A problem with communicating human genetic history

1 minute read

Vincent Plagnol in Genomes Unzipped last month wrote about a bad example of public communication of population genetics and DNA ancestry testing: “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”.

One thing we have done in Genomes Unzipped is to report on what is on the market for consumers interested in getting information about their genetic data. While we have found generally positive things to say about this market, there are also many exaggerated claims especially when it comes to making inferences about an individuals ancestors from direct-to-consumer genetics companies. An example came up last summer with a BBC radio 4 interview of Alistair Moffat of Britains DNA. This post will discuss the scientific basis of some of the claims made in the interview.

Now, Genomes Unzipped has published a response from Jim Wilson, chief scientist of BritainsDNA: “Response to ‘Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing’”.

The two posts are a useful example of the problems communicating human population history and human variation. We know that 10-year-old descriptions of human mtDNA phylogeography are wrong. But those descriptions are still out there, with people assuming they are close to correct, and companies selling the “information” about where their customers’ mtDNA came from 50,000 years ago.