Can most Americans be identified by a relative's DNA? Maybe soon

So many people have had their DNA sequenced that they've put other people's privacy in jeopardy

So many people have had their DNA sequenced that they've put other people's privacy in jeopardy

And the way the genomic genealogy business is booming, that number is slated to jump to more than 90 per cent in the not-so-distant future. Third cousins share great-great-grandparents. Furthermore, using publicly available genealogical records, Erlich et al. demonstrate that once one or more relatives are found, the identity of an individual can be determined through family lineages combined with specific demographic information, such as approximate age or area of residence.

To reach these findings, the team sifted through a dataset of 1.28 million anonymous USA citizens from MyHeritage's database, which overwhelmingly contained people of northern European descent. Because most genetic test companies allow their customers to download files of their raw genetic information, this has spurred third-party services from other companies, including GEDmatch, which allows people to upload their raw data for additional analysis, such as ancestry searches. In contrast ancestry databases look for differences in single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) across hundreds of thousands of sites in the genome.

"A forensics database is run on a different type of marker, and many fewer - in the order of 20". After finding the identities of the distant relatives turned up by the database, the police started working down the family tree and seeing who fit the description of the killer.

This is where direct-to-consumer genealogy services shine - and they are big business. The results underscore the power of rapidly growing consumer genomic databases and suggest a need for policies created to both ensure people's genetic privacy and to prevent the misuse of publicly available genetic information.

They found plenty: 60 percent of the 1.28 million people were matched with a relative who was at least as close as a third cousin, and 15 percent had a relative who was at least as close as a second cousin.

Defense attorney Joe Cress stands next to his client Joseph James DeAngelo, who appears in Sacramento Superior Court on June 1, 2018, in Sacramento, California.

Police had DNA from DeAngelo's alleged crimes, but it didn't match with anyone in their forensic databases.

The other essential element is the proliferation of publicly searchable genealogy databases like GEDmatch. Eventually, they ended up with the 72-year-old DeAngelo.

This narrowed down their search for a suspect. They eliminated all the men from the sample, then those who were not alive when the Utah woman's DNA was sequenced.

One of the pathologists had preserved a DNA sample from the killer, and this allowed the cold case investigators to go back, resequence and identify more genetic markers than found in typical forensic reports, Rosenberg explained.

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This isn't Dr Erlich's first foray into genetic tracing.

"I am concerned we will have some moment of reckoning - "Oh, we should have done something five years ago", he says.

With the recent rise in genealogy databases, could they harness those resources to trace anyone from their genome?

"Once we saw the success in catching the Golden State Killer, we thought we should quantify this success rate and think about strategies to mitigate misuse", Dr Erlich said.

A cryptographic signature would ensure that the genomic data being uploaded to the database was from a direct-to-consumer company, and not taken from a research repository, for instance.

"We are on our way to get to the point that virtually anyone will have a third cousin in those databases", said Yaniv Erlich, the chief science officer at the MyHeritage website, and senior author of the study.

Dr Curtis said that a technological platform will be an essential part of the solution, but "there won't be a magic bullet".

Ram says genetic data should be constitutionally protected from illegal search and seizure much like a person's email or telephone data.

A U.S. survey published last week found most respondents supported the practice, particularly when the objective was to identify perpetrators of violent crimes and crimes against children. Nonetheless, one case involved a crime from April 2018, suggesting that some law enforcement agencies have incorporated long-range familial DNA searches into active investigations.

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