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Interview Series I – Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA

image Genetic genealogy has been commercially available since 2000, and in the last 8 years many genealogists have used this new tool to learn about their ancestry. Over the course of the next two weeks, I will be sharing interviews I recently conducted with 9 individuals who have had a huge impact on the field of genetic genealogy. The list includes – in the random order that their interview will appear – Bennett Greenspan, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, Terry Barton, Alastair Greenshields, Whit Athey, Ann Turner, Katherine Hope Borges, Max Blankfeld, and Ana Oquendo Pabón.

Just a quick disclaimer about the list of interviewed individuals before I begin this series. Genetic genealogy has become the valuable tool that it is due to the efforts of many people, but I was not able to interview everyone (and some were unable to commit the time to do an interview). I apologize to anyone that should be on the list but isn’t.

Now, without further ado, I present the first interview in this exciting series. Bennett Greenspan is the President and CEO of Family Tree DNA, as well as a Founding Partner of the new start-up DNATraits. In the following interview, I ask Mr. Greenspan about the founding of the two companies, and about his thoughts regarding the future of genetic genealogy.

TGG: How long have you been actively involved in genetic genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?

Bennett Greenspan: I started Family Tree DNA in early 2000 because I had hit a brick wall and needed a new tool to determine if my cousin was related to a person I founding Argentina with the same name. Once I saw how effective using DNA for genealogy were I knew that every genealogist would need to avail themselves of this wonderful confirmation tool.

TGG: You founded Family Tree DNA in 1999, one of the first companies to offer genetic genealogy testing. What led you to create FTDNA?

BG: I got the idea in 1999 but before the proof of concept was completed it was march of 2000…we began to accept orders at that time and formally launched the service, for Y DNA, in May of 2000…3 days after Oxford Ancestors launched their mtDNA testing service…As we all know Y-DNA is much more genealogical then the female inherited mitochondria because of the much faster mutation rates for the STR’s that we test in male genetic genealogy, as well as the fact that in the Western world surnames go down the line along with the Y-DNA, which is not the case with the mtDNA.

TGG: Genetic genealogy, unfortunately, has received some bad press lately, largely through the misconceptions of journalists or confusion between genetic genealogy and other types of personal genomic services. What can amateur genetic genealogists do to counteract this bad press?

BG: I’d say be aggressive in writing letters to the editor and making your positive feelings known. I have received scores of support letters since that silly article came out in the English press last week, even thought we were not among the companies that they used…It’s clear that the amateur genealogist who uses our services knows much better then the reporter who, in many cases, seem to have an agenda of fear uncertainly and doubt (FUD) because FUD sells newspapers.

TGG: You recently launched DNATraits. What led you to explore this area of genetic testing?

BG: After being reluctant for some time to offer these tests I thought that it was time to launch them for 2 reasons. 1. We saw the demand starting from our own community 2. Mendelian disorders ARE genealogy…we either have had a disaster in our families and therefore we know that someone carries the mutation, or they are hidden and depending upon whom we marry they might create a personal disaster for the family who is a carrier. 2. Because Mendelian diseases are testable and predictable along the lines of 1-2-1 (presuming both parents are carriers for the same recessive mutation) we can actually prevent the birth of sick children by education and screening pre-conception or pre-marriage. This seems to us a noble if not earnest task. It’s quite different form the associated gene tests by 23&Me, et. al. since they tell you that you have a greater risk but the SNP’s are incomplete and therefore, IMHO, not ready for prime time.

TGG: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

BG: Will we have high double digit growth rates like in the past? I don’t know. But, as our database grows the likelihood of everyone finding matches with their surname (and prior to surname adoption) is growing exponentially. Today we are beginning to find that most people from a western European background find a strong match…quite often with the same surname. The matches are also beginning to get exciting in the group of adoptees who number in the 1-2,000,000 in the US alone. As the database grows and as this gets mapped out the concept of anonymous sperm donor will become like Jumbo Shrimp…an oxymoron. At least when it comes to adoptees intend to help in that regard more so then we can do today (and we already have a pretty good number of adoptees that found through us their biological surname).

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

15 Comments

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  2. How do I get started if I want my DNA tested for Jewish ancestory?

  3. Just saw the results of the DNA test I finally treated myself to at IAJGS in DC in August, and according to that, we’re fourth (or was it fifth, or maybe both) cousins! Clearly I move in good circles.

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