UCL Division of Biosciences


Eran Elhaik

The DNA satnav

The Daily MailBBC NewsThe Washington Post and many other sources carried the story in May 2014 of a new DNA "satnav" which purported to pinpoint the village your ancestors once lived in a thousand years ago. The underlying research on which this story was based was published in a peer-reviewed journal but the university press releases over-hyped the claims (see the press releases from the University of Sheffield and the Children's Hospital Los Angeles). In the paper the median distance from the true origin was 450 kilometres, which is hardly the village-level precision claimed.

A new company called Prosapia Genetics was launched on the back of the research offering customers the chance to order an analysis using the GPS tool. Unfortunately the test did not live up to the hype, and from the start customers have been dissatisfied. For the full story see Debbie Kennett's blog post Driving in the wrong direction with a dodgy DNA satnav and her letter in the August 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  She highlights the very large number of ancestors each of us had 1,000 years ago, and they are very unlikely to have all come from the same place, so that it is "... meaningless to try and pinpoint a single geographical location as the origin of all those diverse ancestors one thousand years ago".  In any case the patterns exploited by the DNA satnav are from the DNA of people alive today, and were formed by many processes at many times in the past, so that any reference to a specific time depth such as 1,000 years is implausible.

See also the article by Matthew Thomas "Genetic ancestry test claims to find 'village where your DNA was formed''' published on 6 May 2014 on the Bionews website and the follow-up article "So many genes, so close to home" published on 12th May.

In April 2015 Dr Eran Elhaik, the lead author of the paper, gave a presentation about the GPS algorithm at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show at the NEC in Birmingham, England. Mark Thomas attended the presentation and asked some challenging questions (also available on YouTube) during the Q&A session.

At the end of the presentation Dr Elhaik announced that he hoped to make his test available soon. He told the audience that they could sign up for the test at Osarge News, who had a stand at the show, and "we will let you know when the test is available". The test is currently (as of 29 May 2015) advertised on the Osarge News website and pre-orders are being invited for a fee of £120.

The DNA GPS test was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Business of Genetic Ancestry broadcast on 26th May 2015. (The relevant segment starts at 22 mins 48 secs.) 

Private Eye commented on the "genetic absurdity" of the claims in a brief article in June 2015 (Issue no. 1394 12th-25th June).

The GPS technique was used in a 2016 paper by Das et al Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz. The research was critiqued by Flegontov et al (UCL's Mark Thomas was a co-author) in a paper entitled Pitfalls of the geographic population structure (GPS) approach applied to human genetic history: a case study of Ashkenazi Jews. This was a specific response to Das et al, but included more general comments on the underlying methodology used for the Prosapaia Genetics test. The linguistic conclusions were critiqued by Aptroot (2016) in a paper entitled Yiddish language and Ashkenazi Jews: a perspective from culture, language and literature.

By the time the Das et al paper was published in March 2016 Elhaik appears to have ended his association with Osarge News. He was now working as a consultant for DNA Diagnostics Center. This company launched a GPS Origins test in the summer of 2016. See Debbie Kennett's critique published on 8 August 2016.

On 31 October 2016 a corrigendum to Elhaik et al 2014 was published by Nature Communications. The corrigendum included a conflict of interests statement in which one of the authors (Tatiana Tatarinova) acknowledged a relationship with Prosapia Genetics.

A paper by Marshall et al on Reconstructing Druze population history using the GPS methodology was published in Nature Scientific Reports on 16 November 2016. This paper failed did not cite the Flegontov et al (2016) paper and failed to address the criticisms raised. A non-peer-reviewed preprint by Das et al Responding to an enquiry concerning the geographic population structure (GPS) approach and the origin of Ashkenazic Jews - a reply to Flegontov et al was cited instead.

On 25 November Andrew Millard, an archaeological scientist at the University of Durham, published a critique of the GPS algorithm on his blog. His overall conclusion was that "the mathematical methods described are incoherent, the supplementary data is not that used to create the figures or equations in the paper, and the supplementary code does not implement the methods described. The paper is methodologically unsound and not reproducible".

Debbie Kennett published a review of four GPS Origins test results on her blog on 30 November 2016. A response was published by Eran Elhaik on the Khazar DNA Project blog on 1 December 2016.

The GPS tool was previously freely available on the lab website of Dr Tatiana Tatarinova but as of December 2016 the link is broken.