Saturday, June 28, 2008

Genealogy by DNA: Can it Deliver?

by Janet Crain

This article is not intended to criticize the geneticists involved in this new science. Henry Greely, a professor of law who specializes in genetics and ethics at Stanford University in California says;"I know these scientists, and they are honorable people, and the reports they give don't overpromise". Some firms require clients to sign psychological releases absolving companies from responsibility if results don't jibe with client expectations.

However; Bruce Jackson, a molecular geneticist at Boston University, who has launched the African-American DNA Roots Project, along with biologist Bert Ely of the University of South Carolina, cautions that "like anything on the Internet, this is all a case of 'caveat emptor' - let the buyer beware. But the science is valid. There's no doubt about the science." He sees DNA as "the hottest new tool" in genealogy, which is why Web sites on the subject run second only in hits to pornography pages. With those kind of statistics, it is easy to see that this "hot new tool' is going to be marketed and hyped to the hilt.

Unfortunately, sometimes the hype exceeds the actual benefit that can reasonably be expected to accrue. Minorities, in particular, are targeted. Because most black African Americans do not know what part of Africa their ancestors came from, or what tribe, they are immensely interested to find out anything that will give them a connection to their mother country. So is learning that you have a genetic marker that is shared by a widespread group of people in Africa worth $349.? That would, of course, depend on your curiosity and finances. Is the hype promising a greater benefit than can be delivered?

Some bio-ethicists say the sales pitch raises unreasonable expectations. "DNA is going to be very important and it’s on the cutting edge,” said professional genealogist Tony Burroughs, who teaches at Chicago State University. “But it’s not a panacea. You’re not going to discover your entire family tree from a little spit on a cotton swab.”Burroughs, author of “Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree” argues that DNA can’t replace old-fashioned reporting work.But rather, he feels genealogical breakthroughs will come from uncovering previously forgotten written records. He’s after names, addresses and other hard facts.

Another group that is often targeted by testing companies is Native American Indians. There are many people in the Americas who descend from the Native American Indigenous peoples of these continents. Some know it, some suspect it, some have no idea. The suppression of knowledge about Native American bloodlines was a direct effect of government policies since Europeans first set foot on North and South American. It is now believed that, the diseases, unwittingly carried by the Europeans, wiped out about 75-95% of the original population. The remaining population was systematically cheated and dispossessed, until only remnant bands remained and these were herded onto reservations or relocated to distant lands. The so called Trail of Tears separated many families. Other similar sad events had the same consequences. Many Native Americans assimilated and intermarried with whites. Traders and early day hunters were eager to take Indian wives to gain access to rich hunting grounds. The descendants of these dispossessed people often had no way to unravel their true genetic heritage. In the late 19th century, it wasn't a popular thing for parents to pass on to children. Some had a vague idea or heard rumors, but there was nothing substantial to go on.

Now there is. For as little as $99.00, a male in a surname group can learn if his Y chromosome paternal line is Native American. Similarly, a woman or a man could take the mtDNA test (group priced at $129. or as low as $89. for existing Family Tree DNA customers), and learn if their straight-line maternal line is Native American. Several different testing companies offer reductions in price to participants in surname groups of at least six. The problem with both Y and mtDNA testing is that due to racial mixing, a person's paternal line; father's father's father's, etc. may lead back to a European man and the maternal line; mother's mother's mother's may lead back to a European woman. This can hold true in some cases for a person who looks entirely Native American. One Native American man from Canada discovered that not only is he descended from an Englishman on the Y chromosome, but he is eligible for some hereditary position in England. Other than finding out you are really an English Earl with a castle in England (and a substantial inheritance), this type of result would disappoint many.

One of the better known media hyped DNA tests was that of the Melungeons, a dark skinned group of unknown origin living in Tennessee in the early 1800's. These DNA tests were started about 2000, as a volunteer effort; there was no cost to the participants except unfulfilled expectations, frustration and time lost. After many promises of the results being announced, there was finally an announcement, of sorts, on June 23, 2002. Were the expectations met? Without pointing a finger of blame at any one person, I would have to say; "No". For several reasons. The announcement only included preliminary results and comments. No actual DNA raw data was ever presented to participants or anyone else. No known peer review was ever conducted. No questions were answered conclusively. It was called a "Population" test, but only had around 100 participants. Its purported purpose was to capture a view of the Y chromosome and mtDNA haplogroups carried by these few self identified Melungeon descendants that came down to them from their Melungeon foreparents. Even though several generations had passed and their ancestry now had the input of many other ancestors, this was supposed to offer some information. Yet to this day, the "results" of this test are quoted as if they are valid.

Regrettably this lucrative new field has attracted some so called "experts" whose only talents consist of cutting and pasting together impressive looking reports. In my opinion, their professional background should be investigated thoroughly before investing in their interpretation of your DNA data. Many good people are involved in the new science of Genealogy by DNA. Quite a few are donating their time and expertise. It would certainly be to the DNA test subject's advantage to join a list of persons researching this area and learn all you can before spending your hard earned money on consultations with "Internet" experts. Once you are better informed you can make better decisions as to how the allocate the funds, if any, you decide to budget for this expenditure.

The latest player among DNA tests is the autosomal test. This type of test, tests the DNA inherited from both parents and shuffled during transmission. It was thought that certain genes would be informative to determine ethnic percentages. These tests were highly touted for this ability, but soon found lacking. What the DNAPrint test can do is predict majority ethnicity. And that is very important for forensic purposes. When the FBI profiled a serial killer in Louisiana as a white loner type, the DNAPrint test revealed him to be predominantly black. This new information led to his arrest and possibly saved lives of future victims.

However the hype surrounding this test, claiming to be able to detect as little as 3% of an ethnicity has led many people to believe, erroneously, that they have an ancestor of a previously unsuspected ethnicity when, in actuality, they do not. Experts say the test is only accurate to + or - 15%.

Recently a utility named OmniPop became the cause celebre among some DIY geneticists. But the creator, Brian Burritt, has stated he never intended this utility to be used for this purpose. And it would be very misleading if used in this manner. In addition, Family Tree DNA has issued a statement cautioning against reliance on this utility. An excellent service now available is

So, in conclusion the answer to "Can Genealogy by DNA Deliver?" is a qualified "Yes". Just be sure you have a clearly defined objective; more than one objective is fine. Do your homework and learn the limitations of Genealogy research utilizing DNA testing. And be sure you are using the right test to answer your questions. Don't be embarrassed to ask questions of those more knowledgeable than yourself. Most of us knew little to nothing about this new Genealogy tool when we first became interested. The technology is very new. It is changing at a dizzying speed. It is cutting edge. It can be tedious waiting for results. It can be disappointing when the results are not to your expectations. But the rewards are many and very exiting for those who understand these obstacles. And you will surely have something to talk about at your next Family Reunion.

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