Last week, New Scientist revealed how a 15-year-old boy found his genetic father by using a DNA-testing service. The only problem with this story, apparently the first of its kind, is that the boy was conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. This could have huge implications for thousands of other anonymous donors all around the world who sold their sperm for small amounts of money but can now be traced on Internet. But New Scientist doesn't mention that these DNA-testing services also could potentially damage the lives of thousands of ordinary families. Imagine using such a service to track your family tree and discovering that your father is not your father... As says the old song, "Shame and scandal in the family!"
So how did the kid proceed?
The teenager tracked down his father from his Y chromosome. The Y is passed from father to son virtually unchanged, like a surname. So the pattern of gene variants it carries can help identify which paternal line an individual has descended from and can also be linked to a man's surname.
The boy paid FamilyTreeDNA.com $289 for the service. His genetic father had never supplied his DNA to the site, but all that was needed was for someone in the same paternal line to be on file. After nine months of waiting and having agreed to have his contact details available to other clients, the boy was contacted by two men with Y chromosomes closely matching his own.
The two men had the same name as the boy -- with a different spelling. With this, and other clues provided by his mother, the kid used another online service to track his father -- and succeeded in 10 days.
What can we learn from this story? First, the donor's anonymity, which is protected -- to various extents depending on countries' laws -- cannot be guaranteed anymore, and this can be very bad news for lots of donors.
The news will be especially unsettling for men who donated anonymously before the power of genetics was fully appreciated. Donors were often college students who traded their sperm for beer money. Many have not told their wives or children and have never considered the implications of having a dozen offspring suddenly wanting to meet them. "The case shows that there are ethical and social concerns about assisted reproduction that we did not think about," says Trudo Lemmens, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, Canada.
Then, it's going to be easier and easier to track someone online using DNA-testing services.
As more genetic information becomes available online, finding a donor father can only get easier. FamilyTreeDNA.com is running 2,400 projects to trace particular surnames and has a database of over 45,000 Y chromosome signatures. The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, promises to go even further. It is recruiting people from around the world and hopes to compile a database of about 500,000 representative individuals.
The quest of individuals conceived using donor sperm and searching for their fathers is obviously understandable, even if their genetic fathers would have preferred to stay anonymous.
But what worries me the most is that thousands of other people will use these DNA-testing services for other purposes, not always legitimate. And it's also possible to capture -- and to test -- DNA from your friends or members of your families.
Possibilities are endless, but luckily, these services have a price. For example, here is a link to the Family Tree DNA pricing list. As prices range from $159 for a Y-DNA 12 marker test up to $995 for a MegaDNA comprehensive ancestral test, I doubt than anyone will ask for a dozen of tests without a good reason.
Sources: Alison Motluk, NewScientist, November 3, 2005; and various web sites
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