November 27, 2022

Genetic genealogy can be a testing hobby

Genetic genealogy has become a popular hobby over the past several years, thanks to direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing and relative-finder services offered by some genetic testing companies. In a paper published this week in the American Journal of Human Genetics, researchers report results from a survey that asked people who had participated in these services what effect the discovery of previously unknown relatives had on their lives.

Among the most important findings were that identifying a genetic relative appeared to be somewhat common. Additionally, those discoveries were generally experienced as neutral or positive and didn’t appear to have a big impact on participants’ lives. However, some participants learned things that could be considered significant and destabilizing — such as that their biological parent wasn’t who they thought. These participants were especially vulnerable to negative outcomes.

“It seems that many — perhaps most — are just curious about their families and interested in building out their family trees, but it’s clear that quite a lot of participants are looking for someone or hoping to confirm something in particular,” author Christi Guerrini, of Baylor College of Medicine, says. “It might be that they’re adopted and looking for a biological parent, or that they’ve always felt out of place in their family and want to see if there’s something to that feeling. Or they might be looking for information about a branch of their family tree that’s unknown to them, or to confirm a family story that’s been passed down over the years.”

Most respondents (82%) reported that they learned the identity of at least one genetic relative. Among this subpopulation, 10% identified a biological grandparent, 10% identified a full or half- sibling, and 7% identified a biological father. The survey asked whether the participant had chosen to contact any of their newly identified relatives and, if so, the reasons for doing so. It also asked whether their discoveries resulted in any life changes, including changes in health-related behaviors.

Guerrini says that the high number of people overall who identified an unknown genetic relative was not unexpected, because many of those relatives could be very distant ones. But she acknowledges that the high number of participants who found close relatives could be skewed by the type of people who choose to undergo relative matching in the first place. “Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question with our data, but I’m very interested in trying to do so in future research,” she says.

She adds that although these experiences appear to be interesting and enjoyable to a large number of people, it’s clear that some who are participating in these services have experienced negative outcomes. “In future research, we’d like to better understand those outcomes and what resources could be helpful in managing them,” she says.