Genealogists Turn to DNA in Tracing Family Trees

by Margie Wylie, Newhouse News Service (Jan. 28, 2001). Syndicated in The Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2001) and The Denver Post (June 16, 2001).

About 15 months ago, Bennett Greenspan ran into an obstacle all genealogists eventually face: A dead end.

Certain that he’d found an Argentine branch of his family, but unable to uncover the documents that would connect the two clans, Greenspan turned to another kind of family record: DNA.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the best-preserved genealogies are written in our genes. By examining mutations in DNA passed down for generations, geneticists have been slowly untangling the ancient family tree of man.

Now genealogists are using the same methods of DNA analysis to garner clues about their family origins.

Some, like Greenspan, use the tests to leap over gaps in the historical record or to resolve a family mystery. Others, their families decimated by the Holocaust, are attempting to reconnect with any family they can find. But many are simply being tested because they’re interested in their deeper origins.

Greenspan approached Dr. Michael Hammer, a University of Arizona geneticist famous for uncovering a DNA fingerprint — the Cohanim Motif — associated with men of the Jewish priestly class. Jewish tradition has it that all Cohanim are direct descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron. Hammer’s research found that many modern-day Cohanim do indeed share similar Y-chromosomes — the chromosome that determines maleness — which they inherited from a common ancestor.

Using similar analysis, Hammer was able to tell Greenspan that his two branches shared the exact same family genetic fingerprint, or haplotype, passed down from father to son. They were related.

But getting the testing done wasn’t easy for Greenspan. Although this type of DNA profiling has been around for some years, research geneticists skilled in performing it have generally turned away the public. They preferred to spend their time on the origin of the species, not the origin of the Smiths.

Hammer rebuffed Greenspan’s initial pleas.

But Greenspan, a semi-retired Houston entrepreneur, made a pitch: “I told him I would start a business. Handle all the e-mail, do all the marketing and pay his lab to perform the testing.”

Greenspan soon had a business plan on Hammer’s desk and last year, Family Tree DNA ( joined two other companies in the English-speaking world in launching genealogical gene testing.

Family Tree DNA tests cost from $219 to $319 each. Maternal lineage tests may be given to both men and women. These look at DNA from mitochondria, the energy source of the body’s cells, which both sexes inherit only from their mothers. Y chromosome kits can be used only on males to trace male lineage, for only men inherit the Y chromosome from their fathers. Women must test male ancestry through a male relative.

Clients brush the inside of their cheeks with a toothbrush-like swab, put the swab in a vial, repeat the process with a second brush and vial (to be certain there is enough DNA to test), and put the package in the mail. Results take about six weeks.

For privacy, Family Tree DNA keeps test results in a computer not connected to the Internet. In the lab, clients are identified only by a number. Those who join a “surnames database” permit Family Tree DNA to give their names and contact information to other clients with the same surname and an exact genetic match.

Greenspan is candid about the limitations. “Testing is only another genealogical tool. It can’t replace research,” he said. “You’re not going to know if someone is your great-grand uncle using this, but you will know if he’s related.”

For example, even when two men match perfectly on all 12 Y-chromosome markers, there’s only 50-50 chance that their most recent common ancestor is within 14.5 generations, an 80 percent chance of an ancestor within the last 34 generations, and a 90 percent chance of a connection somewhere in the last 48 generations. The only thing determinable with 100 percent certainty is an ancestor shared within the last 1,800 years.

That’s why some geneticists think DNA testing can’t tell genealogists much at this stage.

“I believe that the type of DNA profiling offered currently is very coarse and population(-based), rather than family-based,” said Peter A. Underhill, senior research scientist in the Stanford University Genetics Department. “However, the resolution will continue to improve as more genetic markers are identified.”

For instance, Underhill points out that some non-Jewish men in the Middle East probably share the Cohanim Motif, so it’s not unique.

But DNA testing told Justin Howery more than he expected. The 45-year-old Denver law student recently took the test with a Howery cousin expecting that they wouldn’t match. All his life he’d been told his grandfather was adopted, and since he was 15 years old he’d been searching for his grandfather’s natural family — the Hamiltons.

Imagine Howery’s surprise when his DNA matched perfectly with his cousin. “I probably wasted so much time just looking for a Hamilton connection that didn’t exist,” he mused.

He’s still not sure where his grandfather came by the Howery Y chromosome. Was the family legend just wrong? Or was his grandfather a child born out of wedlock and brought into the family? He may never know.

But he does know that he’s really related to the family whose name he shares.

Joseph Meszorer, 68, lost all his family in the confusion of World War I and the Holocaust of World War II. A passionate genealogist, the Polish emigre now living in Ontario had found only a handful of people with similar surnames in the United States and Israel, but could not connect himself to them. He jumped at the chance to compare his Y chromosome with that of David Meshorer of Virginia Beach, Va., a psychologist also interested in family history. They matched.

“When we established that we were (genetic) cousins, then I suddenly had this whole family,” Meszorer said. “For me, it was money well spent.”

The two men have become fast friends. Meszorer — who thinks the family connection may be in late 1800s Prague — keeps up with the family news of the U.S. Meshorers. And Meszorer, his wife and children are in the process of changing the spelling of their name from the Polish variant to Meshorer, because “we are family and family should have the same name,” he said.

Meszorer is even considering genetic testing of the bones of Meshorers he’s found buried in Prague.

It’s not unheard of. In England, geneticists matched the 9,000-year-old skeleton of the so-called Cheddar man against a school teacher living near the cave where the bones were found. The African Burial Ground Project is testing the remains of slaves buried on the site of a Manhattan office building and will compare them to the DNA fingerprints of modern Africans and African-Americans to shed light on the family histories of slave descendants.

Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford in England has found that nearly all maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA in Europe comes from one of eight women. He’s made up names and fictitious profiles for them. For $180, Oxford Ancestors ( will test those of European descent to find out which “clan” they belong to. The service will also make up maps showing the concentration of a client’s clan in Europe.

Sykes has linked several different English surnames, including his own, with a Y-chromosome fingerprint. He found that many last names could be traced back to a single male ancestor.

Family Tree DNA, in addition to its Cohanim testing, has just begun offering a Native American test at a cost of $319. There are limitations: The analysis works only on women who have an uninterrupted maternal line back to a female Native American, and who carry the mitochondrial DNA of that native ancestor. If the test is positive, the company can identify one of five ancient haplotypes, but can’t tell the specific tribe nor identify which generation of ancestors was native.

Last year, the African Gene Project at Howard University promised to identify for black Americans the tribe and/or area from which their slave forebears were taken hundreds of years ago. The project opened and closed within a matter of months under a cloud of controversy. Some geneticists said that gene databases weren’t developed enough to offer the promised level of detail promised. Howard University officials didn’t return calls seeking comment on the current status of the project.

Gene Tree Inc. ( — a commercial gene lab in San Jose, Calif. — is compiling a “Y Chromosome Ethnicity Calculator” that can calculate a man’s probable ethnic heritage by comparing his Y chromosome markers with those of different racial or ethnic groups.

Ironically, the very genetic tests being sold as ethnic detectives form the underpinnings of research that concludes that, as far as genetics are concerned, there’s no such thing as race.

The undisputed pioneer of population genetics, Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, concluded as early as the 1950s that differences in blood types and proteins were so slight among humans that any physical differences — nose shape, hair texture and skin tone, for instance — were due entirely to the evolutionary pressures of environment.

Genetic sequencing, developed since then, bears him out. DNA testing has found that every modern human being is remarkably similar. That’s because we are all descended from a tiny band of Homo sapiens originating in Africa over 100 millenia ago.

While all this genetic fingerprinting can be revealing, even fun, as it becomes more popular, it’s possible — some say probable — that people with little understanding of the complexities underlying the science may rely on tests to prove who are “real” Smiths, genuine Cohans, or who deserves to be called Native American.

That’s a concern, Greenspan acknowledged. But he argues that it’s no reason to curb testing.

Underhill agreed: “If specific people freely wish to know such information, they should have the opportunity to obtain such knowledge, just like any sort of genetic testing.”

Author: Justin Durand

Retired attorney. Genealogist. Ethnic Mormon. Moving Left. He/Him. My husband and I own Shining Lotus Bookstore in Denver.