Many are turning to saliva samples and the latest in genealogy databases to unlock their past.
By KEVIN MURPHY
The Kansas City Star
Genealogy is mostly about paper trails and family lore, but there is another place to look for that missing branch of the family tree: DNA.
Tens of thousands of people are using their DNA to find relatives around the world and to track their ancestors? migration. Pat Setser of Raymore used DNA in 2004 to help trace her ancestors back to 1745. She still is digging.
?I want to know who was first off the boat in my family,? said Setser, 55. She has done 30 years of research on the family of her late mother, whose maiden name was Daulton. ?It?s a real-life mystery,? she said. ?Who was where and who had who??
DNA can open genealogical doors by putting people in touch with distant relatives who have done their own research.
To get started, people order DNA kits over the Internet. The kits contain cheek scrapers to take saliva samples, which are placed in a collection tube for lab analysis. DNA kits and tests are offered by several companies for $100 to $300.
The companies put results of the DNA tests into databases. People who match are given each other?s contact information and can then compare previous research.
?You are going so much on hearsay, so it?s very rewarding to know that modern science can give you some certainty,? said Linda DeMartini, a California resident and Kansas City native who used DNA to research her mother?s side of the family ? the Burgesses.
While some genealogists caution that DNA is only one tool in building the family tree, it is becoming more popular. Two of the largest DNA companies ? Family Tree DNA and Relative Genetics ? report a 40 percent to 50 percent jump in business this year.
?Every genealogist runs into a paper trail roadblock eventually,? said Bennett Greenspan, Family Tree DNA president. ?This is a new tool, and a lot of people use it because it gives them the opportunity to break through that roadblock.?
Finding famous family
Larry Stewart, 62, of Kansas City has a family tree that has 2,468 people and 1,814 marriages and would be 22 feet by 18 feet if he could print it off his computer. Stewart had traced his roots back to 1520, then used the DNA test to substantiate his research.
?It proved I was a Stewart,? he said. ?It put me in touch with Stewarts all over the world.?
Stewart is related to John Stewart, a companion of Daniel Boone. While Stewart knew that before doing the DNA test, finding connections to notable historic figures is one reason some people turn to DNA Web sites. For example, DNA of Thomas Jefferson, Jesse James, Robert E. Lee, Marie Antoinette, Genghis Khan or their known descendants are in databases. One Web site, www.famousdna.com
, says it hopes to add DNA from Billy the Kid, Christopher Columbus and Joan of Arc to its collection.
?People are just so curious, especially about royal lineage or people who came off the Mayflower,? said Peggy Hayes, director of marketing for Relative Genetics, a Utah company.
But most people want to trace their family history, however modest, Greenspan said. A smaller percentage of people are not as interested in finding relatives as in determining their ancestors? countries of origin, their early migration patterns or if any were American Indians, Greenspan said.
The National Geographic Society and IBM, working with Family Tree DNA, have gathered DNA from about 135,000 people around the world to map how humans populated the planet. The five-year project began last year.
DNA research can hold particular appeal to African-Americans, who may be unable to trace their heritage because few, if any, records were kept from the slave trade. Surnames are not helpful to slaves? descendants, because those usually were given by slave owners.
?They don?t even have names to work with,? Greenspan said.
How a match is made
Several levels of DNA tests can be conducted. Family Tree DNA, for example, has tests for 12 to 67 DNA characteristics ? or markers ? that can be compared with other DNA samples. For most people, 37 markers will identify relatives in the same paternal line, Greenspan said. Family Tree DNA has 73,000 people in its database.
DNA can be used as an ancestral search engine because a person?s genetic material gets passed from generation to generation in a process called recombination.
Two pieces of the genetic code ? the male?s Y chromosome and the female genes known as mitochondrial DNA ? do not recombine and can be traced. The Y chromosome is passed to a man?s sons, the mitochondrial DNA to a woman?s daughters and sons.
A male will share his Y chromosome with many generations ? his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and further back ? and will match on all 37 markers, Greenspan said. Mutations of the Y chromosome allow two men who match to determine how many years ago they had a common ancestor.
The DNA passed down from women mutates more slowly and is more useful in detecting geographic origins of ancestors rather than in verifying who they were, Greenspan said.
Men submit about 70 percent of the DNA samples to Family Tree DNA, Greenspan said, and many were asked by female relatives to submit them. Setser, for example, had a male first cousin submit a DNA sample to Family Tree DNA to trace the male lineage of her family because she had no brother.
She has lists of dozens of distant relatives that DNA has led to, and eight are exact matches, men who had the same paternal lineage as her cousin. Just last week, Setser found two more matches.
Just one of many tools
DNA databases, however, remain a tiny fraction of available resources to trace family lineage, said Drew Izzo, senior director of marketing for ancestry.com, a Web site where consumers can search billions of birth, death, census and other records to find and learn about ancestors.
?DNA is a wonderful tool to confirm if two people come from the same ancestor, and it can sort of prove or disprove your family history research,? Izzo said. ?But it?s not terribly helpful at building context or stories around your ancestors? lives.?
Adopted persons also sometimes turn to DNA to find their ethnic origins or distant relatives who could have information on their biological family.
A DNA search may hold some surprises for people if it shows a break in the paternal line indicating infidelity, or some other situation. Suddenly, the tree may branch off into unknown directions.
Greenspan predicted that Family Tree DNA would have 400,000 people in its database by 2010, and that other company databases also will grow.
?Eventually,? Greenspan said, ?it will be very big.?
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