23andme and the Cold Case

August 15, 2013

By way of brief introduction, I last discussed the 23andme genetic screening service in the context of their belated adoption of IRB oversight and interloper paternity rates. You may also be interested in Ed Yong’s (or his euro-caucasoid doppelganger’s) results.

Today’s topic is brought to you by a comment from my closest collaborator on a fascinating low-N developmental biology project.

This collaborator raised a point that extends from my prior comment on the paternity post.

But, and here’s the rub, the information propagates. Let’s assume there is a mother who knows she had an affair that produced the kid or a father who impregnated someone unknown to his current family. Along comes the 23 and me contact to their child? Grandchild? Niece or nephew? Brother or sister? And some stranger asks them, gee, do you have a relative with these approximate racial characteristics, of approximately such and such age, who was in City or State circa 19blahdeblah? And then this person blast emails their family about it? or posts it on Facebook?

It also connects with a number of issues raised by the fact that 23andme markets to adoptees in search of their genetic relatives. This service is being used by genealogy buffs of all stripes and one can not help but observe that one of the more ethically complicated results will be the identification of unknown genetic relationships. As I alluded to above, interloper paternity may be identified. Also, one may find out that a relative gave a child up for adoption…or that one fathered a child in the past and was never informed.

That’s all very interesting but today’s topic relates to crimes in which DNA evidence has been left behind. At present, so far as I understand, the DNA matching is to people who have already crossed the law enforcement threshold. In fact there was a recent broughha over just what sort of “crossing” of the law enforcement threshold should permit the cops to take your DNA if I am not mistaken. This does not good, however, if the criminal has never come to the attention of law enforcement.

Ahhhh, but what if the cops could match the DNA sample left behind by the perpetrator to a much larger database. And find a first or second cousin or something? This would tremendously narrow the investigation, wouldn’t it?

It looks like 23andme is all set to roll over for whichever enterprising police department decides to try.

From the Terms of Service.

Further, you acknowledge and agree that 23andMe is free to preserve and disclose any and all Personal Information to law enforcement agencies or others if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process (such as a judicial proceeding, court order, or government inquiry) or obligations that 23andMe may owe pursuant to ethical and other professional rules, laws, and regulations; (b) enforce the 23andMe TOS; (c) respond to claims that any content violates the rights of third parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of 23andMe, its employees, its users, its clients, and the public.

Looks to me that all the cops would need is a warrant. Easy peasy.

__
h/t to Ginny Hughes [Only Human blog] for cuing me to look over the 23andme ToS recently.

http://www.youtube.com/user/belinda243?v=0P5qlek08Wc

http://www.youtube.com/user/belinda243?v=0P5qlek08Wchttp://

Over at the Salon, a Dear Prudie column discusses the issue of miss-attributed parentage.

My husband was estranged from his parents for many years. He reached out to them when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They didn’t have enough time to discuss and resolve their past, but they were at peace with each other when he died. Now my husband’s parents wish to keep in touch with me and my toddler-age son, as he is the only link they have to their only child. The problem is that my son is not my husband’s biological child. I had an affair

So the interesting part here is the growing trend for personal genetic services such as 23 and me. Among other things that you can do with 23 and me is to identify possible relatives in their database. As in, strangers who you don’t know are related to you, perhaps as closely as a 2nd or even 1st cousin (yikes). You might also have known family who are also 23 and me users, of course.

See where we’re going with this?

A simple search for nonpaternity on PubMed pulls up some interesting studies.

Wolf et al 2012 used human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing to estimate a nonpaternity rate of 0.94% in a sample of 971 German children.

Voracek et al, 2008 conducted a meta-analysis of 32 published samples from 1932-1993 and identified a decline in nonpaternity over time. The mean and median rate was 3.1%, btw.

Li and Lao, 2008 and Lucast 2007 discuss the ethics of discovering nonpaternity during medical screening and research studies. These types of works touch most directly on the Dear Prudie issue, I reckon. The 23 and me era presents interesting new possibilities. There is no longer any professional “genetic counselor” intermediary or paternalistic physician deciding whether to “tell”. People might find each other more or less automatically and contact each other through the 23 and me website. But, and here’s the rub, the information propagates. Let’s assume there is a mother who knows she had an affair that produced the kid or a father who impregnated someone unknown to his current family. Along comes the 23 and me contact to their child? Grandchild? Niece or nephew? Brother or sister? And some stranger asks them, gee, do you have a relative with these approximate racial characteristics, of approximately such and such age, who was in City or State circa 19blahdeblah? And then this person blast emails their family about it? or posts it on Facebook?

Williams 2005 shows how paternity can affect major societal knowledge such as the infamous Jefferson/Hemings case.

Cerda-Flores et al 1999 found a 8.1% interloper rate but discuss the issue of being able to exclude fathers based on blood group systems. The very earliest literature on PubMed clearly focused on these issues, i.e., how to use the available imprecise markers to come up with statistical probabilities. The new era of personal genetic identification presumably improves substantially on these issues.

There are more articles and you can scan them for yourself. But I’ll end on two key notes. First, clearly this is a nightmare issue for people who are looking into rare genetic variants that are related to disease because the familial patterning is so important. It is critical to know who the father really was to keep the dataset valid and clean. Second, there seems to be a rumor of 10% nonpaternity that floats about in the literature, perhaps as a lasting straw argument or from some early flawed dataset. What the more recent studies seem to conclude is that this is an overestimate.

Or, you know, you could just read Dear Prudie’s response which includes:

But I don’t think your late husband’s parents need to hear this. … And I don’t see any reason to deprive your child of a potential inheritance.

A recent HuffPo piece on that rather flagrant bit of cover trolling from TIME magazine irritates me.
Read the rest of this entry »


All joking aside, the mothership is proudly announcing a new partnership with that giant of science communication, National Geographic. You can read about it here, here, here.
Sample coverage notes:

ScienceBlogs, the science-related blogging platform owned in part by NYC-based Seed Media Group and German publisher Hubert Burda, has cut a strategic deal with National Geographic Digital Media, the digital arm of NatGeo. Under the deal, NatGeo will take a minority stake in the platform, and will also take over the ad sales for the network of specialized blogs, headed by Jim Hoos, VP of Digital Media Sales for NGDM. The two companies will create and exchange content, including video content.

To be honest DearReader, I don’t know anything more than this. Unknown how this new arrangement will affect your enjoyment of the Scienceblogs in general or this blog in particular. I do have this memory of a certain picture published a long time ago in National Geographic which I’d love to use to illustrate how much it sucks to be the grad student, though… hmm.

First off, if you are not at least an occasional reader of Tetrapod Zoology, I don’t know how you could possibly live with yourself. Fossils and charismatic species galore.
Although I thought I’d heard it all, this recent entry introduces a whole ‘nother brand of nuts.

…philosopher David Pearce is honestly proposing that we should feel ethically compelled to eradicate all suffering and cruelty from the natural world in order to create a sort of global vegan paradise where predators don’t exist. Pearce terms this the Abolitionist Project (for more on Pearce and his ideas see this wikipedia article). His plans are, as discussed in depth on his website, theoretically plausible and involve such things as the use of brain implants, behaviour-modifying drugs, and genetic manipulation. Eventually, the lion will, literally, lie down with the lamb, hyaenas will not feel compelled to eat baby elephants alive, and – I presume – ladybirds will not eat aphids, and so on

>blink<

This would be totally cool. No, really.
As noted over at Grrl Scientist’s blog, Quark Expeditions is running a contest to select a blogger to join them for a trip to Antarctica.

Quark Expeditions is searching for an Official Blogger to join a voyage to Antarctica. Do you have a passion for the polar regions? A commitment to the environment? An insatiable urge to photograph penguins?

Hello? A blogger who specializes in photographs and ecology and genes and behavior and all bloody things bird? Who else could possible be better than Sb’s own Grrl Scientist at blogging an expedition? I mean, d00d, she even handles cold weather!
As of today I notice that Grrl is sitting in second place with 243 votes, close behind the current leader at 251. The two next-best placed folks are at 118 and 100 votes. That’s it? A few hundred votes* is going to decide this thing? Get cracking people! Go over there and vote for Grrl.
__
*The need to register in order to vote may be cutting down the numbers a bit so be prepared to make a few extra clicks. It’ll be worth it!