Saturday, June 7, 2014

D. N. A.: Do Not Assume

While you have been following me through all my research foibles, concerning the mistaken identity of Ann Crahan—whom I had presumed was our Kelly family connection, Ann Kelly—I have embarked on a study of a different type. I made the six hour drive to southern California to attend the DNA conference held in conjunction with the annual Genealogy Jamboree in Burbank.

This is not my first foray into learning about STRs and SNPs and other scientific code speak. But I am still as mystified about the practical application of the use of DNA in genetic genealogy as I was at the beginning of my first class. Why does it all look like a badly jumbled assemblage of alphabet soup?

My goal, in initiating DNA testing a year ago (at last year's Jamboree, in fact) was to trace the two male lines I was most interested in: my husband's Irish lines, courtesy of his one hundred percent Irish father, and my own father's brick-wall line that was supposed to be Irish, but turned out, instead, to be one hundred percent Polish. Go figure.

It was at this very conference a year ago that I asked my brother—our family's only surviving male relative who could qualify for such a task—to take a DNA test. He graciously complied, and I've been staring hopelessly at his test results ever since. That, in fact, was what initiated my attendance at an all-day seminar on the topic last October.

I still don't get it.

In the meantime, hoping for better results with a second attempt, I also asked my husband to participate in DNA testing. We were, after all, planning a trip to Ireland to research his roots there, and I had hoped the DNA test results would add an interesting dimension. After all, DNA is science, and science is exact. Right?

Unfortunately, about all it has added, so far, has been a greater sense of confusion. Either that, or nobody else with the same genetic makeup has ventured out to do the same test.

The type of test used for each of these men is called the Y-DNA test, which seeks to trace back the paternal line through generations from son to father to grandfather. Theoretically, that would yield matches with others bearing the same surname. In reality, in neither of these lines has that held true.

So, a full day of classes to see if I could learn more was in order. The DNA Day at Jamboree this year began at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, and went until 7:00 that same evening. I've learned a whole lot more detail about the concepts and the process—even witnessing an illustrative live session demonstrating how the DNA strands are extracted from the sample material—but I still don't get how this will apply to help me find missing cousins.

Perhaps it's just a matter of not having any distant cousins who've gotten bit by this crazy bug to research our genealogical roots. While other conference participants talk of finding multiple matches through DNA testing, my two guys are getting almost no results of any significance, and especially no results matching men who bear the same surname. Are they the guinea pigs from Mars?

Still, the keynote address from Dr. Maurice Gleeson, himself a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical physician from Ireland, was so full of irresistable mind-candy that it tempted me to check out the possibilities more closely. Studies are being done in Ireland that may soon hone the accuracy of lines in relationship to specific regions within the country. In other words, instead of the rather bland ethnic percentages handed out by the major testing companies in the United States—telling people like my brother and husband that, no surprise here, they descend from northern Europeans—these studies may be able to pinpoint certain sets of genetic identifiers to specific counties in Ireland. Similar studies are being conducted in the UK for those of English heritage.

Abilities such as these, predicted to be unfolded in the near future, may become such an accelerator for genealogical research. While that still leaves my brother and his Polish past still shrouded in mystery, it will at least provide an additional tool for my husband in his quest to locate those points of origin in Ireland.

I'd like to hope that results such as these would be revealed before we take our trip to Ireland this fall—but even if that is not so, I can certainly hope that my understanding of these DNA results will occur before we leave for Ireland. I'm certain there is something more I can learn about applying these results that would help guide our travels and our research.


  1. Tell me!!! I had my dad's DNA tested because his family is impossible to trace. We have had NO matches with his surname. Our top "0 step" matches share a different last name. My conclusion from that is that somebody along the way fooled around. I have just ordered the mtDNA test for myself. Let's see what happens from that.

    1. What was advised at the "Ask an Expert" session was to combine the Y test with an autosomal DNA test to seek others whose records would cross apply. That's next on my list.

      In addition, I like to keep in mind that these results may represent generations-past records pre-dating use of surnames. Or, who knows, maybe it was due to those unusual circumstances when surnames were changed.

  2. I feel your pain! Those with my surname have had such a hard time going back very far, I had my dad's DNA tested and we learned that he is part of one of the smallest groups and they aren't totally sure of our origins. I did get some cousin matches, but of course they are in the same dilemma. So, more questions than answers.

    I know we are at the beginnings of all of this and hopefully there will be more answers and understanding on its way.

    1. It's amazing, isn't it, to see what can be found with that DNA testing. All I can think of in cases like your dad's is either to hold on and hope another match shows up soon, or hope that his results generate a new discovery in the field of genetics for Science! Somehow, that isn't much of a consolation when all we want is some answers.

  3. I've not ventured into even thinking about DNA testing and what have you. While I "kind of" understand the science, having been involved in the Human Genome Project in a tangential way and having been asked to read [ ] -- I couldn't, and still can't figure out how it's going to help me in my research for "why did they do that!" (the DNA tells nothing about "motivations")

    1. Oh, Iggy, I'm sure you have quite a solid grasp of the concepts behind DNA testing!

      After attending last week's conference, I do feel like I've gotten a bit more of an understanding of how to apply this all, but it's more like learning via osmosis rather than any head knowledge. Why this all makes me feel so dense, I don't know, but I'm going to keep at it. If nothing else, it is fascinating!

  4. High Tech and eventually it may bear some results...patience:)


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