Reporter’s DNA Ancestry Tests ‘Caught Me Off Guard’

By Christine Willmsen
The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) How accurate are these DNA ancestry tests, and what are the pitfalls of using them to learn about our race, ethnicity and heritage?

The Seattle Times

In the quest to know more about ourselves, some are fortunate enough to scour through black-and-white family photos and listen to stories about ancestors from generations ago. Others hit dead ends because slavery, war or adoption have made it impossible to trace their roots.

Now millions of people are spending money on mail-order DNA tests to discover their genetic makeup as a way of understanding more about their history.

In ads on television and in our Facebook feeds, DNA companies like Ancestry.com promise to “uncover your ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about your unique family history” with a DNA test.

But how accurate are these tests, and what are the pitfalls of using them to learn about our race, ethnicity and heritage?

I was skeptical of the accuracy of DNA ancestry tests, based on conversations I’d had with scientists, so I had my own DNA tested by two companies. Then I dug deep into my own background to determine their validity.

I chose the popular Utah-based Ancestry.com, which also connects subscribers to distant relatives, and Ohio-based DNA Diagnostic Center, which operates homedna.com.

DNA companies measure a minuscule percentage of the human genome and determine results by comparing someone’s DNA to a proprietary group of samples they have collected. Depending on the makeup of those samples, DNA companies will miss some regions and populations of the world and overrepresent others in their pool.

The Seattle Times paid $199 and I mailed a swab of skin cells from the inside of my mouth to DNA Diagnostic Center.
It measured 144 markers that show genetic differences among four populations: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and Native Americans.

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