A New Era
Science is pushing the limits of what can be done
with your DNA, but is everyone ready for that?
Last year, I too jumped into
the DNA discovery pool.
AS WI TH MAN Y pieces that find their way into our pages, this month’s first-person article by Adrian Jones started with an introductory email from a friend.
“You’ve got to hear Adrian’s story,” he wrote.
As he finished, advertising director Michele
Usually these “amazing” stories have to do
with someone starting a business they want
readers to know about. In this case, though,
no new product was being pitched. Jones just
wanted to share a magical account of life-alter-
ing chance and coincidence. Within a month
of getting in touch, he was sitting in our office,
regaling us with his tale. Little by little, staff-
ers gathered around to hear: about how Jones,
adopted at birth, was spurred by a health crisis
to look for his birth parents, who turned up
closer to home than he ever would have guessed.
Johnson gave him a hug, and he and senior
account manager Leah Bronson bonded over
their connection with Marin Catholic school.
Personally, I was stunned. The day before
Jones came by, a close friend told me that during a search of ancestry.com for something
involving her husband, a message popped up
saying her nearest biological relative, a sister, was in Philadelphia. My friend, who was
adopted, had not expected to learn of this sibling and her whereabouts.
This wasn’t welcome news. My friend hadn’t
been looking for her birth parents and was
caught off-guard by these direct messages flooding her ancestry.com account. An East Coast
family had been looking for her for decades.
Again, not information she’d set out to find. She’d
sent in a vial of spit for a metabolism test, and the
findings had led her to this group of strangers.
Soon after though, a faded sepia photo of
a long-legged teen at Coney Island in the ’40s
changed her mind. Compared to her adoptive
family, my friend’s thin figure had always stood
out. Her own biological daughter inherited her
slim build, and now she could see the hereditary
connection. It wasn’t just the similar physique
that freaked her out, but the posture: the kid in
the photo stood just the way she had as a teen.
Last year, I too jumped into the DNA discovery pool and found out that instead of being
one-quarter Slavic, one-quarter German
and the rest English/Irish as I’d believed, I
had a much more interesting ancestral tree.
Somehow, 6 percent of my DNA comes from
Central Asia. I do love all Asian food … I thought
back to that “Y-chromosome lineage” study
years ago that linked a share of the world’s
population to invaders like Genghis Khan.
My daughter joked that this would explain my
house-cleaning tirades. I was also thrilled to
learn that 16 percent of my gene pool points to
the Italian island of Sardinia. The DNA kit I
used gives dietary information based on genetics — for instance, my ancestors were more
gatherers than hunters, so I metabolize grains
better than I do meats. I also have an unusually
high tolerance for alcohol and caffeine. Science
is so interesting when it’s about me.
Jones’ article pairs perfectly with Kasia
Pawlowska’s feature story on advances in DNA
profiling. In her article, I learned how scientific
breakthroughs in that field have raised privacy
issues not unlike those my friend had to face.
I also discovered the information from those
tiny little spit vials is actually stored and owned
by these companies and could be employed in
a variety of ways. While Facebook is guilty of
mining our political views and buying habits
and possibly revealing our bad partying decisions to future employers, companies like
ancestry.com and 23andMe could actually link
you to a crime, indirectly at least. I urge you to
read “Cracking Your Code” and “Full Circle”
for a better understanding of just how your
intimate information can be used and what the
consequences, good or bad, could be.
Mimi Towle, Editor