Who are you? DNA tests help Chinese retrace ancient steps

Young Chinese turn to commercial genetic testing firms to help determine where they come from

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 11:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 2:46pm

Li Jun, a 26-year-old government worker in Ganzhou, has spent all his young life in the Chinese coastal province of Jiangxi and knows that his family has lived there since his grandparents’ generation – but still he wonders from time to time how they ended up there.

So when his cousin bought two kits from a DNA testing firm that promised to identify his ethnicity, Li happily spat into a vial and posted the kit back. He downloaded an app from the company to register his details.

Four weeks later his report came back and it confirmed Li’s suspicion: he was almost 100 per cent of southern Han ethnicity. But for Li, a nice little surprise was learning that some of his ancestors were from the Dai.

“This is very interesting to me. I’m wondering when the mixed marriage happened in the long line of my ancestors, now that I know the general direction of my family tree,” Li said.

Many young Chinese like Li are turning to genetic testing for answers to the big question of where they come from, and the mushrooming direct-to-consumer testing companies make it inexpensive and convenient to do so.

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For a basic ancestry test, with some analysis of health risks, the price is usually a little less than 500 yuan, or roughly US$72. (In the US, the 23andMe genetic testing service charges US$139 or more for similar “health and ancestry” reports.)

According to a report released on Thursday by Chinese market research firm JingData, the market value of the genetic testing industry in China will reach 11.7 billion yuan (US$1.83 billion) this year and 143 companies were established in the country from 2015 to 2017.

These companies measure DNA markers at certain spots of a specific chromosome, then compare them with those mostly associated with different ethnic groups in the reference database to see how much they share the same genome, resulting in probabilities of the presence of a specific ethnicity.

Different companies use different methods and databases, which can result in different results on the ethnic mixes.

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Sunny Li, a 31-year-old journalist from Beijing, bought two genetic test kits for her and her mother to find out their health risks and their ancestral tree.

Li’s family had always believed that they were Hakka people and that they had immigrated generations earlier from northern China to Fujian province in the south. Instead, Li was overwhelmed to learn that she was descended from southern Chinese stock all along.

The ancestry report mapped how her family’s early generations were linked to Japan, then to the Gaoshan ethnicity in Taiwan, the She ethnic minority in China, the Jing from Vietnam and then the Yao people in China.

“The result did not shake me as far as an identity crisis, but I have always known myself as Hakka and proud of it. Turned out I am not,” Li said.

“The test is fun. It gave a clear history of family immigration and I can imagine many stories from that. On the other hand, it shows probably there is no such thing as pure Han Chinese.”

Zhou Kun, the chief executive of 23Mofang, a direct-to-consumer gene-testing company based in Chengdu, said that the appeal of his company’s test was that it answered one important question: “Who am I?”

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Zhou said the genomic difference between Chinese was less than 1 per cent, but individuals still had the urge to learn from where and whom they hailed.

“That’s what these ancestry tests are about, to find the genome relationship between an individual and the ethnicities, learn the difference and define oneself,” Zhou said.

With nearly 200,000 users, 23Mofang boasts the largest consumer gene data bank and is developing tests that are customised to ethnic Chinese.

Many companies allow consumers to download their gene data to be analysed by a third-party company, such as WeGene, a Shenzhen-based genetic-testing company.

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Along with the ancestry map, consumers can also receive reports of their health risks and personal traits or potentials.

Li Jun, for example, was told that he could excel at sports that required endurance and that he would be a good drinker – which he already knew before the genome affirmation.

Zhou said that consumers without medical background must not take these health risk alerts as medical diagnoses.

“They should also take into consideration their physical condition and family condition. If they are concerned, they can adjust their lifestyle accordingly, or pay special attention to these areas at medical check-ups,” Zhou said.

Su Bing, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences whose focus includes the genetic study of modern human origin, migration and adaptive evolution, said that customers did not need to take the results of their ancestry tests too seriously because they were not very scientifically reliable.

“Human mitigation is very complicated and it is very hard to conclude by measuring some genome markers. It takes someone specialised in population genetics to analyse, with a very detailed hierarchy and a very big database,” Su said.

“Besides,” Su added, “the migration of East Asians is especially complicated.”