Can You Get DNA From That?
Getting DNA from your oldest living relatives is always the goal for genetic genealogy research. But often, our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents have already passed and so has our opportunity to help our research with use of their DNA. But what if there was another option?
As DNA technology improves so does the ability to extract DNA from objects that our ancestors once possessed. These are called “artifacts”. These may include envelopes or stamps that were licked, hair samples, hairbrushes, jewelry, and hats. This sounds like exciting news for those of us who would love to get further back on our genetic family lines, but there are several limitations.
The artifact may have been handled by many people over the years and, as such, may have picked up their DNA causing cross contamination. The results you get back may not be your ancestor’s.
Sometimes no DNA can be extracted from the artifact. If DNA can be extracted it may have been degraded or fragmented which makes analysis difficult or impossible, or there is not enough to do an analysis at all. And once an artifact has been tested, the DNA on the item may have been used up and not able to be used for further study.
Although DNA science has advanced significantly in the last few decades, it is still limited, and this new technology comes at a price. There is an initial cost for the attempt to extract the DNA from the artifact. If that is successful, there is an additional cost to analyze the DNA sample and prepare it for upload to a DNA testing site. These costs can start at $380 and rise steeply after that.
Uploads of these samples can only be done at GEDmatch, MyHeritage, and FamilyTree DNA (U.S. based) at this time. Ancestry and 23 & Me do not allow for uploads from any source except their own proprietary tests.
In the United States and most parts of the world, the deceased have no rights, so using their artifacts to obtain DNA is legal. But is it ethical? Would they have agreed to DNA testing had they been alive? Will their DNA uncover family secrets they would not have wanted revealed? Another consideration of artifact testing is whether it could be abused such as obtaining samples from artifacts of living people without their consent.
Still interested in having artifact DNA testing? There are two labs that currently do this work. To The Letter DNA (totheletterdna.com) based in Australia, and Keepsake DNA (keepsakedna.com) in Utah. Both websites have detailed information about the process and costs.
DNA experts agree that waiting for a time when the science of artifact DNA testing has advanced, and the price is more reasonable is your best choice even though that may be a few years down the road. Until then, do not touch the artifact more than necessary to avoid contaminating with your own DNA. Keep the artifact in a cool, dry place preferably in a paper bag or archival box.
Artifact testing for DNA is an exciting new frontier and one that is eagerly awaited for those looking to break down those family tree brick walls.
Blaine Bettinger, PhD, J.D., “DNA Testing of Hair for Genealogy?”, webinar, Family Tree Legacy Webinars (familytreewebinars.com : accessed 13 May 2021), original air date 21 August 2020.
Blaine Bettinger, PhD, J.D., “DNA Testing of Artifacts and Family Heirlooms?”, webinar, Family Tree Legacy Webinars (familytreewebinars.com : accessed 13 May 2021), original air date 15 May 2020.
Judy D. Russell, “Artifact Testing on it’s Way”, blog post, The Legal Genealogist, 4 November 2018 (www.legalgenealogist.com/2018/11/04/artifact-testing-on-its-way : accessed 13 May 2021).
Sarah Zhang, “Is DNA Left on Envelopes Fair Game for Testing?”, The Atlantic , 1 March 2019 (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/03/dna-tests-for-envelopes-have-a-price/583636 : accessed 8 June 2021).