In 2000, Harvard University Prof. Henry Louis Gates sent his DNA to Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist at Howard University, to trace his ancestry. Kittles, who has since started a company selling such searches, told Dr. Gates that his maternal lineage could be traced back to Egypt, probably to a member of the Nubian ethnic group.
In 2005, Gates, an African-American Studies scholar, had his DNA tested again and was told by another commercial genealogy service that his maternal lineage didn’t track to Egypt, or even to Africa. Instead, it went back to a European in colonial America, who was later found to be a White indentured servant.
As Kittles now concedes, the second version of Gates’s ancestry turned out to be the right one. But the mistakes made by the burgeoning genetic-ancestry industry have continued prompting Gates to start his own DNA-tracing company, one that he says will be able to take a more refined look at African-American ancestry.
Gates’s new company, African DNA LLC, aims to use historians and anthropologists to explain which of various genetic possibilities prompted by DNA traces is more historically likely. For such a search, the new company charges $189, within the $100 to $300 range that’s typical of the genetic-ancestry industry, which now includes at least 10 companies operating via Web sites. For $888, African DNA, which works with Houston-based Genealogy By Genetics Ltd., will include a family tree as far back as census records allow. For most African-Americans, that is usually 1870, when their last names began to be recorded in post-slavery U.S. records.
“I see myself as doing a service for a field that’s deeply problematic, because of the reluctance of some companies to reveal the complexity of the results,” said Gates, who is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, in an interview, He has pledged to donate some of the money that the company earns to an educational effort to teach African history to schoolchildren through DNA analysis.
The problems of ancestry-tracing aren’t specific to Kittles. For many people, the mitochondrial DNA commonly used to trace female lineage just isn’t sufficient to nail down an ancestor’s country of origin. The genealogy services work by matching a customer’s DNA to a database of samples collected from modern-day Africans.
But the large migrations of African people over the last 3,000 years mean that a typical Black American’s DNA might have an exact match with somebody living today in Ghana but also Cameroon, Kenya, Angola, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
An editorial in Science magazine recently criticized the precision that companies ascribe to their tests. “Commercialization has led to misleading practices that reinforce misconceptions,” the editorial argued, saying that such genetic tests are “less informative than many realize.”
Gates’s fascination with DNA searches led him to trace the ancestry of famous African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and himself, for a PBS miniseries. Such “recreational genetic genealogy” has become big business. Roughly half a million people have bought searches from companies, many of which also offer a service that traces paternal lineage through the male Y chromosome.
Kittles said the re-analysis of Gates’s DNA “was a learning experience for me. … I had a very poor European database.” He says he now screens for European DNA for his African-American customers. Now at the University of Chicago, Kittles commercialized his proprietary database of African DNA samples in 2003. For $350, African Ancestry Inc. sells a kit to swab the inside of one’s cheek. The company searches for the customer’s pattern of mitochondrial DNA in its database of 13,690 Africans.
If there’s a match, African Ancestry sends a “Certificate of Ancestry,” signed by Kittles, attesting that the customer “shares maternal genetic ancestry” with a particular ethnic group living in Africa today. The company says it has had 12,000 customers since it opened in 2003.
But some geneticists say the company is more interested in giving satisfying answers than properly explaining the uncertain character of the results. If a customer’s DNA has multiple matches, says Bert Ely, a geneticist at the University of South Carolina who isn’t affiliated with any genealogy company, the scientifically appropriate response is to tell the customer about every match. Listing only a few matches to make the results appear more precise than they really are “would be cheating,” says Peter Forster, the British geneticist who correctly traced Gates to Europe.
Kittles said that listing all results would be “confusing,” and that he feels customers are seeking his “best guess” as a scientist. He has recently started to list more matches on the company’s Certificates of Ancestry, but still doesn’t list every ethnic group a customer matched with.
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