Life Science

Can DNA Tests Reveal Nationality?

Scientists say no, but U.K. pilot program gathers data anyway

December 30, 2009

When it offers political asylum to Somali refugees, the British government wants to make sure it isn’t inadvertently opening its doors to non-refugee immigrants from other African nations. This recently inspired a screening process that scientists say is deeply flawed: genetic nationality testing.

In mid-September, the United Kingdom Borders Agency started the Human Provenance program, performing DNA tests and chemical tests called isotope analyses in hopes of establishing the nationality of asylum seekers whose origins were uncertain. While the tests were voluntary, the information they generated was to be used in making official decisions about whether a person would be granted asylum.

Britain’s scientific community, not to mention immigrants’ rights groups there, were outraged, saying that the tests were scientifically worthless — nationality isn’t encoded in DNA. The program was suspended on October 5. On November 20, the Borders Agency reinstated the effort as a scaled-back pilot program, to “test whether there is the potential for these investigations to be supported by wider use of DNA testing and isotope analysis,” Chief Scientific Advisor Paul Wiles wrote in a prepared statement in October. He added that for the duration of the pilot program, “no decisions on individual cases will be made using these techniques, and they will not be used for evidential purposes.”

So, what, exactly, can DNA tests and isotope analyses reveal about nationality?

The Borders Agency is primarily using two types of DNA tests: mitochondrial DNA tests, which examine the genetic information stored in a cellular structure called a mitochondrion, and what are called Y-line tests, which look at markers on the Y-chromosome passed from father to son.

These tests have been widely used to examine people’s ancestral heritage. Since certain genetic variations are typical in certain areas, geneticists can use an individual’s DNA to estimate where their ancestors came from.

But when this technique is used to look at someone’s nationality rather than the origin of their distant ancestors, critics say it’s no longer viable.

“I don’t see how genetics can tell us about nationality, because nationality is a social and political construct, not a genetic one,” said Chris Tyler-Smith, head of the human evolution research team at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a genomic research center in the U.K. “I wouldn’t be able to [distinguish a Somali from a Kenyan] using the mitochondrial DNA and the Y.”

In addition to DNA tests, the Human Provenance program attempts to glean geographical information by analyzing chemical markers called isotopes found in hair and fingernails. Different environments have different isotope levels, and as a person drinks water or eats food from a given place, the isotopes it contains are absorbed into the body.

There is some evidence that isotope analysis of hair can give a general idea of where a person came from. But, said Jane Evans, a researcher at Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, “if you want to know where somebody spent their childhood, you’ve got to look at a part of the body that records information about childhood. Hair and fingernails are only going to tell you something, maybe, about what the person did while those were growing.”

Hair grows about half an inch each month, so even a six-inch hair will provide clues only to the past year’s geography. Fingernails tell even less. Since many asylum seekers don’t immigrate directly to the U.K., these tests are unlikely to be useful.

Here in the United States, the government has no plans to institute a similar program. U.S. officials “have not used, nor are they considering DNA testing for verifying nationality,” said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in an e-mail.

It will take time to gather and analyze data from the U.K. pilot program. But, Tyler-Smith said, “I haven’t seen any scientist who has supported the idea of these tests or [thought] that they’re appropriate or meaningful.”

About the Author

Valerie Ross

Valerie Ross studied cognitive neuroscience and creative writing at Stanford University. While it was her fascination with understanding and explaining the mind and brain that first got her interested in science writing, Valerie has now written about everything from the neuroscience of memory to drug-resistant bacteria to general relativity. She has interned with Scientific American Mind, Discover, and Popular Mechanics.



The study of a person’s genealogy will give you a good answer about nationality but you will probably have at least a dozen nationalities to work through. From thinking myself Hungarian, German & English I added Scottish, Welsh, French, Spanish, Irish, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish and that great great (many times) grandmother born in Africa 100,000 years ago. And an amazing number of historical people such as William the Conqueror and all 3 of the King Edwards of England. And I now know it wasn’t just my mother giving me the artistic genes – among others there is also Georgia O’Keefe. Plus I was named after Shirley Temple and I know now that we shared a grandmother in the past. Great fun.

Dear Sirs:

My bestfriend, is looking for a certified DNA ethnic researcher to discover her nationality. Could you please provide me with the name and address of someone in Toronto, Ontario if not in New York, N.Y. She has cancer so if you could expedite this matter it will be greatly appreciated.

Yours truly,

Mrs. Sandra Proulx

Quite frankly I find the concept that ancestral “nationality” can be established to be just as if not MORE suspect. Humans have always traveled/migrated ALOT across the planet, “screwing” all along the way just about every chance they got, especially the common ancestral precursor “humans” that seem to have spread about the entire globe so fast its almost as if they were running from or to something. Thats my take on genetic history and I think thats why so many people are more closely related than our modern cultural and habitually categorical expectations can handle. You have an ancient person’s genes in your DNA for example fair enough but how on Earth can anyone tell you this ancestor lived in or even traveled through “Scotland” for example? I call bullshit or in other words perhaps highly educated guesswork. Point blank- genes aren’t now and HAVE NEVER BEEN tied down to any mass of land anymore than they are tied down to any nationality. Think about it: how many dead mummies have really been “genomed?” So they find a few Uighur mummies (for example) and pull out some of their DNA, then what? Are they claiming that in order for your ancestors to have been legitimate Uighurs you’d have to be genetically related to those few mummies that were left behind? Or perhaps at least be related to some of the people who currently can claim to have been descended from those survivors of the Uighur people? My point is that as rare or common as it might have happened…if even a small number of clans of those people left to find new horizons taking their genes with them,history doesn’t record it, and they didn’t leave any mummies behind, then our modern researchers will have no idea that in fact your ancestors were ALSO “Uighurs”.
Therefore the most I can accept is that researchers could extract some genetic markers that suggest a person is related to living populations whose ancestors have been established by historic and other genetic data to have lived,traveled,and sexually interacted with people from a specific and or “for best results” ISOLATED regions.
With a little diligent research beyond the genome, researchers can probably tell you who some of your ancestors probably ARE related to, but can’t,through genes alone, tell you who they are NOT related to.

Pat Brancato says:

Could anyone validate or any other DNA testing that I could participate in.

John Darr says:

If one is to adhere to the strict definition of the word, “nationality” is determined by the nation one is born or naturalized into.
Nationality derives from the word “nation.”
My ancestry is not specifically aligned with what my nationality is.
My parents were of Italian ancestry;when they lived in Italy, they were Italian: later, they were Americans through naturalization.
I was born in America but of Italian descent(because that’s the “nation” my parents came from and to which their parents were born in). My ancestry as revealed through DNA is mostly of Italian origin, Greek, Middle Eastern, African, but my nationality is American.
Advertisements claiming “I thought I was German, but I found out I’m Scots” are misleading. One’s descent is not one’s nationality. Everyone’s DNA will be an historical mixture, but nationality is determined by one’s nation not ones ancestry.

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