A single-nucleotide polymorphism is a change of a nucleotide at a single base-pair location on DNA. 
David Eccles/Wikimedia Commons

Dear Readers:

I frequently receive requests for advice about DNA testing, and occasionally the questions involve the following scenario: A parent is dying or incapacitated. The window is closing on the opportunity to have his or her DNA tested in order to gain answers to long-standing questions about genetic origins.

This week I turned to genetic genealogist CeCe Moore for counsel on the best way to handle such a DNA emergency. She told me that most of the major DNA-testing services collect DNA samples through saliva—not ideal for a person who may be incapacitated and unable to spit into a collection tube. FamilyTreeDNA does, however, use swabs for collecting DNA from inside the cheeks. In addition, Identigene paternity tests are available in many drugstores, and their collection swabs are similar.

“In these cases, the best options are to either 1) overnight a kit from FamilyTreeDNA, since they are the only ones who will accept swabs; or 2) go to the drugstore and purchase an Identigene kit, use all three swabs on the person to be tested and then mail them to FTDNA after alerting them that the swabs are coming,” Moore said. 

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She cautioned, “The swabs should be allowed to air-dry and then placed in a paper envelope, not plastic.” Additional advice for using swabs is on FTDNA’s site.

The genetic genealogist added, “FTDNA is the only company that guarantees storage of DNA for future testing, so testing elderly relatives there is a prudent recommendation.” FTDNA, however, does not guarantee the viability of stored DNA, she added.

If DNA can’t be obtained before the death of a loved one, some funeral homes will do the honors. Moore said that DNA can still be collected for testing as long as there isn’t too much bacteria buildup in the mouth of the deceased.

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There is another matter to consider, however: consent. “Can the parent consent, or would consent have been given, if he or she were able to express his or her wishes? If not, DNA testing should not be done,” she advised. Moore is a co-chair of the Genetic Genealogy Standards, which address this topic.

Specifically, the standards state: “Genealogists only obtain DNA for testing after receiving consent, written or oral, from the tester. In the case of a deceased individual, consent can be obtained from a legal representative. In the case of a minor, consent can be given by a parent or legal guardian of the minor. However, genealogists do not obtain DNA from someone who refuses to undergo testing.”

In such cases, science may have the answers, but the conscience should also have a say.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.