Is DNA Left on Envelopes Fair Game for Testing?

The genealogist’s dream of testing old, spit-laced artifacts is coming true—but raising questions about who controls dead people’s DNA.

Last fall, Gilad Japhet, the founder of a DNA-testing company, got up at an industry conference to talk about his grandmother Rosa’s love letters.

Japhet’s company, MyHeritage, sells cheek swabs to people interested in their family history. It now has 2.5 million people in its DNA database, making it the third largest behind 23andMe and AncestryDNA. But Japhet wasn’t satisfied with only testing the living; he wanted to test the dead. Which brings us to the love letters—or really, the envelopes they came in.

The envelopes were sealed by his grandmother, and the stamps on them presumably licked by her. “Maybe our ancestors did not realize it,” Japhet said, a smile growing on his face, “when they were licking those stamps and the envelope flaps, they were sealing their precious DNA for you forever.” Then he made the big announcement: MyHeritage would soon begin offering DNA testing on old stamps and envelopes.

He didn’t stop there. If you can test the letters of your grandmother, why not those of historical figures? Japhet is a prodigious collector of autographs, and he revealed that he possessed handwritten letters from Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill. In an intriguing if provocative PR move, he promised that “their DNA is coming to MyHeritage very, very soon.”

In the past year, genealogists have been abuzz about the possibility of getting DNA out of old stamps and envelopes. In addition to MyHeritage, a British company called Living DNA began informally offering the service for $400 to $600 last year, and a small Australian start-up called Totheletter DNA, which specializes in DNA from envelopes and stamps, launched a similarly priced service in July. MyHeritage says its own service should debut later this year. (A spokesperson declined to comment on when Einstein and Churchill’s DNA profiles will be uploaded to the company’s site.)

Among genealogists, demand for this service has been pent up for years. “At every conference I do, every seminar I do, I always get questions about artifact DNA. I think there is enormous potential,” says Blaine Bettinger, a professional genealogist. Getting the DNA of an ancestor can be tremendously helpful for finding new relatives. For example, your great-great-grandmother passes about 6.25 percent of her DNA to you. But she may have plenty of other relatives who only share DNA from the 93.75 percent that you did not inherit. One way to genetically match those relatives is to test her directly.

Ask genealogists, and you will hear a story about a grandmother’s letter or a father’s tissue biopsy or a great-aunt’s hairbrush, full of DNA that could unlock a family mystery. While 23andMe and Ancestry require large vials of saliva for DNA analysis, which are hard to obtain without a person’s cooperation, artifacts are much easier to come by. But extracting DNA from these sources opens up so many new possibilities—some unsavory, some simply uncomfortable. Should you be able to test a parent who refused to play along by digging up an old letter? Or do a secret paternity test on your child, using a cup discarded by the man suspected of having an affair with your wife? Or trace anonymous letters? Or obtain the DNA of celebrities?

In Vallejo, California, police have also sent envelopes from the Zodiac Killer for DNA extraction, in hopes of applying the same genetic genealogy tools that caught the Golden State Killer suspect. (Investigators in the Golden State Killer case had the advantage of well-preserved DNA from a rape kit, though.) Criminal-forensics labs have long analyzed DNA from objects, but they rely on a technique that looks at only 20 sites, called short tandem repeats (STR). To find their suspect in the Golden State Killer case, investigators used a technique from commercial at-home DNA tests, called genotyping, which looks at hundreds of thousands of sites in the human genome. Genotyping yields far more details than STR, revealing distant family relationships as well as genetic variants that can affect a person’s health and appearance. That’s a lot of information, potentially hidden in an envelope.

For these reasons, the companies offering DNA services for envelopes are drawing a line: These tests are not for living people. The only reason, after all, to resort to getting a living person’s DNA from a letter is if the person is not cooperating with a cheek swab or vial of spit—in which case they probably are not consenting.

This means saying no to potential customers. Joscelyn McBain, the founder of Totheletter DNA, told me that several people have contacted her about testing anonymous poison-pen letters. She’s sympathetic, but she says, “It just opens up a big can of worms.” To avoid testing living people, Totheletter asks customers to explicitly state that the envelope comes from a dead relative. McBain is not against using DNA and genealogy to find violent criminals like the alleged Golden State Killer—she’s actually interested in working with police in Australia—but she’s uncomfortable with using it to track down just anyone.

To limit the possibility for abuse in this, MyHeritage does not plan to test items such as toothbrushes, dentures, and old clothing. Since envelopes are usually postmarked and have a sender’s name written on them, it’s easier to validate that the item is what the customer says it is and not some secretly obtained sample. MyHeritage told me it plans to update its terms and services to prohibit uploading DNA profiles of living people that have been obtained through stamps or envelopes. But DNA from dead people, including dead celebrities like Einstein and Churchill, will be allowed.

The ethics of testing a deceased person’s DNA are more ambiguous, says Bettinger. Dead people usually don’t have privacy rights. Dead celebrities, having been public figures, have even less of an expectation of privacy. But dead people still often have living descendants, who share some portion of their ancestors’ DNA and who do have privacy rights. What if Einstein’s living descendants aren’t thrilled about a company uploading his DNA, just so random people online can find out if they’re distantly related to a genius?

On the other hand, says Bettinger, we don’t ask all our living relatives and future unborn descendants for consent when we ourselves mail in a DNA test—even though it affects them all. The alleged Golden State Killer, for example, was identified through third and fourth cousins who took DNA tests. Right now, any one individual has relatively little control over his or her  own genetic privacy.

Living DNA’s terms of service would allow testing envelopes for the DNA only when the target person is deceased and the customer has obtained the envelope legally. Of course, these terms of service rely on the honesty of the customer. A lab technician reviews materials to make sure they are what customers claim they are, but cost might be the most practical deterrence. Living DNA’s co-founder, David Nicholson, brought up the example of paternity tests. They’re available in drugstores for around a hundred dollars, while Living DNA’s service costs $400 to $600. “It’s a very expensive way to do that,” says Nicholson.

The cost of testing envelopes for DNA is unlikely to come down soon. 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and MyHeritage are able to offer ordinary ancestry tests for less than $100 because they use standardized vials and swabs. That process is easy to automate with robots. In contrast, every envelope is different. A human hand needs to carefully cut out the envelope flap or stamp, dissolve the glue, and extract the DNA. Nicholson says different types of glue might require different extraction techniques. DNA also degrades over time, so the success rate of testing old letters hovers around 50-50.

So for now, the commercial viability of envelope DNA testing is still uncertain. “At the moment, we’re doing it as a token to help people,” Nicholson says. It’s not really making the company any money. He’s considered offering a two-tiered service, where customers pay a smaller free upfront and only pay for the full genetic analysis after it looks like it will work. McBain has been open about similar challenges for Totheletter. She’s currently refunding customers whose samples are not successful. “We have to improve our results if it’s something we can commercially sustain,” she says. The entrance of MyHeritage, a big player in the consumer DNA industry, will be an important test case.

Genealogists are, by disposition, people who enjoy thinking about ways of the past. It is not lost on them that we have stopped writing letters and licking stamps. “There’s kind of this golden period from the late 1800s to maybe the past decade or so,” Bettinger says. Then he adds, “Maybe DNA testing is picking up that slack.” In other words, now we have a generation of people who are voluntarily testing themselves and sharing their DNA—what more could you ask for?