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Attention The Times: Prince William’s DNA is not a toy

An ancestor of Prince William’s from the 19th century was half Indian, according to The Times. This claim is based on analysis of his distant cousins' DNA. We have such technology today, but how comfortable…

The Times claimed today that Prince William has Indian ancestors. Vincent Lyon-Dalberg-Acton

An ancestor of Prince William’s from the 19th century was half Indian, according to The Times. This claim is based on analysis of his distant cousins' DNA. We have such technology today, but how comfortable would you be to find out what your DNA tells about you on the front page of a newspaper?

Your DNA contains information about your past, present and future: From medical health, such as predispositions to diabetes, to your ancestry, such as whether they were Indian or African.

Genetic testing, in whatever form, will reveal something personal about you and your relatives. But the trouble is that even though your DNA makes you unique, it is not so special. There are more commonalities betweeen our DNA than there are differences. We are all related to each other in some way.

This is a tension that clinical geneticists and genetic counsellors routinely deal with when working with families affected by inherited disease. This is also why genetic testing in health services have developed with the family in mind, rather than the individual.

There are four moral and ethical principles most commonly applied to genomic research as well as clinical genetic practice. They can be summarised as: allow people to make their own minds up about whether to be tested or not (autonomy), do no harm (non-malificence), do good (beneficience), and create a just and equitable product or service (justice).

Let’s apply those principles to William’s case.

First, there was no autonomy. He was not personally tested and so he did not make a decision about this. Also, we are also not sure whether he was given a choice about the story running.

Second, is this information potentially harmful to William? Only he can comment, but personally I would be miffed if genetic information about my ancestry was shared with the world before I knew it.

Third, this story could do William some “good”. Again only William can say whether the Anglo-Indian relationship plays to his advantage. However, irrespective of this, I would doubt that the primary motives behind the testing were to do good for William.

Finally, the article in The Times ran with an advert for the company that did the testing. While this appears distinctly distasteful, the bottom line is that such testing is not available for all (unless you can pay) and there was no equity in decision-making, because William had no choice.

A team from Harvard University recently revealed that 40% of publicly available, supposedly anonymous, DNA sequences could be linked back to the individual who gave them. Thus anyone providing DNA for research must be counselled to the fact that there is always a chance of being identified and personal medical information being shared. Once identified then so too can his or her family.

Anyone in the public eye is particularly vulnerable - genetic exploitation is possible on scales never imagined before. While it might titillate the masses to discover that William has Indian ancestry, we should never forget that there is a real person with real feelings behind this story.

Genetics unites all of us. But revealing personal information about somebody, without their consent, irrespective of their position or status, is potentially harmful. While the discussion is about ancestry today it could be more serious if predispositions to life-threatening conditions are revealed? If it were me, I’d rather know this first and have a chance to talk to my family before anybody else knows about it.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Dora Smith


    Aw, get used to it. Mitochondrial DNA is shared exactly with large numbers of female line ancestors going back thousands of years. Your DNA is the personal property of everyone who shares it. Noone is obligated to keep it a secret. YOU aren't able to tell me what I can and can't do with my genetic information, and I strongly suggest you stop trying, as of yesterday.

    As a matter of fact, my emigrant female line ancestor to the United States, in the 1640's, has hundreds of traceable female…

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    1. Dora Smith


      In reply to Dora Smith

      I just looked through the genealogical pathway from the half Indian woman to Prince William, and realized that not one woman died before age 07 (except Princess Diana), and most lived to reach their 80's and 90's. There's no serious mitochondrial DNA - linked health problem here.

  2. Dora Smith


    I just remembered. Prince Philip's mitochondrial haplogroup is well known - it's even in Wikipedia. He took part in a study that identified the remains of the ruling family of Russia.

    The mitochondrial haplogroups of several other royal lineages of Europe are known as well.

  3. George Michaelson


    Were the british monarchy elected, the genetic profile of members of the (extended) royal family would have little interest. Since so much vests in the patrimony and matrimony of the royal family, it is hardly surprising that people express interest.

    Had for instance, Diana been alive during 1949, and had genetics permitted the discovery of an Indian ancestor, do you really, really think the british government of the day would NOT have sought to make us of this in the context of the debate over Indian independence?

    1. Anna Middleton

      Ethics Researcher and Registered Genetic Counsellor at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

      In reply to George Michaelson

      Thank goodness we are not in 1949 where eugenics was de rigour and genetic determinism rife. I would argue that as there will be something of 'genetic interest' in every one of us (whether it be of interest to our employer, our insurance company, our partner), we all have a right to know what's in our genome before any one else does. Whether others have a right also to that information (e.g. the police or subjects of the Royal family) is another matter. Irrespective of this, I still feel strongly that before genetic information is shared with the world that the individuals directly affected by this should be informed first and have a say in whether this is shared.

    2. George Michaelson


      In reply to Anna Middleton

      The Guardian had a fascinating article about somebody having their entire genotype mapped, and their sense of personal engagement with it (the process, the results). So many things for laypersons to misunderstand, in these endeavours. And, as we learn more about the interactions of gene groups rather than single genes, it gets even more statistically bound to 'could' or 'might' or 'increased risk' messages which are down in the percentages that humans are not well attuned to understanding. Not to…

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