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Not white? Ancestry services do not work so well. Companies are looking for fixes.



Ever wondered where you came from? How did everyone want to look far back? Really, really far behind?

In addition to calling your oldest relative and combing your family tree, there is an industry that wants to help: Genetic ancestry directly to consumers, from Ancestry.com to 23andMe. They say they offer a way to dive into your heritage, possibly track down some skeletons in your genetic cabinet and really limit what percentage of what ethnicity lives in your genes.

But when colored people use these products, they often do not live up to the hype.

Michael Kim in Chicago has figured it out the hard way. He bought an Ancestry.com kit, spit into the tube to make his DNA available, and sent it inside.

"I'm Korean. At home, when we grew up, we had a leather-bound book that needed to be 6 inches thick. That's like the national register of every clan there is," Kim said. "So I was hoping for some kind of surprise."

Weeks later he received an e-mail stating that the results had arrived. Like a college admissions letter, he desperately clicked through the Ancestry.com page to log in. 1

9659002] His results: He is 100 percent from Asia.

That's as deep as it is. His result was accompanied by a world map with the Asian continent, which reached from Russia to Indonesia. Almost a quarter of the earth is orbited by a yellow highlighter.

"I think at one level it was funny at first, but on another level it was just a bit of a disappointment," Kim said. "It's like taking a Chinese and throwing it in a movie as a Japanese, it's just that all Asians collapse."

The product of Ancestry.com can narrow down the origin of humans to 289 regions in Europe, but it has only four regions for all of Asia. Kim's ethnic assessment assumes that he comes from the Asian East, an area that includes Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Myanmar, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Palau includes. 19659002] To analyze a client's DNA, these lineage products compare one person's DNA to another in their database. The comparison looks for genetic similarities to narrow down which part of the world others have the same genetic makeup.

Kim's results resulted from comparing his DNA and finding 645 individuals in their database with similar genetic makeup. That's 645 people from an area that covers almost a quarter of the world, including the world's most populous country.

"The data behind our product experience is a combination of publicly available data and our customer database," Ancestry.com spokesman said in an email. "With more and more people doing DNA testing, we can provide more accurate information about their family history."

Kim is not alone in his experience with a genealogy product.

"I did a 23andMe DNA test and was appalled that the European was so overrated that he did not even discover my non-European heritage at first, except for less than 1 percent," Sayeeda Malachi wrote in one E-mail.

She said that her background is West Asia / Middle East, German, Dutch and Italian / Balkan.

"I discovered that their reference population for West Asia / Middle East is very small compared to their reference population for Europeans, and yet West Asia is no less diverse than the four major groups that have spawned modern Europe," Malachi said.

Now, after some public criticism, genetic lineage services across the board hope to make their genetic databases racially more robust. Ancestry.com says it is updating its algorithm to provide more granular results and staying abreast of public projects that focus on understanding global genetic diversity.

23andMe hopes to speed up this process. This summer, it will award scholarships to researchers to get more DNA samples into their system.

"Not so long ago, the most important [genetic] studies began and were conducted mainly in the US and Europe." said Joanna Mountain, Senior Director of Research at 23andMe. "There is still a long way to go in terms of genetic studies representing the entire globe."

Berg said the underrepresented countries for 23andMe would be countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

Like Ancestry .com, 23andMe relies on genetic data from previous customers and publicly available data. It does a bit of a catch-22 – to improve its product, 23andMe needs more people of color to buy its kits, but people of color will not buy them unless they provide worthwhile information.

This creates a business problem. The outward-facing part of companies like 23andMe is to provide people with an ancestral service, but what they do with that data is the core of their business.

"23andMe is also working on developing drugs in the therapeutics department and pharmaceutical customers, but if it can only look at Caucasian DNA, these treatments may be less effective for non-white patients," Megan Molteni wrote on Wired .com.

23andMe hopes that by providing grants to researchers working in areas that are underrepresented in their data, their entire records can be improved.

"We have benefited from clients with diverse backgrounds," Mountain said. "But there are gaps."

And then she is on bigger goals.

"I look beyond geography," said Berg, "and also think about cultural and linguistic groups."


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