Are you curious about your family history-- and where your ancestors once lived?
Tracing your lineage through a paper trail of documents can only take you back so far.
Genetics, however, contain the keys to unlock more distant pieces of your past.
Perhaps you've seen the ads, on air or online, for companies claiming they can tell you where your ancestors lived - just by looking at your DNA.
Four major companies that provide this service are Family Tree DNA, established in 2000; the Genographic Project through National Geographic, started in 2005; 23andMe, launched in 2007; and AncestryDNA, which first offered its product in 2012.
As the Genographic Project director Spencer Wells explains on National Geographic's website: "Your DNA contains a roadmap all the way back through time to those common ancestors. It's as if they were dropping breadcrumbs on your DNA to let you find your way back home."
Depending on the company, a customer sends either a sample of spit or a swab from inside the cheek. (The container for collecting that sample is in each of the purchased kits.) The DNA in that sample allows the companies to evaluate a person's ethnicity.
"It'll even tell you what fraction of your DNA is from what part of the world: European, African, Asian, Australian, Native American and so on," Wells explains. "These regional patterns of variation allow us to track the migratory paths of your ancestors. By looking at where in the world your (genetic) markers are found, you can figure out where you came from...Your own DNA tells an incredible story of how your ancestors embarked on an epic journey."
Paula Poole is a schoolteacher in Sevierville and excitedly awaiting her results from AncestryDNA, which she hopes will help her answer the questions, "Where do I fit in and who am I?"
Adopted at 2 months old, Poole reconnected with her biological mother and two half-sisters in 2013.
"My mother and I just embraced, and it was the sweetest, most needed hug," Poole recalled. "This whole time she'd been waiting on me and this whole time I'd been searching for her, and the circle had finally became complete."
Now, she wants to know more.
"I found Ancestry commercials just amazing," Poole said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, people can have their DNA tested and know where their ancestors came from. This is a miracle for me!'"
But...do the tests work?
Bruce McKee is a professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology at the University of Tennessee, who said the tests are "based on well-established information."
"There are specific mitochondrial DNA patterns that are indicative of heritage from certain parts of the world, and so (those tests) could tell you that," McKee said. "If you're a man, they could do the same thing with the Y chromosome."
While she waits, Poole wonders how similar her results will be to those of her biological great-uncle, who tested his DNA through 23andMe.
"There was a lot of Spanish (in his results)," Poole said. "I'm expecting at least one surprise."
However, McKee said, take results with a grain of salt.
"Research on the origins of humans is constantly changing. It's a very hot area, and so some of the interpretations might change," he said.
Overall, McKee said, learning this information can't hurt, adding he thinks "people should have a right to that kind of information if they want it."
"I think it would help us connect better as humans," Poole said, "to find things in common."
Prices for the tests range from $99-$199. Some companies offer additional testing for more money.
Also, some companies' databases are so large they've been able to reunite long-lost family members.
Some offer expanded services, such as determining whether someone is a carrier for certain genetic disorders.
"The genetic tests themselves are pretty reliable, and you can find out if you carry certain well-identified mutations that will cause cystic fibrosis, for example," McKee said.
As a spokesperson for the US Food and Drug Administration explained, the federal government does not need to regulate DNA tests that seek to parse out a person's ancestry and heritage.
"Any genetic test that is intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, would be considered a medical device and is subject to FDA oversight," spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer told 10News.
Of those types of tests, only one has been approved, Meyer said. That's 23andMe's direct-to-consumer genetic carrier test for Bloom syndrome.
As a 23andMe spokesperson explained, the company "received marketing authorization for its Bloom Syndrome carrier status test, and the FDA classified other autosomal recessive carrier status tests as class II exempt, meaning that provided they meet the same standard as the Bloom Syndrome carrier report, they do not need to go through FDA premarket review on an individual basis."
"The carrier tests that you got from 23andMe are pretty straightforward," McKee said. "You could find out if you're a carrier or not, but if they came back with a result that you're a carrier, I would think you would want to go talk to a physician about what that means."
WBIR asked each of the four major companies what makes them unique. Their responses are below, listed in the order in which the companies were established.
Company president and CEO Bennett Greenspan said by using Family Tree DNA, people "have the opportunity to find missing family."
Earlier this year, he said, a man used Family Tree DNA and located an 85-year-old half-brother, who had been given up for adoption.
"There's no other way he could've done this because he looked for 40 years," Greenspan told 10News in a phone interview. "In my opinion, this is something that should be done by every adoptee who wants to find out something about their biological parents that they didn't know."
"It's fun stuff!" he added. "You know, it's, 'Am I 65 percent Northwest European and 12 percent Viking and 5 percent native American? Those are the kinds of things that you'll typically find out, and then of course you'll have the opportunity to find family, which is the real reason these tests came into existence."
He said people who have doubts or fears about these direct-to-consumer genetic tests shouldn't be worried.
"In effect, all of us companies are providing coffee. Drink it if you want! Don't drink it if you don't want! There's nothing dangerous in it," he said, "unless you're afraid you're going to find missing family that you don't want to meet."
He said Family Tree DNA offers a wide variety of tests and owns its own laboratory, whereas some of the other companies do not.
More information on Family Tree DNA is available HERE.
A spokesperson for the Genographic Project did not respond to WBIR's request for information. However, information on the project is available HERE.
A company spokesperson said 23andMe does genotyping using a custom chip that looks for some 650,000 known variants within the human genome.
"We hear from customers who were adoptees and found their birth families; siblings who have reunited with parents and vice versa; customers who have gained an insight through a wellness report that inspired a change in diet or lifestyle," spokesperson Evonne Morantes wrote. "The benefits really do run the gamut, and speak to the diversity of the insights our service provides."
Morantes said 23andMe believes in the direct-to-consumer model, "as it is the most efficient way to carry out our mission. To that end we are the first and only genetic service available directly to consumers that includes reports that meet FDA standards."
"Our tests can be used to determine carrier status in adults, but cannot determine if you have two copies of the genetic variant. Each test is most relevant for people of certain ethnicities. The tests are not intended to diagnose a disease, or tell you anything about your risk for developing a disease in the future. On their own, carrier status tests are not intended to tell you anything about the health of your fetus, or your newborn child's risk of developing a particular disease later in life," Morantes wrote.
Learn more about 23andMe HERE.
A company spokesperson said, "AncestryDNA is a natural extension of the work we’ve been doing for 20 years – connecting you more deeply to your family history. We test more than 700,000 genetic markers to link you to ancestors dating back to the 1700s and predict genetic ethnicity from 26 regions around the world."
The company has been talking with the FDA about possible future extensions of the DNA product.
AncestryDNA gets to tap into Ancestry.com's vast and already-existing database of family history and source documents, allowing customers to marry traditional genealogical research with cutting-edge exploration through their own DNA.
"Our DNA product started with a unique value proposition, leveraging our robust subscriber service to provide customers with insights into their family history," the spokespersons wrote.
In terms of the information's limits or any cautions, the spokesperson wrote, "as with all information from such tests, users may learn of something they were not aware of or comfortable with (such as a country of origin or a possible new relative). We always encourage our users to be aware of this and to take time to digest and come to terms with any information with which they are uncomfortable."
Altogether, AncestryDNA customers have found a total of more than 10 million third-cousin- and closer genetic matches, the spokesperson said.
"The Ancestry team (made up of expert population geneticists, statisticians, data scientists, engineers and molecular biologists) is working with the latest technology and machine learning to bring consumers the best tools in genealogy research with powerful insights," the spokesperson wrote.
Learn more about AncestryDNA HERE.