Risks of DNA Testing in Search for Ancestors

Ed Gordon explores some of the challenges and issues of DNA testing by individuals exploring their heritage with Richard Gabriel, CEO and president of DNAPrint Genomics, a genetic research company based in Sarasota, Fla., and Karla Holloway, English and law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

For a growing number of people seeking DNA tests, exploring ancestral roots may be less important than discovering what they may be entitled to. From college applicants to prospective employees, reports suggest many are claiming to be of mixed race to gain access to special programs or privileges. This, despite the fact that the genetic test they take may only pinpoint a small percentage of mixed blood.

Results, for example, have led some whites to apply for scholarships earmarked for minorities. And some African Americans have used the test to help prove they deserve an inheritance based on European ancestry.

We explore some of the challenges and issues of DNA testing with Richard Gabriel, CEO and president of DNAPrint Genomics, a genetic research company based in Sarasota, Florida. Also with us, Karla Holloway, English and law professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

I welcome you both to the program. Appreciate it.

Prof. KARLA HOLLOWAY (Professor, Duke University): My pleasure.

Mr. RICHARD GABRIEL (CEO and President, DNAPrint Genomics): Thank you.

GORDON: Mr. Gabriel, let me start with you. We are a long way from what we saw as the explosion of trying to find your link on the family tree during the Roots phenomenon. DNA testing has been the real key here.

Mr. GABRIEL: Yes, it has. It's a test that… I should point out there are three, right now, there are three ways to do the test. One is the mitochondrial test, which is from mother to mother to mother. The second is Y chromosome, which is father to father to father. And the third test is an autosomal, which scans the entire DNA and looks back approximately 20,000 years.

GORDON: Now there are those who are concerned that we are seeing abuse of this system. In the sense, as we mentioned just a moment ago, that it's no longer just trying to find your ancestry, looking back on your heritage, but now there are business and economic gains.

What kinds of abuse are we seeing?

Mr. GABRIEL: Well, I'm not seeing any. At least, we're not in our customer base. We have tested well over, close to 50,000 people so far. And although we do get, on occasion, about once a month, we get people who call in that are upset because they haven't found the determinant test.

I should point out that, when you look at the mitochondria and you look at the Y chromosome, it is only looking at one chapter in the 23 chapters of the DNA history. And DNA is, if you want to think about it in a more practical term, it's like a tape recorder. And it records all of your ancestral migrations, and it has nothing to do with politics, or race, or religion. It is only recording those events, and half of it comes from your mother and half of it comes from your father. But it's not always equal.

So, that being said, parents and children do not necessarily always inherit, let's say the minor components of a genetic ancestry. So you might have three children, and one child would inherit, let's say, a 15 percent sub-Saharan African content, and the second child will inherit none. And that's just the DNA shuffle, as we call it.

GORDON: Karla Holloway, let me bring you into this because you wrote an article, Don't Discount DNA Dangers. And while Mr. Gabriel is right, DNA is not political, it can be, and in some cases, has been used for political purposes.

Ms. HOLLOWAY: I think that's exactly the issue, that these tests, these ancestry searches has the opportunity and has reinvigorated the racial category and their social and political uses in the United States. And of course, we know those can be used to our advantage as well as our disadvantage.

Mr. Gabriel's company itself is a very complex organization and one of the things that it does with DNA is use it in terms of biomedical issues, forensics, law enforcement. These are exactly the spaces in which, I think, African Americans have to proceed with some caution. I call it tantamount to defending our social security numbers through the mail. It's a way in which our privacy is open to someone else's regard, should be a concern to more of us.

GORDON: Karla, let me ask you this. In terms of just race as a social construct, there is the whole idea of genetic determinacy and whether or not, for social matters, this proves anything.

Ms. HOLLOWAY: Exactly. It's the same presumptions that we have about stereotypes, whether they are advantageous stereotypes or dis-advantageous ones, will be used as the sort, make race have even more seemingly scientific information.

Certainly, this DNA print gives us information about population and ancestry. But our interpretation about population and ancestry is in a racial way, in the United States. It goes back to those old categories of black, white, American Indian, Asian. And we know that those, all of those categories have stereotypes surrounding them. So it's not a surprise at all that we would find some people using them to mark - check a box that might give them some gain or advantage on a college admission.

But we also know that this DNA and this racial categorization is used in forensics and in criminology, in ways that your own privacy might be subject to a court order, for example. To find out if any relatives in your family might be involved in some activity.

So, I think the way in which we presume some, we send this through the mail and we get back some information - which is interesting to us in terms of potential ancestry - but it's also useful in the ways in which it is damaging to us.

GORDON: Mr. Gabriel, I know that people in your business and the sciences oft times try to wash the social aspect and the implications of… With every new discovery that you make, we are in a new territory that has yet to be charted. As we move forward and we talk about some of these possibilities, is this something that you concern yourself with?

Mr. GABRIEL: Oh, absolutely. We're very concerned about, just what Karla had mentioned. This is a… You know, we don't treat this lightly, either. We, you know, protect the information from individuals. You know, we don't use it in any other way. If they want it destroyed, we destroy it.

The DNA that people get is their DNA. It's not ours or anyone else's. We believe very strongly in that.

As far as… We haven't quite seen any, what I would call racial profiling. In fact, I think it's probably the opposite, which is sometimes hard for people to get - especially in forensics, which is sometimes hard for people to get their head around.

The DNA that's left at a crime scene, that at least - we've been involved in well over 100 serial killer, serial rapist cases. These are very serious cases, many of which we can't talk about. But the DNA that's left on the victim is sent to us and it gives us an opportunity to provide the description when perhaps there hasn't been one.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, though, Mr. Gabriel, in terms of the reliability of these tests. Not from a forensic standpoint when you're talking about solving a crime or something of that nature, but when you're talking about as we look at the idea of the movement of trying to utilize what may be a descendant's blood to gain inheritance, to gain a particular program you might want to be involved with, the one-drop rule if you will. How reliable do you believe, at this point, with the technology we know, is it?

Mr. GABRIEL: Well it's sort of like mapping a hurricane, if you want to think of it in that way. We use very sophisticated, statistical programming. And so the more snips, or single nucleotide polymorphisms we measure, the tighter the circle. In other words, the closer to the eye of the circle we can get. And it varies between, let's say, five and 10 percent, on the overall DNA sample…

GORDON: Karla Holloway…

Mr. GABRIEL: The problem with mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA, is that it detects a small component. In the case of the mother to mother to mother, it is, as I said, one chromosome…

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Mr. GABRIEL: …in the case of the mitochondrial DNA, you're looking at let's say 16,000, versus in the human DNA, autosomal DNA, you're looking at three billion. So when you have a measurement across the autosomal DNA, it's much more - it can be tied back to a mitochondrial result. In other words, having a mitochondrial result that you're from a particular tribe in Africa…

GORDON: Right.

Mr. GABRIEL: …in combination with the autosomal DNA that says that you're a 30 percent Sub-Saharan African, is a very powerful indication.

GORDON: So, Karla Holloway, let me bring you in and ask you. I know that you are concerned with the idea of all of this, particularly as we listen to Mr. Gabriel, in terms of laymen trying to follow much of this. The idea that, in our legal system, race has often been used as a factor in determining inheritance, commercial rights…

Professor KARLA HOLLOWAY (English and law professor at Duke University): Exactly.

GORDON: …et cetera.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Exactly. And I think it's important to respect and understand the ways scientists will develop this information. But it's the use of that information, in terms of marking people as one race of the other. And also respect the - Mr. Gabriel's, interest in privacy. But also note that there is precedence, that medical advance or criminal forensics can claim information thought to be private, through a search warrant.

And so even though our intentions might be one thing, in terms of protecting privacy and giving people more information than they obviously have about their ancestry, my interest is in how that information might come to be used. And then our understanding, that even though we - science is doing one thing, our social categories and our political system use race very powerfully…

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: …and the science sort of falls out, and we go back to those old familiar terrains about, about is he black, white or Hispanic.

So, although this might be developed with one aim and one kind of integrity in mind, the way in which we might use it, or the way in which society uses it, is problematic enough for me to say let's proceed with some caution here.

GORDON: Well, we should note, as I mentioned earlier, that we are still very, very new to all of this and we are, to some degree, looking at rules, TBD, to be determined.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: Absolutely.

GORDON: Richard Gabriel is CEO and president of DNAPrint Genomics, and Karla Holloway, is an English professor at Duke University. I thank you both.

Mr. GABRIEL: Thank you.

Prof. HOLLOWAY: My pleasure.

GORDON: Coming up: Homeland insecurity. Hundreds of airline screeners may not be who you think they are. We'll discuss this topic and more on our Roundtable.

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