A few months ago it was top news that DNA samples would be taken for evidence collection for investigation of serious crimes, and all the evening shows went just a little crazy analyzing all the things could go wrong in the process.
Even my beloved level-headed thinkers were just a little off and lacked just a little too much depth in covering the story.
Here’s just one example:
Chris Hayes: “No more secrets. Who you are, down to the very molecular
fiber of your being could find itself on a spreadsheet that 10 years or 20
years from now, the Chinese government or some rogue terrorist, or some 19-
year-old hacker kid is going to get their hands on. And who knows what
they`re going to do with it?
“Because the answer to the question, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ in the
21st century increasingly is a resounding and terrifying no.”
Well, that’s not really true.
You see, a basic DNA sample taken by the police and sent to the lab won’t uncover all the deep, dark ‘Gattaca’-type or ‘Brave New World’ inspired secrets that some will lead you to believe.
I spoke via email with prominent genealogist Megan Smolenyak to help me understand exactly how DNA is analyzed.
What I thought was obvious, which clearly is not, is there’s a difference between types of DNA testing. Smolenyak said the three main types of genealogical testing are Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal.
She said, “For the most part, genetic genealogy is something of a match-making game. You get tested, your results wind up in a database, and you hope to find folks who share your Y-DNA or mtDNA signature or overlap with your autosomal DNA. But you can also learn some general information without any comparison. For instance, with autosomal testing, you can get a rough breakdown of your heritage – % Euro, % African, % Asian – or more specific, depending on where you test – and with the other two types, you can get a rough idea of how and when that specific branch (i.e., your direct paternal or direct maternal one) migrated out of Africa.”
Okay, so that’s the breakdown of how it works for the family tree curious, but what about for criminal investigations?
First, she said, the databases are different: “With criminal ones (e.g., CODIS), the intention is to zero in on a single person. With genealogical ones, the objective is to find similar people – folks with the same Y-DNA signature or overlapping chromosomal segments or whatever. So one is exclusionary while the other is inclusionary.”
Not only that, though, the scientific analysis is totally different.
“ODIS focuses mainly on autosomal STRs (sometimes mtDNA is also done, but inconsistently so and many people can share the same mtDNA signature), whereas genealogists use Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA,” she said. “Autosomal tests for genealogical purposes focus primarily on SNPs, rather than STRs.”
She said it’s like comparing apples and oranges.
“You can’t use someone’s CODIS results obtained after an arrest to run against genealogical databases to look for relatives because you’re dealing with two different types of data. It would sort of be like trying to search Ancestry.com using numbers instead of letters in the search fields.”
Rand Paul expressed his strange concerns at a recent campaign event for Ken Cucinelli. The Associated Press in Lynchberg, Virginia:
“In your lifetime, much of your potential – or lack thereof – can be known simply by swabbing the inside of your cheek,” Paul said to a packed sporting arena on Liberty’s campus. “Are we prepared to select out the imperfect among us?”
Some states ran eugenics programs that sterilized those considered defective in the 1900s, though all were abandoned by the 1970s after scientists discredited the idea.
To that concern, Smolenyak said, “Folks are worried about these databases, but if I want your DNA, it would be much easier for me to snag your soda can when you’re done. The trick is that I then have to have the means to do something with it – and if I’m just snagging it that way, I need some way of extracting a sample. And then what kind of analysis am I going to do with it? Am I (* shudder *) going to find out that you have some distant cousins out there?
“Honestly, in my experience, most of us are still more or less genetically illiterate at this point. Even most of what we can learn medically (I participate in one such project) mostly reinforces what we already know from researching our roots (though I have high hopes for what will eventually be possible).”
Smolenyak is not totally unconcerned, though, and neither should anyone else be.
“My long-term concern about this would be the corporate world. Could they somehow get a hold of our data and medical analysis and then use it to claim “pre-existing conditions” before they even exist,” she said. “But again, I’m not losing sleep over this as that kind of scenario is a long way off, and am participating in a medical project because I think it’s important for some of us to be pioneers so we can learn what we can learn.”
Melissa Harris-Perry covered such concerns in show this year on breast cancer and hereditary conditions in a brilliant and thorough show that is well worth a watch. She said:
“You thought your body belonged to you? Think again. Because every copy of
each BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene in every cell of my body and yours belongs to a
private company. So, does all the information those genes may be able to
tell us about our health.
“And while those genes are just hanging out inside your cells doing what
genes do, they are busy making myriad genetics a lot of money. The patents
give the company the sole right to BRCA analysis that Angelina Jolie test.
And along with an estimated one million people have decided to take it in
the past decade since myriad was awarded the patents. And with no
competition, myriad is free to set a single price for women who want to
find out if they have a mutation. Any woman wanting to take the test,
should be prepared to shell out $3,000.”
In the long run, I’m inclined to listen to experts such as Megan Smolenyak and ignore sky-is-falling weirdness from the likes of the Paul family.
“DNA is powerful stuff, and yes, we should be thoughtful as we proceed with it,” said Smolenyak. “But we shouldn’t let all sorts of worst-case scenario fears stop us from unlocking this tremendous resource to see what we can do with it.”