UCL Division of Biosciences


Clone of BritainsDNA Press Releases


February 2013 Eddie Izzard's genetic past

This refers to the BBC's two hours of television promotion for the stories that BritainsDNA sells to the public (see under Feb 19 & 20 in the timeline page, and in particular this blog).  The press release states "... and skilled geneticists can locate a marker's origin and date its creation." They can't - this is skilled hype more than skilled genetics.  Plausible guesses may be possible, but the uncertainty is considerable and difficult to assess.  Also "By looking at its frequency in modern populations, they can also track the movement of a marker across the face of the Earth."  False again.  With careful statistical modelling inferences are possible from many genome-wide markers, but even these will be imprecise; the TV programmes only referred to markers representing a small fraction of the genome (Y and mtDNA), and the inferences possible from them about human history are very limited.  The press release speaks of "Working with scientists at the University of Edinburgh and BritainsDNA ..." but the University should be worried about its name being used apparently to lend credence to implausible claims.

BritainsDNA made extensive attempts to cash in on the amazing promotional opportunity offered to them by the BBC, including a website, and both a promotional tweet and a Facebook post by Eddie Izzard himself, directing followers to the BritainsDNA website.

February 2013 Britain's DNA finds the lost legions

The title pretty much indicates the standard of the content.  "Finding the lost legions" amounts to a speculative guess at how many UK men might have a Y-chromosome introduced into Great Britain by Roman soldiers. See the blog by Debbie Kennett.  Pretty much all white British people are descended from Roman soldiers and probably many South Asians are as well.

March 2013 The Picts are alive

"Who are the Picts? ScotlandsDNA at last finds an answer".  But they don't of course, another example of imaginative hype and few relevant facts.  They find a Y-chromosome DNA variant that is more common in Scotland than in England or Ireland.  They claim "A recently discovered DNA marker suggests that 10% of Scottish men are directly descended from the Picts" but of course it tells us nothing about Scottish history and certainly not that ".. in fact the Picts are alive, well and living amongst us!".  There is a good discussion of the claim on DNA-eXplained.

June 2013 Genocide in Ireland

A nice comment by John Grenham on the Irish Times website says everything.

June 2013 Prince William's Indian Ancestry

This amounts to a claim that Prince William's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was in fact Indian whereas historical evidence had pointed to her being an Indian resident but of Armenian ethnic origin.  Such a distant relative is expected to have contributed a tiny fraction of Prince William's DNA,  so why we should care that she is Indian and not Armenian is unclear.  More puzzling is that BritainsDNA don't seem to have provided any evidence that she wasn't Armenian.  The story was "broken" by The Times, who also gave readers a "special offer" to purchase BritainsDNA products - the commercial promotion may provide an explanation for this non-story taking up the front page of The Times. See the blogs by Debbie Kennett, by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian and by Razib Khan in Discover Magazine.

August 2013 Red-Head Project

This press release actually does have some scientific content, and possibly could be published in a scientific journal.  The major difference is that it relates to facts about the current population of Britain and Ireland, rather than fanciful claims about the past, and in contrast to the vagueness of preceding press releases, this one includes a range of relevant facts: a sample size, the names of the genetic variants, and a map showing empirical frequencies of red-hair genes in different regions.  It's always possible to ask for more: they discuss very similar relative frequencies among Ireland, Scotland and Wales without sample sizes, so no way to assess if the small differences are significant.  Also the carrier numbers seem inconsistent with the phenotypic counts under a fully-penetrant recessive model and that calls out for an explanation.

February 2014 Royal Scotland, Royal Stewart

This press release relates to a study which demonstrates a good use of Y-chromosome DNA testing in combination with genealogical records. The story was covered by the Daily Telegraph. As with all BritainsDNA press releases, the problem is that the research has not been published in a genealogical or scientific journal, the press release provides only scant details and so the claims cannot be independently verified. The press release claims that "50% of all men who have the surname of Stewart or Stuart are the direct descendants of Scotland's longlasting royal dynasty" but this statistic is based only on BritainsDNA customers, who may not be representative and the sample sizes are not revealed.