Charmaine Royal, Ph.D., discusses “The pitfalls of tracing your ancestry” at NatureNews.Â Dr. Royal, an associate professor at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, co-chairs the ASHG Ancestry Testing Task Force.
Brendan Maher of Nature’s In the Field blog has more at “ASHG 2008: A stance, more or less, on genetic ancestry testing.”Â Not much more covered here that was already written at The Spittoon – see “ASHG Releases Ancestry Testing Statement Emphasizing Interpretation.”
If you’re interested in seeing the Task Force’s webcast, it’s available here.
The recent report by the American Society of Human Genetics on its concerns about ancestry testing is timely. Clearly consumers, often with limited science backgrounds, need to know what they are getting and how useful the product they are using is to them. As is pointed out on occasion, a few companies or consumers may over stretch the value of such testing results. As a geneticist, I remind interested users that these tests have limits to their value. Using Y chromosome typing for male lineage to suggest relationships among people with the same last name or similar last names is useful. So is the use of mitochondrial genotyping in female lineages to demonstrate more distant relationships among individuals. Predicting geographic origin or implying race can be just that â€“ a prediction since data bases are often limited and considerable human migration and intermarriage makes use of some genes/alleles risky predictors of origin. Such predictions by there very nature have some risk and are not always reproducible.
Very importantly though, it is important not muddy the waters by somehow linking DNA genealogy and medical genomics. These are both very important fields, especially the medical genomics field, with over 20 companies entering the market place. There is no doubt that both fields must have competent companies but the implications of a missed or in correct diagnoses by a medical genomics company is far different from the tracing of one’s genealogy by the use of DNA. We must separate medical genetics from the recreational pursuit of ancestry through DNA. Both require good science and competent practitioners and there are such companies in each field. Let us not punish these companies and there customers by over zealous regulation. The American Society of Human Genetics needs to work and develop close cooperation between all interested parties.
I urge consumers to examine companies and find those with trained population geneticists, statisticians and those with genealogy training, before purchasing tests and services. One such company, FamilyTreeDNA, is a leader in the industry and its results are based on good science. FamilyTreeDNA uses population geneticists and world recognized scientists on its Scientific Board and endeavors to use only the most proven methods in its genealogy work. It offers further services to ensure customers receive results that are specific to the tests they have ordered and not unfounded predictions of race or specific geographical origin. Undoubtedly other companies with equally well trained scientists and motives also exist. All qualified parties and organizations should work together such that the public is educated in its pursuit of knowledge and its trust is well founded.
Max Rothschild, PhD
Iowa State University
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