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She Took a DNA Test and Found a Sister, Then Another and Another

In December, Bloomberg published a story about how 23andMe Inc., the DNA testing company, has had to train customer-support staff to play the role of therapists because so many customers were getting shocking results from the genetic tests they sent in.

People were discovering that their father wasn’t their father, or that they had an unexpected sibling – or siblings. In the genealogy business, finding out your dad isn’t your dad even has a technical term: It’s called an non-paternity event, or an NPE.

That article told the story of 57-year-old Catherine St Clair, whose life was ripped apart when a saliva test by AncestryDNA showed that she and her brother Mike had different fathers. St Clair used the experience to help others in the same predicament, and started a Facebook support group called DNA NPE Friends that has grown to 5,000 members.

After we published the story, emails started to flood in. Dozens of people wrote to Bloomberg about similar experiences finding parents and siblings they never knew they had -- revelations that could tear open old family secrets.

Those stories felt like part of a much larger idea, that DNA testing has changed the very concept of family. It now not only includes parents, siblings, step-parents and step-siblings, but also newly discovered biological parents, brothers and sisters who have been unknown for years or decades.

One of the people who contacted me after the original article ran was Carolynn Bernard, a sheep farmer in Enumclaw, Washington, a rural town at the foot of Mount Rainer. Like St Clair, she had mailed a sample of her saliva to Ancestry only to discover that the man she called Dad was not her real father.

Bernard’s biological father turned out to be a man called Gary Tackett. Tackett was someone you’d expect to read about in a magazine or see in a movie: He had parlayed a career as a crop duster in Arkansas into a gig smuggling marijuana and cocaine from Central America into the U.S. In the 1980s, he secretly flew weapons to Nicaraguan rebels for the CIA, flying back to the US with drugs in a scandal that would later be known as the Iran-Contra affair. He testified before Congress about his role in 1988.

On Ancestry, Bernard also discovered a slew of half-siblings. It turned out that she had at least nine: six of whom had grown up knowing about their relationship to Tackett, and another three who, like her, had found his name through DNA testing. Genetic genealogy gave Bernard nine new siblings and a new father, some of whom she has begun to build relationships with.

For season two of Bloomberg’s Prognosis podcast, we’re examining how health-care technologies are changing industries, our culture, and much more personal parts of our lives. After a decade of handing over our data to Internet and social media companies, we’re now finding out what happens when we do the same thing with our DNA, our biometric data and other information about ourselves.