26 May 2015

Is genetic genealogy being over-hyped?

In "The Business of Genetic Ancestry" broadcast on 26 May 2015 BBC Radio 4's Adam Rutherford took on the conflict between science and some businesses in genetic genealogy.

The programme was based on interviews with Mark Jobling (University of Leicester), Mark Thomas (University College London), Debbie Kennett (ISOGG and UCL), Julia Bell (client), Joanna Mountain (23andMe), Eran Elhaik (Sheffield University) and John Geraint (Green Bay Media).

The target of the scientists was claims about pinpointing origins of individuals based in DNA analysis. Today we don't expect everyone in any particular location to have a common unique DNA signature and the same has been true through much of human history.

Aim was taken at DNA satnav, see this Wired article and the peer reviewed article in Nature Communications.  US client Julie Matthews revealed that her test using this technique placed her origin in the Humber estuary. See Debbie Kennett's critique here. Those of us with mixed ancestry don't need much convincing the concept is fundamentally flawed. Eran Elhaik, the developer, has subsequently distanced himself from the commercial application and refining the technique.

The most pointed criticism was of DNA Cymru and the programme Who are the Welsh broadcast last earlier this year on the Welsh language TV station S4C. Read Debbie Kennett's critique here. A particular target was the claim that 3% of the current Welsh population could be DNA-associated as "Ancient Welsh." As program producer John Geraint explained when asked about the lack of  a scientific peer reviewed basic for the claim the technique is commercially confidential. DNA Cymru spokespersons had declined to participate in the program.

It's notable that three of the people involved, Mark Thomas, Debbie Kennett and presenter Adam Rutherford are associated with University College London.

The program is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05vy4kb.


Debbie Kennett said...

The programme is now available on the iPlayer:


Gail B said...

At lot of us have appeared to be suspicious of the DNA for-profit scams, and these fun-to-read citiques are much appreciated.