- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

After his parents died, Malcolm Dodd began to suspect that the man he thought was his father might not have been after all. A relative came forward with a story, and the pieces seemed to fit.

His father had spent three years fighting in Southeast Asia during World War II, when Mr. Dodd was born. Some sleuthing led him to suspect his biological father might have been an American soldier stationed in Britain. Mr. Dodd — born and raised in Britain and now retired in Portugal — wanted stronger evidence.

That’s when he turned to DNAPrint Genomics Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. He sent the company a cotton swab he had brushed along the inside of his cheek to collect some of his DNA. What he got back wasn’t ironclad proof. If anything, it was even more surprising: Some of his ancestors were likely to have been American Indians.

“I expected I would be 100 percent European,” Mr. Dodd says. The result added to his conviction that his father was an American, and since then, he has visited California to follow more leads.

Among the many spinoffs from the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project — a government-funded effort to sequence and map all the humangenes—is a new ancestry industry.

Companies are using DNA markers passed from generation to generation to let people peer into the past to learn their genetic roots. The DNA data, rarely conclusive on their own, need proper interpretation to be understood fully. And while the for-profit nature of such research raises ethical issues for some, the availability of such tools is proving alluring for many.

In the United States, for example, some people are eager to prove they have American Indian ancestry in order to join a tribe, many of which are growing wealthy from casino revenues.

Others are fascinated to learn of hitherto unknown ties to the past. However, in a country where “one drop” of ancestral African blood once meant the risk of enslavement, news of DNA origins can come as a shock.

Last fall, Samuel Richards, who teaches a race-relations course at Penn State University, arranged for 100 of his students to take the DNA test. About 20 percent were “very surprised” to find out they had a mixed heritage, he says, and about 20 percent more were “somewhat surprised.”

The DNA test helped the students “see outside the race box,” Mr. Richards says. “We generally think that there are these set and well-demarcated boxes, when race is, in fact, really very fluid and changing.”

Sometimes, the tests raise more questions than answers. Mr. Richards’ wife, Laurie, who also took the test, found that her ancestry was 13 percent American Indian, 87 percent European. That was odd because she had traced her ancestors back to Poland and Ireland and had no knowledge of any American Indians in her family tree. It led her to interview older relatives to try to solve the mystery.

The case also illustrates the limits of DNA testing, says Mark Shriver, a professor of anthropology at Penn State University and a consultant for DNAPrint. American Indians are believed to have emigrated from Central Asia thousands of years ago. These same Central Asians also migrated into Eastern Europe, meaning that her “American Indian” DNA could have come from there, he says. Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews also may show signifi-cant percentages of “American Indian” ancestry for the same reason. Eventually, a more sophisticated test will be able to sort out these differences, Mr. Shriver adds.

So far, DNAPrint has analyzed more than 10,000 samples at a cost of $219 per test. Clients learn what percentage of their ancestral DNA is from four broad population groups: Indo-European, sub-Saharan African, East Asian or American Indian. About one-third of clients test as 100 percent from one of these groups; another third show statistically insignificant blending, and a final third show substantial mixtures. A second test can break down the broad category of Indo-European ancestry into Northern European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian subgroups. Other new tests may follow.

Some observers are skeptical. In a paper in Nature Reviews Genetics last summer, Mr. Shriver and colleague Rick Kittles at Ohio State University warned that creating DNA-based personalized genetic histories is “far from being an exact science.”

They urged firms offering genetic histories to provide background materials to help clients understand what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from the statistics. The authors said firms also should urge clients to combine DNA evidence with knowledge gleaned from conventional sources, such as family histories and public records as part of a “mosaic approach.”

Earlier this month, the National Geographic Society and IBM Corp. announced a plan to take 100,000 blood samples from indigenous populations around the world to build an ancestral DNA database. The Genographic Project is expected to take five years and cost $40 million. Part of the cost is expected to be offset by charging interested people $100 to learn about their paternal or maternal lineage.

The collected data may help answer questions such as: Did Alexander the Great’s army leave behind a genetic trail as it conquered much of the ancient world? Which humans first colonized India? Did Homo sapiens interbreed with Neanderthals or possibly with Homo erectus?

“We see this as the ‘moon shot’ of anthropology, using genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about the connections and differences that make up the human species,” said Spencer Wells, the project leader, in announcing the effort.

Some biologists and human geneticists not connected with the project say it will face ethical and scientific hurdles.

“I’m very concerned — not because I think it’s a bad idea to study human genetic diversity. I actually think it’s a great thing,” says Sarah Tishkoff, a biology professor at the University of Maryland who has done extensive research in Africa. “But it has to be thought out extremely carefully.”

Who will profit from the sale of the ancestry test kits, and will indigenous people be compensated?

“I’m personally very skeptical about what these ancestry kits can tell people,” she says. “If this is not done properly in an ethical, careful manner, it can backfire, and it’s going to get people very angry and upset and make it very difficult for anybody [else] in the field to do [this kind of] research.”

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