High school students uncover their past through their DNA

Students at Soldan International High School are participating in an amazing experiment and breaking ground that most science teachers fear to tread.

Soldan students, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, are participating in the National Geographic's Genographic Project. Through this project, students send in cheek swabs, DNA is isolated from the cheek cells, and genetic markers are used to look at ancestry.

Genetic markers in the mitochondrial DNA are used to trace ancestry through the maternal line and markers on the Y chromosome can be used to learn about one's father.

Most science instructors steer clear of these sorts of activities because there is a real possibility that children might learn some things in class that their parents would prefer remain secret. Any science instructor who's had to find a really creative way to explain why a student has the "wrong blood type" based on their parentage, will appreciate that analyzing Y chromosomes has potential for trouble.

I wonder how the teachers at Soldan will answer those questions.


From ASCD news brief and the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

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Thanks for mentioning this study - I had no idea that National Geographic had this Project -or that its actually open to the public as well!! I've heard of some of the other gimmicks that are out there - paintings based on your actual DNA and some others, but hadn't seen this one yet. I think I'm just curious enough to shell out the $100 to try this out.

By Christopher (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

Will everyone get their personal information back? Or will the samples be stripped of personal information, so that no individual will have access to his/her own data?

As far as I know, from the newspaper report, the students will get their results. That is, they will find out something about the ancestry of their mitochondria (mother) and their Y chromosome (father).

I'm pretty certain that the students will not get the DNA sequences, or the chromatograms.

You get information about the groups giving rise to your mt and (for males) Y chromosome groups but not the sequence itself. You can log on to a Web site to see the routes your ancestors probably traveled out of Eastern Africa. Your data goes into a general database stripped of identifiers, but you can also volunteer to be in a database that keeps more identifiers.

By Jennifer Weller (not verified) on 15 Nov 2007 #permalink

I wondered the same thing you did and I raised the question on http://www.thegeneticgenealogist.com/2007/11/15/genetic-genealogy-in-th…. There seems to be a group of bloggers who are overly enthusiastic about genetic testing and haven't thought very much about the ethical consequences.

I don't think it's a good idea to pressure every student in the class to go ahead with genetic testing. What would happen if the father is all in favor of allowing it but the mother doesn't want her daughter/son to get the test?

There is a longer answer on my blog, but I just wanted to leave a shorter version here. Let me say that the chance of detecting non-paternal (or the neutral non-parental term) events is one of the greatest concerns of genetic genealogy. On the flip side, I would caution that genetic genealogy is really just a subset of genetic testing; there are fewer ethical concerns than for whole genome sequencing or disease testing. I am vastly interested in the ethical concerns related to genetic genealogy and genetic testing, and I am currently writing a law review article on that very topic.

Although there is surely a chance of there BEING a non-parental event in a large group of students, the chance of CONCLUDING that there was a non-parental event is quite small. Most genetic genealogy companies return a list of allele numbers (12 alleles for the Genographic Project) for Y-DNA or a list of mutations for mtDNA along with a probable haplogroup designation. Armed with that knowledge, how is a student going to determine that there was a non-parental event?

For instance, with mtDNA, unless the student is planning to compare that with a relative in the female line, there is very little chance that the results will support the conclusion that there was a non-parental event. Even if the haplogroup is far different from what was predicted, that certainly does not suggest that there was a recent non-parental event. The same is essentially true for Y-DNA.

And if the students add their results to one of the public databases, they would have to find both a close hit, and a close hit that would support the finding of a non-parental event. The chances seem to be extremely small (but growing, perhaps, as the databases get larger).

I think it would be a great idea to get parental permission for tests like these, since they have the potential to involve the entire family. And if the parents say no, there is always the DoggieDNA test!

Thanks for the comments everyone,

You brought up an interesting point Blaine that I'm going to repeat since it's such a good one.

There is a DNA test for dogs! A friend of mine, who teaches high school, is using this with her class and she says her student love testing their dog's DNA. I think that's a great alternative.

I have a post on my blog. I think I got the info from Science Daily. It's titled Your personal genetic code Handed to you! It is in the October archives here: http://www.specialtimescience.org/2007/10/your-complete-personal-geneti….
I believe they are predicting that within 5 years you will be able to go to your doctor and shortly thereafter have them hand you a digital storage device with your complete genetic code!
This all speaks to the Genie and the bottle you mentioned earlier. I think not only is the genetic Genie getting out, but she is bringing a lot of other friends along. like the plethora of questions in other fields like ethics, legal, personal ( child and parental) privacy and many others.
I don't want to sound defeatist, and of course I am open to have anyone state anything to the contrary but I think the open genome project is here to stay so we need to accept that and try to come up with medical, political, etc. structures to best contain the Genie for good.
Dave Briggs :~)