Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Genealogical DNA Testing

One of the questions we’re often asked at the State Archives is if we’re familiar with genealogical DNA testing and if any of the staff has had genealogical DNA testing done.  Until recently, none of us had.  But last month, I, the Arkansas Archivist and another co-worker, tackled genealogical DNA testing. 

As a quick disclaimer, we’re not allowed to advertise for certain companies, so for the sake of this blog post, I also asked some friends who had tried other companies’ DNA test kits to offer up their own experiences and thoughts.  As it turns out, their experiences were very similar to mine.  It seems that aside from pricing and a few variations in options, how the DNA is collected, how it is processed and tested, and how the results are delivered are pretty much the same.

So, to start, I ordered my DNA test kit online.  It took less than a week to arrive.  It came in a fairly small box with written instructions, a collection container, and a mailing box (with prepaid postage) to send the sample back in.  The written instructions suggested I download the company’s DNA app on my phone or tablet before starting the process, so I did. The app allowed me to easily register my kit (in fact, the app I used let me literally scan the bar code of the kit with my phone’s camera, which automatically registered my kit for me). Registering your kit is an important step – it’s how they will track your sample.

I was instructed not to eat or drink anything for 30 minutes before giving my sample.  The app had a timer with an alarm I could activate so I didn’t have to watch the clock.  It notified me once my 30 minutes had passed.

I used the app to walk through all of the steps of putting together the sample (and had the written instructions as well, just in case). The app’s instructions first told me how to unscrew the sample container, which is a plastic tube.  There was a line on the tube that I was instructed to fill up to and not go past.  It actually doesn’t require a lot of saliva – the line on the tube is fairly low on it.  However, it’s surprisingly hard to produce the required amount of saliva on command.  After a few minutes, though, I’d deposited the appropriate amount into the tube.  The next step is also very important. Each tube comes with a cap that contains a blue solution.  You will have to screw that cap onto the tube strongly enough to release the blue solution into the tube. Once it’s released, you will need to shake the tube for at least 5 seconds to make sure it well-mixed.  The app also provides a timer for this.

Once that’s done, the sample is ready to be mailed.  I placed mine into the provided mailing box, sealed it up and dropped it in a mailbox near where I live.  The instructions had told me that it would take 6 – 8 weeks to get my results back.  In the meantime, it invited me to answer a series of questions about myself (traits, characteristics, likes and dislikes and personality questions) to compare to go along with my DNA results.  That part is optional, but I went ahead and answered them.  The questions asked about things like eye and hair color, food preferences, food allergies, personal interests and hobbies - nothing too personal or overly invasive, but clearly geared toward finding out if genetics play a role in any of the above.

I was shocked when, 3 ½ weeks after mailing off my sample, I got my results!  The results were both emailed to me and sent to the app I downloaded.  Here’s an image of my ethnic percentages from the app:

Ultimately, I didn’t have any huge surprises.  Like most people who have researched their genealogy, I’d already done enough research to have an idea of what to expect. The only thing I was a little surprised about was the Iberian Peninsula connection.  The results also gave me the option of connecting with distant cousins (second and third) through a subscription to the company’s service, which I haven’t done.

One of the things I learned through this process is that my immediate family’s DNA will differ from mine in both percentages and even possibly, ethnicities.  With siblings, it’s possible to end up with differing percentages of ethnicity.  For example, I have 22% Irish DNA – my sister’s DNA could contain more or less than 22%...or even none at all.  My sister’s DNA could also come back with no connection at all to the Iberian Peninsula and an altogether different ethnicity could pop up instead. DNA is passed down in pretty interesting ways.  I’ve asked my family if they would be interested in testing, too….we’ll see what they decide.

So, would I recommend genealogical DNA testing?  It depends.  I think if you’re genuinely curious about your origins and if you’re open to the possibilities, then sure, go for it!  As I said above, my results overall weren’t that surprising, but I knew going in that if I found out anything truly shocking, it wouldn’t change how I viewed myself or my family.  I knew I would be able to roll with whatever presented itself.

However, if you have a set idea in your head of who you are and you won’t be happy if that gets challenged, I would probably recommend against doing it.  I know some people who found out some truly unexpected, life-changing things that would leave anyone shaken.  And that’s always a risk when trying DNA testing.