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TGG Interview Series V – Whit Athey

The name Whit Athey is undoubtedly very familiar to many genetic genealogists. Whit’s Haplogroup Predictor, used to predict an individual’s paternal haplogroup based on DNA test results, is one of the most valuable online (and FREE) tools for genetic genealogists.

Among Whit’s many contributions to the field, he is also the Editor (and frequent contributor) of the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. From his biosketch:

“Whit Athey is a retired physicist whose working career was primarily at the Food and Drug Administration where he was the chief of one of the medical device labs. He received his doctorate in physics and biochemistry at Tufts University, and undergraduate (engineering) and masters (math) degrees at Auburn University. For several years during the 1980s, he also taught one course each semester in the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Maryland. Besides his interest in genetic genealogy, he is an amateur astronomer and has his own small observatory near his home in Brookeville, MD.”

In the following interview, we talk about Whit’s introduction to genetic genealogy, the creation of the JoGG, and Whit’s thoughts about the future of the field.

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

Whit Athey: I have always been interested in molecular biology, and my graduate work, though primarily in physics, was partly in molecular biology. When the article by Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson came out about 20 years ago, I was really struck by the potential for a better understanding of human origins. However, at that time I was heavily involved in other things, so I was just an interested bystander for many years.

I bought Bryan Sykes’s book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, when it was published in 2001, and this rekindled my interest. I almost ordered the mtDNA sequencing that his company was offering, but it was rather pricey in those days, so I again held off getting personally involved. I did develop a course that I called “The Human Family,” and presented it several times in 2001 and 2002 to local groups.

In 2003 I finally took the plunge and ordered both Y-STR tests and mtDNA sequencing for myself, and I started a surname project for my own surname. I started five other projects during 2004 and 2005.

TGG: You are one of the founders of the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. How did this journal come about, and what are the journal’s goals?

WA: JoGG was really the brainchild of Ann Turner and Dennis Garvey. They had really brought a lot of good work to bear on our fledgling field, and the journal was really their idea. Ann and Dennis can better address the question of why they thought that we needed a journal. The idea immediately appealed to me because of the quality of some of the “amateur” genetics studies that I was aware of. I thought that a number of these studies were worthy of publication in some form.

Anyway, Ann and Dennis organized a meeting of several interested people, including myself, just after the first Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) conference in Houston in November 2004, with the purpose of discussing the possibilities of a new journal. I volunteered to help with getting the journal off the ground. Probably because I seemed to have the most time available, I ended up as its editor.

TGG: Have you undergone genetic genealogy testing? Were you surprised with the results? Did the results help you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

WA: Yes, I have tested myself on over 115 Y-STR markers and I have had a full mtDNA sequence done. I am a hopeless test junkie.

My Y haplogroup was quite a surprise to me, considering that my paternal line came to the U.S. from Galway, which is in a part of Ireland that is over 95% R1b. I am in Haplogroup G2-U8, which occurs in northwest Europeans at only about a 1.5% frequency. Furthermore, my cluster of 20 G2 Atheys is a considerable genetic distance from any other G2’s, except for one small family cluster that has the surname, Whitfield. This is quite a coincidence since my given name is Whitfield. So far, we cannot see how it is possible that our two lines are so similar when it appears that the common ancestor must have lived prior to the year 1400.

Most people seem to think that mtDNA has little role to play in genealogy. If you are simply looking for matches in the large databases, then I would agree that most matches that are found are likely to be meaningless for genealogy. However, in the area of hypothesis testing, I think that it can be quite useful. If you are comparing the mtDNA of two people who are suggested (by traditional genealogical methods) to be related along a matrilineal line, then the mtDNA results can either disprove or support your hypothesis.

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

WA: I can’t help but believe that we will see a continuing decrease in price and an increase in the number of tests that are available. For the Y-chromosome phylogenetic tree it appears to me that the addition of new SNPs will probably double every 2-3 years. We are also likely to see many new complete mtDNA sequences added to the world’s databases. This increase in resolution for both Y-chromosome and mtDNA trees, together with more people participating in testing, will bring new understanding of human migrations.

I believe that “amateurs” will continue to play a key role in new developments in the future, probably even more than at present. We have the ability to move quickly on a new question and a vast population available of people who have been tested. I think that the time has past when our community just waits on the professional population geneticists to bring new data to us through publications in traditional journals. I think that we will be playing a leading role in the future.

TGG: Thank you, Whit, for a terrific interview!

Other posts in the TGG Interview Series:

Blaine Bettinger

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