The Digital DNA series explores the role of large-scale genetic testing in science, industry and society. We aim to understand both the benefits and risks of this emerging technology and see what the future may hold.

When Ralph Taylor registered his new business, he attempted to declare it as a disadvantaged business enterprise. Businesses headed by women or ethnic minorities in the US are granted this status in appreciation of the extra difficulties and discrimination they could face in starting their businesses. Disadvantaged business enterprises are given preference in competition for lucrative government contracts. By outward appearance Taylor is white, but a DNA test revealed his ancestry is 90% European, 6% Native American and 4% Sub-Saharan African. He therefore used his small proportion of Sub-Saharan African ancestry to support his identification as an ethnic minority.

The authorities rejected his application, but Taylor has filed an appeal against the decision that denied him the minority business status. His case is strengthened by there being no law as to how federal employees can assign ethnicity, or how DNA testing is considered.

DNA home testing kits were originally meant as an easy method for people to explore their ancestry. People send off a saliva sample for analysis and the results are presented as a set of percentages of where their genome originates from. The test results actually show where on the globe the people most closely related to you live today. However, the results from these tests are changing the way we define and talk about race.

Currently in society race is viewed as mostly distinct categories, but genetic tests show a much more complex picture. DNA tests results present quantitative descriptions of ancestry, which some people have started to interpret as providing quantitative descriptions of race. Although some people have found value in exploring their origins, others are sceptical that too much weighting is put on DNA tests with regards to ethnic identification.

The US senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren attracted controversy when it was revealed that she self-identified as Native American at several points of her career, before identifying as white after she was tenured at Harvard. When attacked for falsely claiming she was a minority she shared the results of her DNA test. Despite the results revealing that she did have one full Native American ancestor at least six generations back she was immediately criticised by the Native American Community. They accused her of suggesting that being Native American was down to genetics, rather than due to culture, history and community. Warren was also attacked for attempting to use the DNA test for political gain to appeal to the Native American voter base. She has since apologised, but nothing has changed regarding DNA tests and the law.

Applicants for college and employment in the US and UK are free to define their ethnicity as they choose. When applying to college, some applicants are under the impression that coming from an ethnic minority is can be looked at as a positive factor in admissions processes. Although there is no evidence this is true, there are place quotas that exist to both counter the underrepresentation of some ethnicities at the college level and ensure a diverse student community. The US Department of Education revealed that 62% of black high school students and 60% of Hispanic students had enrolled in college by the Autumn following their high school graduation, compared to 71% of white students. There are also scholarships reserved for ethnic minorities, which exist mainly to combat the institutional racism prevalent in many colleges. Due to the high tuition fees and competitive application process for US colleges, some students will seek to use any advantage they can, including the results of a DNA test. Currently under US law it is perfectly legal for a candidate to use a DNA test to identify as an ethnic minority.

Both the US and UK have no laws on how people can use DNA tests as evidence for racial identification, but currently only rely on appearance. The law should distinguish those who have experienced discrimination or extra difficulty because of their ethnicity. However, this is a very difficult concept to translate into law and it is up to governments to decide if the DNA test should have any weighting. But the law must be reformed quickly to prevent those that are already taking advantage of the system.

It is too early to see how Ralph Taylor’s case will play out, but it should be a wake-up call for governments around the world to start debating the place of DNA in the law.

Our Digital DNA series will continue with more interviews and articles exploring the benefits, risks and potential of genetic testing. If you or your company would like to contribute to the Digital DNA series, please email georgia@frontlinegenomics.com

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