By DIANA SCHOBERG
The Patriot Ledger (Boston)
With a swab of his cheek and $139, Donald Woodworth hopes to uncover a piece of family history: the Michigan resident just might be related to Walter Woodworth, one of Scituate?s first settlers.
Birth and death records already point to a link between the two men but the cheek swab, says Woodworth?s wife Sherrye, will clinch it.
Scores of genealogy sleuths like those descended from Woodworth are using DNA testing to find out if they not only share a surname, but a Y-chromosome, too. At least a dozen companies sell DNA kits designed to help families move beyond the paper trail to discover new branches of their family tree.
??We spend years searching for proof of our lineage, but paper proof can be wrong,?? said Sherrye Woodworth, who has spearheaded a Woodworth family DNA project. ??DNA information will show if our paper information is correct.??
Over the past two to three years, genetic genealogy has come to the forefront, adding a new twist to people?s insatiable search for roots, say genealogy experts.
In December the National Genealogical Society in Arlington, Va., published a special edition of its quarterly magazine dedicated to Genealogy and Genetics, said Diane O?Connor, executive director of the group. And for the past three years, national conferences have all featured speakers on genetics, O?Connor said.
??It has great value for helping you identify groups,?? she said. ??But it?s never going to be a standalone genetic tool. It?s always going to have to be combined with traditional genealogical testing methods.??
Researchers have announced in recent months startling discoveries they?ve made using similar genetic techniques. One found that 40 percent of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four women. Another suggested that up to 3 million men alive today could be descended from one Irish king. And Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates hosted a public television special that aired this month tracing the roots of several prominent African Americans using DNA analysis.
Sherrye Woodworth became interested in genealogy when, as a college student in the 1970s, she looked at an early census for a history class.
??There on the very first page were my great grandparents!?? she wrote in an e-mail. ??I was hooked.??
She traced her own pedigree - her maiden name is Luther, and she is a Woodworth by marriage - and started in on her husband?s.
She discovered Donald?s lineage the old-fashioned way - through birth, death and property records - and began corresponding with the Woodworth clan online. She launched the Woodworth surname DNA project in December. Seven people so far have asked for kits to be tested. Their results are due back later this month.
Participants use a soft brush to remove loose cheek cells and then send a swab to a DNA testing company (the one the Woodworths are using is called Family Tree DNA
). The company compares the DNA on the Y-chromosomes of one male Woodworth to another.
Some parts of the Y-chromosome - sex chromosomes that are passed from father to son - move relatively unchanged from generation to generation. By comparing how similar these parts are between two individuals, experts are able to estimate how likely it is that they?re related within a certain number of generations. Only men are used in the DNA testing because both their Y-chromosomes and their surnames are passed from generation to generation.
The process costs from $99 to $289, depending on the specificity of the test and one?s affiliation with a surname project like the Woodworths have.
The Woodworth family is using participants who have already traced their roots on paper, and their DNA will provide standards for others whose lineage is more muddled to compare themselves to.
??It?s like opening Pandora?s box - you find out more and more,?? said Larry Phelps, a Washington, D.C., treasury department worker whose great-grandmother was a Woodworth. ??I thought the DNA thing is cool because you can actually check.??
In the end, though, is it really a big deal being related to Walter Woodworth? History has it that he was a surveyor who immigrated from England to Scituate in the 1630s and laid out the town?s early roads.
Marvin Woodworth, a 68-year-old retired Air Force engineer from Oklahoma, theorizes that the reason so many people seem interested in Walter is that he?s where the treasure hunt stops.
While they know Walter came from England, they don?t know where in England he was from. So they can?t figure out who his parents were to continue the family tree.
??There?s nothing special about being tied to him specifically,?? said Marvin Woodworth, who hosts a Woodworth family Web site and has made three trips to Scituate to see his ancestral home. ??It?s just that you?re trying to trace your ancestry back to Adam.??
Paul Woodworth, a poet from Florida who has requested a genetic testing kit, said that for him, the excitement about the DNA project is the new documentation it will bring, the knowledge for the sake of knowing.
??It fascinates me that there is a genetics project that is looking at everything,?? he said. ??It just fascinates the heck out of me.??
Diana Schoberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2006 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Saturday, February 11, 2006
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