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DNA testing traces anonymous sperm donor

3 November 2005   |   By Dr Philippa Brice   |   News story

An anonymous sperm donor has been traced by his 15-year old genetic son, using an internet based genealogy DNA-testing service. The boy supplied his own cheek swab sample to FamilyTreeDNA.com, which identified two men with genetically similar Y-chromosomes, both sharing the same surname. Although the sperm donor himself had never supplied DNA to the database, this surname information combined with the details the boy already knew – his genetic father’s date and place of birth – was sufficient for the boy to identify the donor. He used another online service, Omnitrace.com, to find names of everyone with the same date and place of birth, and of these only one had the surname identified via the DNA database. The boy reportedly made contact with this man within ten days (see BBC news report).

New Scientist magazine commented that the success of the boy’s search ”has huge implications for the hundreds of thousands of people who were conceived using donor sperm. With the explosion of information about genetic inheritance, any man who has donated sperm could potentially be found by his biological offspring”. In the UK donor anonymity was lifted in April of this year, so that information that can identify a sperm, egg or embryo donor can be given to offspring once thy reach the age of 18, but an estimated 25,000 individuals have been born from donated sperm alone in the last 15 years. In other countries such as the US, sperm donation continues to be anonymous in many cases.

Lindsey Marshall of UK DonorLink, which brings together consenting donors with adult offspring conceived using donated sperm or eggs, commented that there were serious ethical issues surrounding the case, especially for anonymous donors who have subsequently had families of their own who may be unaware that they had been a donor, saying: "The ramifications are huge. People's lives can be turned upside down". It is also significant that donors who are independently traced by their offspring have not consented to contact with them, and neither parties receive any counselling or support as they would via an organisation such as UK DonorLink.

Bryan Sykes, a geneticist from the University of Oxford and chairman of another genetic genealogy service, OxfordAncestors.com, commented that not only did the case raise “serious questions about whether past promises of anonymity can be honoured” but that the potential implications were even wider, citing the example of similar approaches being used forensically to trace criminals (see New Scientist article).

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