Enough to make you spit? Why you should steer clear of DNA-based genealogy test kits

For his latest novel, gripping family drama Don’t Ask, author Paul Carroll has created an original and timely take on the classic whodunnit involving a home DNA testing kit.

As he reveals, the idea for his book came from personal experience. While things for his family didn’t spiral tragically out of control like it does for the protagonists of his story, it made him realise that DNA testing may not be a wise route to head down.

By Paul Carroll

Like many Reader’s Digest readers I was intrigued at the untold DNA secrets to be revealed through the simple mechanic of spitting in a test tube and sending it off to be analysed. 

Why, within a few short weeks, the mysteries of the past would be revealed – including my family connections, my family tree, and where in the word different branches of my family emanated from.

What could possibly go wrong?  After all, it was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it?  Millions of other people had done it, and it would be a shame to waste that unusual birthday or Christmas present somebody had thoughtfully bought for you. 

But, as I’ll share with you, a closer inspection of the realities behind these types of kits left me reeling as I discovered what people were signing up to with a single saliva sample and a casual tick in the terms and conditions box.

Let me backtrack here: it all started with my mother-in-law. I know that sounds like a Les Dawson joke, but bear with me. When Lesley bought an over-the-counter genealogy test kit, she had modest aspirations.  “It’ll probably tell me nothing,” and, “It might be interesting” were as far as it went. Weeks later, she had discovered the identity of her natural father – that is, a biological parent whose identity hitherto she’d had zero knowledge of her entire life.

Now, some readers might consider this to be a plus — a win.  But real life isn’t always like Long Lost Family on TV. Finding somebody you weren’t looking for creates a number of difficulties — on both sides of the fence. 

Through the genealogy site, Lesley tentatively reached out — “It looks like we have a close match” — only to be shut down immediately. The other party didn’t want to know.

Contemporary fiction author Paul Carroll has been inspired by the rise of home DNA testing kits for his new novel, Don’t Ask.

Put yourselves in their shoes. How would you feel if somebody knocked on your door — or pinged your email – and announced out of the blue that you were related?  “We share the same Dad”, they might say or, “The brother or sister you’ve grown up with isn’t actually your biological brother or sister”.  That’s a massive rock to throw in anybody’s gene pool.

Lesley, bless her, took it in her stride, and respected their wishes.  But what about the other family, now questioning everything they’d ever believed to be true, devastated at living a lie?  And as the father in this case had passed on, that truth was never going to come out. 

The enormity of that one single test, taken, as much as anything, for ‘a bit of a laugh’, set my mind racing to such an extent I used it as a jumping off point for my latest novel, Don’t Ask

Here, a DNA test kit leads to two families becoming reluctantly entwined as inconvenient truths and long-suppressed memories resurface over three generations. The book revisits the glam rock seventies, Britpop, Operation Yewtree and #metoo within its alternating past and present chapter structure.

Without revealing anything, I can say that the story doesn’t end well for the two families involved.

Worse, in researching the book, I discovered that there was far more to fear from these unregulated home DNA test kits than just the prospect of turning up an unexpected relative or two. 

At the same time that demands are being made for much tougher international controls in the field of genomics and bioethics, medical experts view the whole area of commercial DNA based genealogy test kits as ‘the Wild West’.

In France, and other countries in the world, commercial ‘DIY’ DNA kits of this nature are actually banned. ‘The preservation of family peace’ is obviously one of the concerns, but, as I found, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You may not know it but your DNA is more valuable to other people than you could possibly imagine.

First of all, companies in possession of your DNA can — and do — sell your data on to third parties. This may be for medical research but that’s no excuse if it’s without your express knowledge and approval. But that’s not all. Commercial companies are now exploring the use of DNA-based micro-targeting to sell you their wares based on your profile (and, let’s be specific here, your ethical profile).

In addition, many companies selling these kits promote the health benefits of their tests — normally in the form of highlighting any medical predispositions your DNA may reveal.  There’s no personal delivery of these bombshells; there’s no aftercare. Their advice is, if you’re worried — and who wouldn’t be — you should consult your doctor. Or, add to the burden of an already over-stretched NHS to finally find out the ‘advice’ is as reliable as a message in a fortune cookie.

The truth is, different companies use varying DNA analysis techniques and rely on their own ‘reference populations’ to generate your results. So doing a genealogy test with different companies will give you different results.

There are lots of other flashing danger signs over the use and abuse of your DNA profile:  the lack of rules over consent (including someone submitting your DNA for analysis); police access to DNA records; medical insurers using data to exclude you from policies; security from hacking (after all, if your bank details are compromised you can change your PIN and password, but you can’t change your DNA if it’s stolen).

I’m certainly not anti-science concerning all of this (far from it, in fact) as DNA analysis offers numerous benefits for society, not least in medical research.

But my advice is to leave it to established health professionals, e.g. the NHS, to take proper care of this most unique aspect of your being, as they will utilise it, under strict controls, for your benefit, not for the benefit of others.

And if you’re still intent on building that family tree, there are lots of traditional — more reliable, accurate and safer — means at your disposal, starting out with record and archive searches. 

Just don’t give your DNA away without a second thought. You could be spitting in the wind. 

Don’t Ask by Paul Carroll is out now on Amazon, priced £9.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook. Visit www.paulcarrollink.co.uk

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