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Tufts University School of Medicine

Pulling Back the Curtain on DNA Ancestry Tests

“Almost 50 percent of the firms that sell you your ancestry information turn around and sell your genetic information to some other company,” said Sheldon Krimsky. Photo: Ingimage
Friday, January 26, 2018 - 7:00pm

For my family this past holiday season, the most heated discussion was not generated from the usual suspects (politics or sibling dynamics), but rather from a Secret Santa gift: a 23andMe genetics testing kit given by an aunt to her niece. The kit’s premise is that by sending in a saliva sample, you can find out how much of your DNA hails from different parts of the world.

The niece was thrilled. She said that, being half African American, she longed to know what region of Africa her ancestors had come from. But she and other family members voiced concerns about whether her genetic information and material would be sold to the highest bidder, to be used for research—or worse.

No one in the family understood all the ins and outs of ancestry DNA tests like 23andMe, so I took our questions to Sheldon Krimsky, the Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and an adjunct professor in public health and community medicine at Tufts. Krimsky, author of Genetic Justice and board chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics, recently co-wrote “Ancestry DNA Testing and Privacy: A Consumer Guide” [PDF].

For consumers, the most important thing is to “make sure you’re prepared for surprise, whether it’s a correct or incorrect one,” he said. “Are you an odd mixture? Probably; most of us are. Ancestry tests are trying to give people a simple answer to what chances are was a much more complex past.”

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