Sunday, November 7, 2010

Genetic Genealogy in the News: Another misleading, inaccurate story out of Salt Lake City recently ran an article about genealogy and DNA testing. I am always happy to see my hobby in the news, however, I have real concerns about some of the claims that are being made in this story. As a long time genealogist and experienced genetic genealogist, I find this story very misleading and, potentially, detrimental to the industry.

First of all, the article states that "Amanda Gilbert is the only person in the world who can claim accused witch, Rebecca Nurse, and persecutor, Reverend John Hale as grandparents."  Wow, really? These people lived in 1692. They could each potentially have thousands of descendants. A quick search of the Internet or turns up many who claim descendancy from each Reverend Hale and Rebecca Nurse. I guess it is possible that Ms. Gilbert is the ONLY one descended from both Hale and Nurse, but that is quite a claim. Doesn't she have any siblings or children? Did the reporter do the extensive genealogical research necessary to substantiate this claim? Before I made such a far-reaching statement, I would be sure and do a thorough and extensive genealogical study of each of the subjects, following all descendants down to the present day. I could chalk it up to naivete and a lack of understanding of genealogy on the part of the reporter, but the problem appears to go deeper than that.

The article goes on to "quote" Scott Woodward, president of the DNA testing company GeneTree and principal investigator at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, “We can identify the pieces of DNA that belong to each one of those individuals in the past, and then we compare that to other people’s DNA and identify the great, great, great grandparents you have in common” and referring to Gilbert's DNA, “We put that into the data base and started looking around. She’s also related to the Reverend John Hale.”

I am simply dumbfounded by these statements. It certainly sounds as if he is referring to autosomal DNA testing. As a Beta tester for the only two companies who have introduced commercial relative matching through autosomal DNA testing so far (23andMe and FTDNA) and an active member of the genetic genealogy community and ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy), I find these claims incredulous. There are many of us who have been working long hours studying our autosomal DNA results, attempting to determine which pieces of DNA came down to us from which ancestors, but it is difficult and slow work. This type of DNA research is new and, to my knowledge, none of us yet claim to be able to definitively identify the blocks of autosomal DNA from specific ancestors more than a couple of generations back. There may be a few on the forefront of autosomal DNA family studies who, in limited examples, appear to have strong evidence that links blocks of DNA to a specific ancestor, but they stop short of making absolute claims at this early date. I have confidence that, in the future, we will be able to accomplish this, but not until MANY more people are tested with solid genealogies. To make matters worse, the way it is written, Woodward seems to be claiming to be able to identify DNA from an ancestor who lived more than three hundred years ago! The companies and the scientists leading the way in this new science (autosomal DNA testing), are tentative about predicting shared ancestry more than a couple of hundred years in the past at MOST. If GeneTree has evidence that they can do what Woodward seems to be claiming, there are many of us who would love to see it and will happily and enthusiastically congratulate them on their accomplishment.

Since, according to their website, GeneTree doesn't even do commercial autosomal testing, perhaps Mr. Woodward is referring to Y-DNA testing. In that case, his claim that DNA showed that Ms. Gilbert is descended from Rev. Hale may be possible, but it couldn't have been her DNA. Maybe Ms. Gilbert has a male relative who was tested by GeneTree and whose Y-DNA matched those Hales known to descend from the Reverend. It is certainly possible that the reporter may have misunderstood and taken Mr. Woodward's statements out of context. If this is what he meant, then more explanation was certainly needed. Perhaps GeneTree can clarify this. I know from personal experience with the press that what you say is not always what they write, so we should give Mr. Woodward and GeneTree the benefit of the doubt in regard to these seemingly outrageous claims.

Whether intentional or not, these types of public statements could spell big trouble for the future of DNA Ancestry testing.  One always runs the risk of being misquoted by the press, therefore DTC genetic testing companies would be prudent to err on the side of caution in their claims and interviews. As we all know, regulatory agencies have their eye on these companies. If those of us involved in the industry make what appear to be unsubstantiated or misleading statements in regard to what can and cannot be accomplished with DNA testing, it gives these agencies an excuse to interfere, even in ancestry testing. While we cannot always prevent how we are portrayed in the press, we can be very clear about the current limitations of DNA Ancestry testing. Any time we speak to the press, we need to keep in mind that the reporters writing about our complex industry may not have the necessary expertise to fully understand what we are saying, so we should make a concerted effort to educate them. When and if an article is published that contains inaccuracies or misstatements, it must be our responsibility to publicly refute it.  In order to minimize the risk of misinformation and misleading claims, we need cooperation and industry-wide standards among DNA Ancestry testing companies. It is my fear that if we do not take proactive steps toward some form of self-regulation, we are inviting outside interference.

** Please read the update in the comment section below from Dr. Ann Turner.

[Disclosure - My company StudioINTV has an existing production agreement with FTDNA that has no bearing on the opinions I express. I receive no other compensation in relation to any of the companies or products referenced in my blog.]  


  1. Chuckle. It does sound like this blog post could equally well be titled "Beware of News Coverage..." It seems ABC noticed an intriguing press release and changed "only one instance" into "only one."

    "Amanda’s story may be only one instance where the pedigrees and/or genetic code of historical figures converge within the DNA of someone living today. In addition to the 20 people executed at Salem, nearly 100 others were initially accused of witchcraft; more than 1,000 of their descendants are members of the genetic and family history archives, research has revealed."

    The clip from Scott Woodward did make it sound like he was claiming too much about DNA, but it was also edited from a longer interview and omitted some connecting phrases. SMGF has in fact been doing research on autosomal DNA for a number of years, but the Amanda Gilbert story was not based on that. She had submitted some genealogy along with her DNA sample, and SMGF was able to expand her pedigree after they tied her into their existing database of correlated genealogical and genetic data.

    [disclosure: I have a consulting arrangement with SMGF, but the above comments are my own, based on correspondence with them about this blog post]

    Ann Turner

  2. Thanks so much for the clarification, Ann. I am aware that SMGF has been doing research with autosomal DNA (thanks to one of your posts to a mailing list), but understood that none of this research/testing was being offered commercially and/or through GeneTree at this time. Your explanation of what happened makes sense and does not surprise me. Thanks again for clearing it up.

  3. Ann, I decided to change the title from "Beware of Overselling" to "Another misleading, inaccurate story" to reflect what you shared.

  4. So which company should I choose when I have mine tested?

  5. Loz, it depends what your goals are. Send me an email @ if you would like specific advice.