A commercial for genetic testing is shown on TV frequently. In fact, according to media metrics, it has been shown more than 14,500 times this year. Maybe that is why I now have it almost completely memorized. You are probably familiar with it too. In the commercial Kyle Merker tells us that he grew up German, wearing lederhosen and participating in a German dance group. Then he had his DNA tested. It turned out, he tells us, he is not German at all. He is in fact Scottish, so he traded in his lederhosen for a kilt.
How was Kyle’s ancestry determined? There are several genetic testing methods. In the early days of ancestry testing, only the Y chromosome, or mitochondrial DNA was scanned for a variety of defined haplogroups (shared common ancestor at a single-nucleotide polymorphism [SNP] mutation). Much more recently, up to 700,000 SNPs are considered using microarray-based autosomal DNA testing. This is then compared to a large database obtained from defined populations. Through this, Kyle learned that 52% of his DNA comes from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
I imagine the discussion when this man turns up at his latest family get-together wearing his kilt while all the rest of his relatives are in their lederhosen. Of course, I tell myself, Kyle Merker’s story is just a commercial. Who would throw away their heritage and family history based on a DNA test?
While I was mulling this over, I learned through BBC of a travel company that was using DNA testing of their executives to question their decisions and their perspectives. Company CEO Hugo Burge went on to say that the results will indicate “you are not who you thought you were”. Really? This is putting a lot of faith into results that can be interpreted in different ways. According to a 2013 report in Nature, if we go back a thousand years, the chances are great that any two Europeans are related to each other. History indicates that individuals moved around, perhaps not as much as today, but certainly the same factors that are in place now have been with us since the time of the Romans. Economic opportunity, wars, adventure and other reasons for trying to improve individual quality of life have always impacted on populations and therefore show up in the DNA. In the BBC report, Martin Robson said he was Danish, was born Danish and felt he was Danish. Yet after the DNA tests he said he was not Danish at all. Well Martin, good luck with that the next time you request a passport. Regardless of DNA test results, for me as a Calgarian, I will continue to wear my cowboy hat and exclaim “Yahoo”!
Links of interest:
Kyle Merker’s Ancestry commercial
DNA Testing at work (BBC)
Most Europeans share recent ancestor (Nature)
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