Company Offers Blacks Free DNA Testing

Short on samples, researchers seek more data on African Americans' health.

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To significantly boost the amount of genetic information collected about African Americans -- which allows people to peer deeper into their ancestry and also to improve their medical care -- a California-based genetic-testing company is offering free access to its Web-based service.

The company, 23andMe, is inviting 10,000 adults of African descent to sign up for a free account -- waiving the $399 fee -- and provide a saliva sample, agree that their genetic information can be used for research and answer a series of online health surveys. (We have reached our limit of enrollees. There will be future opportunities to enroll this Fall and interested individuals should sign up for more information at


23andMe's lab extracts DNA from cheek cells in the saliva and analyzes the sample to provide such information as genetic risk for various diseases and health conditions.

The vast majority of genetic research published so far has been conducted in people of European ancestry, with a growing gap in the understanding of the interplay between genetics and health for African Americans.

"There are some social factors, with some reluctance to participate in studies because of a history of discrimination in research in the past. So many people bring up Tuskegee and say 'We haven't forgotten Tuskegee,' " said Joanna Mountain, Ph.D., senior director of research for 23andMe, a personal genetics company based in Mountain View, Calif. (The company takes its name from the 23 pairs of chromosomes that all people have.)   

Also, genetic researchers say they have sought out people with European ancestry because that population is far less diverse. The more genetically diverse a population, the larger sample size needed. With Europeans, "you can study 2,000 people instead of 10,000. You can get your results faster," Mountain said.

To remedy the data gap, 23andMe launched its new project, Roots Into the Future, during a National Urban League conference in Boston in late July. The project's goal is to collect genetic information from 10,000 Americans of African descent.

Translating Intrigue Into Action

That matches a long-term goal of The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard and an unpaid adviser to the project. Gates said he has long wanted the DNA of more African Americans to be collected in the 23andMe database.