How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are


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We’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.
from www.shutterstock.com

Caitlin Curtis, The University of Queensland

Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from?

I think it’s a fundamental human desire to want to know this.

One way we’re seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You’ve probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you’re, say, 30% German and 70% English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating.

But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race?




Read more:
A DNA test says you’ve got Indigenous Australian ancestry. Now what?


‘No borders within us’

Earlier this year, a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, called “DNA Discounts” with the slogan “there are no borders within us”. For the ad campaign they gathered a group of North Americans who were willing to take a DNA test and get their results on camera. This group contained some members with, let’s just say, a somewhat negative view of Mexico.

Do you want to go to Mexico?

In the ad, the airline offered rewards to these people based on their DNA results, in the form of a discounted airline ticket to Mexico. The size of the discount depended on the amount of Mexican ancestry. If their test showed 15% Mexican ancestry, that meant a 15% discount.

The footage of people getting their results on camera is pretty funny, and some of them seemed somewhat surprised, and maybe even upset about their reported ancestry. More than half of those tested appeared to have Mexican ancestry, even though they weren’t aware of it.

The slogan “there are no borders within us” has an element of political commentary related to Donald Trump’s border wall. But the ad also teaches us two important things.

It shows how DNA testing can challenge not just our ideas of race and identity, but our notion of being. Your genetic ancestry might be completely different from your cultural identity. Just ask the folks in the ad.

Beyond this, it also highlights how mainstream this kind of science has become, and how much DNA ancestry testing has entered into pop culture.




Read more:
Five things to consider before ordering an online DNA test


Recent, dark past

I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn’t always been a healthy interest – sometimes it’s been much darker and more sinister. And we don’t even have to look too far into the past to see that.

The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, “feeble-minded” or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology.

Eugenics was the idea that humanity could engineer a better future for itself by identifying and regulating these groups using science and technology.




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In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it.

In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether.

Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of “pollution” of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the “inferior” races would contaminate the “superior” race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn’t much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US.

Racism with flawed science

The events of that time are still relevant now. More than seven decades have passed and we’re seeing the rise of far-right groups and ideologies – the world of Trump, and the return of restrictive immigration policies.

We’re seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We’re once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas.




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Late last year, the New York Times reported on a trend among white supremacists to drink milk. Most people of northern European ancestry have a version of a certain gene, called a lactase gene, that means they can fully digest milk as adults. This is due to a genetic mutation several thousand years ago, around the time of the first cattle herders in Europe.

The article described how people from the far right have taken this scientific result and run with it – producing bizarre YouTube videos in which people chug milk from 2-litre containers, swigging it and throwing it around in celebration of their supposed “genetic superiority” – and urging people who cannot digest milk to “go back”. Comedian Stephen Colbert even picked up on this story (in his words: “lactose is their only form of tolerance”).

The white supremacists took this bit of science and twisted it to suit their needs. But what they have ignored is research showing that a similar version of this gene evolved among cattle breeders in East Africa too.

DNA does not define culture

It’s not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture.

The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access “benefits”. I don’t want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won’t work.

Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates.




Read more:
Why DNA tests for Indigenous heritage mean different things in Australia and the US


So how does the marketing of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry?

These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate.

When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16% German, it is not a fact that you are 16% German. It’s an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference.

I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations.

Twins got different results

Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works.

The raw data for each twin was more than 99% identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate.

The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates.

From one company, the first twin got 25% Eastern European, and the second got 28%. Just to be clear, this shouldn’t happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA.




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Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29% Italian, but another said they were 19-20% Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time.

So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated.

Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It’s not really so clear-cut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry.

The bigger picture that’s emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.

Looking at the pie chart might give you the impression that there are discrete borders within you and boundaries between your different ancestries, but as Aeromexico so eloquently put it, “there are no borders within us”.


This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019.The Conversation

Caitlin Curtis, Research fellow, Centre for Policy Futures (Genomics), The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A DNA test says you’ve got Indigenous Australian ancestry. Now what?

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Families have secrets – and sometimes we don’t know our complete genetic histories.
from www.shutterstock.com

Elizabeth Watt, Deakin University; Emma Kowal, Deakin University, and Shaun Lehmann

Technologies for amplifying, sequencing and matching DNA have created new opportunities in genomic science. In this series When DNA Talks we look at the ethical and social implications.


Getting your “DNA done” is all the rage in the United States.

The sensationalism started with celebrities such as Jessica Alba, and Snoop Dog – and has now spread to hundreds of video bloggers disclosing their ancestry to drum rolls, exclamations, cheers and tears.

These tests claim to reveal deep ancestral origins, and many public users of this technology are black Americans seeking information about their African roots.

Snoop Dog sent his DNA to be tested – and did the maths faster than this TV host.

The uptake of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has been slower in Australia, and complicated by debates both beyond and within the Indigenous community – with some leaders calling on greater scrutiny to prevent “fakes” or “wannabes” calling themselves Indigenous.

One of the authors on this paper – Shaun Lehmann – was dropped into this debate inadvertently, after receiving the result of his own DNA test a few years ago.




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Professional and personal

Shaun had more professional reasons for doing the test than most: at the time he was lecturing in human genetic diversity at the Australian National University, and wanted to use his own genetic data as teaching tool.

He also had personal questions about his maternal grandmother, who had died when he was a small child. She had grown up without her mother, and said little about her background.

Because they are related through a direct maternal line, Shaun knew that it was his grandmother, and by extension mysterious great-grandmother, who gave him his mitochondrial genome.

Mitochondria are the tiny organelles that make energy in our cells. While the genome in the nucleus of our cells – our 23 pairs of chromosomes – is made up of a mix of our biological mother’s and father’s DNA, the relatively small mitochondrial genome is passed down through the egg and so reflects a single line of maternal ancestors.




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What Shaun didn’t know at the time, and what the test revealed, was that his particular mitochondrial genome fell into a haplogroup (a grouping of similar mitochondrial genomes) called “S2”, which has only been observed in Aboriginal Australians.

Interpreting genetic results

Being mitochondrial DNA, Shaun knew exactly where to look in his genealogy to find out more. Sure enough, he soon found records that his grandmother’s maternal family were Aboriginal people originally from the Albany area of Western Australia. With this information in hand, Shaun was able to trace his family tree to living Noongar relatives.

How mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA are passed on.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Shaun’s discovery was certainly aided by the fact that he is a geneticist and could interpret his DNA test results. Most important, though, was that his Aboriginal ancestry happened to be in the direct maternal line.

Mitochondrial DNA is a reliable source of genetic information about Aboriginal ancestry, but it can’t help at all if your Aboriginal ancestors sit anywhere else in your family tree. That is, it’s only useful to track direct from mother to grandmother to great grandmother, and so on.




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Different kinds of DNA tests

Most of the “ethnic breakdown” DNA results being shared publicly by bloggers come from testing companies that compare their nuclear DNA with material from various ethnic groups. The tests focus on variations in specific regions of genes – known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs.

To our knowledge, DNA testing companies do not currently have reliable reference SNP data from Indigenous Australians.

One company offering tests claiming to identify Indigenous Australians uses an approach that compares sequences in genes known as Short Tandem Repeats, or STRs. STR data from around the world is widely available in the forensic science literature because it is widely used in criminal investigations and paternity testing.




Read more:
Is your genome really your own? The public and forensic value of DNA


Ethical and scientific concerns have been raised about the use of STR data for commercial ancestry testing. For example, it is difficult to know how companies get their reference samples.

The case of American blogger Lisa Garrigues is illustrative. Garrigues did a test back in 2010 – it reportedly gave her second “Highest Resolution Global Population Match” as “European-Aboriginal”.

She was excited by this discovery, but also sceptical – her family has no known connections to the Southern Hemisphere. Lisa and her father subsequently did more thorough DNA testing, and it didn’t suggest Aboriginal ancestry.

In our personal correspondence with one of the genetic genealogists that assisted Lisa, Doug McDonald suggests these kind of inconsistencies are extremely common – STR markers are not designed for ancestry tests, but for matching individual people.

After the test: now what?

We need to be on the lookout for misinformation and unethical practices around genealogy testing. But even where the science is reliable, such as Shaun’s mitochondrial DNA test, the implications of identifying genetic Indigenous ancestry are far from clear.

Shaun was proud to learn about his ancestry, and has since got in contact with his relatives. He is also looking into his grandmother’s past to find out whether her separation from her mother was influenced by the policies that led to the Stolen Generations.

Existing research suggests there are many possible endings for journeys like Shaun’s. Bindi Bennett’s work highlights how young, light-skinned people who had no previous ties to the Aboriginal community can develop a strong Indigenous identity, even in the face of resistance from that community.




Read more:
Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity


But Fiona Noble’s 1996 research with Queenslanders who discovered their Aboriginal ancestry late in life suggests many of this demographic see their heritage as extremely important, but not all-defining.

They are more comfortable describing themselves as being “of Aboriginal descent” than “Aborginal”.

As Regina Ganter notes, the “in-between” status of these “half-steps” is not well-recognised contemporary policy and discourse – which tends to frame Aboriginality as an either/or identity.

Although Noble and Bennett’s research participants discovered their heritage through documents or family stories, not genetics, their work offers a window onto a future where more Australians discover Aboriginal ancestry through DNA tests.

Without a doubt, the inevitable collision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia with direct-to-consumer genetic testing will continue to raise challenging questions about ancestry and identity in the 21st century.


The Conversation


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Elizabeth Watt, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Emma Kowal, Professor of Anthropology, Deakin University, and Shaun Lehmann, PhD Student, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stain or badge of honour? Convict heritage inspires mixed feelings

Merran Williams, La Trobe University

A recent report in Molecular Psychiatry identified a “warrior gene” connected to criminal behaviour. This inspired renewed speculation that a convict ancestry might make Australians more predisposed to violent crime.

This fear of genetic contamination from convict ancestors has existed in Australia since early settlement. Between 1788 and the end of transportation in 1868, around 162,000 convicts were sent to the colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia.

An estimated one in five Australians has convict ancestry. In Tasmania, the figure is even higher. In 2009, 74% of Tasmania’s population was estimated to be descended from convicts.

From source of shame to pride

Today, a convict ancestor is a matter of pride, a connection to the rough and tumble of early Australia. But for past generations, including some convicts themselves, it was a shame that had to be hidden at all costs.

Freed convicts celebrated their fresh start by giving false or deliberately mis-spelt names to government officials. Some went to the effort of returning to England, then “emigrating” respectably as a free settler under a new or married name.

Following the end of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, the colony itself underwent a name change. In 1856, it was renamed Tasmania in an attempt to purge its convict past. The word “convict” was rarely used and access to the state’s convict records was closely guarded.

As late as the 1960s, Tasmania’s Library Board refused permission to doctoral student Peter Bolger to publish convict names for fear of embarrassing their descendants. When he published his thesis as the book Hobart Town, he cited the duplicate British records.

In an attempt to remove the convict stigma, in the early 1900s, the newly federated NSW government planned to destroy its convict records. It was held back only by concerns that the records might be the property of the British government.

Australia celebrated 150 years of European settlement in 1938. It was also the year in which the last transported convict died in Western Australia.

Attitudes towards convicts were changing. Australian nationalists began to view the penal past as an era when the British ruling class unjustly persecuted noble workers and revolutionaries. Sent to Australia because of their “struggles for freedom” or trivial offences, they had demonstrated their good character by founding a prosperous democracy.

But not everyone was happy to embrace Australia’s convict heritage. The Chronicle in Adelaide reported that officials organising a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations had been insisting that the terms “transportees” or “deportees” should be used instead of “convict”. After a fair amount of ridicule, the following announcement was made:

The existence of convicts in early Australia will be officially recognised. Where necessary convicts will be included in the historical scenes, but no special float showing convict life will be included in the pageant. Neither will any attempt be made to single out convicts for special attention.

Meet the ancestors, whoever they were

In the 1950s and ‘60s, historians argued that Australians should not romanticise either the convict system or the people within it. Manning Clark and Alan Shaw viewed the convicts as a “disreputable lot”. They were considered to be perennial petty thieves who made an active choice to supplement their grinding poverty with criminal spoils, rather than suffering virtuously, like the poor people who didn’t have a criminal conviction.

Mollie Gillen memorably described them as:

… raggle-taggle nobodies … who walked the streets as idle and profligate persons.

In their book Convict Workers, first published in 1988, Stephen Nicholas and Peter Shergold challenged these assumptions. Their analysis of NSW convict records revealed a greater proportion of literate and skilled convicts than expected.

Portrait of a Convict by Peter Fraser Gordon.
National Library of Australia

Further studies by Tasmanian historians such as Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Lucy Frost used the stories of individual convicts to provide insight into the convict system in general, revealing a more nuanced picture of convict lives.

Today, enough distance has passed to allow Australians to look back on their convict heritage with interest rather than repugnance. The former convict settlement of Port Arthur is a tourist attraction that draws more than 290,000 visitors a year. Convict descendants can research their ancestors’ stories through sites such as LINC, Tasmania’s online archives, the National Library’s TROVE newspapers and genealogy websites.

The proceedings of London’s Old Bailey court, where many convicts were sentenced, are available in a searchable online database. Some records contain information about convicts’ families, occupations and conduct records. There are detailed descriptions, including distinguishing features and tattoos.

And the fear that we might be cursed with a genetic predisposition towards criminal behaviour? A 2001 Victorian parliamentary report on crime in Australia found that, adjusted for population, Tasmania – with the highest proportion of convict descendants – had the second-lowest crime rate in the nation.

The Conversation

Merran Williams is PhD Candidate at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Ancestry iOS App Updated for iOS 7

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the newly updated Ancestry iOS app.

For more visit:
http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2013/09/18/ancestry-ios-app-gets-a-whole-new-look-and-feel-with-some-great-new-features/