The era of genetic computation is approaching and Utah will be its center.
Utah is renowned for its spectacular views, but one that isn’t as obvious as a national park or a snow-capped mountain is particularly telling. This vision is for the future of home DNA testing – a cultural phenomenon with its roots firmly rooted in Utah and the perspectives of which are only beginning to be revealed.
The evolution and implications of this technology play out here – from Salt Lake City, home to the Family History Library, to Lehi, where the headquarters of the massive for-profit genealogy company Ancestry is located, and where MyHeritage, a another industry leader, has offices in Provo, where Brigham Young University trained Ancestry’s founders.
Home DNA testing has progressed to the point where, according to Pew Research, more than 16% of American adults have taken a DNA test in the mail. Ancestry alone has a database of 20 million genetic samples, the largest out of a total field of nearly 40 million. This has, in turn, led us to a tipping point where many more Americans are potentially impacted by this technology than has actually been tested. Even those not listed in consumer genetic databases are identifiable by their genetic parentage.
DNA tests at home are also transformed by major acquisitions. In recent months, Blackstone has completed its majority acquisition of Ancestry for $ 4.7 billion. 23andMe was just made public through a merger with a company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, in a deal that valued it at around $ 3.5 billion. And MyHeritage was acquired by Francisco Partners, a private equity firm, for a reported value of $ 600 million.
The extraordinary growth of the field is both promising and promising for the future. How will DNA testing continue to transform our understanding of our own roots and turbo solutions to the health problems we face? And how will the valuable and private genetic information that we lend to these companies be used in the future, in ways that we may not even be able to anticipate?
The promise begins in Utah, for you can’t talk about genealogy in America without talking about the integral role of the Latter-day Saint community and the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical research center. It is no coincidence that Ancestry was founded by two graduates of Brigham Young University.
The promise was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many Americans to seek strength in their roots by understanding what their ancestors went through and how they persevered. The pandemic has also raised awareness of the central role of science in meeting current health needs and anticipating future ones.
The challenges revolve around the use of new information and related privacy issues. They are accentuated by the large number of people who have been tested – and those involved in these tests.
Authorities in California, for example, pushed to use consumers’ DNA information in the infamous Golden State Killer case after law enforcement databases failed for years to find a result on DNA from the killer’s crime scene. The approach led to the arrest and conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, and hundreds of other resolved cases – but also questions as to whether genetic DNA obtained for ancestry purposes should be used to investigate crimes.
A recent Los Angeles Times report revealed that MyHeritage’s DNA database was used to help resolve the Golden State Killer case without the company’s knowledge or permission, and that FamilyTreeDNA granted the accessing the FBI database without notifying its clients. Such revelations raise questions about the willingness and ability of some companies, at least, to protect the most sensitive information of their consumers.
The promise and the challenges are in many cases intertwined, providing revelations to information seekers that others had hoped to remain private. This has countless impacts: rendering sperm donors’ promises of anonymity irrelevant by revealing hidden parentage; provide adopted persons with access to knowledge of their biological families and disintegrate long-standing family secrets, leading to widespread intergenerational calculations.
Millions of Americans have already been impacted by these revelations. I cautiously estimate that at least 1 million people have found out that the man they call daddy is not their genetic father or that they have a previously unknown half-brother. A study last year found that more than a quarter of testers discovered a new “close relative” – ââa looser definition with a higher score.
The era of genetic computation is upon us. Utah will have a spectacular view as the future of this extraordinary cultural phenomenon emerges.
Libby copeland, award-winning journalist, is the author of The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Shakes Who We Are (Abrams, 2020). The pocket edition was released in June.