copied from the Wall Street Journal online —
THE GOOD LIFE
Finding a Few Hundred Cousins
Tools that can trace your roots are becoming more advanced—and less expensive
By ANNE TERGESEN
Searching for your roots? Tools that help compare your genetic makeup with others’ are getting more sophisticated and more affordable.
In recent decades, DNA tests were mainly used to prove paternity. But since 2000, a handful of companies have commercialized tests that connect a wider array of relatives, sometimes going back centuries to find common ancestors.
As recently as 2007, such tests cost as much as $1,000. Today, they generally run between $100 and $300 and offer users more information. In May, Ancestry.com Inc., a publisher of genealogical records and a site where people can track their family trees, started selling a DNA test that identifies relatives up to and including fifth cousins.
The tests are easy to take: Swab the inside of your cheek or spit into a tube and mail the results to a lab. Two to six weeks later, you can log into an online account for the results. You will generally see your ancestors’ regional ties; the migration paths of your ancient ancestors; and people in the company’s database (usually identified by a user name) who share some of your DNA. At that point, you typically have the option of contacting those individuals who have agreed to share their results.
Three main types of DNA tests are on the market. Until recently, most focused on DNA in the Y chromosome that’s handed down virtually unchanged from father to son. (Because only males have a Y chromosome, women must ask male relatives to take this test for them.)
Kelly Wheaton, 58, recently relied on a so-called Y-DNA test to resolve a genealogical mystery that had frustrated her for years. “I traced my husband’s family’s history back to 1750, but couldn’t get any further,” says the Napa Valley, Calif., resident. While Ms. Wheaton had a hunch her husband, Michael, 65, was descended from a Robert Wheaton who came to Salem, Mass., in 1636, it wasn’t until Michael took a Y-DNA test in 2011 that she obtained proof.
“His Y-DNA matched people with a perfect paper trail back to Robert Wheaton,” she says.
CeCe Moore, 43, used another test, of the mitochondrial DNA that mothers transmit virtually unchanged to children, to explore her great-grandmother’s Finnish ancestry. “My great-grandmother never told my grandmother anything about her family,” says Ms. Moore, of San Clemente, Calif., who writes a blog about genetics and genealogy. After the database linked Ms. Moore to cousins in Finland, she learned why her great-grandmother had cut off ties to her country of origin: She was pregnant out-of-wedlock when she came to the U.S.
Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA can connect people whose common ancestors lived recently or hundreds of years ago. But to find out how closely you are related—and to locate relatives besides those on your direct maternal or paternal lines—you will need an autosomal DNA test.
This relatively new test deciphers the amount of DNA shared between those whose common ancestors lived within the last half-dozen or so generations, says Megan Smolenyak, author of “Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing,” which includes information about DNA testing.
In general, the more DNA two people share, the closer their connection.
Among the companies that sell DNA tests for genealogy purposes, FamilyTreeDNA, a division of Gene by Gene Ltd. of Houston, maintains the largest Y-DNA database, populated by 250,000 people. A Mountain View, Calif., company, 23andMe Inc., has the largest autosomal DNA database, with more than 180,000 people. Clients of 23andMe also can get information about their genetic predispositions to more than 200 health conditions.
Ancestry.com of Provo, Utah—in addition to a push into autosomal DNA testing—offers genealogical records and tools to help long-lost relatives link family trees.
And this fall, the nonprofit National Geographic Genographic Project, with more than 500,000 participants, unveiled a technology that maps users’ genetic ties to specific regions.
Ms. Tergesen is a Wall Street Journal staff reporter in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared December 10, 2012, on page R7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Finding a Few Hundred Cousins.
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