other,” which is about what I’d expect from family background. Now it’s 48.8% “northwest European,” specifically Germany/France, North Rhine-Westphalia (+ 5 other regions), 48.7% Ashkenazi, and the 2.5% is now labelled “Eastern European (Poland, Russia + others).” I don’t know how they can be so detailed as to origins, given humankind’s tendency to move around.

    1. As far as I know, the information they give (except for the Neandertal part) relate to the populations they sampled, which is current inhabitants of area X who know from family history that they are “native” in the sense that all 4 grandparents are from the region.

  13. I signed on to 23 and Me shortly after it started and learned a lot about my ancestry and enough about genetics to pursue a lot more info, SNPS, CRISPR, GWAS etc. Fortunately, I have enough statistical background to understand the studies. They are telling us much about what we need to know about being human, but also much that we probably don’t want to know! Facing some of the genetic truths is going to be difficult for many.

  14. I will probably get a 23&me kit soon. I did an Ancestry one last year. I wasn’t totally surprised at the groups represented, only the percentages. Likewise I’ve been surprised at how frequently they change, sometimes quite wildly. Supposedly they are altered due to new data and refined techniques or whatever but I’ve seen my Scottish ancestry fluctuate from around 20% to 55%, now I think they’re saying 48% or something. They changed the categories too, at first suggesting my indigenous ancestry was South American (Brazil and surrounding areas) then just the US east of the Mississippi, now I think it’s the eastern half of North America. I also had Wales at like 4%, then nothing, and now I think it just does a blanket UK and Northern Europe, mixing it with my English ancestry to put that over 50%. It’s very confusing, I sometimes wonder how much I should trust it, but it is interesting and roughly conforms to what I knew via genealogy paper trails. Likewise, both my mother and grandmother showed a small African ancestry, Togo and Benin, which is most probable, again backed with the records of a (I forget how many greats) grandmother who clearly was not of European ancestry but I believe passed for Native American at the time.

  15. who isn’t interested in their genetic background?

    Frankly, I’m not. I was moderately surprised to see – from some of Granddad’s photo collection – that there seems to have been a Caribbean contribution to the family some time between the popularisation of photography and the popularisation of motorised (versus horse-drawn) transport. But that was a big “meh” to me, and doesn’t seem to have been interesting enough for Dad to find out which generation it was at. Though I don’t think I’ve mentioned it for 5 years.
    What’s it going to tell me that I’m interested to know? I already know I’m going to die either with or of diabetes. I’ve got about 4 languages to finish learning before I consider learning either Gaelic. It’s just pointless.

    1. I’m not interested in mine, either. Actually, my brother did a 23andMe and there wasn’t anything that stood out, so I figured mine would be the same. But I wasn’t interested before he did the test, or afterwards. I consider myself an inquisitive person, so I don’t know why I have no interest in my ancestry.

      But then I watched the latest James Bond movie “No Time to Die” (spoiler alert) and was relieved that my DNA was not on a database that could be hacked by nefarious villains who have a weapon that uses people’s DNA to create a perfectly targeted murderous antigen. They won’t get my DNA! /s

  16. I was highly tempted by this, especially by the 2 for 1 offer they have right now, but was disappointed when I got to the checkout to find that shipping to NZ is over $100 US, more than doubling the cost, so bailed out. Any NZ readers have experience of a more reasonably priced option for this part of the world?

  17. It’s true that you have to treat some of the ancestry interpretations with caution, but I have got a lot out of genetic testing. I am relieved to find out that I don’t have the genetic markers for Alzheimer’s, which sadly killed my mother. I have found relatives in the USA I never knew I had – these were flagged up by genetic matches and then confirmed by comparing genealogical trees. And I am proud to be 2% Neanderthal, even if some of my friends say it confirms everything bad they thought about me 🙂 These kits really do make great gifts

  18. I went with 23andme a number of years ago and was interested to see that I have 3% Neanderthal DNA. I was curious whether my father’s suspicion that he wasn’t actually his official father’s son was true (there was a bit of discrepancy between when he would have been conceived and my grandfather’s leaves during WW2, and my father looked more Italian or Spanish than English) but my ancestry is almost entirely British/Irish and northern European (except for one eastern European Jewish ancestor about 200 years ago). So if my grandmother did fool around, it was likely with someone local 🙂

    When I first did the test, Canadian law did not allow me to see the medical results. When that changed, I was relieved to see that I’m not at greater risk than the general population for anything (my father died of colon cancer so I was concerned that I was at risk).

    1. If your father died of colon cancer — mine had it twice but died of something else — I hope you have discussed screening by colonoscopy with your doctor. Do not take reassurance from a test sold for entertainment purposes.

      1. Oh yes, I’ve been getting regular colonoscopies every couple of years since he was first diagnosed in 2008 – all clean! Next one is in 2022.

    2. With your 3% I think you’d particularly like Svante Pääbo’s biography, Neanderthal Man, if you’re not already familiar with it. The story of how the Neanderthal genome came to be, by the head of the lab that determined it.

      Besides the overall story, what was cool for me was learning that at about the time I was in Slovenia at a generally biomedical conference in 2008, Svante was just to the south in Croatia, collecting some of the Neanderthal specimens that went into the effort.

      1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve ordered the book (if I’d known a bit earlier I could have added it to my Christmas list 🙂

  19. I have avoided such tests out of a couple of concerns. Dr. Coyne notes that ones data is anonymized, but I am unsure exactly what that means.

    My first concern was that someday some grandkid of mine is going to get a knock on the door and have to explain why DNA found on the scene shows that the suspect is a blood relation of one Max B, likely a grandchild. Max put his DNA in the database before it was generally accepted that doing so was a terrible idea. A less nightmarish but still worrying possibility is that the data might be used by my insurance company to make evaluations about risks I might not even know I face, or that the results might be sold to someone with motives we cannot yet guess at.

    My second concern is reliability of the conclusions. If the company administering and evaluating the tests have access to any of your data, it could reasonably effect their conclusions.
    A sample from a person named Aiko Nishimura or Lars Johansen might lead the person evaluating the results to come to different conclusions than if the sample was just linked to a random number.

    But, not knowing if or how such concerns might be addressed, do you feel their process offers sufficient privacy protections?

    1. 1) Genealogy DNA as you posit it is precisely how murderers are identified. The sequence readout of DNA left behind at the crime scene is tested for partial degrees of match against entertainment-DNA databases to suggest families from whom that DNA could have come. This may take decades as the database accretes from all those tests. If there are familial echoes — if you got really lucky, the perp himself might have submitted a test! — the database provides a list of known members of that family with contact information, helpfully supplied by the purchasers of the tests. If any of those named individuals can be located and turn out to have had even the remotest of opportunity to have committed the murder, all the detectives need to do is surreptitiously obtain DNA from their now flagged suspects. They then test those DNA sequences for a match against the DNA from the crime scene. This technique has identified perpetrators who were under no suspicion and up to that knock at the door followed by their Miranda rights had thought they had gotten away with rape and murder. It has also exonerated the wrongly convicted, sometimes after many years in prison if no DNA testing was available at the time and if there were no other good suspects.
      That’s actually a good reason to submit DNA as it can prevent miscarriages of justice to strangers and would never falsely incriminate you or a family member. But if one of ’em goes bad, well, there you are.

      Note the knock at the door wouldn’t come unless your grandkid’s surreptitiously obtained DNA actually matched that at the crime scene. The police don’t tell any of the many possible suspects that one is a suspect unless he matches — no point causing the rest of the family to vamoose. If he’s just one of many whose DNA was familial to whoever the still-unknown perp is, he’ll never know.

      If the data were truly anonymized, this would not be possible. It would not even be possible for the company to send you lists of the avaricious fourth cousins, illegitimate children and minor royalty you are related to. In truly anonymized health statistics, the researchers remove all personal identifiers from the data input forms (with scissors in the old days) as soon they verify that there are no duplicate records from the same individual. Then, forever, no user of those statistics can identify who’s results are whose. Records that cannot be anonymized because the participant has to be notified of the results must be secured with great care….and will be subject to being purloined if they have value, humans being what they are.

      2) As for insurance, I don’t know, since my days of buying life insurance are long past me and health insurance here is of course not underwritten. Quick Google search because I was now curious led to this, the first non-Ad hit:
      https://www.forbes.com/advisor/life-insurance/genetic-testing/ (from Jan 2021.)
      Cool.

      1. I don’t actually expect my progeny to leave DNA at crime scenes, but I can at least imagine a system where such things might be misused. It is my experience that if data is compiled and can be accessed, someone will find a way to acquire it and misuse it.

        Anonymizing might be as simple as separating the customer service section of the organization from the analysis part. The lab itself could receive a sample identified only by a number, and generate their report, send it sealed to the customer service section, who then might send the report to the customer, and delete the identifying number once it is sent.
        I don’t know exactly how they might work out the connection with relatives part, but it is not an insurmountable task.

        I am not by nature a paranoid person, but part of my work is to analyze my company’s physical security procedures and infrastructure for weaknesses. That puts you into a certain mindset, where you are always trying to figure a way to defeat what is in place.

        In that light, being sort of casual about who gets a record of your DNA seems sort of risky, because we cannot really know what kinds of uses people might put the data to in the near future. And once it is out there, it is out. I never thought it was a great idea to secure things with fingerprint scanners, because if the data was somehow compromised, you cannot change it like a password. That method of security is just gone to you forever.

        1. The list of unbreakable security systems is remarkably short. If you exclude all the others from use because they might someday become no longer useful you’ll have no security at all.

          All of our DNA is “out there”. If it weren’t, there would be no science of extracting it from permafrost to find out how recently mastodons roamed the tundra. There’s really no hiding one’s DNA from those who are intent on acquiring it.

          1. Of course you are correct in that one cannot keep the information from someone determined to get it.
            I do think that issue is a little different from voluntarily supplying that information to a database with millions of other people, when the security of that information is unknown. even secured, I have to think that law enforcement would want to find a way to get at it. Their job would be much easier if all they have to do is find a hair at a crime scene, and put the hair into the machine to see if there is a match, or if someone comes close enough to be worth checking on their relatives.

            My concerns might well be completely unfounded, a conclusion I am willing to accept. I read an article recently about a brand of very low priced smart TVs. The claim of the article was that the company that produces the TV makes most of their revenue from targeted advertising that the sets display to the viewer. In the same light, the DNA testing companies have to know that the data they hold has significant value.

            According to Wired, HIPAA protections currently apply to genetic test results that one receives through a medical professional, but when a consumer buys the test, they have to rely on the privacy policies of the testing companies, which vary and can be changed at any time. Privacy laws have just not yet caught up with the technology.

            If I had just had one of those tests done, I would be concerned if my internet traffic started featuring ads for a treatment of some disease I had never heard of.

  20. Ancestry.ca for me. More or less as expected … the expected two thirds Baltic, one third Eastern European/Russian and the less expected, a soupçon of Ashkenazi.

    Might display a touch more interest in things Jewish, now.

    The Ancestry site keeps updating their evaluation, which is fair enough. The genealogical aspect has not been terribly useful though. One possible second to third cousin, with no reply. The possible fourth and more distant cousins seem incredibly remote.

  21. I have long roots in America and know pretty well when and from where — assuming no unregistered adoptions or hanky-panky — my ancestors arrived here arrived here. It would be interesting to test what is known against genetics,

  22. Using Ancestry.com, I discovered that my grandparents conceived a child before they were married, got married, and then were forced by my grandmother’s family to hide the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. By the time I found out about the brother my mother never knew she had, the brother and my mother’s sister were both dead. However, my mother took it in all in good stride and met her brother’s daughter and other family members online and even met one of her brother’s grandchildren in person. I also met another one of the brother’s grandchildren and other family members and we all stay in touch, so it turned out as well as one could hope.

    23&Me will give you free genetic and disease info if you happen to have certain rare diseases. Unfortunately, I know this because my husband recently fell into this category. We are currently waiting for the results. It seems like it’s taking a long time, and 23&Me sends an update every couple of weeks explaining their current work on his genetic profile. He had already done a standard Ancestry test, so it will be interesting to see if there is anything different this time.

    I have enjoyed the interactions I have had with relatives (some closer than others) who have contacted me through the Ancestry.com message board, so for me, it’s been a positive experience.

    1. I’ve been enjoying reading these accounts. What I can’t account for is the joy in people finding others who share their genes. It really is superficial…but it’s easy to make it more profound than it is. “People are people” I suppose…and my readings here suggest that health risks are the most important reason to check (and very important for some who want to know if they have dire congenital markers).

      1. I found my mother’s brother because his grand-daughter contacted me. I thought there must have been an error, but his grand-daughter had the adoption papers, which my grandparents had signed. Once she met us and we all tried to figure out what had happened, she felt better about her grandfather’s adoption. So that was a happy ending of sorts. I was also able to tell her about health problems in the family. Oddly enough, one of her uncles happened to work in the same field that I did and we had mutual acquaintances. I mainly feel like I made some new acquaintances — “friend” may not be the right word at this point.

  23. Rarely do I disagree with the host here, but today I do.

    Steven Pinker did an article on “recreational genetics” a dozen years ago (NYTimes) which put me off, as did various questions about accuracy (don’t they only test mitochondrial?), one from that renowned Finnish geneticist. More so I’ve been put off by stories of law enforcement using relatives’ recreational DNA to nail down suspects (that serial killer in CA). So by giving it as a gift you’re encouraging the loss of privacy of the recipient AND his/her family.

    Besides, I am utterly incurious about my ancestry. Beyond about 3-4 generations back we were pretty much all illiterate peasants with dung on our faces, ruled by superstition, victimized by other humans and ravaged by slow and fast moving diseases. We were nameless proles with short, sad lives, not mighty kings, irrespective of place.

    D.A.
    NYC

    1. Well, you’re also very likely to be descended from some ancient king… Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Nail of the Nine Hostages or such. Such is the way human genetics works over time.

      I’ve never quite understood why (some) people are alarmed that law enforcement uses DNA to track down serial killers. To me that’s a good thing.

  24. There’s a cheaper, actually free alternative. But wait, it’s even better – you get a nominal payment for enrolling in an NIH-sponsored longitudinal study. As part of they run your DNA. I think they’re still looking for enrolees since I keep getting postcards even tho I signed up in the summer. All that’s required is giving some blood and filling out some somewhat aggravating surveys (since they’re written in an exceptionally dumbed-down way). Start here to see if a medical center near you is participating.

    I’ve known with near-certainty that I was at least 1/4 Swedish, but from the DNA results it seems that my Swedish great grandparents were either each half Finnish or one was completely Finnish since I came up 1/8 Finnish, which I like.

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