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.




Read more:
DNA Nation raises tough questions for Indigenous Australians


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.




Read more:
Explainer: what are mitochondria and how did we come to have them?


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.




Read more:
Friday essay: when did Australia’s human history begin?


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


Read more:
DNA facial prediction could make protecting your privacy more difficult


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.

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Mum, dad and two kids no longer the norm in the changing Australian family


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Grandparent-led families are increasingly significant in Australia.
Shutterstock

Brendan Churchill, University of Melbourne

The image of the typical family – mum, dad, and two kids – still permeates how we define and understand the family in contemporary Australia. This ideal saturates our screens and newsfeeds and was at the centre of the marriage equality debate, underscoring the pervasiveness of the nuclear family as the dominant family form in our consciousness.

However, this conceptualisation masks the true nature of Australian families, which has changed significantly in recent decades. As sociologists and demographers have long known, the Australian family is as diverse and different as the country’s terrain.

Drawing on data from the 2016 Census, we know there are more than 6 million families in Australia. This is a significant increase from the 5 million or so families counted at the 2011 Census.

Figure 1 – Family composition.
2016 Census – Counting Families, Place of Enumeration

Of these 6 million families, the most-common family form (as illustrated in Figure 1) was the couple family with no children (37.76%). The next-most-common was couple families with dependent children under the age of 15 (30.64%).

These proportions confirm that the nuclear family is no longer the most common family form in Australia. One-parent families with dependent children comprise around 8% of all Australian families.

Reflecting this move away from the traditional, nuclear family and the rise of more couple families without children, is the size of families. In 2016, around 30% of all families were two-person families. A further 27% were four-person families.

Figure 2 – Family blending.
2016 Census – Counting Families, Place of Enumeration

Most couple families with children in Australia are so-called “intact families” (89.94%), consisting of at least one one child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners in the couple.

However, families are becoming increasingly more “blended”, as couples dissolve (due to separation, divorce or death of a partner) and new families are formed.

Blended families are a small proportion of modern Australian family forms, accounting for just over 3.7% of all families. This includes families with two or more children, at least one of whom is the natural or adopted child of both partners and at least one other child who is the step-child of one of them.

A further 6.3% of families are step-families. Here, there is at least one resident step-child, but no child who is the natural or adopted child of both partners.

Grandparent-led families are also increasingly significant.

Grandparents already play a significant role in Australian family lives through the provision of informal child care, but there are now just over 60,000 grandparent families in Australia (which a significant increase from estimates in 2004, which found around 22,500 grandparent families). Of those, 53% of grandparent families are couple families with grandchildren and 47% are lone grandparent families.

Figure 3 – Family composition by same-sex.
2016 Census – Counting Families, Place of Enumeration

The 2016 Census gathered information on same-sex couples. Compared with opposite-sex couples, these data show that family forms differ across sexual orientation.

Overall, around 15% of same-sex couples had children. Female same-sex couples were more likely to be in couple families with dependent children (20.67%) compared to male same-sex couples (3.10%), or opposite-sex couples (37.8%).

However, same-sex couples were still more likely to be in couple families with no children than were opposite-sex couples, and they were more likely to have smaller families. Of those, around 54% of male same-sex couples with children and 51% of female same-sex couples with children had one-child families. One-third of same-sex couples had two children.

In comparison, 36% of opposite sex-couples had one child, and 42% had two children.

What these data from the 2016 Census show is just some of the diversity within the Australian family. While the idealised nuclear family of the past is no more, this does not mean that the family as a social institution is in decline, or that families in contemporary Australia are at risk.

The ConversationBut it does mean families are changing. Our political leaders should reflect on this diversity to ensure social policies reflect these differences, so that all families are well supported.

Brendan Churchill, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

First results from the 2016 Census paint a picture of who the ‘typical’ Australian is


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The attention on the 2016 Census until now has been mostly negative.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University

In a country as diverse as Australia, it is impossible to identify a set of characteristics that defines us. However, with today’s release of data from the 2016 Census, it is possible to identify some of the common characteristics, how they vary across states and territories, and how they are changing over time. The Conversation

Australia undertakes a compulsory long-form census – where detailed information across several areas is required of every individual respondent – every five years.

So, what did we learn from the first set of results? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):

The 2016 Census has revealed the ‘typical’ Australian is a 38-year-old female who was born in Australia, and is of English ancestry. She is married and lives in a couple family with two children and has completed Year 12. She lives in a house with three bedrooms and two motor vehicles.

Australia is getting a bit older; the typical Australian in 2011 was aged 37.

How do today’s results vary across Australia?

First, age varies by state and territory.

With variables like age, we often find the “typical” value by taking the median. In essence, we (statistically) line everyone up from youngest to oldest, and find the person who is older than half the population but younger than the other half.

In Tasmania, the median age among 2016 Census respondents was 42. But in the Northern Territory, it was 34. Those in Australian Capital Territory were also quite young (median age 35), whereas those in South Australia were relatively old (40).

The NT population’s relatively young age is influenced by the very high proportion that identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

While we don’t have updated estimates for that proportion (either for the NT or nationally), the data released today show that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is quite young. The median age nationally is 23. New South Wales and Queensland have the youngest Indigenous population, with a median age of 22.

This release also tells us something about the different migrant profiles across Australia. Nationally, the most common country of birth for migrants is England. And the median age of migrants is much older than for the Australian-born population (44 compared to 38).

The most common country of birth for migrants living in Queensland was New Zealand; in Victoria it was India; in NSW it was China. There may not be too many more censuses until the most common migrant nationally was not born in England.

Ahead of the forthcoming federal budget, there has been a lot of media and policy attention on housing affordability. Today’s release of census data points to some subtle differences across Australia that may influence policy responses.

Nationally, the most common tenure type is owning a three-bedroom home with a mortgage. In Queensland, however, renters make up a roughly equal share of the population. But, in Tasmania and NSW, more people own their own home outright. And in the NT, renting is the most common tenure type.

In a finding that won’t surprise many, the typical female does a bit more unpaid work around the house than the typical male. The most common category for males is less than five hours a week. The most common for females is five to 14 hours.

We won’t know how this compares to paid work for a while yet – or whether these differences vary depending on age.

What future releases will tell us

The profiles released today offer us limited information. But the census remains one of Australia’s most important datasets.

When detailed data are released in June and then progressively throughout the rest of 2017, we will be able to dig deeper into small geographic areas or specific population groups.

We will be able to ask if there are pockets of Australia with significant socioeconomic disadvantage, and if it is worsening. We will be able to hold governments accountable for the progress we have made on the education, employment and health outcomes of the Indigenous population.

And we will be able to test whether the languages we speak, the houses we are living in, and the jobs that we are doing, are changing.

But those questions rely on a high-quality census.

The attention on the 2016 Census until now has been mostly negative. There was increased concern related to data privacy, the failure of the online data entry system on census night, and staff cuts at the ABS.

In October 2016, the ABS estimated the response rate to the 2016 Census was more than 96%, and that 58% of the household forms received were submitted online. But what matters more than how many people filled in the census and how they did it is whether the responses given were accurate. We therefore need to see a lot more interrogation of the data before taking the results at face value, but we can remain cautiously optimistic.

The ABS will be hoping that now some data is released, attention will shift to what the results tell us about Australian society. It is to be hoped the data will be robust, the insights will be newsworthy, and policy and practice will shift accordingly.

We won’t know this for sure until the first major data release of data June 27 – the data released today were just a sneak peak.

Nicholas Biddle, Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

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

Australia: Finding Australian Servicewomen in the Archives

The link below is to an article that looks at finding Australian servicewomen in our historical archives.

For more visit:
http://www.insidehistory.com.au/2014/04/find-your-servicewoman-in-the-archives/

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

This television show has been around for a while now, but I have only just now watched the very first episode of the Australian version. The episode was about the family history of Australian actor Jack Thompson. It was a very interesting presentation and I think the show will certainly ignite the interest of many people in researching their own family history. I’m a fan of the show now, for sure.

I believe there is also an English version of the show. The Australian version is available on DVD and is shown on SBS television.

FAMILY HISTORY BOOK AND FAMILY TREE

I have been researching my family history for a number of years now and have a family history web site. The site is all about my family’s history, as well as other areas of history that I’m interested in – Australian history, The US Civil War, King Alfred of Wessex, etc.

Visit: http://particularbaptist.com/matthewshistory/index.html

In the last little while I’ve been able to put together a couple of things on the site that have helped to provide visitors with an insight into my family history.

The first is a book that I have put together which includes some historical notes on my family as well as the family tree itself from several different perspectives. The other is the family tree being now available via the web site from several perspectives – i.e. from the Blanch side, from the Lilley side, from the Matthews side, etc.

Visit: http://particularbaptist.com/matthewshistory/familybook.html   

It is good when all of the research begins to come together and you have something that you show for it – like the book (available to download in PDF format) and the online family tree. The research is far from complete, even though it is already reasonably extensive. I have continued to work behind the scenes updating information and gaining new content – all of which will make its way to the web site in time, though another major update of the book and tree online will be some time off yet. I have some solid work to do over the next 12 months at least, which will considerably add to the family history and tree.

Of course, if you have any information that might be of assistance I would love to hear from you and you can contact me via nrbcpastorkev@yahoo.com.au Thanks in anticipation of any help you can provide.