Genetics and Genealogy
AP, Saturday March 3 1:07 PM ET
Genealogy Goes High-Tech
By HANNAH WOLFSON, Associated Press Writer
PROVO, Utah (AP) - Genealogical research has always meant days in dusty
archives and searches through miles of microfiche and stacks of faded
But soon, history hunters might be able to find out where they're from with
a quick cheek swab and a few hours of gene testing.
Scott Woodward, a microbiology professor at Brigham Young University, is
directing a project that combines old-fashioned genealogy with the latest
technology in the hope of making it easier to fill out family trees.
``Each of us carries a history of who we are and how we're related to the
whole world,'' Woodward said as he pored over blood samples in his busy
campus laboratory. ``We're trying to decode that history.''
The process begins with the prick of a needle. Volunteers from all over the
country, each with a written genealogy that extends back at least to their
great-great-grandparents, have given Woodward a few teaspoons of blood
during the first year of the project.
DNA from the blood is analyzed to create a map of about 250 simple genetic
In the future, a supercomputer will create a matrix of all those genes and
the historical data from the donated family trees. Woodward says he'll then
be able to focus on any spot in space and time - say, Denmark in 1886 - to
identify the genes residents carried.
That means future genealogists, perhaps just five or 10 years from now,
will be able to submit their own DNA and a query. Because all names are
stripped off the blood samples and charts to protect privacy, it is
impossible to track specific individuals. But a researcher could ask where
his or her great-grandmother was from, and Woodward could answer: she was
born in Denmark around 1886.
That's an exciting proposition, said Ed Gaulin, president of the Manasota
Genealogical Society in Bradenton, Fla., which helped organize a recent
sampling trip by the BYU researchers to western Florida.
``I've been at this genealogy thing since I was a kid and I've seen three
major advances in genealogy,'' said Gaulin, who donated blood himself.
``The photocopier was the first, the next was the computer, and the third
one is DNA. That's where I put this. It's that important.''
Molecular genealogy has had its high-profile cases - most notably the 1998
tests that proved that at least some offspring of the slave Sally Hemings
were related to Thomas Jefferson.
Those tests, which tracked the easily identifiable Y chromosomes passed
from fathers to sons, and their counterparts, which track certain material
that follows the maternal line, have also been used to trace the offspring
of famous people or certain genetically distinct populations such as Finns,
Sardinians or Basques.
Some scientists have claimed to have gone back as far as Eve, and a handful
of companies promise to prove family relationships for about $200 to $300 a
test. The BYU tests are less specific but also cover father-daughter and
``There have been people out there suggesting that DNA will be the
guideline for pedigrees in the future,'' said Russ Henderson, spokesman for
the National Genealogical Society. But he warned that genealogy buffs
should remember that genetic material is just another clue in the search
for their ancestors.
That's what Henry and Diana Johnson, who recently dropped by Woodward's lab
at BYU to give blood, are looking for. Although some of their family tree
goes back to Ireland, the rest dead-ends in New England.
``I've followed back six generations and I can't get across the ocean,''
Johnson said. ``They could be English, they could be Swedish.''
At least 11,000 people have donated blood so far, a bit more than the
initial one-year goal of 10,000, and Woodward hopes to collect another
30,000 samples this year. He figures he needs 100,000 for a solid database,
which he could have in three years.
But first he needs to broaden his collection base.
To that end, a stack of suitcases and coolers for sampling trips competes
for space in the lab with churning computers and vials of DNA. Blood has
already been collected from New York to Hawaii and in the coming months
samples will be taken in Alaska, New Zealand and Australia.
To be fully realized, Woodward said, the database needs samples from every
region on every continent, which could cost tens of millions of dollars. So
far, Utah billionaire James Sorensen and Arizona philanthropist Ira Fulton
have donated $2.5 million.
When the project began a year ago, about 95 percent of donors were Utah
Mormons, most from the BYU campus. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints like Woodward view genealogy almost as a church tenet - a
means of seeking out ancestors for baptism by proxy - which has made the
church's family history centers a major resource for researchers. But
Woodward insists he doesn't want the database to be for Mormons only.
``The power of genetics is showing just how similar we really are,''
Woodward said. ``What this project is doing is showing that we're
essentially one big family.''