Genealogy Insider: Genetic Genealogy

Genealogy Insider: Genetic Genealogy

Take a look inside the growing business of genetic genealogy.

Once a novelty, genetic genealogy is now a full-blown industry and legitimate research tool. Scientists race to sample DNA from diverse populations and identify genetic distinctions among them. Testing companies scramble to present results in an understandable way. Data providers build online tools to facilitate connections between traditional and genetic research findings.
Initial skepticism about the research value of DNA testing has largely been laid to rest. Lineage societies including the Daughters of the American Revolution accept DNA evidence in proof arguments. Privacy concerns, though still real, have at least been addressed in laws such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (which outlaws DNA-based discrimination by employers and health insurers).
Genetic testing for genealogy has fully “arrived,” says CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogy consultant on “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” and “Genealogy Roadshow.” “Traditional genealogists are finally seeing that [DNA is] an essential part of their research.”
But that’s not to say genetic genealogy isn’t faced with a few growing pains. Here, Moore and other experts look at challenges and changes in genetic genealogy.
• EDUCATION: Although some test with vague hopes of finding a relative, you also can use DNA to answer specific research questions. Genealogists are at the base of a steep learning curve, however, when it comes to getting research answers from their test results.
Professional DNA consultants like Moore can help you make the most of your spit sample. Diahan Southard, a genetic specialist for and owner of Your DNA Guide, guides researchers through the process of “asking their DNA” relevant research questions. “Most people don’t approach autosomal DNA testing with specific questions in mind,” she says. “They don’t know how to filter through matches, use online tools and test more relatives. Then they become disappointed and give up.”

• GROWTH OF AUTOSOMAL TESTING: This year AncestryDNA ended its Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, closed the databases and destroyed related samples. Rather than a signaling an unstable industry, though, it’s a sign of growth in another direction.

“I think it’s short-sighted and disappointing,” Moore says, “but AncestryDNA had been moving away from Y-DNA and mtDNA for a while.” The company instead put its full weight behind autosomal DNA testing, which can assess both sides of a family.

• ETHNIC ORIGINS CONFUSION: Though tests for ethnic origins may pique public curiosity, results generally aren’t useful for research. Ethnicity percentages tend to be vague and inconsistent. Why would an African-American pay to be told he’s from Africa? What about the person whose results from different tests indicate roots in different parts of Europe? Legal Genealogist blogger Judy G. Russell calls the percentages “cocktail party conversation pieces—and little more.”

• HEALTH DATA: 23andMe made headlines this year when the Food and Drug Administration shut down the health component of its results analysis over the delivery of health information without a doctor’s involvement. But according to industry watchers, this red tape isn’t a permanent obstacle.
23andme now offers health results in Canada, and AncestryDNA recently surveyed consumers on their interest in receiving health risk data. Southard predicts this use of DNA would fuel more-powerful resources genealogists could use, though privacy concerns may resurface.
• FAMILY SECRETS: Surprises are nothing new for experienced genealogists. But some DNA test-takers, merely curious about their roots, don’t expect to unearth family secrets. In one instance, a man discovered a half-brother know one knew about—leading to his parents’ divorce.
You should consider the possibility of revealing misattributed paternity before you test, Moore says. She adds that such as discovery can be especially painful “for men who find out they’re not genetically tied to their surname.”
If one thing is certain in genetic genealogy, it’s change—but Southard says that’s mostly a good thing. She predicts advances in test sensitivity and application, as well as data processing behind the scenes. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in how to present data to the customer. New testing methods will come up. There will be better ways to retest. We’re just at the beginning of a new frontier.”

5 Questions With Kitty Cooper

Kitty Cooper’s fascination with several formerly unrelated topics—genetics, computer programming, family history and even design—have come together in a unique quad­ruple-helix twist. As author of Kitty Cooper’s Blog: Musings on Genealogy, Genetics and Gardening, she’s created a rich source of illustrated genealogy how-tos and tools.

1. What hooked you on genetic genealogy?
I wondered if I could use DNA to solve a brick wall. Lars Monsen was a dead end on my family tree. I did my dad’s Y-DNA and contacted a weak match who lived in the right location. He helped identify my possible fourth-great-grandfather. Then he tracked down a direct [male-line] descendant, and I paid for him to test. It was a match. The first guy is related to me but we haven’t figured out how.

2. Any other success stories?
DNA helped me solve another brick wall I didn’t even know I had. A Norwegian DNA cousin said I had the wrong parents for my great-great-grandmother. I’ve since confirmed through DNA that the new parents he proposed are the right parents.
3. What’s your favorite thing about genetic genealogy?
The people. I’ve met all these new cousins from Norway. And distant cousins often have pictures and stories you don’t have.
4. Tell us about your Chromosome Mapper—it’s like wall art.
A distant DNA cousin asked, “Couldn’t someone find a way to make a picture from a CSV spreadsheet [where DNA results are stored]?” I wrote a program so you can upload your spreadsheet to get these pretty pictures. Anyone can use it for free: It’s under Tools on my blog.
5. What’s your genetic mix?
I’m half Norwegian and half German, and the German side is half Jewish. But like everyone, I wanted to be descended from an Indian princess. Turns out I do have a little Finnish Sami in me, the Scandinavian equivalent of the Eskimos of the American north.

Question of the issue: How have you used DNA in your genealogy research?

I’ve tested at all of the “big three” [23andme, and FamilyTreeDNA] and I’m working on getting cousins to test … . It’s fun, and another piece of research to add to my genealogy puzzle.
Rachael Hartman » Garrettsville, Ohio 
[My results] showed exactly what my genealogical research shows: My ancestry is completely from the British Isles and the Northwest Coast of Europe. I had hoped some Eastern European, Asian, African, and/or Native American roots had snuck into my genetic makeup.
Miriam Robbins » Spokane, Wash.
I’m 2 percent Jewish and basically everything else that my parents said I was, part Bohemian and part Italian. Not much else. I guess my ancestors weren’t very mobile. 
Jeanne Morton » Cleveland, Ohio 
“Genetic genealogy is the next tool in the tool kit of the prepared genealogist. You have your history written into yourselves. Only now are we starting to be able to read or decode that mystery in all of us.”
Bennett Greenspan, Founder and CEO, Family Tree DNA 

Genetic Genealogy Timeline 

1989    First-known use of the term genetic genealogy, in the Dallas Morning News

2000    FamilyTreeDNA offers first consumer genetic genealogy tests; 300 samples are processed the first year

2002    Sorensen Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) forms

2004    First International Conference on Genetic Genealogy in Houston

2004    SMGF posts a yDNA database online with 5,000 samples and pedigree charts

2005    National Genographic Project launches to trace human origins and migration

2006    International Society of Genetic Genealogy forms

2006    Annual US sales of genetic genealogy tests estimated at $60 million

2007 absorbs Relative Genetics and offers DNA tests

2009    23andMe offers the first genealogy autosomal DNA test

2012 launches autosomal testing

2013    Daughters of the American Revolution accepts yDNA evidence on member applications      

2014    AncestryDNA focuses exclusively on autosomal testing

Did You Know? In 1875, mathematician George Darwin conducted the first surname study, on the frequency of first-cousin marriages—like that of his parents, Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood—in Great Britain. He arrived at a figure between 2.25 and 4.5 percent. 

By the Numbers

750,000+ genotyped members in 23andMe

698, 564 records in Family Tree DNA

678,632 participants in over 140 countries in the National Genographic Project

500,000+ autosomal DNA samples in database 


From the December 2014 Family Tree Magazine 

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