How DNA testing can rip families apart -- and bring them together

Two women from shattered homes have been using DNA tests to discover why they have always felt like outsiders. They find each other on a social network for people who want to compare their genomes — and they get a match. Are they related? Did their parents have an affair? New DNA services promise to help them find out.

Image via Matter

In a smart, moving article today in Matter, Virginia Hughes chronicles the lives of several people who are desperately trying to find out the truth about their family histories by using services like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com. Some sequenced their genomes on a lark, and discovered deeply-held secrets their parents had never wanted to share. Others are trying to find their biological parents, or long-lost siblings.

Their stories are heartbreaking and mesmerizing, and Hughes does an incredible job showing how cutting-edge science has become part of family melodramas that are as old as humanity itself. She deftly explores both the science behind these new family revelations, while also looking at the privacy implications. What does it mean when we can find things out about our family members that they regard as deeply private?

Here's a teaser for the story, which you can buy for just 99 cents from Matter — it's definitely worth the price of admission:

CHERYL WHITTLE TRIED HER BEST to fall asleep, but her mind kept racing. Tomorrow was going to be the culmination of three years of research and, possibly, a day that would change her life forever. Around four am she popped two Benadryl and managed to drift off. But in just a few hours she had to be up and ready to go.

Cheryl and her husband, Dickie, are retired, and live in eastern Virginia, way out on the end of the Northern Neck peninsula, which juts like an arthritic finger into Chesapeake Bay. It’s a beautiful and isolated spot, where most people tack up “No Trespassing” signs and stay close to home. The Whittles enjoy their life in the country, but Cheryl was eager that day to make the long drive to meet Effie Jane. She showered, threw on a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, dotted make-up on her cheeks, and scrunched a dollop of mousse into her thinning brown hair. There’s nothing showy about Cheryl, not even on a day like this. She’s short and shy, with nine grandchildren and no pretensions. She grabbed a shoulder bag, heavy with the day’s supplies, and kissed Dickie on her way out the door.

Her anxiety mounted as she drove her yellow pick-up past sleepy cornfields, old plantations, and cemeteries, up the peninsula and into mainland Virginia. Then she pulled into the tiny parking lot of Panera Bread in Richmond. She didn’t have to wait long before Effie Jane Erhardt found her—that yellow truck was hard to miss. Effie Jane pulled open the truck’s passenger door and announced, “I’m here!”

Cheryl and Effie Jane found each other through Ancestry.com, a popular website for people trying to fill in their family trees. After several email and phone encounters, each woman felt a kinship that neither had experienced before. Both were born in 1951, and grew up about 20 miles from each other in the Richmond area. They both speak with soft Southern drawls, had traumatic childhoods, are devout Christians, and, as children, felt like outsiders in their own families.

Cheryl quickly got down to business, retrieving a small cardboard box from her bag in the back seat. She opened the top, plucked out a fat plastic tube, and handed it to her friend. Effie Jane held the tube under her mouth and spit—and spit, and spit, and spit. She had never realized how much saliva froths and fizzes. She passed the tube back to Cheryl, who snapped on a plastic cap, gently mixed the tube’s contents, and dropped it in a clear plastic bag with an orange BIOHAZARD label. Then the two women went into Panera for lunch.


SINCE 2000, when a company called Family Tree DNA sold the first commercially available home testing kit, an estimated one million people have dabbled in genetic genealogy—also known as recreational genetics, extreme genealogy, and even anthrogenealogy. Traditionally, amateur genealogical research was regarded as a niche hobby for older white men, but today it attracts people of all ages, races, and walks of life.

The rapid transformation is due to two technological revolutions. Twenty years ago, doing genealogy meant hitting the pavement: traveling to local historical societies, courthouses, libraries, and cemeteries to paw through dusty books and records. Then came the internet, which made the most useful references—census and voter lists, birth certificates, military records, even the archives of local newspapers—accessible from home. Not only that, but genealogists started connecting with each other online, sharing their research and overlapping trees, creating a vast online database that anyone could tap into and, more importantly, add to.

In 1997, a company called Infobases, which sold compact disks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publications, boughtAncestry Magazine and its website, Ancestry.com, turning the latter into a subscription genealogy service. By 2009, when Ancestry.com went public, it had a near-monopoly on the booming industry. The world of ancestry research has become a perfect example of a highly scalable business based largely on freely provided, user-generated content. Today Ancestry.com has a few competitors, like MyHeritage.com and Brightsolid, but it remains dominant, with almost three million paying subscribers, 12 billion records, and 50 million family trees. Revenues from the company’s ten popular websites and the Family Tree Maker software totaled $400 million in 2011. In late 2012, a European private equity firm bought the company for $1.6 billion.

The second transformation came from rapid advances in genetic testing. After Family Tree DNA launched its test, other companies followed: 11 by 2004, and almost 40 by the end of that decade. Today you find celebrities like Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma tracing their lineage on primetime television shows. As the price of commercial genetic tests has plummeted—many now cost just $99—families like the Whittles have been able to join in. Three companies—23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and Ancestry.com—have emerged as major players, and each is intent on growing its most valuable asset: a proprietary database of customers’ genetic data. 23andMe has information from more than 400,000 people and counting, and Family Tree DNA has over 650,000 different genetic records. The bigger these databases become, the more useful they are for filling in genealogists’ ever-expanding family trees. But this network effect also raises serious privacy concerns—not only for people who buy the tests, but for close or even distant family members who share some of their DNA.

Searching your genetic ancestry can certainly be fun: You can trace the migration patterns of 10,000-year-old ancestors, or discover whether a distant relative ruled a continent or rode on the Mayflower. But the technology can just as easily unearth more private acts—infidelities, sperm donations, adoptions—of more recent generations, including previously unknown behaviors of your grandparents, parents, and even spouses. Family secrets have never been so vulnerable.

If you find a relative on a genetic genealogy database—say, a second or third cousin—then with the help of Google, social media, digital obituaries, and other publicly available resources, it’s usually possible to find closer kin. Adoptees have used their newfound genetic knowledge to browse photo albums and look for potential biological relatives on Facebook. Children of sperm donors have found siblings they never knew they had. Couples who used artificial insemination to conceive have discovered that another man’s sperm had been used. And then there are people like Cheryl, who learn to their surprise, late in life, that they aren’t the person they thought they were.

Over sandwiches at Panera, Cheryl and Effie Jane exchanged photos and told childhood stories. Taking advantage of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi, Cheryl took out her laptop and logged into the 23andMe website, patiently explaining how the process worked. Cheryl was a veteran. Genetic testing had already shaken up her world, raising startling new questions about where she came from. She was here because she believed that Effie Jane was her sister. She was praying for it. If she was right, the journey she’d been on for the last three years would reach its end. Her mind could rest.

The women left the restaurant together, drove to a nearby post office, and sent the sealed package to a lab in Los Angeles. There, technicians would screen Effie Jane’s DNA for about one million genetic markers. Four to six weeks later, 23andMe would send Cheryl an email saying the results were ready.

Buy the story on Matter!