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: (retrieved from the Wayback Machine)

The Genographic Project has provided a detailed set of FAQs: (retrieved from the Wayback Machine)

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.