Dorie Hightower always believed that she inherited many of her most treasured characteristics from her father. Edward Caplan was a longtime journalist, described in his 2001 obituary as a “crusty copy desk chief for the old Milwaukee Journal.” His daughter gravitated toward writing, and worked in media relations for much of her career, including a decade at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Music was another shared passion. He delighted in playing the piano. The guitars propped on stands around Hightower’s Silver Spring home aren’t just decorative; she regularly strums them, and sings, too.
Hightower also thought she got her dad’s sense of humor, and the resemblances seemingly didn’t end there. Both were nearsighted. “People would say, ‘You look so much like your mother,’ and I would say, ‘I think I look like my dad,’ ” she says. “Our eye shape, I thought, was similar.”
In December 2017, Hightower sat in front of her computer and opened a Facebook message from a cousin on her father’s side of the family. She hadn’t seen Darcy, who lives in Los Angeles, since junior high school, but the two had reconnected online. Like millions of Americans, Darcy had taken a DNA test through Ancestry.com. One piece of information in the results baffled both women: A man named Gary, whom neither of them knew, was listed as a first or second cousin.
Hightower wondered if her father might have had a child that no one in the family knew about, but that seemed far-fetched. “My parents were newlyweds at the time,” she says. “Most people don’t have affairs that early into their marriage. And he was very dedicated to my mom.” As the two of them contemplated the possible explanations, Darcy sent her cousin another note: The website was having a sale. For $79, Hightower could have her DNA tested, too. “So I was like, what the hay?” she says.
Hightower, now 65, had heard of Ancestry.com but didn’t know much about it. When the cigar box-size test kit arrived, she spit into the plastic tube, sealed it, shook it to make sure her saliva mixed with the stabilizing solution, placed it in the collection bag and dropped the package in a mailbox. The whole process took five minutes, if that.
When the results were posted to her account about a month later, Hightower glanced at her iPhone and was utterly perplexed. Among her close family matches—meaning people who shared 25 percent of her DNA—were a woman’s name she’d never seen, a bunch of men’s initials, and someone with a screen name she didn’t recognize.
She wondered, who are these people?
Defining DNA is easier than pronouncing what those letters stand for. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the genetic code in humans and almost all living organisms. Human DNA is made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes, each of which contains hundreds to thousands of genes.
Scientists have been researching DNA for decades, but using it to explore familial lineage didn’t become popular on a consumer level until after the Human Genome Project finished mapping the full sequence of human genes in the early 2000s. “People have always wanted to understand who they are and where they come from,” Jennifer Utley, Ancestry’s director of research, says in an email. “In the last few decades, the interest in family history has been explosive because of the accessibility of information such as historical records and online tools that facilitate both family tree building and learning the stories of your ancestors. If you add the cutting-edge advances of genetics—which used to be extremely expensive—you’ll find that people find this emerging technology to be compelling.”
Ancestry has more than 10 million people in its consumer DNA network. When someone takes a DNA test through Ancestry, the company adds that person’s genetic code to its online collection of family history records, which it says is the largest in the world. Its scientists use the raw data to estimate the person’s ethnicity and to identify potential relatives who’ve taken an Ancestry test, a process that can take up to eight weeks. When an email notifies the customer that the results are available, that person can log on to his or her private page to see a list of possible relatives and, if desired, to begin constructing a family tree.
Ancestry isn’t the only company offering services like these. Millions more have taken tests through other companies, including 23andMe, whose DNA test was named Time magazine’s Invention of the Year in 2008. More than a decade later, the price of that test has dropped from hundreds of dollars to as little as $99. The low cost of DNA tests has prompted an explosion in the number of people taking them. The testing is affordable for sure, but is it worth it?