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DNA samples will be destroyed

Last week, Ancestry announced that it was discontinuing two types of DNA tests — the YDNA test (the male line testing of the DNA passed from father to son to son and so on) and the mitochondrial DNA test (the female line testing of the type of DNA passed from a mother to her children that only her daughters pass on to their children and so on).

adn_in_a_bottle_ocalThis past Sunday, The Legal Genealogist asked Ancestry, publicly, to explain its decision.

Not the decision to discontinue these tests — these are small potatoes to Ancestry and not part of its core DNA testing business — but the decision to destroy any remaining DNA samples in its possession from these tests.1

Yesterday, Ken Chahine, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Ancestry.com DNA, LLC, commented on the Ancestry.com blog:

As many of you know, we announced last week that we’re retiring our Y-DNA and mtDNA tests.
Unfortunately, we didn’t explain clearly our rationale for our decision, which has led to confusion. We’d like to take this opportunity to share the thinking that went into our decision making process.

First, we’d like to clarify that we are not retiring our autosomal AncestryDNA test that we launched in May 2012. We are only retiring the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests* that we launched in 2007. While the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests launched genetic genealogy and led to many great discoveries, the autosomal test has opened even more possibilities for family history research. Therefore, our decision to retire the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests is a deliberate attempt to focus our resources on providing powerful family history research tools that use autosomal testing.

Second, as part of the decision to retire Y-DNA and mtDNA tests we were faced with another difficult decision of what to do with the customer samples. On the one hand, we understand the value of these samples to many of you. On the other hand, we take customer privacy seriously and, regrettably, the legal framework used to collect these samples does not allow us to retest or transfer those samples. Practically speaking, many of these samples are also no longer useable. For example, many of the swabs were exhausted of genetic material during our testing or the sample may be past its shelf life. In the end we made the difficult decision to destroy the samples and are committed to trying to find solutions to these roadblocks for future products.

We understand that many of you have spent years using the Y-DNA and mtDNA products for genealogy and no amount of justification will offer you comfort in our decision. It is our hope that our future products will convince you that the autosomal test is a powerful and useful tool for family history.

* The genetic results from these tests are available for customers to download until September 5, 2014.2

Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that this is a decision driven by “the legal framework.” It’s a decision driven by the very great difficulties involved in returning so much as a single sample, for sure.

But in those few circumstances where (a) someone wants the sample returned, (b) there’s sample that can be returned, (c) the person who wants the sample is either the person who provided the sample or has clear legal authority to act on behalf of the person who provided it, and (d) the person who wants the sample is willing to pay what are likely to be very substantial costs, I doubt that there’s any law anywhere that would stand in the way.

So this remains — for those few people who convinced a family member who was the last available person to be tested for a male or female line to test with Ancestry — a deeply regrettable (and, I suspect, avoidable) disaster.

For the rest of us, it’s a wake-up call and a big one. Folks, the bottom line here is that DNA is a finite resource.

For many of us, there may only be one male relative (brother, cousin, uncle) or one female relative (cousin, aunt) who still carries the DNA of one of our family lines. And for all of us who are interested in autosomal (cousin) testing, the loss of each passing generation means a lower and lower chance of ever finding the DNA match we may need to prove our cases.

And if we’re going to test, and we’re going to want to access the data from those tests over the years, we need to pay close attention to who does — and who does not — store samples, care for samples and caretake our data over the years.

Ancestry never promised it would keep the samples. And it isn’t promising to do it now for its continuing autosomal DNA tests. If having samples available is important to you — and it’s darned important to me and my family research — there are other companies out there that do things differently — and better.3

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.


SOURCES

Image: Adapted from OpenClipArt.org, user zindyi

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Why, Ancestry? Why?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 June 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 12 June 2014).
  2. Ken Chahine, “Comments on Y-DNA and mtDNA Tests,Ancestry.com blog, posted 12 June 2014 (http://blogs.ancestry.com/ : accessed 12 June 2014).
  3. As an example, Family Tree DNA provides free storage of unused DNA samples for all kinds of DNA tests for a period of at least 20 years. See ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y-DNA STR testing chart,” rev. 7 June 2014. And see Competitive Chart, Family Tree DNA (https://www.familytreedna.com/ : accessed 12 June 2014).
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