DNA: Surprising Dangers and Abuses for Great Storytelling

Skeptical about DNA testing and family ancestry tests? Colleen Coble has you beat. Join Colleen, author of Strands of Truth, as she lists inventive story ideas involving the potential misuse and abuse of DNA data. You may want to think twice before spitting in that cup…

Test your DNA and find out who you really are. The messages blast us every day in social media and at other online sites. I’ve been tempted to run my genomes several times—mostly because I’m interested in health topics and I’ve wondered if something in my DNA might be illuminating. I’ve even had a kit in my digital shopping cart a time or two, but I’ve always moved away before clicking the purchase button.

I’m a suspense novelist, and we tend to look at worst case scenarios for fiction, even though in real life I tend to be the person least concerned about security issues, strangely enough. But something about giving a company that kind of digital information has stopped me dead in my tracks.

While I was noodling on a plot for a new thriller, my daughter-in-law had her DNA results come back. She discovered all kinds of relatives she didn’t know she had. That got my “what if” meter clicking along. What kind of nefarious plot could develop through familial DNA? Could DNA be used in other interesting story ways? The more I researched, the more alarmed I became at the possible abuses. My creativity ran rampant with possible novel scenarios.

  • Law enforcement has been using DNA to solve decades-old cold cases. What if DNA left inadvertently at a crime scene points to the wrong person? DNA evidence is given so much weight that it is hard to overcome with other facts. It could even be planted.
  • The prolific American murderer and rapist known as the Golden State Killer was identified after a genetic profile from a 1980 crime scene was uploaded to a website called GEDmatch. Amateur sleuths constructed a family tree that within a few days identified 72-year-old former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, whose identity was confirmed by secret collection of DNA samples from his rubbish and the door handle of his car. The outcome may represent justice long overdue, but the methods represent an ethical minefield.
  • People who are adopted can find parents and siblings. But what if finding those relatives plunges a protagonist into a nightmare? Some secrets are better left undiscovered.
  • Insurance issues. The DNA companies freely admit they sell the data. What about a dystopian novel where people are uninsurable because of DNA results?
  • Organ harvesting. What if someone desperately needed a heart or some other organ the donor was unwilling to give?
  • DNA evidence links a protagonist to a cultural group that’s being exterminated, much like the Nazis did. A dystopian novel could use this as a backdrop.
  • Historians are using ancient DNA to extrapolate cultural shifts in the far past that might not really be accurate. This could lead to so-called science that sends research in the wrong direction.
  • What if the DNA is hacked? Maybe there’s something in the DNA record that could be embarrassing or simply something that would best be kept private? The hacker could threaten to release the information publicly if he/she isn’t paid a ransom.
  • DNA tests can simply be. . . wrong. We’re trained by films and TV shows to believe the DNA is incontrovertible. But what if the testing wasn’t done properly or was mixed up with someone else’s DNA profile?
  • Even if a person doesn’t have their DNA run, their sibling or cousin could have theirs done. That makes them searchable—and by extension—anyone in their family tree as well. What if a policeman shows up at the door claiming a person is implicated in a murder but it’s impossible to be true? How does someone go about proving innocence?
  • Drug companies really want that genome data! They can create drugs to target certain genes. But what if they could also create a pill that targeted a large percent of the population for some nefarious purpose?
  • A story featuring a protagonist-gone-vigilante could use DNA to bring killers to justice—but at what cost to our procedures of justice?

This is just a tip of the iceberg on the possibilities surrounding DNA. The more the testing becomes accepted by the mainstream, the more abuses we are going to see. I wonder how these will translate into crime novels. As we all know, the best fiction is inspired by truth.

About Strands of Truth by Colleen Coble:

Strands of Harper Taylor’s childhood are resurfacing—but will the truth save her . . . or pull her under? 

Harper Taylor is used to being alone— after all, she grew up in one foster home after another. Oliver Jackson finally took her under his wing when she was a runaway teenager, and now Harper pours her marine biology knowledge into Oliver’s pen shell research. But she’s never stopped wishing for a family of her own. 

So when a DNA test reveals a half-sister living just two hours away, Harper is both hopeful and nervous. Over warm cinnamon rolls, Harper and Annabelle find striking similarities in their stories. Is it just a coincidence that both their mothers died tragically, without revealing Harper and Annabelle’s father’s name? 

Oliver’s son Ridge still sees Harper as a troubled teen even all these years later. But when Oliver is attacked, Ridge and Harper find themselves working together to uncover dangerous secrets that threaten to destroy them all. They must unravel her past before they can have any hope for the future. 

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  1. Karen Parisot

    Me too. I’ve been interested in having my DNA done, but so far have been reluctant for the very same reasons Ms. Coble enumerates. She’s come up with a lot of good ideas for possible future novels. Her latest book “Strands of Truth” sounds like a fascinating mystery.

  2. Michelle Fidler

    I wouldn’t want to pay for a D.N.A. test. Interesting article. I just got the book last week. I ordered the MP3-CD. I just heard about the book from your newsletter.

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