Found on the Web, With DNA: a Boy's Father
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Like many children whose mothers used an anonymous sperm donor, the 15-year-old boy longed for any shred of information about his biological father. But, uniquely, this resourceful teenager decided to try exploiting the latest in genetic technology and the sleuthing powers of the Internet in his quest.
By submitting a DNA sample to a commercial genetic database service designed to help people draw their family tree, the youth found a crucial clue that quickly enabled him to track down his long-sought parent.
"I was stunned," said Wendy Kramer, whose online registry for children trying to find anonymous donors of sperm or egg helped lead the teenager to his father. "This had never been done before. No one knew you could get a DNA test and find your donor."
While welcomed by advocates of children trying to locate anonymous donors, the case -- apparently the first of its kind -- has raised alarm among sperm banks and some medical ethicists. They are concerned it might start a trend that could violate the privacy of thousands of sperm donors and discourage future ones.
The case has also underscored how the growing number of genetic databases being established by governments, law enforcement agencies, private companies and research organizations could be used in unintended ways, potentially invading personal privacy and raising a thicket of social, ethical and legal questions.
"When you create these databases, you're creating something that has a lot of power -- far beyond what they were originally designed for," said David M.J. Lazer, who studies the legal implications of genetic databases at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "This seems like one of those scenarios."
The database involved in the sperm donor case was set up by Family Tree DNA of Houston, a private company that has accumulated more than 45,000 DNA samples. For a fee, clients hoping to learn more about their heritage can have their DNA tested to see if it matches anyone in the database.
"We provide services for genealogists. That's what we do," company spokesman Max Blankfeld said. "We really didn't have anything like this in mind."
In this case, the teenager scraped some cells off the inside of his cheek last year and sent in the sample with $296 to see if his Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, matched anyone on file.
"At first he just wanted to get a little more information about his paternal side, like countries or origin. That kind of thing helps people who want to know: 'Where am I from culturally? Where are my people from?' Any bit of information is so welcomed," Kramer said.
The youth has declined to be identified, revealing just the outlines of his case through Kramer's registry to protect the identity of his newfound biological father. The case was first reported by the British magazine New Scientist.
About nine months after submitting his sample and agreeing to be contacted by other clients, the U.S. youth heard from two men with Y chromosomes that closely matched his, Kramer said. Neither man knew the other, but the analysis indicated there was about a 50 percent chance that all three had the same father, grandfather or great-grandfather, Kramer said. The men also had similar last names, spelled differently.