Genealogist urges users to take consumer DNA kits with a grain of salt

Genealogist urges users to take consumer DNA kits with a grain of salt

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - You’ve likely seen dozens of advertisements plugging DNA kits as the perfect holiday gift this year. But before you send off your saliva, there are a few things you should know.

They've become wildly popular. Consumer DNA tests promise to unveil the secrets of your origin, the mysteries of your past.

“People think, 'Ok, I’m Irish, but how much Irish? I am German. How German?’ So, these tests, at least to some extent, tell you that information,” explained LSU Health Genetics and Precision Medicine Dr. Lucio Miele.

Miele doesn’t believe consumer DNA tests tell the whole story, but that’s not to say he hasn’t bought one.

"Italy, Germany, France, England and Greece. So, I basically have the whole Roman empire in my DNA, which makes sense," said Miele.

Dr. Miele explains genomes are made up of three billion letters, and the variation between individuals is only about .1 percent. While there are markers spread throughout your DNA indicating where it came from, the accuracy depends on how many markers are examined. In these kits, Dr. Miele said it’s not that many.

“You can say Western Europe, but can you say Alsace? That’s a little more complicated,” said Miele.

What’s more, Miele said any information you receive about being predisposed to a certain condition or disease should be taken with a grain of salt.

"You want to find out whether you have certain variances that predisposes you to a certain disease, you actually have to sequence the DNA. That's not what these tests do. They look at individual spots one at a time using a different technique. They don't actually read through the DNA," Miele explained.

It's like buying the Cliff's Notes instead of reading the whole book.

Even so, genetic genealogists estimate interest in these consumer kits has skyrocketed from five million sold last year to an estimated 22 million sold this year.

Yet, some experts say the mountains of incoming data raise another concern.

“History has told us that, typically, companies are fairly bad at protecting data like this,” said Sans Tech Institute Dean of Research Johannes Ullrich. “And giving data away, you’re never really sure about how it will be used in the future.”

Cyber security professionals say companies are building a large target for attackers that will be difficult to defend.

Industry leaders like AncestryDNA and 23andMe tout privacy and security, indicating they’ll only give out your data to other individuals, research groups and pharmaceutical companies with your written consent.

“I would read that very carefully, making sure what exactly one is consenting four. In my personal case, I said no to sharing individual level and information and no to perpetual storage of my DNA because I have no idea what will be made of that information,” explained Miele.

One way to guarantee your information is safe is by joining a government or university funded research study or database like the one the National Institute of Health is launching in partnership with LSU Health Sciences called “All of Us." It’s free to participate and the data collected is protected and encrypted. To join the mailing list email joinallofus@lsuhsc.edu.

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