By McKenna Middleton | Opinion Editor
Commercials for Ancestry and DNA tests suggest such services help people discover who they really are. They tell customers to spit in a vial to unlock untold personal genealogical data based on an analysis their genetic makeup. These tests bring new challenges to fields ranging from sociology to politics to medicine and cybersecurity.
Baylor sociology doctoral candidate Edwin Eschler has studied ancestry DNA tests and has even taken tests himself. Eschler said these tests operate by comparing the DNA of people with unknown heritage to people with known heritage.
“Essentially, they’ve tested people already who know their ancestry who have very clear lineages going back to specific places. And so they take those groups’ mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA and compare that and look for markers that are similar between those people and people who don’t necessarily know their ancestry,” Eschler said.
Although most of these tests use the same technological processes, their aims can differ, Eschler said. Services like Ancestry.com compare historical records and DNA to attach the user with individuals who share genetic markers and historical backgrounds. In contrast, services like 23andMe started out looking for health indicators like genetic markers for certain diseases. In fact, in April 2017, FDA authorized 23andMe as the first direct-to-consumer tests to provide information on an individual’s genetic predisposition to 10 diseases or conditions like Parkinson’s disease and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Eschler said these differences can draw people to the tests for either personal geneological research or to learn more about the health factors in their DNA.
“So on the ancestry side, it goes a little bit deeper than DNA because they also have self-reported historical data that they can compare,” Eschler said. “Whereas other services, most of what they can offer you is the global regions where your family is from historically.”
The accuracy of these tests is always increasing as the pool of people who know their ancestry grows, making it easier for service providers to identify where someone came from. Eschler said when he took the test a second time, his results differed and refined because that pool of DNA samples had grown as a result of the popularity of these services.
Eschler said these tests can have sociological implications since they reveal the geographic regions from which a person is descended.
“It becomes somewhat of an issue where it’s possible that people will use their genetic background as an excuse to say, ‘No, no, no, it’s okay that I have these opinions of black people because I have African ancestry,’ even though their day-to-day lived experience is not the same,” Eschler said.
At the same time, knowing more about your ancestry and geographic heritage can be a unifying force, too, Eschler.
“It gives us our larger places and says look, we all share DNA. We all have a common ancestry. And beyond that, it also places us in the world. Because there are some people that cannot know their history,” Eschler said.
The implications of genetic testing for racial markers came up in recent political controversy when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren publicized the results of a DNA test indicating her Cherokee ancestry. She did so in response to President Donald Trump’s challenges that she was lying about her heritage for political gain.
“I won’t sit quietly for [President Donald Trump’s] racism, so I took a test,” Warren wrote in a tweet.
However, Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation Secretary of State, said in a statement that using the test to claim connection to a tribal nation is “inappropriate and wrong.”
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship,” Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation.”
Warren responded on Twitter that she was seeking to reveal her family history, not lay claim to tribal citizenship or affiliation.
Joseph Brown, associate professor & director of the Public Internship Program who teaches Minority and Ethnic Group Politics, said the debate boils down to who should determine what it means to be Native American. Brown said each tribe determines its own membership and what criteria it will use to determine their eligibility.
“The DNA test and her using the DNA test to self identify undermined the authority of the tribe to determine who is and who is not Cherokee,” Brown said. “There are many things that go into determining who is a member of a tribe and DNA is something relatively new, and I have not come across any indications that they use DNA. What is used is blood quantum. That seems to be the standard test.”
Brown also said he didn’t see Warren evoking the DNA test for purposes of strategic identity politics, but rather to to assert her public integrity and remove the perception that she was being truthful in her heritage. While the heat from her video announcing the DNA results has subsided, Brown said the video may be brought up by political opponents in 2020 if Warren decides to run for president.
MEDICINE AND PRIVACY
Beyond finding out more details about ancestry based on DNA samples, services like 23andMe also sell DNA data to researchers. According to its website, 23andMe has more than 5 million customers, of which over 80 percent of our customers have opted-in to participate in research.
“On the medical side, this generates a massive database for researchers to go through,” Eschler said. “Genetic anomalies like immunity to diseases can be researched and the health products of their genetics can be studied … The potential applications for medical research, as long as it isn’t abused, are just through the roof.”
The issue, Eschler said, is that companies are often not up-front about where customers’ genetic information goes.
“It’s really important to read that stuff though, because some companies are more discriminating than others on who they’ll give it to. For instance, some companies will only share it with researchers, and they’ve explicitly said they will never share this with advertisers or insurance companies. Some companies actually have not specified that they won’t share the information with insurance people,” Eschler said.
As it stands, insurance rates are based on self-provided medical histories. However, Eschler said if insurance companies had access to genetic profiles, they could spike rates based on genetic predispositions to disease.
“You might never have any of these genes be triggered, but that won’t stop insurance companies from spiking their rates for anybody that has certain genetic markers,” Eschler said.
On Wednesday, a panel of cybersecurity experts from the healthcare industry spoke at Baylor’s Cyber Day about the importance of protecting personal medical data. They said the increased popularity of DNA tests could have larger implications for healthcare privacy.
“Somewhere that data is being maintained, and it’s information that most people would find extremely emotional and personal and sensitive around race and ethnicity and things like that that we would normally never bring up, but all of this data is being compiled and maintained out there. It’s shocking to me how prolific they have become, and people don’t think about the risk associated with it,” said A. Michael Smith of PwC, an audit and assurance, consulting and tax services company.
At the same time, reappropriating the data collected from these testing services could move the medical field in a trailblazing direction, said Richard M. Seidner of Splunk Corporation.
“Any article you read today about the direction of healthcare is all centered around personalized medicine — and that’s really the key concept of personalized medicine is the ability to map these treatments to the individual. The only way to do that is to create the link between clinical data, between the actual events that happen within the hospital, in the doctor’s office, with the genetic profile of the person,” Seidner said. “What they’re really learning is based on the genetic makeup of that individual, treatment programs should be different.”