Who Do You Think You Are? The Rise of DNA Travel

© Michaela Pointon/Joe Brooks
© Michaela Pointon/Joe Brooks
Photo of Alex Jordan
Travel Expert6 December 2017

Taking a DNA test taught me that the big decisions that have led to who I am today weren’t taken by me, but by those who came before me – starting with my parents and going back thousands of years. This is the first half of a journey into the world of DNA travel and the possibilities of personalisation, using the very fabric of our being to plan the perfect getaway.

In this age of over-stimulation there are few experiences that elicit an emotional reaction as strong as finding out more about yourself. We spend so much time cultivating our social image and projecting a personality that it’s refreshing to be told something scientifically verifiable about yourself.

That was perhaps the greatest thing to come of my recent experience with DNA Unwrapped, a brilliant young company founded in 2014 by enigmatic entrepreneur and thinker Rebecca Fielding. It has given me the opportunity to reflect on my story as revealed by the migration of my ancestors, who eventually settled in Cyprus and Italy.

I am a second-generation Brit, my grandparents moving to London as many did in search of a living during the 1950s. Through many tea and digestive-fuelled conversations (they quickly adapted to the culture) I learnt about their early lives on Drury Lane in the West End, and their decision to settle in North London. I was also lucky enough to know two great grandparents – Cypriots and Italians have among the highest life expectancies on the planet – learning a little about the generation that lived through both world wars.

Despite my mum’s attempts to piece together our family tree, beyond three generations, the past is a sepia-toned photograph with frayed edges and blurry faces. A couple of weeks ago, it became a little clearer and more colourful thanks to DNA Unwrapped, a start-up at the forefront of high street genetics – a field with huge potential for growth.

© Michaela Pointon/Joe Brooks

In philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari’s latest bestseller Homo Deus he explains how some of the world’s biggest companies including Apple and Google are making serious investments in DNA profiling. What started as the Quantified Self movement a decade ago has quickly turned into a reality where the wealthiest and most opaque companies are collecting our most personal data at a speed and scale unlike anything we’ve seen before.

In fact one of the companies to emerge in the DNA data arms race was co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin – a good indicator of the industry’s promise. Regardless of what ethical qualms you might have with giving away the very essence of what makes you who you are, to companies whose aims are closely guarded secrets, the market for DNA testing is growing and fast.

Shows like the BBC’s Who Do you Think You Are? are fuelling a public desire to know more about our ancestry. DNA profiling also holds untold opportunities for personalisation, particularly in cosmetics and healthcare. Companies like GENEU and DNAFit spell the impending, if not immediate, end of one-size-fits all fitness and beauty, at least for mid-to-top tier brands. All this and more means consumer genetic testing is predicted to generate $340m by 2022, growing by 25.1% each year from 2016 to 2022.

Among this rapidly crowding industry, DNA Unwrapped has carved out an unusual and inspiring niche by combining DNA testing with travel, which is where for me, the story becomes interesting. In April this year, I woke up one morning to find a package waiting for me containing two test tubes, a couple of unused swabs and a shiny silver bag marked ‘specimen’. These objects would mark the beginning of a journey into my past that is only just beginning.

© Michaela Pointon/Joe Brooks

Three months after sending off my samples, I found an email waiting in my inbox saying the results were ready. Using LivingDNA.com (the lab DNA Unwrapped outsources their testing to) I was able to see my genealogy in just a few clicks, and trace back my maternal and paternal lines up to 5,000 years. It can’t tell you who your ancestors were and what they did, but it does tell you where you came from and there were a few surprises in store.

‘The algorithm looks into the highest number of DNA markers you have that match with existing DNA data,’ explains DNA Unwrapped founder Rebecca Fielding. ‘Every year you get an updated report as the technology improves. In two years or less we expect to be able to show from which towns or villages your ancestors originated.’

There’s a humanitarian and environmental message at the heart of the brand. Like other companies in this space, they vehemently oppose neo-nationalism, xenophobia and racism (Donald Trump apparently turned down a free DNA Unwrapped kit). ‘It’s about that feeling of seeing yourself in other cultures,’ says Fielding. ‘As Mark Twain said, ‘travel is the biggest threat to prejudice.'”

I found that 88% of my DNA is shared with other Europeans, with some Nordic traces, while 12% is shared with those in the Near East – from places such as Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. A revelation that left me with renewed awe for the lottery of life and instantly dissolved any remaining prejudices that might have lingered in my subconscious.

© Michaela Pointon/Joe Brooks

You can drill a little deeper into your history but the more specific you get, the less certain you can be. Even so, there’s a possibility that my ancestors migrated from even further east, out of Iran and beyond. A colleague of mine who also took the test found out more about her father, a man with whom she never had a relationship.

It’s only men who possess the necessary Y chromosome for tracing paternal ancestry, but women are still able to see their genetic mix even if they can’t go into their father’s line with too much detail.

The next step for Fielding, her team and the laboratories they work with is data collection. ‘If you’re Native American you’re not going to have as much data as a Scandinavian, due to political and cultural prohibitions towards sharing personal information,’ explains Fielding. ‘Collection of data is a very Western thing, but that’s not the same for every culture around the world.’

For me the journey is only just beginning. Now that they have my results, DNA Unwrapped will refer me to Travel Unwrapped and a team of specialists who can help plan the trip of a lifetime, into my past. I’ll visit the places from which my ancestors migrated, personalised to my interests. I’ve no doubt the experience will be life-changing, with plenty of surprises in store.

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