Most people who try genetic testing find long lost family members — but there is a dark side

WACO, Texas — More than 80 percent of people who use genetic testing to locate long lost family members strike gold, new data reveals. That can be very exciting news for many — and it may also be crushing for others. Finding distant relatives can bring families closer, but using DNA testing services to find relatives can also reveal dark secrets, researchers say.

There has been a boom in people researching their family history following the popularity, and now a growing number of people are using genetic genealogy to find distant relatives and retrace their family trees. But how effective these relative-finding services are and whether people find what they are looking for has remained a mystery.

The study from Baylor University researchers concludes that most people who sign up for direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic or relative-finding services are happy with the results. But for some, like those who discover their parents are not who they thought, the results can be very different.

“Everyone on our team is involved in studying the ethical, legal, and social implications of DTC genetic testing, and we’ve been paying attention to stories in the media about individuals who’ve made surprising family discoveries from these tests and relative-matching services,” says lead author Dr. Christi Guerrini, from the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, in a statement. “We wanted to understand if these and other kinds of discoveries are common, how they’re experienced by those making the discoveries, and what people are doing as a result.”

Genetic testing survey results

A survey asking people how the discovery of previously unknown relatives affected their lives was carried out by the researchers. It was sent to around one million people who had used genetic testing and relative-finder services, of which 26,000 responded.

Participants cited a variety of reasons for choosing to use these DNA testing services, including wanting to learn more about their family or filling in their family tree. Searching for a biological parent, child or other relative was also commonly cited, as well as investigating a suspicion that they might not be related to a family member.

“It seems that many – perhaps most, are just curious about their families and interested in building out their family trees, but it’s clear that quite a lot of participants are looking for someone or hoping to confirm something in particular,” says Guerrini. “It might be that they’re adopted and looking for a biological parent, or that they’ve always felt out of place in their family and want to see if there’s something to that feeling. Or they might be looking for information about a branch of their family tree that’s unknown to them, or to confirm a family story that’s been passed down over the years.”

The majority of respondents (82 percent) wound up learning the identity of at least one genetic relative, the researchers report. Around 10 percent of those who discovered an unknown family member identified a biological grandparent. Likewise, 10 percent identified a full or half sibling, while seven per cent stumbled upon a biological father.

Participants were then asked whether they had chosen to contact their new found relative and why. They were also asked whether their discovery resulted in any life changes, including in terms of health. The high number of participants who found close relatives could be skewed by the type of people who choose to use relative finding services, the researchers warn.

“Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question with our data, but I’m very interested in trying to do so in future research,” says Guerrini.

While many people enjoy tracking down long lost family members, for some it can end badly. “In future research, we’d like to better understand those outcomes and what resources could be helpful in managing them,” she concludes.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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