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Podcast Review: DNA and Me

7 December 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1075

'Where are we walking into now dad?' asks reporter Sophia Smith Galer. Her dad replies: 'The graveyard of St John's in Loughton, Essex.'

This is the opening line to DNA and Me, a podcast about direct-to-consumer DNA tests and identity, produced by the BBC. Over the course of 30 minutes, we follow Smith Galer's dad as he visits the graves of his parents and the places where he grew up. He reflects on his childhood and how it felt discovering the identity of his biological dad late in life. Along the way we hear two personal stories about cultural identity, and Professor Nick Bostrom, from Oxford University, gives a brief overview of what our genes can tell us.

I'm fascinated by the rising popularity of 'home DNA tests' so I was looking forward to listening to this podcast. Yet, despite my enthusiasm and the intriguing start, I thought the podcast under-delivered.

In the first half of the podcast, Smith Galer explains why her dad took a DNA test and reads out a list of his health results and traits. These include having a slightly increased risk of early-onset Alzhemier's disease, a 50:50 chance of being able to match musical pitch and a likelihood of waking up around 6:30am. Smith Galer seems impressed by the accuracy of the results. She says that it's weird to think the things she thought were just 'quirks' are possibly dictated by genetic make-up.

As I listen to these comments, I'm reminded of how easy it is to over interpret the results. I'm disappointed that Smith Galer doesn't question the data or mention any caveats. Even the most comprehensive DNA tests only look at a few percent of the billions of base pairs that make up a human genome. And most of the things they pick up are of questionable importance or value. An expert's interpretation would have been useful here. Alternatively, Smith Galer could have skipped straight to the 'family and friends' results. These are generated by matching relatives in databases based on the amount of DNA they share.

This brings us swiftly on to the second half of the podcast, which begins with Smith Galer briefly explaining how a DNA test revealed the identity of her biological grandad. We're then transported to the USA - the biggest consumer market of DNA tests - where we meet two women who reflect on how a DNA test shaped their cultural identity.

Robin Dellabough, writer and poet, tells us that she felt affirmed to discover she's 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Christine Michel Carter, writer and global marketing strategist, shares her reaction to growing up as a black woman who later found out that she's 32 percent white.

It was interesting hearing these personal stories, but I was hoping the podcast would probe further into the potential social and psychological disruption these tests can have. It also made me think about the many millions of people who are likely taking these tests and giving away their rights to very personal information without much concern.

In the final interview, Professor Bostrom talks about why these kits are so alluring and warns against over or underestimating the impact of genes. It a shame this interview was so short. I wanted to hear more about the research that might help us unpick the genetics of behaviour traits and what ethical impact that might have.

The podcast ends with Smith Galer asking her dad how he felt discovering the identity of his biological dad. Despite expressing that he doesn't feel any different, Smith Galer pushed him to say otherwise. This didn't come across well and it took the podcast off topic and to an abrupt end.

Unfortunately, I didn't learn much from this podcast, but there was one line that stood out to me: 'Identity is made up of a lot more than a DNA test can tell us.'

I would recommend this podcast if you're interested in hearing real-life stories of people who've taken a DNA test. For anyone wanting more balanced, in-depth discussions, I would suggest reading the related reviews and comments below.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
DNA and me
BBC |  14 July 2020
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