Discovering Long-Lost Relatives Through Commercial DNA Tests

By Veronique Greenwood | January 24, 2012 12:16 pm

reunion
Family reunion time!

Digging around in your DNA is getting cheaper and easier all the time. For only $207, you can now subscribe to 23andMe’s genotyping service, for instance, which gives you information about your genetic background, potential disease susceptibilities, and other traits. And as the numbers of people in such companies’ databases climb into the hundreds of thousands, it has become possible for software to connect customers who share so much DNA, they may well be relatives. For adoptees who don’t have access to their adoption records and are curious about biological family, there’s never been a better time to go searching. The New York Times follows the story of one 42-year-old woman who, after learning she was adopted,  finds her third cousin through a DNA service, and details the relationship that they form as she deals with the revelation that she is not, after all, the daughter of her adoptive parents.

About five weeks after shipping off two tiny vials of her cells from a swab of her cheek, Mrs. Vaughan received an e-mail informing her that her bloodlines extended to France, Romania and West Africa. She was also given the names and e-mail addresses of a dozen distant cousins. This month, she drove 208 miles from her hometown here to Evansville, Ind., to meet her third cousin, the first relative to respond to her e-mails. Mrs. Vaughan is black and her cousin is white, and they have yet to find their common ancestor. But Mrs. Vaughan says that does not matter.

“Somebody is related to me in this world,” she said. “Somebody out there has my blood. I can look at her and say, ‘This is my family.’ ”

One does wonder whether some adoptive parents might take umbrage at the implication that they and their aunts, uncles, and cousins are not “family” enough. And there is a lot of genetic distance between third or second cousins—it’s unlikely that the biological connection will be visible in the form of a shared nose or common interests. But one can imagine the excitement of executing the genetic equivalent of a web search and turning up people who share your great-grandparents.

The Times doesn’t provide a list of the companies that give this kind of service, but 23andMe, which has one of the largest databases out there, has a series of posts on their blog describing how to use their tools to discover your relatives and family relationships. If you are interested in trying this for yourself, you should give it a read.

Image courtesy of anyjazz65 / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Bob

    I always wonder how long it will be before employers or perhaps medical insurance firms gain access to information in databases such as this. If you have just the potential for a disease or other ailment…well, I just keep getting images from the movie “Gattaca” in my head: Social discrimination based on your DNA.

  • Chris

    Interesting and a little creepy.

  • floodmouse

    I foresee stalking. “Internet Friends” indeed.

  • fintin

    This sounds fantastic. I wouldn’t mind finding my own distant relatives.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Why? It may be interesting to know from whence one comes, but gee, this is my cousin 32 times removed? Come on, we’re all cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces or nephews or something anyway.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Hey Bob
    How about an unscrupulous employer gets a hold of your DNA, has it analyzed and then fires you because you’re a high probability health care risk, (but claim it’s something else of course)? It’s quite possible.

  • Fauxcahontas

    The National Spelling Bee will tell you all you need to know about DNA and heritage. Look at the winners and runners-up. The spelling bee is fair. If you can spell; you stay in the competition. If you can’t spell; you’re out. DNA is the greatest predictor. Physical prowess, lifespan, size, weight, color….everything. The most important thing you can do, in this life, is to pick your parents.

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