24 December 2007

DNA: Swabbing away

The DNA swabbers are everywhere these days, appearing at family reunions and life cycle events. Used correctly, it is a great boon for genealogists around the world. It can confirm related individuals when documents run out or can help researchers avoid expensive wild goose chases when results do not match.

A Wisconsin State Journal article is spotlighted here.

Along with the stories of several swabbing people, it also discusses the October Science magazine report which indicated results might not be as informative as expected and that there are privacy concerns because the industry is unregulated.

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 that two people are related, it's not always clear how they're related, Ossorio said.

Pilar Ossorio, an associate professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a co-author of the Science article, says the tests may give a false sense of specificity, and that everyone is related to each other if you go back far enough. The authors seem concerned about individuals want to know about their race or ethnicity, and say that there is no clear connection between an individual's DNA and his or her racial or ethnic affiliation.

Not all companies are up front about these limitations, she adds.

The story also quotes Family Tree DNA founder and president Bennett Greenspan, who said he has no big beefs with the Science article and shares many 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, says Greenspan, has five anthropologists and three geneticists and can determine within a 99.9% likelihood that two men with exact DNA matches share a common ancestor.

The story goes on to discuss Dan Greenspan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison pathology professor, whom Bennett Greenspan contacted when he founded Family Tree DNA and was searching his roots. Although Dan submitted his DNA as customer 163 back in the early days, more than 325,000 people have been tested by the company.

Although the two were not related, the professor's interest in genealogy was triggered by the experience and he has attempted to convince other family members to submit DNA samples.

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