Web Watch: Chromosome Connections

Web Watch: Chromosome Connections

GeneTree links two popular genealogy trends: DNA testing and social networking.

To family historians — who’ve been inundated lately with genetic genealogy tools — the birth of another DNA Web site might not seem like news. Especially when the site is an offspring of the Sorensons: The family’s backing has already spawned the nonprofit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) <www.smgf.org> — whose free database contains 70,000 DNA samples tied to participants’ family trees-and Sorenson Genomics, the lab that provides testing services for Ancestry.com <dna.ancestry.com>.

So what’s different about GeneTree <www.genetree.com>? The Sorensons’ latest venture integrates DNA testing with another hot family history trend: social networking. GeneTree draws on Sorenson Genomics’ testing services, information in SMGF’s database and sister company Sorenson Media’s Web technology to create a tool ABC’s “Nightline” described as a “DNA Facebook” (referring to the popular <www.facebook.com>).

Whether or not you buy a DNA test, you can use the social networking features for free. After signing in and creating a password, you set up your profile page with name, nickname, birthplace and hometown. Entering seven generations of my family tree took just minutes — it was easy to respond to the site’s prompts. Each relative you add gets his or her own profile page, where you can add pictures, documents, video and additional details.

Just as Facebook users can restrict their profiles so only confirmed “friends” can view them, you must give others permission to see or add to your GeneTree profile.

If you decide to get a DNA test, your GeneTree account will include your genetic genealogy profile. GeneTree’s testing process is similar to other companies’. You order a mitochondria1 DNA (mtDNA) testing kit — the $99 test analyzes 400 markers; the $149 test, 1,200 — take a sample and mail it back for analysis.

Within three to four weeks, you’ll get your results, which reveal your haplogroup — your ancient ancestors’ genetic group — and the region where your maternal line originated. To determine this, the company compares your markers to samples it’s collected from people in 170 countries.

Turns out I belong to the rare and scattered haplogroup K. GeneTree’s interactive DNAvigator tool mapped K’s migration pattern, putting its origin 30,000 to 35,000 years ago in what’s now Turkey. It was astonishing to see the animated map “migrate” my haplogroup to the region I knew my ancestors had lived in.

Although my genealogical paper trail led me to believe I’d see strictly Eastern European results, my results indicate I’m also Scandinavian, Northern Italian, French, Irish and perhaps Ashkenazi Jewish. I also got 11 pages of connections: people who exactly match or nearly match my maternal DNA signature.

If you’re considering a DNA analysis, keep in mind that the mtDNA tests Gene Tree offers can tell you only about the deep ancestry of your direct maternal line — your relation to others in your haplogroup may be too distant to be genealogically useful. For example, I didn’t recognize any of my known ancestral surnames among the connections GeneTree turned up.

I’d like to see the results get more specific, which should happen as the database grows and GeneTree starts offering Y-chromosome (paternal line) tests. Even without the immediate surname connections I’d hoped my results would include, the process provided me with specific places to direct my future research and expanded my perception of my heritage.

From the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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