Limits to Ancestry DNA Testing

This is the reason that ancestry DNA testing has become so popular in the last ten years.  With just a simple swab of the inside of the cheek, a person’s ancestry can be analayzed through their DNA.  However, there are limits to what these types of tests can tell a person about their ancestry and this is a fact that many in the genetic sciences feel is not adequately explained to those who get the testing done.  The American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG) has several recommendations for ancestry DNA testing.  These recommendations are as follows:

  1. Those who conduct ancestry testing must work harder to convey the limitations of ancestry testing to the consumer, the scientific community, and the public.  The consumer also has a responsibility to educate themselves on genetic ancestry testing.
  2. There must be more research done regarding how much the accuracy of ancestry testing is affected by comparing them to the samples that have been taken from others and stored away in databases, statistical methods used, genetic markers, and geographical distribution of patterns of human diversity.
  3. There are consequences to ancestry estimation for people and families and these are complex. Research is needed to develop guidelines for counseling for those who need help in understanding and accepting the results of their testing.
  4. Genetic scientists performing the ancestry tests should consult with other experts in historical, cultural, and sociopolitical fields.
  5. Consideration should be given to finding better ways for the ancestry testing field to be more accountable for the result of the tests.

The ASHG believes that by following these recommendations, the ancestry testing industry will be able to help improve our understanding of human evolution, the demographic history of humanity, testing accuracy, and it will produced better-informed consumers and industry experts.  Some genealogists look at ancestry DNA testing as simply one more means of supplementing the many other pieces of information that a person has found regarding their family.

The important thing to note is that there are limits to what this type of testing can tell a person.  It won’t tell them the identity of specific ancestors, such as who their great-great-great-great grandmother was, but it can give a person information on which geographical part of the world or ethnic groups share the DNA they carry.  Anyone who is considering getting themselves tested to help them identify their ancestry needs to be aware of these limitations and they must also be prepared for what they might find.  After all, genetics can be a mixed bag full of surprises.

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