As Consumer Genomics Databases Swell, More Adoptees Are Finding Their Biological Families | GenomeWeb

As Consumer Genomics Databases Swell, More Adoptees Are Finding Their Biological Families

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The growing popularity of consumer genomics services has made it increasingly easier for adoptees to connect with their biological families.

While adoptees have been using the autosomal DNA testing services offered by AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe since their inception, during the past year the rate of adoptees identifying their birth parents has quickened, according to service providers and genetic genealogists assisting adoptees.

This growth in adoptee success stories is correlated to the growth of the services — over the summer, both AncestryDNA and 23andMe announced they had each genotyped a million customers. It also highlights how the services have made it possible for adoptees to bypass state adoption laws, many of which restrict access to their records.

"I actually did not search very long and I wasn't looking myself," said Kathie Ruggieri, an adoptee and consumer genomics customer who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. "My daughter who is 19 sent away for a test," she said. "I did it, [and] we mailed it in August 2014. And by October, I knew who my parents were."

Ruggieri worked together with search angels — volunteers experienced with using consumer genomics test results and genealogy to help adoptees find their birth families — to get in contact with both her mother and her father's families. She also recommended the service to her adopted sister Kristine, who was also able to find her birth parents quickly.

"She got a first cousin match on Ancestry and her cousin knew who her mother was," Ruggieri said. And though the identity of her sister's biological father was a mystery to her birth mother's family, she eventually matched a man that AncestryDNA claimed had a parent or child relationship with her and, who it turned out, was her biological father.

"It was that easy. Boom, here he is," Ruggieri noted. "A 100 percent match."

It wasn't always so easy, though. Bruce Grimes of Jacksonville, Florida, had been searching for his biological parents for 40 years before he opted to take Family Tree DNA's Family Finder test in 2012. "I thought that this is going to be my chance, if I am ever going to find answers then I am going to have to go the DNA route," said Grimes who, like Ruggieri, was born in a state with sealed adoption records.

Despite testing with Family Tree DNA, it still took time for the search to progress. Grimes eventually connected with a search angel named Allison Demski, who recommended that Grimes also test with 23andMe and AncestryDNA to get access to more matches. "Once Allison came on the scene, within six to eight months we found a second cousin," Grimes said. "And once we found a second cousin, everything else started to fall into place."

Grimes has since reconnected with his mother's family and is actively searching for his father. His experience is another of the growing number of adoptee success stories, an industry-wide trend of which companies and genetic genealogists are quite cognizant.

"If there is anything that is subject to critical mass, it's the growth of the number of people who have tested using autosomal DNA," said Bennett Greenspan, president of Houston, Texas-based Family Tree DNA, which has served the market with its microarray-based Family Finder product since 2010. "As the database gets bigger, it's only going to become easier and easier" for adoptees to find their birth parents, he said.

Spokespeople for AncestryDNA, Ancestry.com's genetic genealogy wing which commenced operations in 2012, and 23andMe, which launched its Personal Genome Service toward the end of 2007, also acknowledged the increasing and successful use of their service by adoptees in recent years.

"To date we've surfaced more than 4 million third cousin or closer matches to customers and as the database grows, the strong network effect will continue to fuel the exponential growth of connections," an AncestryDNA spokesperson said. She noted that the Provo, Utah-based company also provides education articles and videos for adoptees on topics such as tips to find family.

23andMe has seen more adoptees use its services as the awareness of consumer genomics services spreads.

"I can tell you anecdotally the volume has increased as our customer base has continued to scale," said a spokesperson for the Mountain View, California-based company. Based on a survey question answered by 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research, the company can infer that approximately 6 percent of 23andMe customers are adoptees, he noted.

One factor that is supporting the use of consumer genomics services among adoptees is adoption laws themselves, Greenspan said. As many adoptees cannot use their sealed adoption records to track down their parents, they have to turn to DNA tests instead.

"If you were given up for adoption, even when you become 18 or 21, old enough to drive, old enough to drink, old enough to vote, you still can't find the name of your birth mother or maybe even your birth father because they decided that you would not be able to have access to those records," said Greenspan.

"Ultimately with DNA testing though it doesn't matter anymore," he continued. "As long as people are doing DNA testing, and as long as you can do DNA testing, as the databases get bigger, eventually all adoptees will find people they are related closely enough to that they will be able to figure out who the biological parent is," he said. "Even if the states don't change their laws, you are still going to win, it's just going to take you more time."

Greenspan specifically attributed the increased use of his and other services by adoptees to the existence of state laws on restricting access to adoption records. Without such laws, he noted, there would be no need to turn to consumer genomics services.

"I think our growth in adoption testing is strictly the result of the states not keeping up with the times," Greenspan noted. "Because if you could get your adoption records, why would you need to do a DNA test?"

Detectives and angels

While finding your birth parents may now be as easy as spitting in a tube, adoptees who use consumer genomics services stressed the value of cooperating with search angels, trained professional genealogical researchers, to make the best use of their results, and to make progress in a process that some adoptees find overwhelming and daunting.

"When you are working with what you think is a very uncommon name, and trying to use the Internet, whether it's Ancestry or just Googling it, you may think that you have found an answer, but it's so easy to go off into left field," said Barbara Grimes, who has assisted her husband Bruce in his search.

"When you get the DNA, you can follow that along with your internet searches, but you really need to work with a professional who understands how DNA works, or that a person who shows as a first cousin might actually be your brother," she said. "As far as I am concerned, [search angels] are impossible to replace."

"At the beginning I had all of these funny numbers and I didn't know what to do with them," said Bruce Grimes, who has also advised other adoptees to connect with search angels. "A lot of people don't know about search angels or haven't heard of them," he said. "I think that's part of the problem. People see Ancestry advertised on TV every night but they don't really know what to do with the information or what the process is."

CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist, has volunteered as a search angel for five years, but said that the number of adoptees who have contacted her for help in using their consumer genomics test results has "exploded" over the past two years due to the growth in testing.

"In the early years, it was a ton of work and not many success stories," said Moore, who is also co-founder of the Institute for Genetic Genealogy. Moore worked as the DNA expert during the creation of DNAAdoption.com, a repository for documentation about using one's DNA results, and as part of her role, she worked with traditional search angels — who had previously relied on paper records — to develop methods for integrating DNA test results into their searches.

"I was the cheerleader that strongly believed that we would reach a critical mass in the databases that would allow for many more success stories," said Moore. "This finally started to happen about two years ago."

To handle the growth in requests for help, Moore reached out to other professional genealogists and genetic genealogists, assembling a team that has expertise in tracing unknown biological parentage using DNA. That team, which has its own Facebook group, is called The DNA Detectives.

"I want to make sure that adoptees are not being taken advantage of when they pay an expert and so I formed The DNA Detectives as a sort of referral service to individuals that I trust with these cases to handle the many inquiries I receive," she said. Among the team of detectives, Moore noted, is Allison Demski, the search angel who helped Bruce Grimes with his case.

"We see biological families identified every single day now," said Moore. "It is simply astounding to see how quickly this has developed over the past five years," she added. "Although the vast majority of people in the US are not yet participating in personal genomics, there are enough people in the databases already that a significant percentage of individuals with unknown parentage are seeing second cousin matches and closer, including half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and, sometimes, even parents."

The majority of the work that Moore and the other DNA Detectives do is free. In fact, the search angels who work for her sometimes donate DNA kits to those who cannot afford them, she said. "We purchase some of these with money out of our own pockets and some are donated by group members who wish to pay it forward for the guidance and assistance they received in their searches from our group," said Moore. "We pay for our own resources like databases, as the vast majority of search angels do. Our time is donated."

Blaine Bettinger, another genetic genealogist, has worked with several adoptees, both paid and pro bono clients, in recent years. He said the ability of adoptees to identify their biological families using such services is largely up to the information the adoptee has about his or her family and the quality of matches found by the service.

"Sometimes it is successful and sometimes it isn't," said Bettinger. "If an adoptee tests and only has distant cousins, it can be orders of magnitude more difficult, although not impossible," he said. "On the other hand, a very close match can break a search wide open."

While not every adoptee can be instantly reconnected with their parents by using such services, Bettinger did acknowledge that such scenarios are becoming more common.

"I know of a recent case, for example, where an adoptee had almost no information about his family, but when he took an autosomal DNA test with one of the testing companies, he had a parent and half-sibling match in his results list," said Bettinger. "His search was over the instant he reviewed his results for the first time," he said. "Just a few years ago, cases like this were relatively rare."

Originally, Bettinger noted, adoptees were using short-tandem-repeat and microsatellite-based Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests offered by companies like Family Tree DNA in their searches, with limited success. But it has been the microarray-based, autosomal DNA testing services that have led large numbers of adoptees to their biological families.

"Consumer genomics has an enormous positive impact on the adoptee community," said Bettinger. "In all of the testing company databases, for example, the number of test-takers is rising to levels where more and more people are getting close, high-quality matches," he said. "This is the key to assisting adoptees, finding that sufficiently close match in the database."

And not just one database. Most search angels or DNA Detectives encourage adoptees to test with all three services — AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe — to maximize the potential of a strong result.  

"We call it fishing in all three ponds for that key match because you never know where someone may have tested that will offer the clue to solve your family mystery," said Moore.

Moore said that she relies on more than just the cousin matching features of the various services in adoption-related cases. She also uses the ancestral origins features of the companies, as well as haplogroup information when provided. In addition, Moore asks males to order Y chromosome STR tests from Family Tree DNA as the combination of autosomal DNA and Y-STR testing is "extremely powerful for identifying unknown fathers."

In terms of differentiating between services, Moore said that each company has its strengths and weaknesses for unknown parentage work. "AncestryDNA's interface with the connected family trees is extremely helpful for us, but the lack of the underlying genetic data is a hindrance," said Moore. Some in the genetic genealogy community have noted previously that AncestryDNA, unlike its competitors, does not offer a chromosome browser, allowing customers to see on which chromosome they match potential relatives.

Angie Bush, another genetic genealogist, said that there is "no noticeable difference" for adoptees between the services in terms of the technology used or raw data produced, as most rely on similar Illumina-manufactured microarray platforms.

"The difference is in the people who have tested with each service, and the accessibility of family trees that each service provides," said Bush.

"AncestryDNA allows people to connect their trees to their results, and allows with some effort to tell the adoptee which family is that person's family," she said. "With 23andMe, where a lot of users are private and they don't post a tree, and you have to contact them through 23andMe's messaging system, it can be a little bit more difficult to figure out how you connect."

No matter which service users opt for, Bush cautioned that consumer genomics services might not work for everyone.

"There are some populations that are not well represented in these databases," said Bush. "If you were adopted from China, unfortunately, there are not a lot of people from China who have tested," she said. "So the chances of identifying your biological family in China are very low."

At the same time, if a person's background is in America, they will likely have reasonable success with DNA testing, Bush said. "It may take some time," she said. "I have had some cases last more than two years, but they are all solved eventually."

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