If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a strong proponent of genetic testing for genealogical purposes.I believe that when used correctly genetic testing can serve as a valuable tool in the genealogist’s toolbox.
A recent visitor found my blog with the search term “is genetic genealogy a scam?”When I recreated the search, I discovered that a previous post on this blog is the leading link for this search. The process made me think about the many people who are skeptical or wary of genetic genealogy.As a scientist, I appreciate and encourage healthy skepticism.After all, genetic genealogy has been available for less than a decade, and it has changed considerably since it was first offered.I believe that anyone who forays into the world of genetic genealogy should have a basic understanding of the science and the application of the results.Just reading about genetic genealogy in the media can give one a distorted view of the technology.Along this point, I recommend reading an interesting article by Rebecca Skloot (author of the upcoming book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which I can’t wait to read).I was referred to that article by a post on her blog (Culture Dish) entitled “The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research” in which she reiterates the point that genetic genealogy tests “simply can’t tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you’re testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else’s to find out if you’re related.”
This article is appearing in newspapers across the country (In the Rocky Mountain News [Thanks to Tim] and USA Today [Thanks to Megan]).Â Martin Marshall never believed that his father was actually his biological father, and testing has shown that he is not related to at least one of his brothers.Â Marshall then underwent Y-DNA testing in the hope of learning more about his father’s lineage.
“Marshall logged into an Internet database. He entered his DNA profile, and was astounded to find that virtually every person who closely resembled him genetically was named Sizemore.”
To date, Marshall does not know who his father was, but he is hoping that eventually the mystery will be solved.
In 2005 the Wellcome Trust established a Â£2.3 million project (roughly 4.5 million USD) at the University Oxford to examine the genetic makeup of the United Kingdom.The project would be led by the renowned geneticist and Oxford Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, joined by Oxford Professor Peter Donnelly (a population genetics and statistics expert) and the Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow Professor Lon Cardon.
The goal of the project is to establish a knowledge base for analyzing genes that are linked to disease.To do this, the researchers hoped to gather DNA from 3000 to 3500 volunteers throughout the UK who live in the same area as their parents and grandparents.Each volunteerâ€™s DNA will be tested for 2000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms).The data will be combined with each volunteerâ€™s medical history in the attempt to find a link between genetic make-up and the inheritability or susceptibility of a number of diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimerâ€™s.The data will also be used to isolate DNA sequences that characterize the founders of each region of the UK, be they Viking, Saxon, or Celt.
Yesterday the producers of last yearâ€™s popular PBS series â€œAfrican American Livesâ€ and â€œOprahâ€™s Rootsâ€ announced that they are seeking applications from people who are interested in participating in â€œAfrican American Lives 2.â€The producers plan to air the program in February 2008, and it will once again be hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.One lucky participant will have their genealogy mapped through a combination of traditional genealogical research and DNA analysis.You can read the full press release here.
Note that applications must be submitted by submitted by 6:00 PM on Friday, May 4, so if you believe that you have â€œdiscernible (or at least anecdotal) African ancestryâ€, as the FAQ section states, you should apply immediately.This type of dedicated research is undoubtedly worth thousands of dollars and could be an amazing opportunity.
The Guardian, a newspaper based in England, recently published an article about genetic genealogy entitled â€œThe appliance of science.“Itâ€™s an interesting article that looks at the pros and cons of genetic testing for genealogical purposes.
The journalist quotes Chris Pomery, author of the up-coming book â€œFamily History in the Genes: Trace Your DNA and Grow Your Family Tree.â€
“In specific cases, genetics is a very useful tool, but it is not a panacea,” he says. “We’re not even close to the situation where, if you’re starting to research your family history, you should begin with a DNA test. At Â£100 or so a throw it’s a lot of money, and you can progress your research a long way first for free.”
Yesterday we began to look at an email conversation I had recently with Jasia from The Creative Gene about genetic genealogy.
Jasia began by asking whether she should test both her and her mother’s mtDNA (I advised her no, because they would be the same sequence), and then we talked about testing her father’s mtDNA. Since her father could not be tested directly, Jasia wondered if her brother could provide a sample of her father’s mtDNA. I explained that although her brother could provide a sample of her father’s Y-DNA, she would have to find other sources for her father’s mtDNA, including her father’s sisters or brothers, or the children of her father’s sisters. She responded:
“Fortunately, my dad came from a large family including 6 sisters 4 of which had children. So I have cousins a plenty and can probably find one of them to help me out with a little saliva
This week I had a terrific email conversation with Jasia from The Creative Gene about genetic genealogy.She left a comment on a recent post, Discovering My Maternal Roots, which asked:
â€œIâ€™m a complete neophyte about DNA for genealogy. Iâ€™m wondering if there is any reason to test myself, and my mother. Since the mtDNA seems to trace the maternal lineâ€¦ is it enough to test just one of us or is there something to be learned by testing both of us?â€
This is a great question, one that many people who are new to genetic genealogy ask.Understanding how mtDNA and Y-DNA are inherited is one of the most challenging aspects of genetic genealogy.I always think of them as mirror images; if you chart your family tree, the Y-DNA travels down the far left line (from your fatherâ€™s fatherâ€™s fathersâ€™ fatherâ€¦) while the mtDNA follows the far right line (from your motherâ€™s motherâ€™s motherâ€™s motherâ€¦).Here is my response to her comment:
Although the article in today’s New York Times – “DNA Tests Offer Immigrants Hope or Despair” by Rachel L. Swarns – uses traditional paternity or maternity tests and not genetic genealogy tests, the emotional results of the tested can often be the same. What if DNA proves that your father isn’t your biological father? What happens when there is uncontestable proof that there was an NPE (non-paternal event) in your great-grandfather’s ancestry?
According to the article, federal officials in the Immigration Department are using “genetic testing to verify the biological bonds between new citizens and the overseas relatives they hope to bring here, particularly those from war-torn or developing countries where identity documents can be scarce or doctored.”
I get visitors from search engines nearly everyday looking for information about the startup business 23andMe. Iâ€™ve briefly mentioned 23andMe before, but I thought Iâ€™d see how much information I could gather doing a brief online search.
The website describes the venture:
â€œ23andMe is an early stage startup developing tools and producing content to help people make sense of their genetic information. Our goal is to take advantage of new genotyping technologies and help consumers explore their genetics, informed by cutting edge science.
â€œCombining computer science, biology and informatics, we are at the cutting edge of a new era of genetics. Genome deciphering technologies have reached affordable levels, allowing consumer access. This information has the potential to empower both individuals and society in a way that will deliver tremendous value. For the individual, such information will provide personal insight into ancestry, genealogy and health. For society, the collection of genotypic and phenotypic information on a large scale will provide scientists with novel avenues for research.