The New York Times [Business section, page 5]
February 5, 2006
By JENNIFER ALSEVER
THE past comes at a price for Georgia Kinney Bopp. Retired and living in Kailua, Hawaii, Ms. Bopp has spent about $800 on tests to trace her ancestry, using samples of DNA from inside her cheek and from possible relatives.
She and her husband, Thomas, even plan vacations around genealogy research, seeking DNA samples from distant cousins.
"If we travel, we keep a DNA kit with us, just in case we meet someone who might help identify an ancient ancestor," Ms. Bopp said. "You just never know."
Several years ago, the Internet helped to encourage a greater American fascination with genealogy. Now DNA testing has added a new twist that has people like Ms. Bopp paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars to look at genetic information in order to uncover details about their heritage.
More than a dozen companies, like Family Tree DNA in Houston, Relative Genetics in Salt Lake City and African Ancestry in Washington, now sell home DNA tests; the prices range from $100 to $900 each.
"We test 20,000 people a year," said Bennett Greenspan, chief executive of Family Tree DNA, which generated $5 million in sales last year. "We grew up as Americans, and we don't know exactly where we came from."
DNA tests helped Ms. Bopp when she could find no public records about her maiden name, Kinney, that went back further than 1820 for her father's paternal ancestors. She paid a total of $440 for tests for her father and for a stranger who had the same last name.
Their Y chromosome DNA matched, and she discovered through the other man's records that her family was related to an early Kinney line dating to 1650, to what became the state of Massachusetts. Using both DNA and paper trails, it is easier to trace paternal lineage than maternal, because men typically pass on surnames and always pass on Y chromosomes.
Still, Ms. Bopp used DNA tests to research her mother's line, even tracking down a second cousin in Reno, Nev. "I finally cornered him in a restaurant, and I pulled out a DNA kit and convinced him to give me a sample," Ms. Bopp said.
She wanted to know more about her mother's father's ancestors, the Lenharts, but she could not test her own DNA to do so because women lack the Y chromosome. As it turned out, the second cousin's DNA matched that of another Lenhart family that had already traced its history to an ancestor who arrived in North America in 1748 from Germany.
Her husband, meanwhile, spent more than $1,500 on more comprehensive DNA tests and learned that he was distantly related to Marie Antoinette.
DNA tests can deliver surprises. In some families, someone may discover, for example, that he or she lacks a DNA connection to their supposed blood relatives.
The DNA tests have limitations, showing only small slices of genetic history.
Here is why: a popular test, the Y-DNA, analyzes the Y chromosome that is passed virtually unchanged for generations from father to son. The test, which can be taken only by men, examines just one branch of a family tree: the male line — a father's father's father, and so on.
Another test looks at mitochondrial DNA, a certain form that is passed from a mother to all her children. Both men and women can take the test, which aims to trace ancestors on a mother's side. But the test follows only the direct female line.
Both tests are used to determine if people are related, even through people who lived 500 years ago, or perhaps determine the country of their ancestors. No test can look at the DNA of a father's mother, for instance, or of a mother's father.
What some people do not realize — especially those tracing geographic origins — is that if they go back just 10 generations, or some 300 years, they will have 1,024 ancestors in that 10th generation. Clearly, then, DNA tracing yields a quite narrow view of one's heritage: The Y chromosome test tells you about only one male ancestor in that generation, and the mitochondrial test tells you about only one female ancestor, said Henry T. Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford.
"They're not taking into account all the other ancestors," Mr. Greely said. "DNA can tell you a lot about your ancestry. As a consumer, you've got to pay a lot of attention to what it can't tell you."
To the novice, the broad array of tests and the accompanying jargon may be confusing, reminiscent of high school biology lessons. To make sense of it, people may rely on short science tutorials on company Web sites and online discussion forums and newsletters dedicated to "genetic genealogy." Or they may hire a genealogy consultant, for about $50 an hour, to muddle through the process.
The tests generally work this way: A person orders a test online and receives a kit with toothbrushlike scrapers, collection tubes and instructions on how to take a swab from inside the cheek. The samples are mailed to a laboratory, where scientists analyze DNA markers, or genetic traits.
The results and samples, sometimes labeled with bar codes to protect identities, are stored for future tests unless customers request that they be destroyed. Consumers worried about privacy should ask questions of the testing company and satisfy themselves that the provider respects confidentiality.
Test results are typically sent to customers in two to eight weeks, and the delivered items depend on the type of test and the company.
African Ancestry, which for $349 sells tests to people who want to know where in Africa their ancestors originated, sends its results with a letter and what the company calls a certification of ancestry as well as a map of the country and a research guide with the area's history, culture and resources.
The company gets its answers by analyzing the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA and matching the results with samples gathered over 11 years from people in more than 200 populations throughout Africa.
Other answers may not be as simple, though company Web sites work to provide explanations. At Family Tree DNA, consumers receive a personal Web page with the names of people with certain DNA matches and the countries in which they live. By mail, consumers also receive a document with their DNA string of markers, which looks like a list of numbers, and a report that explains how to make sense of it.
That data, however, won't mean much in itself; it needs to be compared with the data of others. For many consumers, that may mean recruiting other people, even strangers with similar last names, because the more corresponding numbers that two people share, the greater the chances that they share recent ancestors.
IT helps to become involved in an online surname project in which a group of people with similar last names combine their research efforts.
Consumers can also search for distant relatives in public databases, like those at ybase.org, ysearch.org, mitosearch.org and smgf.org. If two people have corresponding DNA markers, they can exchange research.
But some may find no answers for a long time. Nancy Hendrickson, a writer in San Diego, is still waiting for her brother's DNA test to lead somewhere. Her research on the Hendrickson name went back to the 1700's, but she hit a dead end at a courthouse in Mercer County in Kentucky.
To trace the male line, Ms. Hendrickson asked her brother to take a $289 test. The results now sit in Family Tree DNA's database, which has amassed 53,000 samples — a tiny number, considering the world's population. For Ms. Hendrickson, it may not yield a match for several years.
"I'm very optimistic that we'll find a match," she said. "The database just needs to grow. It's kind of my last-ditch effort to further my research."