In 2017 a family’s heritage no longer has to be a mystery. Yes, thanks to advances in the fields of genetics and technology, scientists can test your DNA for a small fee and tell you where you came from. All you have to do, in fact, is send in a sample of your saliva.
Which brings us to this intriguing story. After she’d received some surprising information about her roots, one San Francisco mom’s DNA test led her to conduct an experiment of her own. You see, she wanted to see if these DNA testing kits really worked as promised. And she’d use her own quadruplets to put the accuracy of the results to the test.
It all started when Amy Jones thought it “might be kind of fun” to know where her family came from, she told San Francisco’s KPIX 5. She relied on Ancestry DNA, a website where users create an online account, mail in a test tube full of saliva to be analyzed and then receive their genetic information electronically.
And the results that she received surprised her. “I called my mother, I called my father, and I said, ‘Listen, we’re Irish!” she recalled. “And they said, ‘Are we really?’ And I said, ‘That’s what it says. So, I’m assuming that’s right.’”
But even with the results in front of her, Jones still wasn’t certain that the genetic testing was as accurate as promised. That’s why she devised a scheme to corroborate her DNA results with the help of her four children, who just so happened to be multiples.
Yes, Jones’ four children are quadruplets. In fact, they’re two sets of twins born at the same time: Gabe and Seth are identical twins, while Hugh and Katie are fraternal. Together, they make up the Jones Quad Squad. And it was they who provided four sets of shared DNA that could help determine the accuracy of two sites: Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.
Paying close attention to the finer details, Jones worked with San Francisco news outlet KPIX 5 to make sure that the experiment was as blind as possible. Indeed, together they sent in the children’s DNA samples with different names and ethnicities marked. And they even went so far as to mail them from different cities in order to hide the fact that the samples were from relatives.
But when the Jones family received their results, they were once again surprised by the varying information that they received. That wasn’t due to the identical twins’ tests, however, which returned almost exactly the same results at approximately 71 percent northwestern European and almost 7 percent British and Irish.
Jones was, however, shocked to see that her children were deemed to be even more Irish than she was. Remember, that was the result that led Jones to question her own test in the first place. “They were even higher than I was, that really surprised me,” she said.
And then there were Katie’s results. Katie, fraternal twin to Hugh, had a much higher British and Irish ancestry line than any of her brothers. But while this may give the impression that the tests were inaccurate, DNA expert Dr. Ruth Ballard told KPIX 5 that this was totally normal, especially for fraternal twins.
Dr. Ballard said, “You would expect there to be differences, and I would have been very surprised if this had come back without any.” She explained that, while identical twins are born with very similar DNA, fraternal twins have greater genetic differences, because one might take more of their DNA from a particular parent.
Moreover, with her quadruplets’ results in hand, Jones could breathe a sigh of relief about her own DNA breakdown, which she had once questioned. “It makes me feel a little bit more certain about the test results,” she said.
And Dr. Ballard agreed with Jones, having told KPIX 5 that DNA testing sites such as Ancestry DNA and 23andMe tend to provide accurate breakdowns of a person’s ethnic background. Furthermore, the DNA expert said that these results will improve further as a greater number of samples are accumulated and the data available to the geneticists increases.
And while Jones did learn that she could trust the results she received – her heritage was likely Irish, after all – there were some interesting findings about genetics testing in general. For one thing, Ancestry DNA linked users with other potential family members who had also been tested by the site’s scientists.
In fact, even with fake names, Jones’ children were linked to her profile as potential family members. And as for the children’s profiles? Well, Ancestry DNA also informed them that Jones was their mother, as she had previously submitted her own genetic information to the company. This is known as the DNA Match feature, although the site did not ask for permission to link the Joneses with other potential relatives.
“That concerns me,” Jones told KPIX 5, after seeing that information on her profile. The mom of four then explained that she had only wanted to find out her genetic breakdown. In fact, Jones never considered the possibility that her DNA would be used to link her to other Ancestry DNA customers.
Ultimately, though, that wasn’t such a big deal for Jones. After all, the linked DNA came from her own children, whom she knew shared some of her genetic code. But Dr. Ballard warned that other users should in effect prepare themselves for anything once they use such a service.
For instance, Dr. Ballard pointed out that the matching feature could re-connect sperm and egg donors with their biological children, whether they wanted to find them or not. Other users, meanwhile, may find out that they were adopted if their DNA does not match their parents’ in any way. “It can show non-paternity and other issues in your family,” she explained.
After KPIX 5 inquired about this feature, Ancestry DNA announced that it would make the DNA Match feature an optional part of the genetic testing process. But even with that safety net now in place, Dr. Ballard implored any users of the website to understand what they were agreeing to when they send in that test tube.
“I do caution people to look at those privacy settings and decide how much information they want to give,” Ballard warned. With thoughtful consideration, though, a family heritage test could be interesting for those unsure of where their roots lie. And it seems that Jones felt the same way, saying, “I thought that might be kind of fun to know where I come from.”