• A reagent is added to plates containing genes extracted from customers' saliva for genetic analysis for a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Genetic testing to help us discover our ancestry is at our fingertips and mouse clicks, but which ones are accurate, and are they ethical?
Andrea Booth

10 May 2016 - 6:51 PM  UPDATED 12 May 2016 - 6:32 PM

A myriad of online genetic ancestry testing services say it has never been easier to discover where you've come from.

Direct-consumer services such as Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry.com promise they can send a breakdown of your ancestry to your doorstep from a small sample of your DNA.

“It’s kind of sexy to live in a world where that is possible,” Ancestry spokesperson Brad Argent told NITV.

People are wanting in: Ancestry, for example, has about 2 million customers and US company 23andMe has about 1.2 million. 

Mr Argent says people are attracted to genetic science because it is “fascinating” and accessible.  

“It’s not an impulse purchase, but it’s an ‘oh yeah, it’s pretty much most people could afford to get some DNA testing that tells something about themselves’.” 

He says people like that his service is online because people can control who sees the results. 

“If you wanted to take a DNA test you can do it discreetly, you can do it online,” he says. 

“It’s not necessary to have to go through any formal process." 

He says this is important for people whose families have withheld information from them or if outside forces have withheld information.

 “Often there is a secret in the family somewhere or there’s a missing link somewhere, so ‘I’ve never met my grandparents’ or ‘my dad was adopted so I know nothing about my family’. 

How reliable is online ancestry testing?

Professor Emma Kowal, deputy-director of the Australian National University's National Centre for Indigenous Genomics and former medical doctor, told NITV such services can be helpful.

“There’s some [direct consumer genetic testing services] that actually have quite a lot of good information,” Professor Emma Kowal says.

Genetic ancestry testing can provide information about your family history from your DNA using a variety of methods.

The Y-DNA test uses a person's DNA to trace their paternal line while the mitochondrial DNA test informs about your maternal line of ancestors. The autosomal test provides genetic information from both maternal and paternal lines.

But Professor Kowal notes “limitations” to the science.

For example, while both Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA can provide links to old ancestors, they may only tell a small part of your full ancestry, public research institute University College London explains.

In autosomal tests, the markers can only provide information for about 10 generations, and while companies usually assign a person's DNA to a national label, "gene variant frequencies tend to change smoothly across borders," it says. 

"Thus, French people may be assigned a large percentage of 'British' ancestry."

A question on ethics

Associate Professor Ainsley Newson and Dr Jacqueline Savard, researchers on the Genioz Project investigating the Australian public's expectations of personal genomics, based at the University of Sydney, told NITV consumers should ask themselves if a genetic test upholds ethical conduct.

"Whether a test is online or not is probably not the key issue with respect to regulation. 

"Instead, we need to focus on the quality of the test, whether consumers are being provided with accurate and easy-to-understand information about it, how they are being supported when receiving results, where samples are stored and whether the sample [or data gained from it] will be used again; how and by whom."

The researchers say consumers in Australia who take genetic ancestry tests may not be fully protected by all of the country's relevant regulations.

For example, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is responsible for regulating the supply, import, export, manufacturing and advertising of therapeutic goods, does not consider genetic ancestry testing or other types of recreational genetic testing, such as for sporting ability and fitness.

"This makes it unclear how and where a consumer could seek assistance, should they encounter an issue," they say.

NITV and SBS celebrate 'Identity Month' in the lead up to DNA Nation

Starts Sunday 22 May, 8:30pm on SBS. #DNANation