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Just your roots are showing.

There is a new genetic test on the market. Instead of checking whether your dad really is your biological father, or whether you carry the gene for a deadly, disease, this test looks into your "BioGeographical Ancestry." If you send the Florida-based company DNAPrint Genomics a swab from the inside of your cheek (and $290), they will send you a chart detailing what proportions you are of four "unique lineages"--Native American, sub-Saharan African, Indo-European and East Asian. The test claims to "reveal your precise ancestral mixture" by looking for genetic markers associated with people from these four geographical regions.

Over the past two years, a number of web-based companies have begun offering genetic tests aimed at the genealogical enthusiast. These tests usually use Y-chromosome and mitochrondrial testing to check whether particular individuals are related through their maternal or paternal lines. The Y-chromosome is passed unchanged from father to son, and mitochrondrial DNA from mother to daughter. By following mutations on these marker genes, tests can accurately determine whether two people are related along these sex-based lineages. Of course, that leaves a lot of ancestors out of the picture. The ANCESTRYby-DNA test looks across the genome and, by making a probabilistic assessment of where your ancestors originated, calculates your ancestral mixture, divided down lines that look remarkably like the racial categories the Human Genome Project is supposed to have debunked.

The science behind these tests is not invalid. Genetic anthropologists have been using these kinds of tests for some time now to study the ancient migrations of populations. What raises some eyebrows is the application of such tests to individuals. This sort of testing relies on probabilities across broadly categorized groups and may be inaccurate in any individual case. Also, even supposedly homogenous, racially pure populations within the four geographical regions have been found to exhibit markers indicative of other regions. It appears that even genetics cannot neatly divide the planet into these four ethnic groups.

On its website, DNAPrint Genomics suggests that its test be used, for example, by individuals hoping to validate their eligibility for race-based college admissions or government entitlements. But what would it mean for an individual who has never self-identified, or been identified, as Native American to pick up a college scholarship on the basis of a DNA test? The recent experiences of the Southern Africa Lemba and the Melungeons of Southern Appalachia have shown that genetic testing of ancestry can have a dramatic effect on how people perceive themselves and on how they are perceived by others. This is not to say that creating new identities or reforming old ones, along genetic lines, is inherently dangerous, but it does seem like an adventure not to be undertaken lightly.

The company also markets its test for those who are simply curious about the true diversity of their roots. The company's chief executive hopes that the test will help "belie the myths on which racism is based" by showing that "in all of us ... there is a continuum of ancestries." The idea that a white supremacist might be pronounced 30 percent sub-Saharan African does have a certain appeal, but a test that offers a read-out of ancestral purity seems likelier to promote than dispel the idea that racial identity is biologically determined. What does it say about us, where we came from, and where we are going, that we might want such a test? Purchasing it might tell you more about who you are than the read-out itself.
Josephine Johnston
Dalhousie University
COPYRIGHT 2002 Hastings Center
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Author:Johnston, Josephine
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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