WITNESS: DNA tests don't always help uncover family
(As a general-assignment reporter in the United States, Andy Sullivan has covered hurricanes, executions, the subprime mortgage crisis and Washington politics for Reuters.)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - DNA testing can free an innocent person from death row, warn a healthy person about impending heart disease, and show this red-headed reporter that his ancestors came from ... Europe.
A new range of genetic tests promise to help consumers explore their ancestral origins for as little as $129, injecting a jolt of crime-show pizazz into a hobby more often associated with musty courthouse records.
These tests promise to reveal long-lost relatives, uncover roots obscured by slavery, or simply allow those curious about where they came from to skip all that tedious digging.
But as I found out, the results can be underwhelming.
Three weeks after I mailed off a few spit-soaked cotton swabs to the genealogy service Ancestry.com, officials from the company called to discuss my results.
"You're sort of the European everyman," said Ancestry.com chief historian Megan Smolenyak, explaining that I come from the most common genetic groups in Europe on both my mother's and father's sides.
Ancestry.com did turn up some surprises, but not from the DNA test. From the site's massive database of public records, I discovered my ancestors included Massachusetts Pilgrims, some of the first Europeans to settle in North America.
Human genes mutate gradually, so the test couldn't tell me much about where in Europe my ancestors came from. The best it could show was that my Y chromosome, which I inherited from my father and his father, is common in the British Isles and Spain.
It also provided a list of numbers and letters, a detailed "fingerprint" that the service billed as a way to find long-lost relatives, a sort of Facebook for old (or dead) people.
But here, too, I met with disappointment. Evidently I'm not related to George Clooney.
NOT SO CLOSE
The closest match Ancestry.com found was the company's CEO, another guy named Sullivan, who shared a common ancestor with me 15 generations ago. Closer matches are likely to crop up as more people take the tests, Smolenyak said.
The test did show the path my ancestors took out of east Africa tens of thousands of years ago -- scientific proof of the common roots I share with everyone on the planet.
For my mother-in-law, who ordered a similar test through National Geographic, that was satisfaction enough.
"It makes the human migration very personal," said Sara Goetz, who found that she shared a genetic profile with most European Jews, even though her ancestors come from Sweden.
Genetic testing can help scientists determine, for example, exactly when humans first crossed from Siberia to the Americas.
And many black Americans who take the test discover they are descended partly from white slave owners -- a legacy of the United States' ugly past.
For me, recent centuries held more surprises than the deep ancestry uncovered by the DNA test.
As I keyed in my ancestors into the site's software -- the Irish doctors and coal miners, the German shoe salesman, the Italian saloonkeeper and his Swiss mail-order bride who set up shop in the Nevada outback -- the site offered up their census records, marriage certificates and ship manifests.
It also checked their names against those already entered by the site's 15 million users.
Is this Frank Belknap the tool-and-die maker who was born in Oswego, New York, in 1879? When I clicked "yes," dozens of his forebears filled my family tree.
That's where the Pilgrims turned up. None appear to have come over on the Mayflower, but records show that several settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, within the first decade of that famous ship's arrival in the New World in 1620.
Those pioneers are on my father's side. But something tells me my maternal grandfather, a miner who dug up family history as well as Nevada copper, would have been tickled by the news.
"Tell the boys I couldn't trace it back to George Washington," he wrote to my mother when he completed his family tree in 1975. "At least there aren't any horse thieves in any of the branches, as far as I can see."
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