By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer
REGION – DNA testing as a means to learn more about your ancestry and family origins has been on the rise in recent years. Inquisitive individuals yearning to know more about their roots are turning to genetic genealogy and sites such as Ancestry, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA to help fill in the blanks on those branches.
To what can we attribute this surge in popularity in DNA tests and what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a genetic genealogy approach to family research?
Melanie McComb, a professional genealogist with American Ancestors & New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston explained that there are three types of DNA tests utilized in genetic genealogy: autosomal, Y-DNA and mitochondrial.
Autosomal is the primary DNA testing method and the one commonly seen in advertisements for the companies listed above. It allows a person to learn about both their mom and dad’s side. The Y-DNA test, as the name implies, researches only the Y chromosome or the male line. A mitochondrial test explores a mother’s direct line and can be traced back thousands of years, according to McComb.
Why genetic genealogy is trending
A major factor spurring the upward trend in genetic genealogy is affordability. “The cost is significantly lower than when they were first offered,” said McComb. What once was thousands of dollars can be purchased today for between $60 and $75.
Michael Brophy, a professional genealogical researcher, heir search specialist and lecturer based in Abington, echoed those sentiments, maintaining that because testing is considerably less expensive now, that it’s expanded the interest in, and accessibility of, genealogy.
“You can get a fairly high-quality DNA test for under a hundred dollars,” he said.
Brophy noted that another big driver contributing to the surge in DNA testing has been the technological advances and the improvement in the accuracy of the science.
But mostly it’s that burning curiosity that motivates us to delve into our past. “I think it’s always been a part of genealogy where people want to know about themselves,” remarked Brophy. “That’s the general driver I think. It heightens a sense of identity of oneself as well as it helps build connections with other people too. It builds family connections, which is very meaningful to people.”
Genetic genealogy has also become more pervasive in our society, added McComb, and is frequently used or referenced in TV shows and movies. She cited examples such as “Long Lost Family” and “The Genetic Detective” that have brought DNA testing into our popular culture.
It may in part be this mainstream appeal that has influenced the trend of people buying DNA tests as a holiday gift for family and friends. Additionally, more people are using genetic genealogy to determine their immigrant origins and trace their ethnicity, noted McComb.
Pros and cons of DNA testing
There is some overlap between the benefits and pitfalls of using genetic genealogy to research your family lineage, according to Brophy and McComb.
Once you’ve exhausted other sources such as print archives and online collections, genetic genealogy can be a great tool to use, stated McComb. “It helps you go beyond the paper trail. It helps people come to terms with family mysteries.”
Commented Brophy, “It can help you make new discoveries,” adding with a laugh, “Some of which you may not want to discover.”
For example, DNA testing can be an asset for people who are adopted to find out about their birth parents. But unlocking family secrets can have its drawbacks depending on what is exposed in the process.
“This is when the skeletons are coming out of the closet,” cautioned McComb. “Don’t expect to have nothing come up.”
You might discover that the father who raised you is not your biological father, or learn that you have half-brothers or sisters—a “non-paternal event” as it’s called, said Brophy, where you identify siblings you didn’t know you had.
Affairs and adoptions that before lay hidden, might suddenly be revealed, he asserted.
“Somebody doesn’t know that they’re adopted or something like that, and then they go into a genealogy database and find out they’re related to some people that they didn’t think they were related to.”
McComb said DNA testing can also be beneficial for learning more about your family medical history. However, she qualified that it’s important not to misinterpret the results. If you find out that you have a family history of a medical condition like diabetes or cancer, you should consult with medical professionals before taking any drastic steps. It might just require a simple lifestyle adjustment achieved through diet and exercise.
One con of genetic genealogy is the concern over the potential loss of privacy. “Some people feel that that is a huge disadvantage,” said Brophy. “Because you’re basically giving away your genetic material to a commercial company. Which might have consequences for you down the road.”
Use in forensics
Genetic genealogy can also be used as a forensics tool. Brophy cited the famous case of the Golden State Killer, in which preserved DNA was used to crack an unsolved cold case in California. A former police officer named Joseph James DeAngelo had committed more than 50 rapes and 12 murders between 1974 and 1986 and eluded capture for decades back before the advent of genetic genealogy.
As technological advancements in genetic genealogy improved, investigators ultimately used DNA found at an old crime scene to trace the likely suspect through an online DNA database called GEDmatch that performs genealogical research. In 2020 DeAngelo was convicted of 11 counts of murder and kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison.
Prior to DNA testing and online collections, researching one’s family history involved a much more labor-intensive, boots-on-the-ground approach including poring over documents and letters in courthouses, repositories and historical societies and scanning microfilm at libraries, said McComb. The proliferation of genetic genealogy sites and innovative breakthroughs that have driven down cost makes learning about our ancestry easier—just be careful not to approach it with rose-colored glasses.
“I think DNA is a wonderful tool,” she mused. “But you uncover the good with the bad.”