What Information Can Ancestry Tests Provide To You, and What Can't They?
Nowadays, genealogical DNA tests come in various forms, with some promising to decode your ancestry and others being able to build a custom diet plan or even tell you what medications to take. And while the promises of these companies are grand and exciting, they nearly never manage to live up to them.
Here are the things that no private company can do in a legitimate way, no matter how convincing they may sound:
1. Prescribe or adjust medications
Recently, the FDA issued a warning letter to Inova Genomics Laboratory, a company that claimed they can predict a person’s response to a specific medication through genetic testing without proving to be effective.
When prescribing this or that medication, a doctor is guided by several factors, among which are blood and other test results, age, other or previous health conditions, and even things like your activity level or diet. Though genetic makeup can be one of the many considerations in choosing a therapeutic strategy, it alone cannot possibly paint the complete picture.
2. Give dietary advice
Vitagene is at least one company offering clients a custom supplement subscription and a diet and exercise plan based on your DNA to target different concerns, such as skin health and weight loss. In a 2018 study at Stanford University, these seemingly custom dietary plans were proven to be ineffective and unable to yield any weight loss benefits during a year-long trial. Like the case with medications, a fitness plan needs to tailored by taking into account many factors.
3. Tell you how susceptible you are to a certain illness
Many companies notify their clients that they are more likely to develop a specific condition because they have a certain gene in their DNA. In reality, though, genetics is more complicated than that, and not all people who have genes associated with an illness will ever develop that illness, or vice versa, some people who don’t have that gene will develop the same illness. This makes the predictive capacity of such tests extremely low.
What about ancestral predictions?
If a genetic company cannot improve your health and wellbeing, can it at least tell you where your ancestors are from? Well, kind of. Apart from the anecdotal stories about twins or even the same person getting different results not only across, but within the same company, the very claims of specific companies cast a shadow on their own reputations.
To illustrate these inconsistencies, let’s consider the story of Sigrid Johnson, whose ethnicity and origins were vastly misattributed across the 4 genetic ancestry platforms she tried. And while most of the tests she took agreed that Sigrid was part African and part South European, the percentages of these ancestries varied greatly, and one company, 23andMe, left over 30% of her genes unassigned.
Not only did one of these tests miss her African ancestry altogether, her results changed with time, with platforms such as Ancestry DNA and 23andme changing their mind about whether or not Sigrid had any ancestors from the Caucasus and if her Italian ancestry percentage was 0 or 50%.
Like Sigrid, many people find that their ancestry test results are not only inconsistent across platforms, but also change as the company updates their database, which means that you could be labeled as 50% East Asian today and 0% percent tomorrow.
Also, keep in mind that some of the companies use so-called confidence levels, which are ranges of the company’s certainty about your ancestry. In Sigrid’s case, for example, the company Ancestry DNA was 0-58% percent certain that she was African, which, needless to say, doesn’t exclude the possibility that she has no African descent at all. I am 0-58% percent certain that this kind of business strategy isn't deceitful to the customer.
What Information Can Ancestry Companies Keep or Share With Third Parties?
Now, it’s up for you to decide if you want to spend your hard-earned cash to view your approximate ancestry map, but what is really alarming is the quantity of your personal genetic information the genetic company can use. Genetic companies are private, so they don’t usually hand over their data to governmental agencies and other companies, plus they also have some minimal encryption system that protects confidentiality, but it is usually easy to trace back the client.
There were a few reported cases, however, that a genetic test company handed over the data about one of its clients to aid a criminal investigation. The first cases was published when the so-called Golden State Killer, was arrested. His identity was revealed by comparing the DNA from the crime scene not to his own, but to his cousin’s DNA, who happened to take a home ancestry test.
Whether or not you agree that the genetic company did the right thing, it remains a fact that they can use their DNA database to identify people. This means that you’re handing over your personal and unique biological data to a company that could use it for anything, much like you’re sharing your location when you’re using a navigator on your phone.
In fact, when you take the test, you give permission to the company to use and share your DNA, which is unique and is your property. As you can probably see, this is problematic both legally and morally, but the genetic ancestry industry is practically unregulated, so this is just how it is at the moment.
Are you ready to give the genetic company permission to use and resell information about your DNA in return to a cheap and largely imprecise ancestry estimate? It’s up to you. But before you go, make sure to watch this bonus video that looks into some additional concerns of at-home genetic testing.