Hunting for kin or tracing your lineage? A genealogist has compiled a genetic database to help.
BY JAMIE TALANjamie.firstname.lastname@example.org
March 5, 2007
Genealogists seeking to reconstruct a family tree can get sometimes get lost in the paper trail. But now genetic techniques can help modern seekers verify the identities of lost relatives.
The new world of genealogy research is a place where anyone with a last name and $100 or more can trace the male Y chromosome to meet their distant relatives. Strangers are now cold-calling for samples of other people's DNA to prove whether they share common ancestors.
"We follow the rules of nature," said Bennett Greenspan, a Texas genealogist who founded Family Tree DNA in 2000 after he hit a roadblock in his own hunt for ancestors. Since then, more than 100,000 people have bought the company's DNA kits, which contain instructions for taking a cheek swab for a DNA sample.
Greenspan's company sends the samples to the University of Arizona, where scientists look for markers on the male sex chromosome. This Y chromosome has enough mutations with specific markers, or numbers, that matches can be made to people with similar signatures.
Once the information on the Y chromosome is added to the database and tagged to a person's last name, the computer spits out matches of possible relatives.
Last week, Greenspan dashed off a letter to the Rev. Al Sharpton. Would he be willing to provide DNA for genealogy testing? It could put to rest the controversy that erupted last month over genealogists' determination from documents that Sharpton is descended from a slave once owned by a relative of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, Greenspan said. Sharpton declined, Greenspan added.
Family Tree DNA is the first genealogy company that collects, analyzes and stores DNA, and it now maintains the largest database in the world. In 2005 National Geographic launched a project to study human migration, and Greenspan's company is processing the samples, which can be added to his database. The company's Y-DNA procedure checks only the paternal line.
Females don't have a Y chromosome. But males and females have mitochondrial DNA that is passed along from mothers; mtDNA can be tested but it is limited in the genealogical information.
Many people are hooked on finding new "old" relatives.
Herbert Huebscher, 81, of New Hyde Park sent his DNA sample to Family Tree, which put the information gleaned on its Web site. It led to an exact match with South African-born physician Saul Issroff, who now lives in London. They kept extending the number of markers available for testing. But when a 25-marker test found they both had an extra marker, which is rare, they knew that long ago they had probably shared a common ancestor. "But who, and when, we have no idea," Huebscher said.
Greenspan admits it isn't always easy getting people to give a DNA sample - even though no information outside of the Y chromosome is taken from the sample. In 1999 he approached Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona, a Y-chromosome expert who studies Jewish genealogy.
After much prodding, Hammer scanned Greenspan's DNA. The two have been working together ever since.
Of course, Greenspan continues to explore his own roots. He contacted economist Alan Greenspan, who showed no interest. Genealogist Greenspan did get a DNA sample from the brother of actor Jason Alexander (born Jason Greenspan). It wasn't a match.
He also uses the database to verify scientific claims. He recently replicated the finding that Genghis Khan may have fathered dozens of children. Today, 10 percent of the males in Mongolia have his genetic signature. Matches were based on DNA of his known descendents.
For more information: www .familytreedna.com or ancestory .com.
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