By Pam Wight Staff Writer
WHITTIER - For years it was used mostly for crime solving and paternity tests.
Now, thanks to "genetic genealogy," easily accessible DNA tests can link people not only to immediate family but to descendants as far back as thousands of years.
The latest tool for genealogists has spurred interest in the subject so much that it is currently the No. 1 hobby in the country, said Miriam Benell, one of the founding members of the Whittier Area Genealogical Society.
"Sometimes you run into brick walls in your research," said Benell, 65, who helped found WAGS in 1981. "DNA can sometimes break through and help establish the link you're looking for."
The practice of using DNA in genealogy was started in 2000 by Family Tree DNA, a Texas-based group that is affiliated with the University of Arizona, where all its tests are performed.
It now houses the largest database of DNA in the country, with more than 100,000 records, said Doug Miller, former president of the Southern California Genealogical Society, which is also affiliated with the organization.
Miller predicts that within 10 years, DNA technology will be able to tell people what family line they are related to - before they do any other research.
DNA helped WAGS member Stephen Yung find new relatives in England while searching for the birthplace of his maternal great-grandfather, Richard Chamberlain.
"I wanted to know where in England the family was from; it was a stumbling block," said Yung, 66.
Through Civil War military records, Yung narrowed his search to North Cadbury, England.
"There were hundreds of Chamberlains over 500 years," said Yung, who spent two weeks poring over birth, death and marriage certificates in North Cadbury in 2004.
"I wrote letters to 20 of them and visited some of them. One agreed to do a DNA test.
"He turned out to be a perfect match, so now I can trace my lineage all the way back
to 1535 in North Cadbury, where there are still relatives,"
Prices for DNA tests range from $100 to $350 on the Family Tree DNA Web site, depending on how detailed a study is desired.
The more detailed the test, the more accurate and "deep" the match, Miller said.
Tests can place a person's genetics into one of several ancient migrations of humans from Africa.
According to the National Geographic Web site, scientists call the common male ancestor "Adam" but point out that he was not literally the first male human.
Instead, Adam, who lived in Africa 60,000 years ago, is the only male whose descendants survived to the present day. It is easier to trace the DNA of males than females because of the Y chromosomes, said Miller.
"It's well-established science that we're all related to the same black man and woman out of Africa about
200,000 years ago," Miller said. "I've had some people get angry at me for telling them that in my DNA seminars. It's a very touchy subject."
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