TGG Interview Series IV – Alastair Greenshields


Today’s interview is with Alastair Greenshields, founder of the genetic genealogy testing company DNA Heritage. Alastair is also the founder of Ybase, a Y-DNA database. I recently wrote about a helpful and informative video series by Alastair for DNA newbies (see “New Videos for Genetic Genealogists“).

In today’s interview, I ask Alastair about his introduction to genetic genealogy, some of the ethical issues raised by the recent launches of personal genomics companies, and about the future of genetic genealogy.

TGG: How long have you been involved in genetic genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field? Have you undergone genetic genealogy testing yourself? Were you surprised with the results? Did the results help you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery? You founded DNA Heritage in 2003. What led you to create the company? Can you also tell us a little bit about Ybase?

Alastair Greenshields: I got started in genetic genealogy back in 2002. My mother had been researching the family line for many years and this new DNA thing looked promising in connecting lineages up, untangling them, and proving if the paper trails were correct. After so much invested in paper research it was a sensible idea to check using a different method. A company in the UK was contacted, swabs were sent out and samples sent in. Results came back but it was very hard to work out how people were related. As the scientist in the family I tried my best in interpreting them but came to the conclusion that the 10 markers that we were tested upon weren’t enough for any accurate comparison.

I looked around at the current research at that time and came to the conclusion that the test could be made far more accurate. Working alongside a university research lab, I developed a 21-marker Y-chromosome STR test and brought it to market. While the test was in development, I also created Ybase which helped people compare results more easily (at the time there were only in-house databases). That first year of Ybase allowed me to get fully-acquainted with the many different types of questions genealogists wanted answered and put me in good stead when DNA Heritage was officially launched.

The testing into our own family line is ongoing…

Have I been tested? Many times. My own DNA is often one of the guinea-pig samples for the tests that we do. Surprised by the results? I have an open mind undertaking any test – a better word would be intrigued. It’s a source of satisfaction when customers feel the same way; and if it gets people thinking how we are all connected and part of a bigger picture then I’m happy.

TGG: In light of the recent ethical issues raised by the launch of companies like 23andMe and deCODEme, have you noticed any increase in concern by either European or American customers?

AG: There is of course differentiation between genetic genealogy tests and medically informative tests. Companies providing direct-to-consumer health tests have been around for some time; 23andMe and deCODEme are simply getting a lot of media focus right now. The SNP chips used have been available for a while but when you have a lowering of cost, two competitors fuelling the media interest and combine that with a big marketing push, they are naturally being widely discussed about. I think the valid concern of most ethicists is the volume of potentially medically-informative genetic data provided vs. our current understanding of what it all means along with what impact it has on the individuals concerned. And then add to this the desire of many customers to want to share this data with others.

Prevention is less expensive than treatment. An environment where people are more savvy about their health is obviously desirable. But we are still in our infancy of our understanding. When a journal comes out with ground-breaking research on a link between genetics and physical condition, it is often tempered with conflicting results months later. So there has to be a balance on the interpretation of results and expectation by the customer. Companies understand this but ethicists do an essential job of pointing out the need for this balance.

One harder stance is taken by the State of New York in that a doctor is required as an intermediary for their residents, even for paternity testing. This view isn’t shared by other states and so maybe this is the start of the trend, but more likely that NY will relax their own regulations. Incidentally, because of the nature of our own tests, no intermediary is required.

In all, the genetic cat is out of the bag and people knowing more about their genetic selves will increase dramatically in the years to come. Personalized medicine will make a big impact. It’s the medical unknown of what it all means which raises doubt.

The sharing of this data raises issues also. Do you share just the conclusions that e.g. you may have a pre-disposition to Celiac Disease, or do you share the hard data for which not everything is known? On the whole, the participants are self-selecting, do their homework and are quite aware that the data may reveal other genetic information later on. It’s the sub-section who aren’t fully aware that need protection. And this is the crux.

In genetic genealogy, the picture is much clearer. The results aren’t medically informative*. The results of a Y-chromosome or mtDNA test won’t even identify you as an individual. They are good for known lineages and thus, to make sense of them it works best if results are shared, particularly the Y-chromosome STR test.

*There are two exceptions; very rarely a DYS464 on the Y-chromosome is not present which may indicate infertility (although never encountered by us in several years of testing), and with whole mtDNA sequencing when you venture into genes you reveal medical information. Which is why we don’t perform that full sequencing test.

If there are any differences between American and European customers regarding their genetic data at all it has been on privacy and the perceived threat from insurance companies and employers. In the US, there was always the overhanging question of medical genetic data being used against them. With the (impending) passing of GINA, the basis for this worry will be minimal. And again, because of the tests that we do, any issue has been negligible.

TGG: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

AG: Always hard but as ever, genetic genealogy will continue to be more mainstream. We’re now seeing many more professional genealogists using it alongside their library research with great results. I’m sure that one day DAR and SAR will begin to accept lineage data as acceptable evidence for inclusion.

TGG: Thank you, Alastair, for a great interview!

Other posts in the TGG Interview Series: