BY KEVIN O'HORAN
August 6, 2006
This is a story about finding lost loved ones.
Long-lost loved ones, that is. As in, lost some scores or hundreds or even thousands of years back.
It is a story about how men and women today are reconnecting with their relatives of yore not in stories passed down from generation to generation, nor with the paper trail of birth certificates and marriage licenses and death records and such, but through science.
Genetic testing, to be precise.
To peek inside the cell, to take a good close look at those whirling ribbons of proteins known as chromosomes that make each person unique, is to get a picture of the family tree, of who came before and from where.
"We found a grandfather we never knew," says Joseph McKay, a 75-year-old Sarasota resident who tested his genes for his sister, Margaret, who lives in Delaware.
Oh, on the surface, the science of it all sounds daunting. Geneticists and technicians and even receptionists at the companies doing the testing toss about $2 phrases like "chromosomal ancestry" and "mitochondrial DNA" and "random recombination" as if they're ordering a cup of coffee.
But it's really not that complex -- at least, not on this side of the lab coat.
First, a very condensed overview:
Most human cells contain 23 pairs of chromosomes in their core -- or, nucleus. Each chromosome contains genes that determine everything from height to hair color to health, with one pair of chromosomes alone responsible for determining sex.
Here's where it gets a little tricky.
Cells reproduce in a couple of ways, one that copies the chromosomes and sends just half a set to egg or sperm cells, and the other that makes a whole, though somewhat-jumbled, copy for a completely new cell.
Don't sweat the details. What's important to take from that is that when cells split the first way, with half the genetic set, labs can track and analyze the Y chromosome, the sex-determining chromosome that is passed down from father to son alone.
They call it a Y-DNA test, and it's the test the McKay siblings turned to when it came time to track down their missing grandfather.
They had known since childhood that the man they called their grandfather actually wasn't. They knew that Harry McKay had married their grandmother early on and adopted her son -- their father -- in the fashion of the era: taking him in, raising him and unofficially adding the surname thereafter.
And that was enough to know.
For a while.
"About four years ago, I became interested in developing the genealogical background of my family," Margaret explains.
"But as I got more deeply into it and established surnames, there was a vacancy, a hole in my research because I didn't know who my paternal grandfather was. I was curious, but thought I had no way of finding out 100 years after the event occurred."
She did what she could, digging through the paper records: the birth certificates and city directories and Census reports of the time. Eventually, she pieced together that her grandmother, Lillian Barger, was a live-in servant in a Pennsylvania hotel when her father, also named Joseph, was conceived.
From that, she also compiled a list of nearly a dozen "suspects" -- as she calls them -- men who lived in or visited the hotel and might have fathered her father.
But she wanted something more precise.
So on the advice of a genealogist friend, Margaret turned to the genetic testing.
She asked her brother, Joseph, to submit a sample to Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based company that specializes in the Y-DNA test, as well as a similar, though less popular, mitochondrial DNA test which looks at genetic material passed down only from mother to daughter.
"Especially on the Y chromosome, it provides really, really clear and unambiguous results," Bennett Greenspan, founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA, says of the testing.
Joseph's DNA was tested for 37 markers -- unique combinations of genes -- and then the findings were scanned against those of the tens of thousands of people who have turned to Family Tree DNA since the company opened shop in 2000.
And Joseph's DNA matched that of a direct descendant of the hotel's owner.
"Even my father didn't know" about his father, Joseph says. "And unfortunately, my father was gone before we found this out."
Greenspan offers a caution, though.
A match of DNA, he explains, confirms an ancestor, but it doesn't necessarily mean a direct link.
That is, the McKays might actually have found not their grandfather, but a great-uncle or another distant male relative, since the genetic material tested has passed from father to son virtually unchanged for generations upon generations in the family.
"That's not what my customers want to hear, but that's too bad," says Greenspan, a genealogist himself. "The truth has got to reign."
He suggests combining the DNA results with standard genealogy work; the paper trail of documents, the oral histories, the picture records and so on.
In short, Margaret's starting point.
And she's convinced she's found her long-lost grandfather.
"I'm feeling comfortable, in my own mind, that I've located my grandfather," she says.
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