Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Ancestry Y-DNA and mtDNA samples have not been destroyed after all

Ancestry announced back in June 2014 that they would be retiring their Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. Ken Chahine, Ancestry's Senior Vice-President, wrote at the time that the company had taken the decision to destroy the Y-DNA and mtDNA samples:
"Second, as part of the decision to retire Y-DNA and mtDNA tests we were faced with another difficult decision of what to do with the customer samples. On the one hand, we understand the value of these samples to many of you. On the other hand, we take customer privacy seriously and, regrettably, the legal framework used to collect these samples does not allow us to retest or transfer those samples. Practically speaking, many of these samples are also no longer useable. For example, many of the swabs were exhausted of genetic material during our testing or the sample may be past its shelf life. In the end we made the difficult decision to destroy the samples and are committed to trying to find solutions to these roadblocks for future products." (Source: http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2014/06/12/comments-on-y-dna-and-mtdna-tests)
There was widespread concern in the genetic genealogy community at the potential loss of this valuable resource. The decision was particularly hard on those people with deceased relatives in the AncestryDNA database. Many people wrote to Ancestry to ask for the samples to be retained and a petition was started asking them to reconsider. A number of leading genetic genealogists and bloggers also pleaded directly with Ancestry to ask them to change their minds. Nevertheless, it was widely assumed that once Ancestry's Y-DNA and mtDNA database was taken down at the end of September 2014, the DNA samples would be destroyed at the same time. However, I'd heard unofficially that the samples hadn't been destroyed after all so I asked Mike Mulligan, International Product Manager of Ancestry.com, for clarification on the issue. This is the official response that he sent me from the AncestryDNA team:
AncestryDNA stores DNA samples in a secure facility designed specifically for the preservation of DNA. Though we no longer offer Mitochondrial and Y-DNA specific DNA tests, Ancestry continues to store the DNA samples collected from the past. We are currently in discussion as to the future of the stored Y-DNA and Mitochondrial samples and take this responsibility seriously. Ancestry understands the value of the tests to family history research and for this reason, members will continue to have access to their digital results by downloading the file from the AncestryDNA results page. This feature will be available for the foreseeable future. 
When a decision is made, Ancestry will work to inform customers affected by these changes. In the meantime, be assured that Ancestry is working toward the best outcome for the Mitochondrial and Y-DNA samples.
It's reassuring to know that Ancestry have listened to their customers, and I hope that a satisfactory solution can be found for everyone concerned.

12 comments:

JDR said...

Interesting. Does this mean Ancestry still have samples acquired from SMGF? I also wonder about the significance of the phrase "stored Y-DNA and Mitochondrial samples" - isn't there just stored DNA?

IsraelP said...

I find it very hard to trust people (or companies or government agenciess) who say things like "work to inform."

It means "Don't expect results, but give us an award for trying"

Doris Wheeler said...

I never expected them to retain the samples. It's the database that I'm concerned about -- the test results.

Debbie Kennett said...

John

I presume Ancestry are referring to the samples submitted by paying AncestryDNA customers who ordered the historic Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. They are differentiating between the historic samples and the new samples received since their autosomal DNA test was launched.

The SMGF samples are separate from the historic AncestryDNA Y-DNA and mtDNA samples. Ancestry acquired the "DNA assets" of SMGF:

http://corporate.ancestry.com/press/press-releases/2012/05/ancestry.com-dna-launches/

They are re-testing those samples to improve their ethnicity estimates (eg, the new West African estimates). Whether or not Ancestry have the right to re-use the SMGF samples is another matter altogether. The SMGF samples were acquired by a non-profit organisation and the consent forms did not give permission for the samples to be re-used for commercial gain. In my view Ancestry were ethically obliged to get the donors to reconsent. Ancestry have promised to keep the SMGF online database available for the "foreseeable future".

Julie Goucher said...

What is the longevity of a test sample?

Debbie Kennett said...

Julie, That's an interesting question and I don't think there's a straightforward answer. I understand that the technology for storing DNA and for amplifying DNA has improved in the last few years so the companies are able to get more out of the samples. Although some companies do say that they store DNA for 25 years there's no guarantee that in 25 years' time the samples will be viable. It may be that many of those samples stored in the early years by AncestryDNA will no longer be viable. Some of the tests (autosomal DNA and the Big Y) require a lot of DNA so even if one were to get access to an old sample there might not be enough DNA to do the test.

Julie Goucher said...

Interesting response Debbie. Who owns the DNA sample? The sampler, the company? Or the person who paid for the test (might be different to the sampler). Can the samples be bequeathed? Whilst it might not seem an obvious bequest, neither did blogs and genealogy research a few years ago.

Debbie Kennett said...

Julie

That's another very interesting question with no easy answer. I would have thought that an individual owns his or her DNA and should have the final say over what happens to it. However, the logistics of returning DNA samples to customers would potentially be a nightmare. There was one UK company - Family Genetics - that went bust. Those samples just disappeared. Some companies do actually say that they will destroy the sample after doing the test.

PNG said...

It would seem like a good idea for them to give the option of transferring the sample to FT, with the customer paying the costs of the transfer and of course no guarantee that the DNA will still be good. There would no good reason for a living person to do this, but with the samples from the deceased some might want to do it.

I worked with DNA in the lab from the late '80s to 2007. I generally found that a well purified sample was stable as a pellet under buffered 70% ethanol, but the occasional sample would degrade for no apparent reason. They probably have even better purifications and storage media now.

Debbie Kennett said...

I do hope some way is found to allow people to have access to the DNA of their deceased relatives. As you say, it's probably only feasible if they pay for the costs of the transfer and with the understanding that there is no guarantee that the sample is still viable. It's always worth a try.

Julie Goucher said...

Thanks for the response Debbie. I was more thinking that accessing the DNA sample in the future might be of interest (I realise that the sample might not be usable - not enough and not of adequate standard for a test).

I have had a blood test recently for professional reasons. Not only did I have to pay for the test, I am now having to pay for the results to be printed. The reality is my blood, and therefore why should I have to pay to see the results? That was an interesting argument (and one that I won!)

It is about thinking of what someone might want to access in the future. Enabling the generations of the future to access records of the past if they choose to. Once the inevitable happens it is too late to get permission!

Debbie Kennett said...

Julie

At Family Tree DNA we can nominate a beneficiary for our DNA account. I think all the companies should have a similar system. People also need to leave their instructions about the management of their DNA accounts in their wills.

It seems reasonable to me to pay for someone to do a blood test or a DNA test for you, but you should have ultimate control over what happens to the sample you've provided.