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Gene Wonders

DNA detectives

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One morning last month, Dubai resident Raj Kanodia (name changed) fished out a used bedsheet from the laundry basket when his wife was away. He then swiped a cotton bud inside his mouth to collect his saliva, sealed it in an envelope, and couriered it to a laboratory in Hyderabad along with the used bed linen.

A week later, the 34-year-old got his answer. "The stain on the bedsheet was indeed semen. And, the DNA in the semen did not match mine, " he says. It was difficult for Kanodia, who has been married for two years, to come to terms with the finding, but he is glad he ordered the test. "If I had not, I would have been constantly nagged by doubt, " says the former Delhi resident, adding that he confronted his wife and they are "still trying to work things out".

The test may have been life-altering for Kanodia, but at One Touch Solutions and Services (OTS), it was just a routine case. The Hyderabad laboratory gets at least two to three such 'discreet samples' every month from across India and abroad for what is known as the 'infidelity test'.

The test, which is very popular abroad and marketed as a sure-fire method of catching a cheating spouse, is still relatively new to India. "When we started the laboratory in 2009, there were no enquiries for infidelity testing, but the demand is increasing, " says Ritu Sohaney, a DNA test consultant at OTS.

The laboratory receives used condoms, cigarette butts, waxing strips, tongue cleaners, earbuds, nails and blood-stained bedsheets for testing, she adds. The Indian Biosciences laboratory in Gurgaon also receives "four to five" enquiries every month from young people who want to know how they can prove infidelity.

In a majority of cases, it is young, married men who send samples for testing because they suspect their wives are having secret rendezvous, according to the laboratories.

FINDING MR GENE RIGHT

Infidelity testing is not the only new, and novel, application of DNA-based testing. Gone are the days when DNA profiling was only used to aid in the investigation of murders, rapes and other crimes. Move over CSI, retail testing is here. Labs now offer clients a different range of insights into their unique genetic variants, including those that could increase risks for diseases like diabetes and cancer, or predict whether a serious inherited condition could be passed on to children.

Markers for disease aren't the only reason why Indians are staring into their gene pools. Consider these tests being offered over the past two years. Super Religare Laboratories in Delhi offers to tell whether a child has the genetic potential to become a Beckham or Tendulkar by testing a gene that determines which type of sport he or she is better suited to play. The BioAxis DNA Research Centre in Hyderabad offers to help couples find Mr or Ms Gene Right by testing their 'genetic compatibility'. The laboratory claims that compatible couples not only have "more fit" offspring, but their sex lives are also "more satisfying than average".

In April last year, Metropolis Healthcare in Mumbai launched the Genetic Hair Loss Test, which claims to predict the likelihood of people going bald well before the actual hair loss starts. Around 40 men, mostly in the 30 to 40 years age group, have opted for this test. "Seventy percent of samples tested positive, " says Dr Shamma Shetye, head of microbiology at Metropolis.

Scientists at the laboratory chain analyse the client's DNA to see whether he has inherited the receptor gene of androgenetic alopecia, the most common type of hair loss. If the results show highrisk, it means there's a 60 per cent probability of severe hair loss by the time the person turns 40 while low-risk means that the individual has an 80 per cent chance of not losing hair by age 60. "Those with high-risk can immediately go to a dermatologist and start treatment to prevent hair loss, " adds Shetye.

STAYING ROOTED


The ancestry test, which can help trace one's roots, is among the most sought after of the new crop of DNA tests in the market. Even actress Freida Pinto has declared this week that she is keen to take a DNA test to determine her lineage. The 26-year-old, who rose to international fame with Slumdog Millionaire, says she is constantly mistaken for other ethnicities while travelling. "The Portuguese people love to claim me as one of their own, and I don't like that!" Pinto says.

Considering some parts of the DNA that is passed from one generation to the next remains unchanged, an analysis can give a sneak peak into family history dating back thousands of years. Driven by curiosity to know where their forefathers came from and the desire to expand their family trees, many are ordering the test. The Indian Biosciences laboratory gets 40 to 50 saliva samples for its Ancestral Origins test every month. When the DNA testing company put the test on its menu two years ago, there were hardly any takers though. "We used to get just one or two requests per month and that too from expats, foreign diplomats and those who had traveled extensively abroad and knew about ancestry testing, " says Dhruv Prasher, vice president, Indian Biosciences. He adds that now Indians who are "as young as 25 and as old as 65", students, businessmen or economists, are purchasing the ancestry test.

For Rs 17, 420, the company gives the client a list of the world populations with which he or she shares the strongest DNA matches, a brief account of regions their ancestors may have traveled to/from as well as a personalised, glossy world map in an antique gold frame featuring these details.

Prasher estimates that at least 100 Delhites have the ancestry map on their drawing room walls. While most individuals take the test out of curiosity, others do so to confirm their family's legends or find their connection with a historical figure. One man took the test at Indian Biosciences because he was convinced he was a descendent of Genghis Khan, the ruthless Mongolian warlord who created the biggest empire the world has ever seen. The test showed he had a better match with the African population rather than the East Asian population to which the 17th century warrior belonged. Interestingly, other tests abroad have shown that as many as 14 million men may share the Y chromosome of Genghis Khan.

The DNA of a majority of Indians tested at Indian Biosciences so far has turned out to match best with that of the European population. The test-takers have weak matches with Africans and East Asians, too, in that order. "In some cases, we have also found weak matches with the populations from North America and the Canary Islands, " says Parasher.

This comes as no surprise considering the many invasions in Indian history. "The Aryans, one of the first races to be settled in north and west India, came from races in the central Caucasian region, who also went on to populate Europe, " says geneticist Dr Himanshu Sinha, explaining the European link.

SCIENTISTS SKEPTICAL


If the ancestry test result says we are genetically linked to the European population, it could mean that some member in some former generation in the family was a European. But the test can't ascertain how many generations before one had a European ancestor or identify who it was.

That's why Sinha believes ancestry tests should come with a disclaimer. "Laboratories should inform clients about the test's limitations, " he says.

He adds that ancestry tests are fun to take if one can afford them, but should not be taken too seriously. "It gives the test-taker bragging rights. He can claim that he is part Roman, part African or that he is related to Genghis Khan. But the results are too shallow to give you any information or have any medical significance. "

Scientists abroad have also cautioned people against ancestry testing. In a 2007 paper, researchers from several institutions including the University of California, Berkley, said the test could produce "mixed results at best and false leads at worse".

There are various types of ancestry testing in the market and each one has limitations. The Ancestral Origins test, which is offered by a few Indian companies, compares the test-taker's DNA to that of many global populations using a reference database of haplotypes - a set of inherited, linked genetic markers - to see if there's a match. But here's the problem. "The same genetic markers could exist in two different populations, " says Sinha, a reader in the department of biological sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. "Besides, the accuracy of the result would depend on how comprehensive the company's database is. Most laboratories use Caucasian population-based databases, so they may not be very relevant for Indians. The test can tell migrations from Africa or Europe but it would not be able to say if one's ancestors had migrated within India. Those markers would not have been calculated, accounted for in the database, " he adds.

While all laboratories claim they have an "extensive database", scientists abroad have pointed out that even databases with 10, 000 to 20, 000 samples may fail to capture the full array of human genetic diversity in a particular population or region.

But the controversies have not deterred people from ordering the test. It is estimated that 460, 000 people have taken DNA ancestry tests in the US and many have also connected with others belonging to the same race on DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In India, too, test-takers are happy with the results. "One man was so thrilled by the result, he ordered the test for all other members of his family too, " claims Prasher from Indian Biosciences.

IS ALL FAIR IN INFIDELITY TESTING?


A popular and perhaps fictitious belief goes that when a black woman suspects her partner of cheating, she smells him for another woman's odour. This is called the 'Black Infidelity Test' according to the urban English dictionary.

The DNA infidelity test is less crass and more scientific, but many have raised concerns about the ethics of "sniffing around" and sending objects that belong to someone else for testing.

While the basic DNA test can just tell the testseeker whether the biological material (blood/semen stain) on the sample is that of a male or female, the laboratories also offer to help in identifying the donor if another sample is sent. In most cases, the testseekers send their own cheek swabs to find out if the DNA matches theirs, sometimes people send an item belonging to the suspected other man/woman, too, to establish who their partner is secretly having an affair with. For example, a man, suspecting his wife of infidelity, sends a cigarette butt found in his bedroom for testing. The laboratory tells him that the butt has male DNA. If the husband believes the 'other man' is their neighbour and he manages to sneak into his home and get a personal item - underwear or dental floss - then the laboratory can run another test to compare the DNA profile with the one found on the butt.
"We don't know how people manage it, but we do get buccal swabs and even blood in tubes for comparison with the DNA on the sample that was sent first, " says a laboratory in-charge.

He adds that they insist on the consent of the person whose DNA sample is submitted, but admits that there is no way to verify the authenticity of the signature on the form. "It is possible that some people may have fudged signatures. We don't ask too many questions. We simply provide the service, " he shrugs.

As of now, there is no law in India that mandates taking the consent of the person whose sample is sent for DNA testing. A draft bill to regulate DNA testing was prepared in 2007, but it has not yet been introduced in Parliament. "DNA testing is a very nascent industry. It would be a good idea to put legislation in place to regulate it now rather than post facto, " says Sinha.

"Sending someone's personal items for DNA testing is an invasion of privacy but whether obtaining consent should become mandatory or not in cases of infidelity is debatable. The victim of infidelity would obviously consider it fair to send samples without consent and the accused would not, " he adds. "Whether the test result can be used as grounds for divorce is also open to debate. "

Razib Khan, an American who writes a popular blog about genetics for Discover Magazine, does not consider testing without consent unethical. "My personal opinion is that if you can get the material, it's yours to test and examine. The issue will arise if someone 'patents' the 'intellectual rights', which seems totally absurd, " he says.

Wouldn't resorting to the infidelity test or the maternity/paternity test make relationships even more complicated and fragile than they are? Khan feels is it better to test than to live with doubt. "Research has shown that lots of people are overly suspicious. If it allays suspicion, it is for the better. There will be some tragedies but if someone is cheating then the relationship is probably doomed anyway. Transparency and truth is generally the best policy, " says Khan, an Unz Foundation Junior Fellow.

DNA tests may be answering many questions already, but experts say we are still at least five to ten years away from being able to tap the full potential of genetic testing. "Only when we have a comprehensive database of specific genetic markers for Indians will we be in a position to predict one's risk of developing a disease or tell how well a patient will respond to a certain treatment, " says Sinha.

Reader's opinion (2)

Akarsha K MAug 1st, 2011 at 16:30 PM

This is a very very useful technique.When some1 keeps doubting his spouse always,its better to get the doubt cleared.After the test, either the couple stay together happy or move on away from each other & they wil b happy to have come out of a cheating partner.But i'd say 'Trust comes b4 Technology!

Gopalan MenonJul 31st, 2011 at 23:19 PM

There are certain areas where 'ignorance is a bliss'.Right or wrong the test results will do more harm than good & the suspicions will be sown, creating psychological impact. And it cannot be ruled out disharmony & mental depression.peemgee

 
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