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First 60 Minutes, Now Scientific Journals – Genetic Genealogy in Today’s Science

Today’s issue of Science contains a new look into the world of genetic genealogy. “The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing“, led by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, examines the benefits and drawbacks of genetic genealogy. Here is a table summary of the researcher’s conclusions:

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Table from: “Deep Roots”” at www.utexas.edu/features/2007/ancestry/.

One interesting fact from the article is that the number of people who have purchased genetic genealogy tests is estimated to be over 460,000! If you would like to read more about this study, there are a number of other sources of information, including a press release from The University of Texas at Austin, where the first author, Deborah A. Bolnick, is assistant professor of anthropology. There is also a feature story at The University of Texas’ website. In this feature story, Dr. Bolnick … Click to read more!

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Genetic Genealogy In the News

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There is so much information about genetic genealogy in the news right now that I am having a hard time keeping up. That, of course, is good news. So here is a round-up of some of the best from the web:

Seeking Columbus’s Origins, With a Swab” is an article in today’s New York Times (HT: Liz). Scientists and genetic genealogists hope to use Y-DNA to compare DNA that might be Columbus’s to modern-day people with a related surname.

Genetic Genealogy Mildly Hot” is a post by Hsien at Eye On DNA that explains why “family tree dna” was one of the top 100 searches at Google Trends yesterday. Got a guess?

In “60 Minutes on DNA: Deja Vu All Over Again“, Megan Smolenyak looks at Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment about genetic genealogy. It’s a brilliant post, especially with the following sentence:

“Since I’ve been watching this same formula repeat itself since 2001, I’ve developed a pet peeve about the built-in, patronizing assumption that genealogists are too dense to understand the fundamentals of what DNA can and can’t do — rather than the reality that we’re pioneers delighted with the prospect of learning what had previously been unknowable and well aware of the limitations.”

We’re pioneers, people! If there is anyone being tested who doesn’t … Click to read more!

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J. Craig Venter and Personal Genetics

Wow, what a day for personal genetics. Yesterday, J. Craig Venter’s diploid genome was released (I’m not sure where the sequence is, but the paper is available at PLoS Biology, a OPEN ACCESS journal!).

I know that many people have their gripe about Venter, but seeing a story about personal genetics on the front page of CNN is important. It educates people and helps alleviate fears about genomic sequencing. I think it’s a great opportunity for the field. Here’s a few quotes from the CNN story:

“Venter has just published almost all 6 billion letters, or 96 percent, of his own personal genetic code in the journal PLoS Biology. From diseases to personality traits, it’s the most comprehensive human genome to date. Venter’s gene map provides a new understanding of his genetic destiny, according to the DNA inherited from both his father and his mother.

Venter says it’s just the beginning of a new era of personal genomics. “For the first time, we can answer almost any question of what’s genetic, what’s the environment. Our genes can tell us probabilities of what might happen and give us a chance to do something about it.”

There are also some quotes from George Church, leader of the Personal Genome Project:

“Dr. George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is working on a DNA test that would identify for the consumer 1 percent of his or her DNA at a cost of $1,000. He says that someday soon, people may be checking their DNA maps as they do their stock portfolios — constantly adjusting to everyday developments and new gene discoveries.

“You’ll have all that information sitting at your desk and as the information flows in you’ll say, ‘I only want to know things of certain type. I don’t want to know about Alzheimer’s, or I don’t want to know about heart disease, or I do, or I want to know about everything, as soon as it comes in,” says Church.

It’s a habit Venter already follows. As more genes are discovered, he says, he constantly checks his own genome.”

For all the genetic genealogists out there, our habit will undoubtedly be comparing our genomes in order to find or identify potential relatives. Sure, curing disease and improving health is important, but … Click to read more!

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The Early Stages of the Genetic Genealogy Revolution


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It’s always been my belief that personal genetics (inexpensive whole-genome analysis) will bring about some exciting changes in the field of genetic genealogy. One of the biggest areas of change will undoubtedly be in the area of autosomal genetic testing. (Remember that autosomal testing examines nuclear DNA, which is DNA other than mtDNA, Y-DNA, or X chromsomes).

A new study takes one of the first steps in the genetic genealogy revolution by examining SNP variations in four self-identified American populations – European, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, and African American (see reference below). “These population labels were used, despite the controversy surrounding the correspondence between notions of race and population … Click to read more!

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Ethical and Legal Issues Surrounding Large-Scale Genomic Databases


I recently came across a review article by Henry T. Greely, a Professor of Law, Professor (by courtesy) of Genetics, and Director of the Center for Law and Bioethics at Stanford. The article is entitled “The Uneasy Ethical and Legal Underpinnings of Large-Scale Genomic Biobanks (pdf)” and was recently published in the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.
According to Mr. Greely, the identity of participants in large-scale genomic biobanks cannot effectively protected. A biobank is defined as a database of genotypic and phenotypic data. Using genetic information, physical information, or a combination of the two, people can identify an individual in such a large database:

“Someone really interested could get a DNA sample from me – from a licked stamp, a drinking glass, or some tissue – and have it genotyped for a few hundred dollars, but few will have to go to the genomic data; the phenotypic and demographic data will often be sufficient.”

“Eliminating name, mailing address, and social security number does not eliminate identifiers; it just eliminates the easiest identifiers, making the search somewhat more difficult and expensive.”

Unfortunately, it is impossible to remove all the data one could use to identify biobank … Click to read more!

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Genetic Genealogy and Non-Paternal Events


There is a certain occurrence in genetic genealogy called a Non-Paternal or Non Paternity Event. This is a break in the ancestry of a person’s Y chromosome and surname. A person named “Smith,” for instance, might have a Y chromosome that is clearly “Johnson.”
A non paternal event can occur when an adopted male takes the surname of his adoptive family, or a male child takes his step-father’s surname, or a male child takes his mother’s surname (undoubtedly there are other circumstances as well).
When a break in the Y chromosome is suspected or confirmed, it is possible that the break might have occurred 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago, or with the testee’s birth.
… Click to read more!

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Genetic Genealogy and the Amish

I am a genetic genealogist because I thought it would be a fun and interesting thing to do. Some people, however, are genetic genealogists because it is a matter of life and death.
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The Amish/Mennonites and Genetic Disorders
The Amish migrated from Europe (Germany/Switzerland) to the United States in the 1700s. One such group, the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, began with 200 Swiss immigrants. Today, there are roughly 200,000 Old Order Amish. Because of the difficult lifestyle, the lack of evangelism, and the language barrier, there is essentially no conversion to the Amish religion. In addition, marriage outside the community is forbidden. As a result, the community has remained closed for over 10 generations and is still using the same 200 genomes of their founders! This is known as founder effect, which means that a … Click to read more!

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Lotsa Links – Forbes Magazine and Genetic Genealogy


The Forbes Series – Forbes has an excellent series of articles relating to genomic sequencing and genetic genealogy. It is well-timed and full of interesting things to think about. I highly recommend reading them all!

1. Will You Get Cancer?

2. The Telltale Tumor

3. Never Mind You – What About Me?

4. Genes of the Rich and Famous

5. Genealogy Gets Genetic

6. 12 Genes That Could Change Your Life

 

“Genome of DNA Pioneer is Deciphered” – This is a write-up by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times. Unfortunately, Mr, Wade used the word ‘deciphered’ in the article rather than ‘sequenced’. I’m not convinced that this was his choice, but he’s getting some flack for it. In any event, it appears that Watson’s sequence took 2 DVDs rather than just one!  There’s a write-up at Nature News as well.
Additionally, the article states Dr. Craig Venter completed his own genome at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., and deposited in GenBank … Click to read more!

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Famous DNA Review, Part II – Genghis Khan


In 2003, researchers from around the world released a paper that suggested that 8% of all Mongolian males have a common Y chromosome because they are the descendants of Genghis Khan (See “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols,” 2003, Zerjal, et. al., American Journal of Human Genetics, 72: 717-721). The researchers examined the Y chromosome variability of over 2000 people from different regions in Asia and discovered a grouping of closely related lines. The cluster is believed to have originated about 1,000 years ago in Mongolia and its distribution coincides with the boundaries of the Mongol Empire.
Genghis Khan’s empire (he ruled from 1206 – 1227) stretched across Asia from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea and was reportedly extremely … Click to read more!

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Are aboriginal Australians and New Guineans the modern-day descendants of the extinct species Homo erectus?

Some scientists have hypothesized that Australian aboriginals received a portion of their DNA from an ancient hominid species called Homo erectus, which for a short time was contemporaneous with modern man. A recent study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences) set out to answer this question by analyzing mtDNA and Y-chromosome samples from aboriginals.

A total of 172 mtDNA and 522 Y-chromosome previously published and new sequences from aboriginal Australians and New Guineans were analyzed for mtDNA and Y-chromosome variation and were compared to the current world haplogroup tree. All of the mtDNA sequences were members of the M and N founder branches, and all of the Y-chromosome sequences fell into the C and F founder … Click to read more!