When the production company Minnow Films first contacted geneticist Professor Turi King to discuss a TV show built around DNA research, she was delighted. “I said, ‘I’ve been wanting to do something like this for 20 years,’ ” says King. “I love it so much, because this is exactly what I’ve been doing for over two decades now. I love being able to join family trees and connect people.”
In March 2021, DNA Family Secrets made its bow on BBC Two. Co-hosted by King, who found international fame after she led the team that confirmed the identity of Richard III’s remains, and journalist and broadcaster Stacey Dooley, the show was an instant hit. A second series starts in May, with each episode following participants who have questions about either their family history or a potential health issue.
The series places huge responsibilities on King and Dooley, both of whom have a rare gift for listening carefully. “You really feel the enormity of what you’re doing because you can see in front of your eyes that people are changing their perception of themselves, and where they are in the world and who they are.”
This can be a joyful occasion, but by choosing a handful of people to focus on and following their stories all the way through, DNA Family Secrets also eavesdrops on personal journeys that end inconclusively or with challenging discoveries. Indeed, the programme reminds us that DNA-based research doesn’t necessarily offer clear answers or a sense of resolution.
“I think that’s really, really important to show, and also why I have such admiration for our contributors, because they allow us to come with them. They have no idea how it’s going to go. They could get their answers, they may not get their answers, or they may get an answer and it’s not what they wanted, or it’s painful.”
In the second series, for example, researchers trace a man they believe to be the father of Georgina, who knows her dad is someone her mother had a holiday romance with in Portugal. However, the most likely candidate decides against taking a DNA test. It’s a story that also shows why the producers employ social workers, genealogists and medical professionals to offer support to participants. “The really important thing is to let Georgina know that it’s not her. It’s not personal,” says King.
Other stories, it’s worth emphasising, end more happily. But whatever the outcome in individual cases, the fact that details of millions of people’s DNA now resides on databases, enabling this kind of research, is evidence of how far DNA research has progressed.
In many respects, King’s career has run in parallel with the development of the field. Born in 1969 in Nottingham, she was raised in Canada. She initially wanted to be an archaeologist but, after reading archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge, King took an MSc in molecular genetics at the University of Leicester.
It was a difficult transition. “Oh, my goodness, I can tell you that was a steep learning curve!” she says of making the switch from the arts to sciences. Also at Leicester, she took a PhD based around researching DNA and British surnames. Did men with the same surname, she wanted to know, share the same Y-chromosome, which is passed down through the male line? Those who took part in the study included disc jockey John Peel, geneticist Lord Robert Winston and naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. As a result of this work, people began to contact King, looking for help with discovering whether they were related to people who shared their surname.
And then came her work on the remains of Richard III, found beneath a car park in Leicester, which saw literally hundreds of people email her. “It’s been estimated that between one million and 17 million people alive today are descended from Richard’s immediate family. When I give talks, I joke about how it feels like most of them have emailed me now!”
Not that she really minds. King is just as warm and empathetic in person as she appears on screen. She’s an enthusiastic advocate for her work because she enjoys it so much, although she is acutely aware of the power of DNA research to change people’s lives.
Bearing that in mind, maybe a DNA test isn’t always a good gift? “It’s not uncommon that siblings are all given DNA tests as a Christmas present, only to end up discovering that one of them’s not a full sibling.” Our family histories can be so complicated.
DNA Family Secrets series 2 starts on BBC Two on Wednesday 11 May