Trace Your Roots Through DNA

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Steve Woodall wants to know everything he can about his family history. He's lucky he has records dating back to the 19th century, but that wasn't good enough.

"My goal was to get beyond the oldest known ancestor and he was born in 1818," Woodall said.

So, he signed up for a new type of service that traces your roots the modern way.

"We can trace your ancestry back tens of thousands of years," Bennett Greenspan, of Family Tree DNA, said.

A growing number of companies now offer "genetic genealogy." They compare your DNA with DNA research collected by scientists worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people have already signed on.

"Genealogy is something that touches upon, upon the lives of everybody," June Wong, of the DNA Ancestry Project, said.

You sign up for a service online and get a kit. You swab the inside of your cheek and mail the sample back to the lab. They test your DNA looking for mutations called markers.

"Each marker is almost like a time and date stamp. It will tell us where and when our ancestors were at a particular time and place in history," Wong said.

The companies use whatever is known about your markers to map your family's migration. The scientific databases are constantly growing, and depending on your background, they could reveal a little or a lot.

"If someone's DNA has been part of several anthropological studies, the results that they may get may be very, very specific," Greenspan said.

The results also may be surprising. Despite stories that Woodall's father's lineage is 100 percent Irish, his report says he's Native American.

"My male ancestors have basically been on the North American continent for between 8,000 and 12,000 years," Woodall said.

Population geneticist Marc Feldman says the new tests are exciting, but he cautions there are limitations. Research about cultures is still unfolding, so your results may be more of a probability than a guarantee.

"The information is going to be multiplied by hundreds of thousands of times in the next few years. When it does come, people will be able to have a lot more certainty about their ancestry," Feldman said.

The DNA tests cost anywhere from $119 to more than $800, depending on the kit you choose. The more expensive packages test extra DNA markers and give more detailed results. If your DNA matches up, that means you're related. Some companies will also let you know if your DNA matches famous people in history for whom DNA is on file, like Marie Antoinette and Genghis Kahn.

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