DNA provides the path to understanding past, improving future

grubaugh new picBy DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    Our past is catching up to us and I feel that’s a good thing.
    Who could have guessed that something as verbally challenging as deoxyribonucleic acid could have grown from a high school biology test question to a booming business with the potential to link all of mankind?
    Indeed, DNA is becoming ever more connective for people who are trying to find each other in the world. And, for some people who don’t want to be found.
    Last year, I spit in a tube, sent off the results to Ancestry.com and discovered myself. Sixty years into life, I found roots dating back hundreds of years, from countries all across the globe. I’m not quite a Heinz 57 hound. More like a Heinz 9 or 10 — the points of origin that I know about so far.
    So, how accurate is such testing? Ancestry.com supplies you with links to potential relatives, revealing them if they’ve agreed to list themselves in the Ancestry database. I recognized the names of two cousins mentioned as possible relatives, each with totally different names than mine. I knew the truth based on my own research, but Ancestry.com could not have known unless the science was valid.
    The results are the real McCoy, and if your name happens to be McCoy, don’t be surprised if your Scottish heritage isn’t salted with, perhaps, a little Portuguese or Panamanian.
    Depending on the level of privacy they’ve set, you can reach out to relatives you never knew existed. The older I get, the more likely I am to do just that. Not everyone wants answers, but family historians all do.
    DNA rocked the crimefighting world back in the 1980s, when profiling science made it possible to take the smallest vestige of a human body and link it to a person with 1-in-a-billion certainty. Many thousands of criminal cases have been solved every year since, according to researchers.
    And, many people have been freed by the same application. I remember writing a series of stories about an inmate, David Gray of Alton, who was exonerated in 1999 after tests proved that fluids found on a rape-scene bedsheet were not conclusively his. He’d spent 20 years in prison. At the time, Madison County State’s Attorney Bill Haine was not convinced of the DNA testing, but he opted not to retry the case because of the lack of evidence.
    Fast forward to 2018, and a cottage industry of crime-solving sleuths has emerged, groups that law enforcement is increasingly working with. One is the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit network of genealogists who volunteer to help solve cold cases.
    And, scores of for-profit companies have formed to market, test, or otherwise take advantage of the science.
    Some people question all this modern-day genetic mystery solving, the invasion of privacy, the possibility of human errors in handling material, the scams and such, but I’m not one of those subscribers.
    I believe DNA’s advantages have only begun to hit home. I’m thinking about the ability to predict our susceptibility to certain diseases or our predisposition to perform daily tasks, play music or participate in sports or the arts. Or, perhaps, finding the gene that makes us capable of being a world scholar or a future leader of people.
    All of that didn’t seem likely just a couple of years ago. Now, it seems dramatically possible.
    I say any science that can capture the suspected Golden State Killer 40 years after he terrorized California is a science worth believing. Anything that could help us live longer or lead more fulfilling lives is worth exploring.
    This double-helix thing is going be with us forever. If we respect the possibilities, it will become perhaps the singular link to better understanding our past, appreciating our present and improving our future.
    Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 977-6865.

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