Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Tag: genetics

Do DNA Tests Sell Rosy Ideas About Race for Profit?

Earlier this year,  the online DNA testing company Ancestry.com faced a media firestorm and social media backlash after posting a controversial ad on its YouTube page.

The DNA testing company Ancestry.com took down its ad, “Inseparable,” in April 2019 in response to criticism that it romanticized slavery.

Titled “Inseparable,” the 30-second ad depicted a white man in the antebellum South asking an African-American woman to flee to the North with him. Before the woman can answer, the piece cuts to a tagline: “Only you can keep the story going. Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.” Many criticized the ad’s historical inaccuracy, showcasing a rosier portrayal of a complicated past. To extinguish flames, Ancestry completely pulled the ad from its platforms.

A recent Duke study of dozens of other ads across multiple DNA testing companies shows that this isn’t the only example of mixed messaging about race and identity from the world of genetic ancestry tests.

The tests are quite simple: order a kit, send off a saliva sample and receive an ethnicity estimate within weeks. A test taker’s ethnicity is broken down into percentages based off their DNA matches compared to a globally referenced DNA database. Kits can range in price from $79 to$400. Sales of DNA testing kits had reached 12 million people by 2017, as reported by ScienceLine.

As part of the six-week summer research program Story+, Duke students Dakota Douglas, Mona Tong and Madelyn Winchester analyzed the messaging in 90 video ads from the companies 23andMe, AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA to see what they promise consumers.

Many of the ads lured customers with promises of a newfound identity and possible family members, the team found. One Ancestry.com ad, entitled “Kyle,” depicts a customer whose childhood was steeped in German culture, but discovers as an adult that he is also part Scottish and Irish. He happily “traded in his lederhosen for a kilt,” completely forgoing his previous heritage and reducing a newly discovered culture to stereotypes.

“There were a lot of advertisements similar to that one,” said team member Mona Tong. “Many found a new identity embracing it fully despite a lack of any cultural connections.”

“Kyle” illustrates a phenomenon described in a 2018 study from the University of British Columbia, which found that people tended to “cherry-pick” the results, identifying more with certain ethnicities and cultures to appear different. Whites were more likely to see their results as “transformational” than their nonwhite counterparts.

“It’s not a bad idea to test your genes for medical reasons,” said Patricia Bass, the team’s project mentor. “However, these ads can be misleading by assuming that someone’s cultural and racial heritage are determined by genes.”

While the majority of subjects featured within the ads were white, the few ads that featured people of color often glossed over the complicated history of someone’s lineage or conveniently left out difficult topics. Ancestry’s “Anthem” ad detailed historical reenactments of an African tribal women, prohibition gangsters, a man fleeing England for America and Native Americans somberly heading to a new land. A voiceover speaks with inspiration ending with a shot of a biracial woman.

In marketing the idea that we are all one, the ads fetishized mixed-race subjects, while ignoring the genocide and displacement of people, the team found.

The team hopes future research will further examine the impact of these ads on people’s view of identity. Importantly, one could note if there were any focus groups to test these ads before release.

“It furthers the idea of colorblindness,” Tong said. “It assumes that relationships are contingent upon common ancestry and genes.”

“In a way, companies are trying to help by focusing on the interconnectivity and commonalities between people,” Tong said. “But it hurts more than it helps.”

Story+ is a six-week undergraduate research program offered through the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and Bass Connections, with support from the Duke University Libraries and Versatile Humanists at Duke.

By Deja Finch

Scents Are Key to Lemur Nightlife

LEMUR SUPERPOWER #457:  Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts sufficient to kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. To add to their list of superpowers, lemurs also have especially keen powers of scent.

Buried in the nose of Fuggles the mouse lemur are specialized pheromone receptors that help her distinguish friend from foe in the dark of night, when mouse lemurs are active.

By Robin Ann Smith

If you could pick one superpower, consider taking inspiration from lemurs. Some lemurs can safely digest cyanide in amounts that would kill an elephant. Others can enter hibernation-like states to survive periods when food and water are in short supply. Still others have keen powers of scent, with the ability to find mates and avoid enemies in the darkness by smell alone.

Research by biologist and Duke Lemur Center director Anne Yoder suggests that the molecular machinery for sniffing out pheromones — much of which has gone defunct in humans and many other primates — is still alive and well in lemurs and lorises, our distant primate cousins.

Lemurs use scents to mark the boundaries of their territories, distinguish males from females and figure out whether another animal is friend or foe. When a lemur gets a whiff of another animal, specialized pheromone receptors in the lining of the nose transmit the information to the brain, triggering instinctive urges like mating, defense and avoiding predators.

The receptors are proteins encoded by a family of genes called V1Rs. First identified in rats in the mid-1990s, V1R genes are found in animals ranging from lampreys to humans. But the proportion of these pheromone-detection genes that actually functions varies greatly from one species to the next, Yoder said last week in a roundtable discussion hosted by Duke’s Science & Society program.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Randy the ring-tailed lemur scent-marks his territory. Photo by David Haring.

Studies suggest that as much as 90% to 100% of the pheromone-detection genes in humans consist of disabled pieces of DNA, called pseudogenes.

“Our pheromone-detection genes are so boring — we don’t have many of them, and almost all of them are broken,” Yoder said.

But in lemurs and lorises — whose ancestors split off from the rest of the primate family tree more than 60 million years ago — the proportion of pheromone-detection genes that is still intact is much higher.

In a study published this year, Yoder and colleagues analyzed the DNA of 19 species and subspecies of lemurs and lorises, looking for subtle differences in their V1R genes. They found that one group — the mouse lemurs — has the highest proportion of intact V1R sequences of any mammal yet studied.

To find out which genes are linked to which scents, Yoder and her colleagues plan to take DNA sequences from pheromone-detecting genes in lemurs, insert them into mice, and expose the mice to different scents to see how they respond.

An ability to sniff out the right mates — and avoid being seduced by the wrong suitors — may have served as a mating barrier that allowed lemur species to diverge after arriving in their island home of Madagascar, helping to explain how the more than 70 living species of lemurs came to be, Yoder says.

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