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Preserving the evidence

“Family history is in our DNA,” reads the ad at AncestryDNA’s website. “What’s in yours?”

Anyone who has paid attention to the DNA offerings at in recent months couldn’t have been surprised by the announcement this past week that Ancestry was discontinuing its YDNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests and — going forward — will only offer the autosomal test under its AncestryDNA brand.

adnaFor months now, if you went to the page to try to order either the YDNA test (the test for the male gender-linked DNA passed from father to son to grandson through the generations) and the mtDNA test (the test for the DNA passed from a mother to all of her children that only her daughters can then pass on to the grandchildren, and the granddaughters to their children and so on), those two tests showed up as “out of stock.”

Ancestry is a profit-making corporation. It’s not in business to do good for the genealogical community. It’s in business to return a profit to its shareholders. If, in the process, it happens to serve the needs of the genealogical community, that’s a nice side benefit. But the corporate bottom line is, well, the bottom line here.

No business can long survive with unprofitable products, and we as genealogists can’t expect any company we do business with to put our interests before those of their shareholders.

Ancestry is giving its customers three months’ notice that they need to download their DNA test result data. Bloggers all over the internet are advising people how to get the most use out of the test results that exist now before Ancestry permanently deletes the results and the matching system for those tests.

We may not like it, but that’s business.




There is something so very different about the DNA business that — to be blunt about it — the way Ancestry is handling this just plain sets The Legal Genealogist‘s teeth on edge.

Because, you see, DNA is a finite item. Once the person who gave a DNA sample is no longer with us, there may very well be no one else on the planet who has the DNA needed to make that critical breakthrough we all hope for when we do DNA testing and when we convince that older relative to give us that sample.

And Ancestry has flatly stated that it will make no effort whatsoever to preserve any of the samples that it may still have in its possession. It will not return them to the person who gave the sample or to that person’s family if the person is deceased. It has no announced plans to let its YDNA or mtDNA customers use any remaining sample for its AncestryDNA autosomal testing.

It has, instead, announced that it will destroy any samples it has that are associated with any of the YDNA and mtDNA tests people have taken at Ancestry over the years.

And in so doing may well destroy evidence of lineages that can’t be reconstructed.

It’s not an issue for anyone who tested before and who is still alive. Another test can be done, at another company, to capture — or recapture — the data needed. And it may not be an insurmountable problem in families where another candidate can be found to test.

But what about the family that tested the grandfather who was the last living representative of a male line that is now gone? The grandmother whose genes contained the last direct evidence of a female line?

It certainly isn’t Ancestry’s fault if we and our families lose genetic evidence because we dilly-dallied around and didn’t get the testing done when it could have been done.

But it’s different where there is a sample that exists right now that could be used. It’s different because many people expected that they’d be able to upgrade their DNA tests down the road. That the samples would still be there. That they could be used for the purpose for which they were given.

If there’s a compelling reason why these samples have to be destroyed, Ancestry owes its customers a clear and straightforward statement of that reason. Why do these samples have to be destroyed?

And if there isn’t a compelling reason… if this impending loss of genetic evidence is preventable, if the samples in fact could be used or preserved or returned, well, the words I might use to describe that probably can’t be published even on a website I own.

“Family history is in our DNA,” the ad says. It would be appalling if even a single family were to needlessly lose the chance to answer the question the ad goes on to ask — “What’s in yours?”

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