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Twins get some ‘mystifying’ results when they put 5 ancestry DNA kits to the test

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One set of identical twins, two different ancestry profiles.

At least that’s the suggestion from one of the world’s largest ancestry DNA testing companies.

Last spring, Marketplace host Charlsie Agro and her twin sister, Carly, bought home kits from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA, and mailed samples of their DNA to each company for analysis.

Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies.

In most cases, the results from the same company traced each sister’s ancestry to the same parts of the world — albeit by varying percentages.

But the results from California-based 23andMe seemed to suggest each twin had unique twists in their ancestry composition.

According to 23andMe’s findings, Charlsie has nearly 10 per cent less “broadly European” ancestry than Carly. She also has French and German ancestry (2.6 per cent) that her sister doesn’t share.

The identical twins also apparently have different degrees of Eastern European heritage — 28 per cent for Charlsie compared to 24.7 per cent for Carly. And while Carly’s Eastern European ancestry was linked to Poland, the country was listed as “not detected” in Charlsie’s results.

“The fact that they present different results for you and your sister, I find very mystifying,” said Dr. Mark Gerstein, a computational biologist at Yale University.

Twins’ DNA ‘shockingly similar’

Marketplace sent the results from all five companies to Gerstein’s team for analysis.

He says any results the Agro twins received from the same DNA testing company should have been identical.

And there’s a simple reason for that: The raw data collected from both sisters’ DNA is nearly exactly the same.

“It’s shockingly similar,” he said.

Watch: Yale scientists mystified by different results for twin sisters.

Yale scientists are “mystified” by different results for twin sisters. 1:00

The team at Yale was able to download and analyze the raw data set that each company used to perform its calculations.

An entire DNA sample is made up of about three billion parts, but companies that provide ancestry tests look at about 700,000 of those to spot genetic differences.

According to the raw data from 23andMe, 99.6 per cent of those parts were the same, which is why Gerstein and his team were so confused by the results. They concluded the raw data used by the other four companies was also statistically identical.

Still, none of the five companies provided the same ancestry breakdown for the twins.

“We think the numbers should be spot on the same,” Gerstein said.

While he can’t say for certain what accounts for the difference, Gerstein suspects it has to do with the algorithms each company uses to crunch the DNA data.

“The story has to be the calculation. The way these calculations are run are different.”

When asked why the twins didn’t get the same results given the fact their DNA is so similar, 23andMe told Marketplace in an email that even those minor variations can lead its algorithm to assign slightly different ancestry estimates.

The company said it approaches the development of its tools and reports with scientific rigour, but admits its results are “statistical estimates.”

Differences across all 5 companies

Family had told the Agro sisters their ancestors come from Sicily, Poland and Ukraine.

However, the results each sister received from the ancestry companies revealed some surprising — and, in some cases, conflicting — family history.

Charlsie Agro and her aunt, Marjoh Agro, on vacation in Malta last summer. Before using DNA ancestry kits, the Agro sisters believed most of their ancestry traces back to Sicily, Poland and Ukraine. (CBC)

AncestryDNA found the twins have predominantly Eastern European ancestry (38 per cent for Carly and 39 per cent for Charlsie).

But the results from MyHeritage trace the majority of their ancestry to the Balkans (60.6 per cent for Carly and 60.7 per cent for Charlsie).

One of the more surprising findings was in Living DNA’s results, which pointed to a small percentage of ancestry from England for Carly, but Scotland and Ireland for Charlsie.

Another twist came courtesy of FamilyTreeDNA, which assigned 13-14 per cent of the twins’ ancestry to the Middle East — significantly more than the other four companies, two of which found no trace at all.

Paul Maier, chief geneticist at FamilyTreeDNA, acknowledges that identifying genetic distinctions in people from different places is a challenge.

“Finding the boundaries is itself kind of a frontiering science, so I would say that makes it kind of a science and an art,” Maier said in a phone interview.

How it works

In order to determine someone’s ancestry, companies like 23andMe compare a DNA sample to what is commonly referred to as a reference panel. A reference panel is made up of a select number of DNA samples, from previous customers who have taken the test and/or from publicly available DNA databases.

Dr. Simon Gravel, a population geneticist with McGill University who is also part of the 1000 Genomes Project, says ancestry companies will take 700,000 or so of your DNA segments and use an algorithm to compare your segments to those in their reference panel.

“They’re going to match it to different parts of the world,” he said. “In the end, there’s going to be some overall of these [reference panel] contributions where your DNA matched better, and that’s going to be their estimate of how much ancestry you have.”

They kind of need to take a pencil more or less and say, ‘That’s a region.’ And different companies draw different circles.– Dr. Simon Gravel, population geneticist

Different companies use different panels, so they’re each likely to provide the same customer with different ancestry results.

In a statement to Marketplace, AncestryDNA acknowledged that the size of the reference panel is key. The company said it is “always working to improve its science” and that its “new, larger reference panel will give customers more precise results.”

Why so different?

There are a variety of factors that can affect the accuracy of results from an ancestry company, Dr. Gravel says, but of particular importance is the size and quality of its reference panel. The larger and more representative it is, the more accurate the results, he says.

“If you have fewer people that you can compare to, then you make more shortcuts,” he said.

“You also run more of a risk of having missed diversity that you might not know existed in one particular region.”

Another reason for discrepancies in the results from different companies is the arbitrary way each company defines the world’s regions, Gravel says.

“They kind of need to take a pencil more or less and say, ‘That’s a region.’ And different companies draw different circles.”

Watch: Do consumers expect DNA ancestry results to be 100% accurate?

Do consumers believe the hype around DNA ancestry tests? 1:00

Gravel also says the tests tend to be more accurate for people with European ancestry, as more people with that particular background have been tested.

He cautions people not to interpret their test results as definitive. He says a testing company can use DNA ancestry kits to trace a person’s ancestry to a particular continent with statistical accuracy, but anything more specific than that, like pinpointing a country or town, is less reliable.

Lack of oversight

The biggest DNA ancestry companies have tested millions of people. MyHeritage, for example, says it expects sales of well over $100 million this year.

Despite the popularity of ancestry testing, there is absolutely no government or professional oversight of the industry to ensure the validity of the results.

It’s a situation Gravel finds troubling.

“Usually in science we have a process like peer review and make the data accessible, and make the algorithms accessible, that’s how we ensure the high quality of the data,” he said.

“In this case, we don’t have access to that because the companies keep the data private.”

That’s why Gravel says consumers should take the results generated by these tests with a grain of salt. People need to understand these tests are not subject to the same standard as diagnostic medical testing. They are more like a “recreational scientific activity,” he said.

Similar to 23andMe, MyHeritage says its results are “ethnicity estimates.”

When spokesperson Rafi Mendelson was then asked why MyHeritage presents results with such certainty — video results sent to customers declare, “You are,” before listing a person’s ancestry — he said he believes the messaging is clear, that results are only estimates, and that North American consumers are especially clear on this.

Results subject to change

Whatever your ancestry results, don’t get too attached to them. They could change.

In September, AncestryDNA informed customers that it had updated their estimates with the following message:

“Your DNA doesn’t change, but we now have 13,000 additional reference samples and powerful, new science to give you better ethnicity results.”

The ancestry estimates used in this story are from Nov. 6, 2018, after the company updated the twins’ results.

The new estimates included previously undetected ancestral ties to Russia, Greece, the Balkans and Baltics.

— With files from Jeannie Stiglic

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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