This article in Wired actually caused me to write yesterday’s blog on the value of DNA testing. Beyond the inexpensive commercial DNA testing platforms of 23 and Me as well as Ancestry, there is another way – though it is expensive and probably not a good choice for most people. It has been used though in some paternity cases.
It was highlighted when Swiss forensic geneticists analyzed DNA recovered from postage stamps dating back to World War I to solve a century-old paternity puzzle. Renc and Arles, were the children of Dina – and maybe Xaver, or maybe not, maybe Ron was the father of Renc. Their descendants wanted to confirm or rule out that Ron was Renc’s father, as he was believed to be. So, the family offered up cheek swabs from living descendants of Dina, Renc, and Arles for DNA analysis, and some postcards that had been sent by Renc and Ron during WWI that it was hoped might hold their DNA, in the remnants of the saliva used to paste the stamps.
Solving kinship cases is a common task in forensic genetics but this case was a little more complex than usual. The team tried to confirm the reality, but to no avail. By October 2018, they had thrown in the towel. Then, in March 2020, the family returned with more heirlooms. They had found some more old postcards that had been sent by Arles on a business tour in 1922.
The scientists compared the DNA found under these postcards’ stamps with the DNA found on postcards sent by Renc, while he was fighting in World War I and on postwar trips. They found common Y chromosomal lineage, which meant that the two brothers shared the same father. After more than a century, the family had an end to their paternity drama: Xaver, not Ron, was Renc’s dad.
Extracting centuries-old DNA from artifacts—a licked envelope flap, hair from an old brush—was once considered the Next Big Thing in genetic genealogy. Its promise lies in offering anybody the opportunity to gain precious insights into long-deceased ancestors and loved ones, to look further back into their family tree, and to potentially reunite with existing relatives. MyHeritage, the DNA testing company, announced in 2018 that it would be jumping into the business of commercial artifact testing.
What was once envisioned as an explosion in artifact testing has petered into more of a slow burn. A number of factors have prevented it from becoming as big as commercial DNA test kits: it’s costly, it involves tampering with or destroying potentially sentimental family heirlooms, and there is little guarantee that it will be successful.
Here’s an example why, when relying on DNA extracted from saliva, you’re taking a gamble that the sender was the one who licked the envelope flap or the stamp, which surprisingly is not always the case. There once was an old practice to wet stamps on common pads at post offices. The running joke in some artifact testing labs is that if we check all these stamps, you will see that all the children are in fact children of the mailman. LOL