The quest to understand who we are and where we come from has long depended on family lore. But when few relatives or traces of history are available, the search can leave the seekers feeling lost. Now, consumer genetics companies are stepping in where families can not. Popularized by US and British television shows featuring celebrities who discover their hidden past, low-cost DNA test kits are offering to help the masses define, or redefine, their identity.
With the click of a mouse and $100, customers will be sent a test tube to spit into and mail back to the company. The saliva is used to sequence a person’s genes and reveal where on Earth they came from.
Countless videos of dramatic ancestry revelations are streaming on YouTube and Facebook, with DNA testers processing the emotions of discovering they are not who they thought they were. For some, it brings relief and a greater sense of self, while others feel let down either by the science or the story they were sold.
Online ancestry DNA tests are changing the scientific and social landscape, but what happens to our biodata in the hands of commercial companies?
Outfits like AncestryDNA and 23andMe are earning millions of dollars from people anxious to uncover their hidden histories. They are also collecting big data from vials of saliva customers are mailing in to find their roots.
In this second half of The Stream’s two-part examination of the DNA ancestry craze, we discuss how making DNA tests more mainstream could bring unintended consequences to race relations, health policies and policing.