Genetic Genealogy in the Classroom


Forty advanced placement science students at Soldan International High School in St. Louis have submitted their DNA for testing with the National Geographic Society’s Genographic project. An article in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch highlights some of the statements made by the students and faculty:

“Many times students don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning,” said Assistant Principal Alice Manus, the Soldan project coordinator. “What they’re learning here will have all sorts of relevance because, really, we’re looking into their lives.”

One student, named John, had more reason to be excited about this test than most – his father died when he was only 13. “I never knew him that well,” said the Soldan sophomore. “Maybe this will tell me more about who he was and where he came from.”

I think this is a great way to introduce students to issues associated with genomic sequencing including the science, the societal impact, and the ethical issues. I do wonder, however, how the class afforded the testing. Sometimes companies will offer reduced rate packages to encourage testing. I would hate to think that this sort of project would only be available to affluent communities that can afford the price of the test (even the $99 test at the Genographic project).

Discovering Biology in a Digital World blogged about this yesterday. One of that post’s concerns was how a teacher would deal with potential non-paternal events revealed by the testing. This is definitely a valid concern, although it would be rare since non-paternal events are most often uncovered through comparative genetic genealogy.

I was especially shocked to read the comments at Discovering Biology in a Digital World. A comment left by a Christopher stated that he “had no idea that National Geographic had this Project – or that its actually open to the public as well.” Christoper, don’t you know that there’s an entire blog devoted to genetic genealogy?

7 Responses

  1. kevin 15 November 2007 / 9:31 am

    I did this for one of my classes last year. It really brought a lot to the class.

  2. Blaine Bettinger 15 November 2007 / 10:52 am

    I imagine it would bring a lot – I’d love to see it used more in classrooms.

  3. Larry MOran 15 November 2007 / 2:54 pm

    In a typical class of students the probability is quite high that at least one of the students has a father who is different than the one he/she thinks is the biological father.

    This information is likely to come out during genetic testing. It’s one of the classic cases of an ethical dilemma. Does this concern you? You will be pressuring students to go ahead with the testing even though their mother might object.

  4. Blaine Bettinger 15 November 2007 / 3:27 pm


    This definitely concerns me – in my opinion, the chance of detecting non-paternal events is one of the true ‘social’ concerns of genetic genealogy. As a result, I think students should be able to opt out of an experiment if they or their parents object. Perhaps they could substitute someone else’s DNA, such as a more distant family member.

    However, I would posit that although there is surely a chance of there BEING a non-parental event in a large group of students, the chance of CONCLUDING that there was a non-parental event is quite small. Most genetic genealogy companies return a list of allele numbers (12 alleles for the Genographic Project) for Y-DNA or a list of mutations for mtDNA along with a probable haplogroup designation. Armed with that knowledge, how is a student going to determine that there was a non-parental event?

    For instance, with mtDNA, unless the student is planning to compare that with a relative in the female line, there is virtually no chance that the results will support a non-parental accusation. Even if the haplogroup is far different from what was predicted, that certainly does not suggest that there was a recent non-parental event.

    The same is essentially true for Y-DNA. The student would have to compare this information with closely-related individuals to conclude that there was a non-paternal event. A wildly unusual haplogroup designation does not automatically suggest that there was a recent non-paternal event.

    As a final caveat, I would add that the growing popularity of genetic genealogy and subsequent public databases does increase the likelihood of these types of problems. However, there are still so few people who have been tested (600,000 to 700,000, by my estimate), that the chance of finding (1) a close hit, and (2) a close hit that supports the finding of a non-parental event, is very very small.

    Note: I used the term “non-parental” event to include an event of non-parentage on either the male or female line.

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