Itís All Fun and Games Until Someone Fails a DNA Ancestry Test

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on September 30th, 2009

Recreational genetics, particularly of the genetic ancestry kind, have been seen as a harmless way for people to learn a little about their heritage despite the technologyís remarkable limitations. Now it seems like the fun and games are over. Officials in the United Kingdom have launched the Human Provenance Pilot Project in an attempt to use some of the same technologies to determine the nationality of asylum seekers. From Science Magazine:

The Border Agencyís DNA-testing plans would use mouth swabs for mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome testing, as well as analyses of subtle genetic variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). One goal of the project is to determine whether asylum-seekers claiming to be from Somalia and fleeing persecution are actually from another African country such as Kenya. If successful, the Border Agency suggests its pilot project could be extended to confirming other nationalities.
This shift from using genetic ancestry tests as a source of recreation to a source of public policy has been ongoing for the past few years. In the United States, for example, genetic ancestry tests have been used for things such as determining who is a ďrealĒ Native American and providing evidence of college applicantsí minority status for admissions and financial aid. But the stakes for asylum seekers are particularly high. Refugee Actionís Sandy Buchan notes that 
Many of those who seek asylum are two or even three generations removed from the country of origin of their parents and grandparents, and are fleeing areas other than the nation of their birth. A Zimbabwean farmer fleeing persecution may possess the DNA of British relatives; would they be denied asylum on that basis?
Sir Alec Jeffreys, who developed many of the techniques used for forensic identification, corroborated this sentiment from a scientific perspective:
The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality - people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed.
For a closer look at the imprecision behind genetic ancestry tests, see Chapter Two of the CGS Report Playing the Gene Card?

Posted in Civil Society, DNA Forensics, Osagie Obasogie's Blog Posts, Personal genomics, Race, Sequencing & Genomics, The United Kingdom


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