The World through Tech: Know your Roots

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

We have always evolved alongside technology. From our humble beginnings mastering fire or crafting tools and weapons, the modern era’s now limitless purveyance of information has introduced a new cultural shift. With the latest technology, we are now able to travel back in time, discovering our roots and, perhaps, a new piece of ourselves.

DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid to a geneticist – has long been understood to be essential to all life on Earth. First discovered in Switzerland by physician Friedrich Miescher (Dahm, 2008), DNA is considered by many as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. While some theories posit alternate accounts of history, such as the “RNA world” hypothesis (Crick, 1968), the scientific world is confident that DNA is responsible for millions of years of growth and evolution. It carries the genetic information necessary to construct the proteins, lipids, and acids that form all known organisms. It denotes almost every aspect of a human being’s physiology.

 

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

We have always evolved alongside technology. From our humble beginnings mastering fire or crafting tools and weapons, the modern era’s now limitless purveyance of information has introduced a new cultural shift. With the latest technology, we are now able to travel back in time, discovering our roots and, perhaps, a new piece of ourselves.

DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid to a geneticist – has long been understood to be essential to all life on Earth. First discovered in Switzerland by physician Friedrich Miescher (Dahm, 2008), DNA is considered by many as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. While some theories posit alternate accounts of history, such as the “RNA world” hypothesis (Crick, 1968), the scientific world is confident that DNA is responsible for millions of years of growth and evolution. It carries the genetic information necessary to construct the proteins, lipids, and acids that form all known organisms. It denotes almost every aspect of a human being’s physiology.

Your genetic material is responsible for the colour of your eyes, the abundance of hair on your head or the lack thereof, or, in some cases, the many disorders that affect millions of people across the globe. Our knowledge of DNA and its many related fields has allowed us to understand more about ourselves and the nature of our world, including such things as disease and viruses. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the development of COVID-19, is itself a form of DNA. Viruses are, in essence, weaponized DNA: designed to aggressively infect and disrupt other forms of DNA present within an organism, not unlike a microscopic predator. Whether these predators are alive or not, however, is up for debate (Koonin & Starokadomskyy, 2016).

Modern developments have allowed for a much more advanced utilization of DNA. Just recently, a group of scientists published their successes in sequencing a million-year-old sample of woolly mammoth DNA (van der Valk, T., Pečnerová, P., Díez-del-Molino, D. et al). They later identified a new kind of mammoth: one that creates a link between several species across the planet, giving us more understanding of their evolution and migration over time.

Sequencing is key to genetic research. It describes the process that geneticists take to assemble pieces of DNA, which tells them what kinds of genetic information are encoded within that sequence. Modern applications of sequencing have become essential to fields like molecular and evolutionary biology, medicine, forensics, and virology.

It is here that we find ourselves treading on new ground. Genetic genealogy has become increasingly popular in media, both in traditional journalism as well as social networks. Genetic genealogy describes the process of sequencing, testing, and ultimately profiling an individual’s genetic makeup, allowing a genetic genealogist to reach several significant conclusions. Firstly, they may be able to understand who a person is related to. Similarly, they can provide a breakdown of genes present in the DNA profile. In some cases, these may indicate potential diseases or disorders, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, which have granted medical professionals time for preventative measures.

The most widely known aspect of genetic genealogy, however, is the ability to identify where a person’s ancestors originate, and what their ‘geographical makeup’ looks like. Companies like AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and LivingDNA all provide some form of this service, allowing individuals to discover where they truly come from.

The implications of identifying someone’s background over hundreds or even thousands of years are extensive to say the very least. According to the MIT Technology Review, over 26 million people have participated in such testing by 2019 (Regalado, 2019). Jillian Landers and Danielle Parrish (2021), two scholars of social work, have described the phenomenon of “new kinship” (p. 272), which are “unexpected relations due to genetic testing” as an area of social work that requires more thorough study and support. Many people are dealing with newfound knowledge of family relations and for some, the ethical or social consequences are too much to bear. Discovering through genetic genealogy that you may be adopted would likely create a life-changing shift in the dynamic between you and your family members. It would affect your identity.

In scenarios such as these, it is simple to see how drastically different our culture could be if everyone were aware of their genetic heritage. Let us imagine a brief thought experiment. An older man is taking a leisurely stroll through his neighbourhood when he notices a car he has not seen before, with someone sitting inside. Through the window, he can see that this person looks different than he and his neighbours do, and through some racial bias, he decides that this person should be deemed suspicious. He calls the police, and they arrive to deal with the situation. Later that week, the old man is gifted a DNA testing kit by his young granddaughter for his birthday, which he gladly accepts, and sends off a sample in the post. Several weeks later, he receives an email, detailing his genetic makeup. It reveals that ten percent of his DNA structure hails from the same geographic region he thought that ‘suspicious’ person did. Take a moment to ponder how you might react.

Would you find yourself full of regret, now knowing that you share some form of connection to that poor individual forced to deal with the police? Would you believe that you still did the right thing, claiming that regardless of your heritage, the person was still suspicious? On a larger note, would you be more accepting of other cultures, considering the connections you now hold to places around the world that you could never have dreamed of? Or would you maintain a bias towards certain ethnicities because that was part of the culture you grew up in? These are the kinds of questions and connotations that genetic genealogy brings up. Questions of personal heritage, of belonging, and of self-discovery and inner conflict.

As a society, we are not yet primed to deal with these sorts of revelations. The technology is too new, and there is too little support available to those dealing with such information, given that at-home testing kits still hold a sort of ‘gimmick’ within our culture. They might not yet be seen as something that could affect your entire perspective on certain aspects of life. However, given enough positive work done in the area, genetic genealogy could be a tool to discover a new part of ourselves and become part of a culture we never belonged to before. It may allow us to accept and tolerate our differences and understand other cultures or ethnicities. While it would likely not be the key to eliminating racism or intolerance, it might provide a suitable means of coming closer to other communities and understanding that cultures can be complementary.

As with all good things, though, there does come a notable caveat. The ethics of collecting and profiling such large amounts of the public’s DNA have been questioned by many. Privacy is of great concern. Are you willing to hand over such personal and private information to understand yourself on a deeper level? Is it ethically permissible for a company such as Ancestry.com, a for-profit company owned by The Blackstone Group – a management company largely concerned with private equity, real estate, and asset management – to house the genetic information of millions of people? Greater still, what would the implications be if some nefarious group of hackers were to infiltrate such companies and steal your genetic information, along with that of millions of others? Is it worth processing and housing such information for the pursuit of personal heritage at the risk of its theft?

Consequently, who should have access to this information once it is stored after use? The “Golden State Killer” was famously apprehended after years of avoiding capture through the advent of genetic genealogy (Jouvenal, 2018). DNA material currently has no defined legal protections in most countries, leaving many legal scholars and lawyers concerned with the potential uses of such implicating material. Other DNA collecting companies have since introduced policies to protect against DNA profiling by authorities, but others have yet to address the issue. It also seems concerningly difficult to delete your DNA data once you have handed it over. A report details one journalist’s battles with taking back the genetic information she had volunteered. She discovered that it became increasingly inhibitive as laws were in place to prevent the destruction of physical test samples (Brown, 2018). Despite her many requests, to maintain quality control within genetic laboratories, she was forced to give up. This speaks volumes to how little control we have over our personal data in the Information Era; even our DNA is not safe.

Despite its risks, DNA testing might just be a unique method of reinvigorating modern culture using the technology available to us. Through its ability to transport us through time and glimpse at what makes us human, an individual can form a deeper connection to their past, their heritage, their family, and their ideals. Someone without much prior exposure to other cultures might find themselves experiencing a world of new ideas, experiences, and people.

Although more effort needs to be made internationally to better protect the sensitive information that DNA samples carry, it seems as if genetic genealogy might just be worth the risks. Post-COVID, we are forced to look for more creative and unique means of strengthening our cultures and communities. Meeting at a molecular level could be an approach worth keeping in mind.

 

Sources: 1. Deleting your online DNA data is brutally difficult, bloombergquint.com 2. The origin of the genetic code. Journal of Molecular Biology 3. Discovering DNA: Friedrich Miescher and the early years of nucleic acid research. Human Genetics 4. To find alleged Golden State Killer, investigators first found his great-great-great-grandparents. The Washington Post 5. Are viruses alive? The replicator paradigm sheds decisive light on an old but misguided question. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 6. The rise of genetic genealogy, and the need for social work’s voice. Social Work 7. More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test. MIT Technology Review 8. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nature

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