© 2021 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

DNA Testing Provides Shortcut To Trace Family History


We're calling our series the Future of History - and this morning, how modern times are changing how you explore your personal history. Tracing family roots has always been time-consuming - digging through census records and yellowing photos, hitting dead ends. There is a possible shortcut. DNA tests that trace your roots are dropping in price and attracting millions of customers, but they are not foolproof and not always a shortcut. Here again, author Eric Weiner.

ERIC WEINER, BYLINE: I've always been mildly curious about my roots, but majorly lazy. So I was excited to learn of this possible shortcut, which arrived at my house one day tucked inside a FedEx box. Inside, I find a small plastic vial and a placard with detailed instructions.

Fill the tube with saliva. Do not overfill.

OK, here it goes. OK. Next, place the sample inside the collection bag provided in your DNA kit. Mail in your sample. And hopefully, in just a few weeks, I will find out who I am and where I came from.

KEN CHAHINE: Yeah, spitting in a tube is a great way to get started.

WEINER: That's Ken Chahine, executive vice president of ancestry.com, the company that will be testing my DNA sample at their laboratory in Provo, Utah. It's a relatively new test called autosomal DNA.

CHAHINE: And what that means is that we've interrogated your entire genome at over 700,000 markers. And those are markers in your genetic code. And what that does is it gives us sort of a unique genetic fingerprint that only you have.

WEINER: By matching my genetic fingerprint with more than 1 million others in its database, the company can reveal much about my heritage. As the database grows, so does the usefulness of the test. But this is still very much pioneering work, says Chahine, filled with surprises in nearly every saliva sample.

CHAHINE: Our biggest surprise was how connected and how related we are as a species.

WEINER: In other words, we really are one big family. And thanks to the growing popularity of DNA testing, family secrets aren't what they used to be.

MEGAN SMOLENYAK: It is hard to take your secrets to the grave these days.

WEINER: That's Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist and early proponent of DNA testing. When she first heard about it, she thought it was magical. But being a scientist and a skeptic, she decided to test the tester. She cross checked 15 of her relatives to see if the genetic tests matched the paper records.

SMOLENYAK: And all the results were spot on, except for one.

WEINER: An uncle, her father's brother - he was turning up only half as related as he should have been.

SMOLENYAK: And I had to think about it for a while. And it finally dawned on me, oh my gosh, he's my half uncle. And it was kind of startling, and I had to wrestle with that - sharing that with my father because I did not see it coming, even though I've been researching for decades.

WEINER: Smolenyak now uses this story as a sort of warning to her clients. DNA testing - in fact, all of genealogy is an exercise in confronting the unexpected.

HEATHER QUINLAN: I thought I'd find a few Irishmen (laughter). That was it.

WEINER: That's Heather Quinn, a New York filmmaker. Growing up, she wanted to be a detective. She obsessively watched episodes of "Columbo" and "The Rockford Files." She never did get her badge, but tracing her family roots, she says, requires the same sleuthing skills. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, author Eric Weiner incorrectly identifies filmmaker Heather Quinlan as Heather Quinn. The name identifiers in the transcript have been corrected.]

QUINLAN: It's really a matter of having to kind of almost put your own emotions aside for while and really just look at the facts.

WEINER: Which is not always so easy to do, not when you keep bumping up against thorny branches of your family tree. Through DNA testing, Quinn discovered she is part Native American, at least partly related to Finnish reindeer herders and 3 percent Neanderthal, a slightly higher percentage than is typical. Her biggest surprise, though, came not from a DNA test, but by following the old-fashioned paper trail. Her great-great-grandfather, one Thomas Fagan of Altoona, Pa., had a nasty temper.

QUINLAN: And he got into a bar fight with his boss. His boss came into the bar one day and accused him of stealing tools. And they got in a fight, and I believe Thomas Fagan hit him over the head with a chair and killed him.

WEINER: Shortly after learning about the murderer in the family, she receives an e-mail from a descendant of the victim who had managed to track her down.

QUINLAN: And his e-mail to me was basically, like, what do you have to say for yourself?

WEINER: What did you have to say for yourself?

QUINLAN: I apologized on behalf of the Fagan family and my own. But, you know, there wasn't certainly anything else I could do about it.

WEINER: At first, all of this ancestral baggage came as a shock, but now, she says, she takes it in stride.

QUINLAN: If you go back far enough, I mean, you're bound to find criminals, as well as kings and queens. We descended from rebels, you know, for both good and bad, for withstanding, you know, a brand-new country and for maybe hitting their boss over the head with a chair.

WEINER: Finally, my DNA results land in my inbox. I click, and I have to admit, I'm nervous. What family secrets might they reveal? Not much, it turns out - a handful of distant cousins, a chart showing that I'm 93 percent Ashkenazi Jewish - no great surprise there. Ken Chahine of ancestry.com did find one particularly strong geographic thread.

CHAHINE: There seemed to be a predominantly high number of your recent sort of genetic cousins - and I'm talking about, like, third cousins and fourth cousins - that all seem to have family in Russia.

WEINER: This is a surprise, but Russia is a huge country. Which part of Russia? For that, he says, I'll have to wait. The autosomal test is not yet sophisticated enough, but it may be soon. Chahine explains how, using a still-experimental technique, scientists at ancestry.com com were able to zero in on his mother's birthplace in Cuba.

CHAHINE: This was without a family tree. They came to me and said, hey, are we in the ballpark? I said, (laughter) you almost hit the bull's-eye. I mean, it was that close. So that - again, that gives an example of where the technology is headed.

WEINER: Might DNA testing one day replace the paper trail entirely? Not likely, but it is one more tool, and a powerful one. As for me, I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed I didn't find any murderers or swashbucklers or other colorful characters in my family tree, but I'll keep digging. There's bound to be one in there somewhere. For NPR News, I'm Eric Weiner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 5, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story, author Eric Weiner incorrectly identifies filmmaker Heather Quinlan as Heather Quinn.
Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for NPR.org. Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content