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Your DNA can make you a valuable target for companies

With the popularity of DNA testing on the rise, more businesses are looking for ways to monetize people’s desire to connect with their heritage.

From personalized playlists to custom cruises, DNA testing opening doors to new money-making ventures

Using autosomal testing, AncestryDNA surveys over 700,000 locations in your DNA, all with a simple saliva sample. (Shutterstock)

With the popularity of DNA testing on the rise, more businesses are looking for ways to monetize people's desire to connect with their heritage.

Ancestry — the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world — partnered with music streaming service Spotify to allow users to share their DNA results with Spotify to get personalized playlists based on their heritage. The tagline is "If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like?"

Canadian specialty food and lifestyle channel Gusto is also taking advantage with DNA Dinners. The show is currently in production and will help people who've taken a test with Ancestry discover their roots through food.

Shawn Kilner is the owner and operator of Imagine Cruise & Travel in Nanaimo, B.C. (Jeff Crate)

Cunard Cruise Line recently partnered with Ancestry to provide genealogy experts on the ship as it sails from England to New York calling it A Journey of Genealogy.

Shawn Kilner, owner and operator of Imagine Cruise & Travel in Nanaimo, B.C says genealogy tests have been good for travel business, as people book trips to discover their roots.

"We're finding Ireland, Scotland and England are the top and we do have lots of Scandinavians going back," said Kilner. "I even have somebody that went back to Egypt and found out that she's back from the pharaoh days."

'Identity is a complex thing'

Some are raising concerns about how we interpret the results of these tests.

Wendy Roth is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her team studied how a wide cross-section of people interpret what they see after completing the test. The findings were published this summer in the American Journal of Sociology.

"They see their test results and instead of saying, 'Oh, look, this is who I am!' They might say, 'Oh, I've got this ancestry. I really like that group; I want to identify with that one,'" said Roth. "'But this other one? I don't like them so much, so I'm not going to embrace that part of the test results.'"

The findings raise questions about how relevant discovering new heritage connections is to our identities.

Jack Jedwab is the president of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, based in Montreal. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

"Identity is a complex thing and it's not just about where our ancestors come from. That's only one dimension of it," said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, based in Montreal.

He's watching the development of DNA testing with interest, especially the offshoot business ventures.

"I think it's interesting. I'm not so sure that the musical connection to one's background is offering meaningful insights, guidance or fulfilment for some people," said Jedwab.

No fulfilment from superficial aspects of identify

Even if the music aspect isn't particularly meaningful, Jedwab supports people getting insights into their DNA.

"I think that, for the most part, it's positive. The negative part is when we give ourselves meaning in identities that can be more destructive than constructive for some of us," he said.

Jedwab says commercials for DNA testing can be problematic, like one from Ancestry depicting someone trading their "lederhosen for a kilt" after discovering they're 52 per cent Scottish and Irish, rather than German like they thought.

"Sometimes, on these commercials, individuals who've taken the tests [are] dressing up in costumes associated with ancestral pasts. If the outcome is something superficial, it won't stick with you and it won't — in the medium or longer term — give you any real sense of fulfilment."

About the Author

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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