MyHeritage to begin testing

It’s the Next Big Thing in DNA testing: the ability to extract DNA from artifacts like envelopes and stamps with saliva from relatives who’ve been gone for decades, and extend our DNA research farther into the past than we can using just the tests of those living today.

And, yesterday in Oslo, at its MyHeritage LIVE 2018 conference, MyHeritage announced it would be getting into the artifact testing business, with a as-yet-unnamed partner company doing the extraction, and the results being uploaded to MyHeritage for matching.1

MyHeritage CEO Gilad Japhet said there are already tests underway, using artifacts from his own family among others, and told the attendees that the results were very promising. The same type of testing is being done at Living DNA as well — and DNA successfully extracted from a stamp to help identify a biological father.2

artifacts

Yes, this really is that much of the Next Big Thing in DNA testing. Those stamps and envelopes in our personal archives may contain DNA from ancestors many generations back. Think about getting DNA from long-since-passed-on great grandparents or even further back.

We all know how important it is, in autosomal testing, to get the members of our oldest generation tested — and for those of us who, like The Legal Genealogist, were the oldest generation left when autosomal testing became available, this is a Very Big Deal indeed. Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were gone before the first autosomal tests were sold, so the idea of being able to get samples even from my parents into the databases is wonderful.

Now… take a deep breath. This isn’t a “gonna happen tomorrow” deal — and there are some real issues to consider.

First off, no time frame was announced for when this would be available to the general public.

Second, this is limited to artifacts where DNA from saliva may be found, so we’re talking here about anything someone may have licked like an envelope flap or a stamp of any kind. (Think all those green stamps from the 1950s…) There’s nothing imminent on hair samples, so all those locks in baby books, lockets, and the like are still not test candidates.

Third, it’s not going to be cheap. While no specific price was specified by Japhet for MyHeritage, the proposed price target we’ve heard for Living DNA is in the range of $1,000-2,500 per test, and — while some start-ups have advertised low prices — the cheapest I’ve seen from a reputable DNA lab is still in the $500 or higher range.

Fourth, the technology for DNA extraction from artifacts is still in its infancy and there’s a fair distance to go before it will be fully developed and as robust as it may eventually be.

And, fifth and most importantly for all of us, DNA extraction from artifacts is destructive. In other words, we’ll get one and only one chance to extract DNA from any given artifact: once it’s handed over and processed for that extraction, any DNA that might be on that item will be gone, used up, destroyed in the extraction process. And, of course, there’s never any guarantee that the testing process will be successful — in any number of cases for any number of reasons, there won’t be an adequate sample extracted from an artifact.

So, if we have a dozen envelopes from that grandparent or parent, turning two or three over for testing is a no-brainer if the finances are there.

But if we have one, and only one, from a great grandparent or other critical test candidate, I for one am not going to be a First Adopter here. I’m going to wait at least a little while until the technology is fully developed — or until I can’t stand waiting any more — before risking that one-and-only-one sample.

And there’s another issue we have to think of too: what are the ethics of testing a sample from a deceased person who can’t consent to the test? Who, if anyone alive today, has the right to consent to that test? We’re still in the process of developing ethical norms on issues like that — especially if we’re testing the artifacts of famous people (politicians, artists, entertainers) with whom we personally have no family relationship.

Yes, it’s the Next Big Thing in DNA testing — and it will be a big one indeed. We should all be preserving and protecting any artifacts we have (heat and humidity are the big things we should protect envelopes and stamps from) to make sure we can test them when and if we decide we’re ready to — and have the right to — get them tested.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out over the next few years, and can’t wait to see how in works in practice.


SOURCES

  1. See generally Geoff Rasmussen, “MyHeritage LIVE 2018 – Day 1,” Legacy News, posted 3 Nov 2018, Legacy Family Tree (https://news.legacyfamilytree.com/legacy_news/ : accessed 3 Nov 2018). See also Roberta Estes, “MyHeritage LIVE 2018 Day 1 Photos, Details and Party,” DNAeXplained, posted 4 Nov 2018 (https://dna-explained.com/ : accessed 4 Nov 2018).
  2. See “Living DNA provide final closure on search for biological father,” Press Releases, posted 17 Mar 2018, LivingDNA.com (https://www.livingdna.com/ : accessed 4 Nov 2018).
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