My Designer Genes

DNA genealogy testing has become all the rage. One of the biggest companies conducting this testing has more than 20 million people in its database. Sad to say, I may be one of them. It turns out that I participated in a DNA research project back in 2006, long before today’s consumer genealogy companies were offering DNA testing to the general public. While I was still working in California, one of my co-workers told me about the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Research Project.

This project was being conducted internationally by a world-renowned researcher who was using DNA samples to determine the migratory paths of prehistoric humans from their point of origin in Central Africa. By looking for the slight mutations (genetic markers) that have occurred on the male Y-chromosome, and passed down from father to son over the millennia, he could track where your prehistoric ancestors had migrated over the past 60,000 years. 

Anyone could participate in the project if they paid $90 for the sampling kit. It was painless. All you had to do was swab the inside of your cheek, put it in a test tube full of special liquid, and mail it back to the research headquarters. My friend had submitted his sample a few weeks earlier and proudly showed me the report he had just received. His Y-chromosome had two genetic markers, and the 8×10-inch world map that came with the report had an inch-long arrow extending from Central Africa to the Middle East. The half-page of text indicated his prehistoric ancestors were hunter/gatherers who had slowly moved northward following the herds of plains animals.

A few weeks later, I received my report. I couldn’t help but notice that mine was considerably longer than my friend’s. My Y-chromosome had six genetic markers, and the spaghetti-bowl pattern of arrows on my migration map looked like a map of the London underground.  If my friend’s prehistoric ancestors were nomads, mine were globetrotters. 

About 45,000 years ago, while my friend’s ancestors were still chasing antelope across the Middle East, mine were populating all of Northern Europe. My report detailed how they survived the Ice Age by building animal skin shelters and sewing watertight clothing. They also perfected the process of making flint arrowheads. About 35,000 years ago, they produced the exquisite cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain. Around 10,000 years ago, they domesticated the horse. And just for good measure, they developed the Indo-European languages, including English, the Romance languages, Farsi and many of India’s dialects.

It was kind of embarrassing. It’s a good thing the research project only included prehistoric people from more than 10,000 years ago. Otherwise, I suspect my more recent ancestors would have invented the printing press and painted the Sistine Chapel. To tell the truth, I was a bit reluctant to show the report to my co-worker.  After all, he was the guy who convinced me to participate in the first place. It was like his convincing me to buy a lottery ticket and finding out I won the jackpot.  Fortunately, our friendship survived. But you can understand why I haven’t participated in any of the more recent DNA genealogy tests.

Aside from the risk of humiliating friends, there are several other problems caused by DNA testing. For example, my daughter’s boyfriend recently had his DNA tested and found out he had 2 percent Neanderthal DNA in his genes. Red flag there, sweetheart. Having survived my school years during the era of the Polack joke, the last thing I need is to find out there’s a Neanderthal skeleton in my closet.

Another relative of mine, who has lived in Iowa her entire life, recently found out that she has two previously unknown siblings living in Texas. And she hadn’t even taken a DNA test herself. Somehow, through other relatives’ tests, the siblings found her. And I was worried about Neanderthals. Just imagine someone shaking your family tree and having a couple of Texans drop on you. 

I’m not looking for any more siblings. One brother has proven to be quite enough. Though I must admit, I’m not all that certain we are related. He’s big, athletic, good looking, a computer whiz, a chess master, and a champion bridge player. I’m . . . well, you get the picture.

And there are plenty of stories about serial killers who got caught decades later because some distant relative took a DNA test. The killer himself had never submitted a DNA sample. Once the police suspected him, they got his DNA off a discarded coffee cup. What’s the world coming to? Do I need to start burning my Starbucks cups to protect all the lunatics in my family? It’s getting like the Caribbean Island where people have to bury their fingernail clippings so some voodoo witch doctor can’t put a hex on them.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be taking any DNA tests soon. I would feel terrible if a SWAT team descended upon my brother just because I wanted to find out if Gypsies had left me on my parents’ doorstep. Oh well, not to worry. I’m sure that if my brother harbored any homicidal tendencies, I’d have been in that closet with the Neanderthal skeleton years ago.

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Larry Kolczak
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