Your DNA can tell a story

Ever wonder where your ancestors came from?

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DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, makes us who we are. Its famous double-helix structure—two strands twisted around each other—was first published scientifically in 1953. While over 99% of DNA in each person is the same, the remaining proportion differentiates us from each other.

ILAN KELMAN
Agder, Norway

Who am I? Where did I come from? Some answers to these eternal questions can be provided by science from many fields. Aside from philosophy, history and archival research can reveal documents about our ancestors. Testing our DNA is another technique.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, makes us who we are. Its famous double-helix structure—two strands twisted around each other—was first published scientifically in 1953. While over 99% of DNA in each person is the same, the remaining proportion differentiates us from each other.

It affects physical characteristics such as height and eye color. It codes for some diseases, possibly inherited or possibly from variations in the DNA. By comparing small differences in each person’s DNA, to some degree, your ancestry can be traced, and your ethnic or racial origins can be determined.

Many Americans immigrated from Norway, so they know that they were born there. Others are told that, generations ago, their ancestors traveled from the Scandinavian area. Clear and verifiable documentation sometimes supports this family history, helping these Americans visit the locations their family departed from.

At other times, you might wish to cross-check your family history, documents might be missing, or there could be uncertainty about the information available. Even proof that you have Norwegian ancestry does not immediately confer a specific ethnic or racial makeup of your genes.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Different DNA test kits can provide information about your genetic makeup and help you put together the puzzle about your origins. Some require a saliva sample. Others require a swab.

DNA testing, typically through private companies, can indicate your ancestral lines and your genetic makeup in terms of race and ethnicity. It can provide pieces of the puzzle about your origins, to be compared and matched with all the other information.

In principle, the process is simple. Order a kit, spit or swab as instructed, send it off, and await the results. In practice, you should investigate the details to ensure that your needs will be fulfilled and that the testing does not cause more problems than it solves.

Different DNA tests exist. The Y-chromosome test is typically for males and traces the male line in ancestry, since mainly males have this chromosome. The mitochondrial test works for anyone, although it traces only the female ancestral line because of how mitochondrial DNA is passed down through generations. The third test, called “single nucleotide polymorphism,” is for anyone and indicates ethnic or racial composition.

Primary considerations include cost and reliability. Increased cost does not always assure more robustness, more detail, or more usability. Before committing to one or more tests or companies, check out what they do, what they provide, and what others have reported about their experiences. Ensure that you understand what you are paying for, that the specific test applies to you, and that it will provide what you seek.

Different levels of specificity can emerge about your ancestry and ethnicity. Sometimes, a percentage of a person’s DNA might be labeled as “unknown” origin. Do the categories “European,” “African,” or “Asian” match your needs, or would you want more detail? Any test has some potential error. How will you interpret the results within this uncertainty?

Another major concern is privacy. You are sending your DNA to a private enterprise. Who owns your saliva or swab? Who owns your DNA? What might be done with your sample and data, other than providing you with results? Would you consider contributing to other endeavors?

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.

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