Do-it-yourself DNA: How accurate are those store-bought kits?
You've likely seen them on the shelves of convenience stores: DNA test kits. You take them home, mail in a sample of saliva and in a few weeks you can unlock the secrets of your DNA. But how accurate are these tests? And are they worth the price tag?
"This is my great grandmother's death certificate," said Marge Kulba as she combed through old documents in her Granger home.
Kulba is an investigator of sorts. Her case is her family history.
"The photos themselves can provide a lot of information," Kulba is holding an old photo that has writing on the back.
Her evidence is documents left behind by generations before her.
"It is preserving their stories and bringing them all to life," said Kulba. She has managed to trace her blood line back to the 1400s -- about 20 generations.
"I've gone back before they kept records. Before they even gave people last names," said Kulba.
Kulba does this in her spare time.
When she is not knee deep in the cold case that is her ancestry, the mother of two works in the WSBT newsroom as a producer, putting together stories about other people's lives.
Like any good news writer, she needed to learn more. So, she went to the source: her DNA.
"I had been told I was mostly Dutch, maybe German," Kulba said.
Kulba bought an Ancestry.com DNA test.
They mailed the kit to her, she mailed it back with a small saliva sample and a few weeks later she got her results.
"I certainly didn't think I was 50 percent Great Britain," Kulba laughed. "They were opposite of what I thought. So then I spent my days trying to prove them wrong or right."
So, how accurate are those tests? We asked Amy Stark, a geneticist and director of the DNA Learning Center at Notre Dame.
"Unless you are finding some sort of knock off, most of the tests you are buying you are getting the accurate results," said Stark.
Ancestry.com claims they can trace family history back thousands of years.
"And in some cases a very small region. They can isolate to a specific village just because a lot of times people haven't migrated," said Stark. "Where we are right now with being so globalized is a new phenomenon in human history."
There are DNA tests on the market now that can tell you specifics about your joints, what allergies you are afflicted with and the paternity of your children.
"I think as a geneticist, it is exciting to see sort of those things that used to be really specialized becoming more normalized, and people of all walks of life are exposed to them," said Stark.
A DNA test from the company 23andme can tell your ancestry and an endless list of information about your health. If you are starting a family you can find out if you are a carrier for certain serious health conditions, plus the test can tell you how your DNA affects things like hair growth, sleep habits and weight.
Stark said these tests are becoming more affordable.
"If you are waiting longer the test will become cheaper because there is going to be more competitors in the marketplace. When I first started grad school it cost $10,000 to sequence an entire humane genome, and now it is less than a thousand," says Stark.
The money is worth it for Victoria Whitfield. The South Bend woman is adopted and knows little about her biological parents.
"She wasn't able to take care of me," said Whitfield about her biological mom. "She tried for four months, and the means -- the money -- it just wasn't in her. So she gave me up, but it's OK. I'm OK with that."
Whitfield has two young girls of her own now and wants to learn more about herself, for them.
She sent in a sample of her DNA to 23andme.
"Mainly for medical reasons, but it is just more curiosity," Whitfield said with a laugh.
It will be several more weeks before she receives her results.
For now, she waits.
Like Kulba, it will likely answer some questions and raise even more. But, Kulba said the pursuit of this case is worth solving.
"It is the preservation. Knowing I am doing something that is going to outlive me. This information that I found will last for generations," said Kulba.
These tests range from $20 to $60 at the store plus the lab fees which can be $100 to $200. Geneticists emphasize you should see a genetic counselor if there are any health results that scare you.