Putting the Genes in Genealogy

Double helix

Double helix (from: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license)

Science has come to the aid—at least potentially—of people searching for their ancestors and far-flung family members. Genealogists now can draw on the insights provided by genetic testing resources, the two most prominent of which are 23andMe and Ancestry.com, when exploring their family tree. All that’s needed is to order a kit from these organizations, spit into the test tube they send, mail it back, and in six to eight weeks you’ll receive an email with a private link to the results: your own, unique genome described and codified.

Of course, some cash has to change hands too. 23andMe charges $199 for its testing, and Ancestry.com charges $99. There’s an important reason for that price differential. Ancestry’s only interest is in the genealogical significance of your genetic information. 23andMe—which I used for my genetic test several years ago—didn’t start out to do family ancestry testing at all. When I joined, the focus was on health and research. The health component comes in with helping you understand the implications of your genetic risks for various diseases and conditions.

The research focus was what interested me. You may know that new drugs and treatments ordinarily must be tested in time-consuming, expensive clinical trials. When it comes to designing a trial for a disease with a genetic component, researchers may need to know whether a new drug, has different effects in people with different genetic profiles. If so, they must find a large number of people with those specific profiles in order to run their tests. Finding these people can take literally years. Often, they never identify enough suitable people and, after great effort and expense, the trial must be abandoned. A core idea of 23andMe was that having a preexisting database containing people’s genetic profiles would help researchers find people with specific genetic characteristics more quickly. A proof of concept was achieved in the area of Parkinson’s disease. In addition, through questionnaires, they find out much more about people with specific genetic profiles, too. That’s why I joined 23andMe, because I thought that database sounded like such an invaluable resource.

Other organizations also offer genetic testing, but Ancestry.com and 23andMe both have made a substantial commitment to developing useful genealogical tools and have the size advantage of more than a million members each. You don’t want to be like the first person to buy a FAX machine. “Cute, but what do you do with it?” You want as many potential connections as possible.

My DNA relatives from 23andMe include four people identified by genetics as my second cousins. Three of them are strangers to me, but they come from the parts of the country that certain family members are from, and their profiles mention specific family surnames. The fourth person is my second cousin who lives in Denver, whom I know well. That known relationship shows the system is working! 23andMe makes it easy to contact the others, and I’m hoping one of them can help clear up a mystery involving our specific shared ancestors. (Since I wrote this, I’ve confirmed one of these strangers is a second cousin, once removed. Now I can dig into a little Alabama family history with him.)

What you most hope for in making these contacts is that one of them is a determined genealogist too. A couple of years ago a stranger from Washington State contacted me via 23andMe, and we did indeed turn out to be distant cousins. He introduced me to other cousins in his line who’d done some family research. It’s been both fun and enlightening to share information and questions—and some answers—with them.