THE PROS AND CONS OF DNA TESTING…are you sure you want to know?

by | Mar 17, 2019 | Chris Goff, The Writer's Life | 12 comments

Kata gård

Last year, I started doing genealogical research on my grandmother’s side of the family. We were taking a trip to Sweden to see family—cousins I’d met 40 plus years ago. The research was straightforward. Both of my grandma’s parents were from Sweden, both from farming families in the heart of Västergötaland.

It was there, in the 10th Century, a wealthy Viking warrior was laid to rest. When they found the bones, everyone believed they were those of a man—until a DNA test proved that “he” was, in fact, a “she,” a high-ranking female Viking warrior based on the items buried alongside her. They named her KataGård. I’m thinking maybe we’re related. If only we could get them to let us compare DNA.
A Brief History of DNA
1n the 1920’s scientists discovered that humans had four different blood types, inherited biologically. It allowed physicians to safely perform certain medical procedures, but that’s about all it was good for.
In the 1930’s scientists discovered Serological Testing, where proteins on the surface of blood cells could be used for identifying people. The power of exclusion was still too high to make this an effective test.
In the 1970s, scientists discovered Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA), a protein present throughout the body, except the red blood cells. They found a high number of HLA and found they could predict biological relationships about 80% of the time, 90% if coupled with the other two tests.
Then, in 2011, Duane Reade began selling over the counter DNA tests called Identigene, for use in paternity testing. Buy a kit for $29.99 and have it administered by the pharmacy chain’s walk-in clinics for about $300, including lab fees and other charges.
Flash forward to 2019 and DNA testing runs rampant. It’s projected to be a $20 billion-dollar industry by 2020. (Let’s pause and give credit to the Home Pregnancy test that spurred the movement.) Today there are tests to determine your health risks (Gerd, cancer, whether your sense of smell is keener than your brother’s, or your hair bleaches in the sun). There are even tests that will tell you what type of dog your loveable mutt is. 
If you’re looking for genealogy clues (my main interest), the test is only as good as the pool of others tested. For example, my results differ between 23&Me and My Heritage. Your genetics are predicted by comparing them with the other DNA samples on record.
What you might discover.
I am 43.6% British and Irish, 20.1% Scandinavian, 19.1% French and German. A closer look at the report shows my ancestors mostly live in Scotland. Makes sense. My maiden name is McKinlay, and I can trace my father’s heritage back to the homeland. The Scandinavian doesn’t surprise me knowing my grandmother’s heritage, and my middle name is Lantz, which accounts for the German. The other 17.2% breaks down as Broadly Northwestern European (from Ireland, Norway, Finland to France), Broadly European (mostly Eastern) and Native American. 

The AHA moment!
Since I was a little girl my father had told me it was rumored that one of my great, great grandfathers married a Native American woman. When I asked my aunts, they were both apoplectic. But 23&Me, at the most conservative level, says it’s true. It’s right there in bright yellow.  And, even more compelling, is they say I have five matches to others with Native American blood, who appear to be my 4th cousins. The next step is contacting them to find out who their ancestors are, and look for the connection. 
I haven’t done it yet. 

Why? There are some pros and cons to DNA testing. People have discovered lots of things they don’t want to know. For example, my cousin’s wife took the test and learned she has a half-brother she never knew about. When she contacted him, he was traumatized and responded by pulling everything off the internet.
According to a report on DNA testing, done by CNBC on June 16, 2018, there are FIVE major reasons for NOT having your DNA tested. Surprisingly they didn’t list shock as one of their reasons.
1. Hacking. It’s happened. I’m not sure who benefits by hacking DNA, and CNBC didn’t know what resulted, just that it might be bad. There has to be a thriller in there somewhere.

2. That someone else profits using your DNA. The premise here is that research conducted using DNA might fuel the development of pharmaceutical drugs that can be sold for exorbitant prices. Hmmm. If it accelerates someone finding a cure for cancer or Parkinson’s disease, I think I could live with that. Again, there has to be a thriller in here.

3. Laws covering genetic privacy are not broad enough. This has more merit. For example, right now there are select groups of people who receive insurance from the government and are protected from genetic discrimination. Say I’m one of them because of my Native American heritage. But then my DNA test shows I’m below the percentage eligible for benefits. You see the problem. Another thriller.
4. Some of the major DNA testing companies will share their data with law enforcement. The first high-profile case was the capture of the Golden State Killer, and I, for one, am glad they caught him. But say I’m not a serial killer, but my brother got himself into trouble. Do I want my DNA to be the reason the cops are able to track him down and arrest him? Maybe not.
5. The company’s situation or privacy statement can change. What if the company sells, goes bankrupt? Who ends up with your DNA and what can they do with it? Likely you would have to agree to new privacy rules, but they already have your DNA, so….
Just know, if you venture down this road, you need to move forward with your eyes open. And, if you discover that your father is someone other than who you were raised by, be prepared to seek therapy.
Bottom line
One through 4 are definitely thriller material, but DNA testing was worth it for me. I proved an old family rumor true and I discovered one set of great grandparents on my mother’s side came from “Bohemia.” Gypsies. I see a trip to Czechoslovakia in my future.
How about you? Have any of you opted-in for DNA testing? Did you find out you’re a NPE (“Not Parent Expected”)? I just know there’s a book in here somewhere.
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a fascinating piece you've given us to think about, Chris — you are so right to point out the problems that can be associated with DNA testing. On the other hand, you are also right about how this huge trend could be the genesis of some great thrillers. You are a terrific writer….I see another good story from you perhaps weaving in gypsies and Native Americans, among others. I say go for it!…Karna Bodman

  2. Gayle Lynds

    I'm fascinated by DNA and my ancestors, too, and even my health strengths and potential areas of problems. I've been on 23andMe since almost the beginning, and a dear friend joined, too, because she and I are so similar that we figured we had to be related. We're not. I'm not sure what it says about genetic predispositions, except that they're a lot broader than one might think. And yes, we still love each other. I'm thinking about joining Ancestry, too … but then, like you, I'm one of those writers who loves research! As for me, I have a lot more than the average of Neanderthal. I'm strangely proud of that. Not sure I can make a book out of it (maybe one of Robin's bad commercials, though). 🙂

  3. Robin Burcell

    LOL, Gayle. Maybe you should approach Geico!

  4. Robin Burcell

    I find the whole DNA/law enforcement connection fascinating. When they caught the GSK then another one, I was touting the benefits of this new law enforcement tool. Later, a Jewish writer friend, pointed out the risks. Imagine this tool had been available in Hitler's day? That element of horror never occurred to me. Since he mentioned it, I tend to look at DNA testing (for fun/research) in a whole different light. Suddenly those things you mentioned (using it against you for insurance) seem to take on a far more sinister feel.

    It's still fascinating. And the writer in me loves the possible thriller connections. But I see his point very, very clearly.

  5. Lisa Black

    Definitely great ideas for thrillers here!

    When I give lectures I am often asked these days about ancestry databases and their use to find criminals. But since I haven’t done DNA analysis in about 20 years I don’t know a lot about it.

  6. Chris Goff

    The possibilities are endless.

  7. Chris Goff

    No doubt, in the wrong hands… Still, it's fascinating the links you find. I found a third cousin, related through my great great grandfather. She lives in Bosnia and is a genealogical researcher. She knows so many stories about the Chapman side of my family going back past the Civil War. There are a few rapscallions in there, but also some fascinating stories. My GGGrandfather moved to LA in 1849-50 and married my GGGrandmother. He was in the Army, but not allied to any side of the Civil War. His older brother graduated from Yale and attended West Point. His younger brother served in Company "C," the Chapman Company of the CSA (Hmmmm), but then talked his way out of serving. He went back to Talladega and ran his wife's extensive plantation holdings, and knocked up the woman next door (whose husband was away serving in Company "C" of the CSA). Hence, my one cousin has found a complete "bastard" branch of the family. Same line going back further we have Torries and Yanks. I found a poem written by a woman about my GGGGGrandmother Harriett Bennet that relays the tale of my Grandmother storming into a meeting where a group of men, including her husband, were discussing through in with the British because the were so outnumbered. Essentially, she read them all the riot act and said she would not be married to a "traitor." After their part in settling the US, she felt they should be willing to stand and die for their new country. If he didn't agree, she intended to leave him. In the end, the men voted to remain part of the revolution. I could go on and on with some of the things I've learned from people I've connected with because of the DNA connection.

  8. Chris Goff

    Using it the way we do is so new. And the amount of time it takes to test with 23&Me, for example, is so much quicker than what they say it takes for DNA to be tested by a crime lab in the US. I can't figure out why. Do they run better tests? Do they lack in resources or people?

  9. Norma Huss

    You may have heard about the case in our town where a killer was discovered through the DNA testing. Some 26 years ago a teacher was killed in her home – absolutely no clues. But they had semen and kept it, checking now and then against things. Recently they found similar DNA that had to be related. They narrowed down a suspect, secretly got his DNA from a paper cup he drank out of, and it was a match. He was arrested, and has admitted it, although the trial hasn't yet been held. (Another thriller)

  10. Norma Huss

    It didn't show my name – Norma Huss

  11. Chris Goff

    It's amazing how DNA is changing the face of law enforcement. The sad part is, now the DNA testing is showing that they have sometimes gotten the wrong guy and some poor person has spent years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Or cases where someone has planted DNA to point fingers at someone. Hopefully a combination of good police investigation and DNA will end up with more and more of ONLY the bad guys going to jail.