DNA tests: 'According to this, we're first cousins but I've never heard of you'

Home DNA kits are a booming business as people look for their roots – but there are pitfalls

Max Sparber grew up in Minnesota with two concrete pieces of information. He knew that he was adopted, and that he was Irish-American. He never questioned either of those facts until a conversation with his adoptive mother about a decade ago raised some questions.

“I was talking to my mother about my biological parents and she said, ‘Well we think they were Irish and English’. At that point, a self-identity I had had for my entire life – this Irish-American identity – was thrown into question. For the first time I realised that I didn’t really know for certain what my background was.”

That uncertainty spawned a lot of questions for Sparber. His adoptive parents were told by the agency that he was of Irish and English descent, but he realised that he had no evidence to prove that.

“We have closed adoptions in America so what I knew about my biological family was extremely limited. After my mother pointed out that we couldn’t be certain, I contacted the adoption agency and got some information from them, but it was quite limited. Then, a few months later, I decided to do a DNA test online through 23andMe.”


23andme.com  is one of many providers of home DNA tests. The tests - which are done by spitting in a tube and sending it off for analysis - tell people what percentage of different nationalities they are, and also connect you to other people you could be related to across the world. Most of the time, these are distant cousins – anywhere as distant as fourth, fifth or sixth – but when Sparber did his test, he was connected to a first cousin.

“First, the test confirmed that I had Irish ancestry, so that put my mind at ease slightly. But then around six months later, a first cousin popped up on the system. She sent me a message and said, ‘According to this, we’re first cousins, but I’ve never heard of you’.”

Together with his newfound cousin Kate, Sparber was able to find out who his birth mother was. Her name was Patricia, and she was the granddaughter of Irish emigrants. She died before he met her, however he was able to find out a lot about her.

"When I found out her name the first thing I did was Google her, and I saw this photo of her online. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on somebody who was biologically related to me. It was startling, because I went from knowing nothing at all to knowing everything in a matter of minutes. I was able to find out about her life and was even able to find out the name of her widower, which led to me getting in touch with him."

Sparber has pieced together what he can of his birth mother's life. From his research, he knows she was from Alaska and went to college in Minnesota, which is why he was adopted there. He believes that it was during a summer she spent back home in Alaska that he was conceived. He has not been able to find out definitively who his biological father was, but he has narrowed them down to two candidates.

“When she went back to college, she realised that she wasn’t ready to have a child and gave me up for adoption. Honestly, finding that out was a bit of a relief, because sometimes adoption stories are very unhappy ones. Mine was pretty neutral.

“It certainly seems that her family didn’t know she was having a baby. Some of her friends locally knew, and the man that ended up being her first husband knew too. He took her to the hospital when she gave birth. I spoke to her sister and she said they always suspected that there was something like that going on, but I was always a rumour until I turned up.”

Sparber had previously taught a class on DNA genealogy at a historical society. As a result, he is very aware that it can be a harrowing and upsetting experience for some people when they find out things that they may not be ready for.

“When I was researching, I read about people who found out family secrets that ended up destroying their families. Some people end up finding out that their father isn’t really their father, for example. DNA can reveal a lot, and not everybody is ready for that.”

Getting a DNA test gave Sparber a newfound sense of identity – as well as a huge number of new relatives. He is now in touch with between 20 and 30 new cousins.

Damian Loftus grew up in Durham, England, and has lived there for his entire life. Growing up he was surrounded by stories of his Irish heritage, but as he got older, he wanted to find out more.

“Initially I wanted to do the test because I had some gentle humour poked at me by friends for saying I was Irish,” he laughs. “They thought it was all made up. I wanted to prove that I did have Irish ancestry, so when the test came back as 58 per cent Irish, I could say it for sure.”

“I also took the DNA test to find out more about my heritage. I wanted to know more about my great-grandfather and know about my family’s past.”

He says that the test made his Irish heritage feel “much more real” than it had before, and it also pushed him to visit Co Sligo, where his great-grandfather was from, last year.

“I went with a friend and we spent five days in Sligo, just driving around the area. It made me think a lot about my great-grandfather. He grew up in the hills by the sea, and then ended up over here in County Durham by the sea as well. It made me wonder if he might have been nostalgic for Sligo.”

Loftus's great-grandfather was Anthony Loftus. Born in 1865, he emigrated to England in 1888 with his brother, Bernard. They arrived in Liverpool and moved around for a few years, before Bernard emigrated to America. Anthony settled in Durham and went on to have seven children. His Irish legacy was never forgotten by the generations that followed.

"I knew growing up from my father and other relatives that my great-grandfather came from Ireland. But as older relatives started to die, there were fewer people who were able to tell those stories."

After doing the test, Loftus kept digging, and during his trip to Sligo went to a local genealogical centre to try to find out more. Since then, he has unearthed a lot of information.

He learned that his great-grandfather lived on a farm in Sligo and was born into poverty less than 20 years after the Famine had ended. When he arrived in England, he could speak both English and Irish, but could not read or write. He had four sisters who may have emigrated to America, however Loftus has not been able to trace them.

“He ended up in the coal mines in the northeast, where he met his wife and got married at 32. At one point, his own father travelled to England to try and convince him that he should move home, but he refused.”

Loftus says that doing the test, and visiting Sligo to find out more about his ancestry, has improved his connection to Ireland.

“I think it’s important to know where you’ve come from . . . to know about your background so you can feel connected to all of those generations. It helps you know where you are in the world.”

How to get a DNA test – and whether or not you should

If you’re interested in getting a DNA test to find out about your genetic make-up and where your ancestors are from, the good news is that there are a lot of providers out there. The bad news is that there are so many that narrowing it down can prove difficult.

Online DNA testing has become an extremely lucrative business since the early 2000s, when it first took hold. Today, some of the most well-known providers include 23andMe.com and Ancestry. com. There are many more companies specialising in DNA tests, and it's worth shopping around to find a good deal and a reliable provider.

One of the more affordable options is the Ancestry.com test, which costs €95. You can register online, and they will post out a kit. You then spit into a tube and send it back to the company, who will process it and give you results within six to eight weeks. The organisation claims to have six million customers across the world who have taken the test.

The 23andMe test costs €99, although they do offer a health and ancestry test for €169, which claims to tell people about their genetic health risks. Results take six to eight weeks.

There is often confusion from consumers about the reliability of some of the DNA tests used by online providers. Sarah Abel, who is a genetics expert and a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Iceland, says that these tests are more reliable today than they once were.

“When the industry first started in the early 2000s, there was a lot of scepticism about the quality and the reliability of the results,” says Abel. “Mostly, this was because the majority of companies were offering uniparental tests, which only look at very small and specific portions of customers’ genomic material.

“These genetic markers have been used by scientists as a means of studying population histories, and they’re seen as particularly useful in this respect because they are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation. However, if you’re using them to look at individual ancestry, they don’t tend to give very precise biogeographical estimates.

“Technology has moved on quite quickly though, and in the past five years all of the main DNA ancestry testing companies have begun using genotype data to produce ancestry estimates. The main difference is that genotyping looks at hundreds of thousands of genetic markers across each customer’s genome – corresponding to DNA that has been inherited from many of their direct ancestors, and not just two specific genealogical lineages.”

There is also the issue for potential customers that different websites can provide different results, something that Abel explains is down to the data used by each provider.

“It’s important to emphasise that the reference populations used in this process are mostly contemporary. They’re based on genetic samples that were collected from living people over the past couple of decades. So, in a sense, what the companies are doing by comparing their customers’ DNA to them is seeing which contemporary populations they most resemble genetically today. This is used as a proxy for estimating where in the world customers’ ancestors’ DNA came from in the past.”

The result is that companies sometimes adjust their results when they get feedback from users who have established genealogies. If somebody takes a test and is told they have Finnish ancestry, when they know through research that they have no Finnish ancestors, the company may recalibrate its test.

Ethics of DNA testing

The ethics of online DNA testing is also a major issue, and people can often uncover family secrets that they may not want to know. It also can mean becoming connected to large numbers of distant relatives – something that not everybody may want.

“DNA ancestry testing is certainly widening our conceptions of who can count as family,” says Abel. “Some companies offer test-takers long lists of ‘genetic relatives’”, down to the range of fourth to sixth cousins. DNA testing is also broadening the opportunities for genealogists to solve family mysteries – in some cases, information that has been kept secret for years, or even generations.

“On a fairly regular basis, magazines, articles and blogs appear about people who were unexpectedly put in contact with a missing relative – sometimes someone as close as a sibling, parent or child – after taking a DNA test. Sometimes these encounters have extremely positive, cathartic outcomes; on other occasions they can be painful or traumatic, and even cause divisions within families.”

However, Abel also points out that online DNA testing is effectively an extension of traditional genealogical research.

“The typical line is, if you don’t want to uncover any family secrets, don’t do family history research. Anyone who takes a test takes on the risk of finding out something unexpected and potentially shocking about their family.

“The problem I see here is that not everyone is thinking about this kind of possibility when they take a DNA test. While many people who take ancestry tests trying specifically to solve family mysteries or identify missing or unknown relatives, a lot of people who take ancestry tests are specifically interested in their biogeographical origins. They may not have considered the aspect of being put in contact with genetic relatives through their results. Many test-takers have no genealogical experience and, unlike seasoned genealogists, may be unprepared for how to handle revelations that can destabilise their understanding of their family history.”

Beyond the issue of family secrets, Abel is also keen to remind people to make sure the company they go with is reputable.

“Aside from ancestry testing, there are also plenty of other DNA testing companies that pop up from time to time, offering to provide genetic information on things such as relationship compatibility, warrior genes and superpowers. My advice would be, if what they are offering seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re unsure, there are usually plenty of online reviews from reputable sources that you can check to see if the company is trustworthy, or if what they are promising is worth the money.”