Sunday, 2 June 2019

The end of public participation in the Genographic Project

It is the end of an era. The National Geographic Genographic Project has announced that the public participation phase of the project has been closed as of 31st May 2019.  It is no longer possible to order a Genographic kit, but existing orders will be fulfilled within a limit timeframe with the date varying depending on which kit was ordered. There is further information on the Genographic Project website:

The Genographic Project has provided a detailed set of FAQs:

As of today's date, the Genographic Project has sold 997,222 kits in 140 countries.

There are no doubt many kits still waiting to be returned and it's possible that the project will eventually pass the one million milestone.

This was an almost inevitable development after Rupert Murdoch bought out the media arm of the National Geographic and ended its not-for-profit status. The new for-profit arm was re-named as National Geographic Partners and was went into partnership with Disney in March this year. The National Geographic Society continues to operate as a non-profit organisation.

The Genographic Project was not without controversy. See for example the essay The brave new era of human genetics by Hans-Jurgen Bandelt, Yong-Gang Yao, Martin Richards and Antonio Salas published in 2008. The Native American researcher Kim Tallbear published a critique Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project in 2007. Many population geneticists were critical of the fancy Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroup stories provided as customer reports. Ancient DNA testing has now shown that we cannot use the DNA of living people to make inferences about past populations.

However, many genealogists first discovered the joys of genetic genealogy by testing at the Genographic Project. After transferring their DNA results to FamilyTreeDNA many people were then inspired to start their own surname projects, haplogroup projects and geographical projects.

The Genographic Project collected DNA from nearly 100,000 people from indigenous populations around the world. I understand they were waiting for the costs of whole genome sequencing to come down before starting to analyse all the data. This is a valuable resource and the scientific research will continue so we can look forward to many more interesting publications.

Anyone who has tested at the Genographic Project can transfer their data to the FamilyTreeDNA database:

Note, however, that Helix kits, which were sold exclusively in the US, cannot be transferred.

Genographic transfers will have the kit number prefixed by the letter N. Judging by the kit numbers in my projects at FTDNA, well over 200,000 people have already transferred their Genographic results to FTDNA.

When transferring to FamilyTreeDNA you need to be aware that if you participate in relative matching the company is now automatically opting all customers into Law Enforcement Matching. This means that DNA profiles uploaded by law enforcement agencies in the US and their representatives can access your name, your e-mail address and the amount of DNA you share with the the law enforcement kits. Law enforcement matching is not restricted to US citizens but applies to the entire database regardless of country of residence. If you wish to opt out of Law Enforcement Matching you can do so from the Privacy and Sharing Page. If you wish to understand more about these issues you can read my article for Forensic Science International on Using genetic genealogy databases in missing persons cases and to develop suspect leads  in violent crimes.

With thanks to Mats Ahlgren and Paul R Smith in the ISOGG Facebook group. See also Paul's blog post National Geographic Geno Project DNA ending.

Further reading
Genographic Project prepares to shut down consumer database by Roberta Estes, DNAeXplained

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Consuming genetics: ethical and legal considerations of new technologies - videos online

The Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School recently held their annual conference which was devoted to the subject  of “Consuming genetics: ethical and legal considerations of new technologies”. They very kindly recorded all the talks and have made them available online. You can access them from this link:

I've only had time to watch a few of the talks so far but so far they are all of very good quality. I highly recommend that you take time to watch the very moving talk from Kif Augustine-Adams on "Generational failures of law and ethics: rape, Mormon orthodoxy, and the revelatory power of Ancestry DNA". It is a first-hand account of the disruptive power of genetic ancestry testing and the effects on families when long-held secrets are uncovered and promises of anonymity are breached.

It's also worth watching Liza Vertinsky's talk on "Genetic paparazzi vs. genetic privacy". In the UK DNA theft is illegal thanks to the Human Tissue Act passed in 2004. If you test someone's DNA without their consent you could potentially be put in prison. In the US no such laws yet exist and it is possible to test so-called "abandoned DNA" from discarded items without the individual's consent. I suspect it's only a matter of time before a celebrity's privacy is breached by testing their DNA without consent which is likely to cause a big backlash and encourage the introduction of new legislation.

I also recommend watching Natalie Ram's session on "Genetic genealogy and the problem of familial forensic identification" which is very topical in light of the current debates about law enforcement usage of genetic genealogy databases. Natalie highlights the inter-relatedness of DNA which means that informed consent becomes a non-issue. Even if you don't want to upload your DNA to GEDmatch, if your sister exercises her right to share her DNA you could still be caught up in a criminal investigation and have your family tree and your social media accounts trawled by the police.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Using genetic genealogy databases in missing persons cases and to develop suspect leads in violent crimes

Last year I was invited by Rob Davis, an editor at Forensic Science International, to write an article about the privacy issues relating to the use of genetic genealogy in cold cases. My article "Using genetic genealogy databases in missing persons cases and to develop suspect leads in violent crimes" has gone through the peer review process and has now been published online. You can access the full article through my special author's link which will be valid until 19th July 2019:

I hope the article will educate people about all the issues involved and encourage policy makers to work on some suitable best practice guidelines to ensure that the technology can be used both effectively and responsibly.

You can see the full list of articles in the special Cold Case issue here.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

A major milestone was passed this week by AncestryDNA who announced that their "consumer DNA network has reached over 15 million completed samples".

We are seeing a rapid growth in the ancestry testing market in the UK. According to a YouGov survey last month an estimated 4.7 million Brits have already used a DNA testing service.  AncestryDNA do not give breakdowns by country but anecdotally we know that they have the largest market share in the UK and it seems likely that perhaps as many as two million Brits are already in the AncestryDNA database.

Below is the press release I received from AncestryDNA which also includes news of some updates expected later this year.
LEHI, Utah and SAN FRANCISCO, California, Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - Today Ancestry®, the global leader in family history and consumer genomics, announced its consumer DNA network has reached over 15 million completed samples. With the company’s growing network and innovative research tools, Ancestry can now provide customers with even more DNA matches, further detailed ethnicity insights, and ultimately, help more people around the globe discover their unique family story. 
“I have had a front row seat as the genetic genealogy industry has grown from a spark of an idea to a global phenomenon that has made statements like ‘My DNA says I am...’ commonplace in grocery stores, office buildings and family dinners,” said Diahan Southard, founder and author of Your DNA Guide and genetic genealogy educator. “Ancestry has been at the forefront of innovation and played a central role in this growth by making science exciting for everyone and providing meaningful insights into our origins and relationships. Every researcher knows that the more data we have, the more complete our story. With a network this large, coupled with millions of digitized records, everyone is sure to find out more about their own story.” 
“Ancestry is honored to play a role in empowering the journeys of personal discovery for 15 million people around the world,” said Cathy Ball, Chief Scientific Officer, Ancestry. “The size of this community is a true sign of how deeply important it is for people to connect and learn about their past. As the network continues to grow, we can deliver even more value to our members, including more granular insights about heritage, and provide compelling new paths to learn about ourselves using genetics.” 
The growing AncestryDNA network, combined with cutting-edge technology and content additions, gives new and existing Ancestry members ongoing value and new, rich information with their DNA results: 
New Communities: As the AncestryDNA network grows, Ancestry scientists are able to refine and discover more communities using Ancestry’s patented Genetic Communities™ technology – a proprietary technology that can connect people through their DNA to the places their ancestors lived and the paths they followed to get there over the past 75-300 years. Ancestry recently released 94 new and updated AncestryDNA communities for customers of African American and Afro-Caribbean descent, with even more communities launching soon. 
Refined Ethnicity Insights: As more people take the AncestryDNA test, Ancestry scientists are able to add additional samples to the reference panel, paving the way for more refined insights for members about their genetically inherited ethnicity. Thanks to the largest consumer DNA network, AncestryDNA is preparing another update for later this year which will include new ethnic regions, providing members with a more detailed view of their heritage. 
Even More Matches and Customer Discoveries: The size of the AncestryDNA network directly increases the quality and quantity of discoveries people can make using tools such as DNA Matches, and one of our newest features, ThruLines™. ThruLines (currently in BETA) can show common ancestors that members may share with their DNA matches and give a clear and simple view of how all matches are connected through that shared ancestor. With this innovation, combined with millions of Ancestry member trees, family tree building has never been easier, and the discoveries people can make are unprecedented. Additionally, now that the AncestryDNA network has over 15 million members, each AncestryDNA customer receives an average of 50,000 total matches – and that number grows by 2%-5% each month as more people join the network.