DNA debate

Dec. 21, 2018

Before the holidays, my co-editor enthusiastically inquired whether I had ever completed a consumer DNA test, or if I had plans to do so. The two most popular brands—23andMe and Ancestry—were advertising Cyber Monday sales. I have not—I’m on the fence on whether I want to.

There are two reasons why: accuracy and privacy.

Regarding accuracy, according to Scientific American, “In critiquing this business, it seems fair to assume the data generated is accurate. But there have been some bizarre cases of failure, such as the company that failed to identify the sample DNA as coming not from a human, but from a dog.”1

I can’t find a statistic for how many times dog DNA was identified as human, but I understand mistakes happen. As laboratory professionals, it is important to keep in mind that people are invested in getting accurate test results—whether for their own health or just for curiosity’s sake.

Most of the positions of interest in our DNA are determined by experiments by Genome-Wide Association Studies that recruit a number of people—as many as possible—that share a common characteristic. This works well for a disease like cystic fibrosis (a spike in chromosome 7) but not so well for traits that the consumer may be interested in—like taste—because of the dozens of variants that emerge, therefore only offering a probability of predisposition toward a behavior as measured by a population.1

There is certainly a small downside—not being able to know for sure if you are a supertaster or not for example—but there’s certainly an upside. I have an eye disease that can be related to genetics (I don’t carry the gene), but perhaps my DNA, and others who have the same condition, overtime could reveal something that isn’t yet known.

My main concern is privacy. Over 92 million account details from genealogy and DNA testing service MyHeritage were found on a private server, according to a release made by the company on June 4, 2018.2 DNA data wasn’t breached, but isn’t that still cause for concern?

Also, when using these services, the companies ask you to agree (or make it clear that you have to specifically opt out) to share your DNA with their research partners. More than 80 percent of 23andMe users have opted in to sharing their DNA.3 I’m sure their intentions are philanthropic in nature—as mine would be, but can we be guaranteed that our DNA is being safeguarded?

The answer is, we can’t.

With the way healthcare is advancing, especially with the potential good DNA can do for research into genetic diseases/predispositions, all healthcare professionals should do their part in ensuring that patient and consumer information is safe from harm by following proper protocols—whether that’s not leaving your password on a sticky note on your monitor, or shredding old facimilies, or something further.

The heritage part of the test really interests me the most. I’d love to see if what my family has told me is true. Honestly, I hope to be a small percentage of Neanderthal. But that aside, I think I may give one of the tests a try. I won’t get as good of a deal as my co-editor did on Cyber Monday though, that’s for sure.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that the powers that be do everything they can to keep my DNA safe.


  1. Rutherford, A. (2018). How Accurate Are Online DNA Tests?. [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-accurate-are-online-dna-tests/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018].
  2. Kelly, M. (2018). MyHeritage breach leaks millions of account details. [online] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/5/17430146/dna-myheritage-ancestry-accounts-compromised-hack-breach [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018].
  3. Rosenbaum, E. (2018). 5 biggest risks of sharing your DNA with consumer genetic-testing companies. [online] CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/16/5-biggest-risks-of-sharing-dna-with-consumer-genetic-testing-companies.html [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018].