Skip to content

A Case of Mistaken Ancestry

Customer finds DNA test isn't very scientific

En español | As any fan of prime-time television knows, DNA analysis can be a great tool to track a killer. But as Claire Hirata of Torrance, Calif., discovered, genetic testing can also be an expensive and less-than-satisfying method of tracing a family tree.

For some time, Hirata had thought that somewhere in an apparently unbroken chain of Japanese ancestors there might be someone of Western origin. Then, in August, she saw an Internet ad from Genetic Testing Laboratories of New Mexico promoting ancestral identification via DNA. Excited that she might actually learn the answer to the family mystery, she filled out the forms, paid $148, swabbed her cheek and mailed the swab to the lab.

When her results arrived, Hirata received the surprise of her life. According to GTL, her ancestors were Central or South American, not Japanese at all. Something had certainly gone wrong. She e-mailed the lab with her concerns. No answer. She wrote to them again and submitted a refund request. No response. That's when she wrote On Your Side.

Online genetic testing companies have a checkered history. In 2006 and again in 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued scathing reports on the industry, citing vastly different results from identical DNA samples and multiple examples of deceptive marketing. In July 2009, in Science magazine, researchers from Stanford and four other universities reported "Direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests fall into an unregulated no-man's land with little oversight and few industry guidelines to ensure the quality, validity and interpretation of information sold."

Was GTL legit, or just another scammer? Its website looked credible — the main page listed several major accreditations, membership with the Better Business Bureau and major law enforcement agencies as customers — but GTL wasn't returning my calls, either.

A quick Internet check of the address revealed that the lab is on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. I dashed off an e-mail to the college president. Minutes later, Stefan Long, GTL's director of business operations, called me.

Long attributed Hirata's errant results to a confusing form in the GTL sign-up kit. Because DNA tests can sometimes have trouble telling the difference between Native Americans and East Asians, he explained, GTL needs a hint for what to expect.

"There are two check boxes," Long said. "One says Old World, the other says New World." Then he read me the wording on the form: "Choose New World if your parents are/were from the Americas or outlying islands or if you are unsure or do not know. Choose Old World indicating that you or your parents are from a foreign country."

Following the instructions, said Long, Hirata — whose parents were born in the United States — must have checked "New World" and got a screwy result.

Long also explained that his company had a policy of not providing refunds for completed tests, but that in this case he would make an exception. He agreed to a redo of Hirata's scan and a full refund.

That would have been the end of the story, but then we learned from Hirata that she never filled out the confusing form. Turns out that GTL sent her an outdated form that doesn't ask the Old World/New World question.

So what could have been a scam turned out to be just a case of poor customer service — the wrong paperwork and no follow-up on Hirata's complaint.

As promised, GTL did the scan again; Hirata received her revised results 10 days later.

"According to the new data," Hirata wrote, "I am all Asian." She wonders, however, whether her complaint tainted the results. "I may still do the test with another company," she said.

Good luck on that. As medical anthropologist Sandra Lee of Stanford University told me, "Proving parenthood is relatively simple. You get half of your DNA from each parent. That same equation makes it very difficult to prove deep lineage. You get only half of the DNA from each generation.  After three generations, that's a half of a half of a half. You might not be carrying any identifiable DNA from any one specific ancestor."

In other words, even if you pick a good DNA lab with a good reputation, you can easily spend your money, take the test and still be no closer to knowing whether your great-granddad was Harry, Henri or Hiroshi. Lee recommends that, given the current state of DNA science, family stories and public records are still the best tools for tracking ancestry.

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.