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Finding Your Roots Through DNA?


I am Italian. It is one thing I have always known about myself, the culture I attached to my identity.

Despite the blond hair and blue eyes, I am 75 percent Italian and 25 percent mystery because of an adopted grandparent. That missing quarter has left my family tree with limbs cut short and ethnic discussions with a few too many "I don't knows."

So when commercials started popping up for DNA tests for genealogy, it seemed like the perfect solution for the final piece of the puzzle. No longer prohibitively expensive, was it really possible to solve the mystery once and for all, for around $100?

Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and 23 and Me test for genealogy and ethnicity. Soon I became one of the growing number of people tapping this new tool to try to add branches to the family tree or finally unlock the mystery of their ancestry, or confirm or refute stories from past generations. What we learned, however, is that even DNA doesn't necessarily give definitive answers. Genealogy is not the exact science some might suspect.

"Genealogies are not records of the past, they are the narratives that we construct in order to make certain [people] our ancestors and relatives -- not in the sense that we distort reality, but we select reality," said Eviatar Zerubavel, Board of Governors and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, who wrote "Ancestors and Relatives, Genealogy, Identity and Community."

The tests -- done with cheek swabs or saliva -- not only give people percentages of ethnicity by comparing DNA to representative populations from regions around the world, but also compare DNA to other people in the companies' database and relay genetic matches as possible relatives. (For a fee, Ancestry and 23 and Me results can be transferred to Family Tree and compared with its database.

"This test can truly unlock certain questions about your own past and your own story," said Anna Swayne, DNA educator at Ancestry, which has been doing the tests for subscribers for two years and made it available to the general public in the past year.

Jean Coringrato of Hawthorne and Jesse Traynor from Highland Lakes are among the estimated million people who have done the DNA tests.

Ancestry has more than 300,000 people who have taken their test; FamilyTreeDNA about 670,000; and 23 and Me more than 650,000, although a definitive total number is unknown because there are likely many people, like Traynor, who have taken tests with more than one company.

"You're going to run into brick walls when you do the [traditional] research," said Coringrato, whose sister gave her the 23 and Me test for Christmas.

The Coringrato sisters had traced back 10 generations on their mother's side, but just five on their father's. With the DNA tests, they were hoping to get further on their father's side of the family tree -- without taking a trip to Italy -- as well as learn the truth about a long-time family tale about their great-grandmother.

"The story was she was left on a doorstep," said Coringrato. "This is in the mid- to late 1800s. The story was she was Albanian, not Italian. We've always been curious about that. Was it just a story, or was there any truth to that? We thought maybe the DNA test was the way to go to break through those brick walls."   

Traynor and his brother -- who had been putting together their family tree for a few years and gotten back as far as eight generations on his mother's side and six on his father's through conventional methods -- had less specific intents.

"We were just hoping to see if it confirmed what we already knew or exposed anything new," said Traynor. "We were looking for the ancestry as well as to see if it came up with any long-lost cousins or anything."

'Really fine balance'

Traynor did both the Ancestry and 23 and Me tests. He was surprised by the discrepancies between the two tests in the minority ethnicity results. While one test said he was 25 percent European Jewish, another put it at around 10 percent.

Emily Drabant Conley, director of business development for 23 and Me, attributes these differences to the DNA pools used for comparison.

Ancestry uses a collection of their own samples and samples acquired from around the world. Test takers with 23 and Me also fill out a survey. If they say that all four grandparents are from the same region, 23 and Me adds their DNA to the pool for comparison, according to Conley. From there, they try to break it down as specifically as they can.

"We try to ride this really fine balance," said Conley. "We want to tell you as much as we can, to the edge of our knowledge, without overstepping that and without being inaccurate."

For those who have portions of their DNA that could not be assigned to a specific region or who are given broad results, the answers may come down the line.

Family Tree DNA's website notes that their test will become more refined. Conley said the same of 23 and Me.

"Arguably, over time, as we hit 5 million, 10 million, as those numbers get bigger and bigger, we'll be able to interpret with finer resolution where my ancestors are from," she said.

Weeks after receiving the initial results, which did not reveal any previously unknown relatives, Traynor was contacted about a third cousin he didn't know about. He connected with that person and passed along a lot of family information the new-found cousin didn't know.

"So while I may not have personally benefited from the DNA test, I was able to help someone else, which is an unexpected benefit I hadn't thought about," Traynor wrote in an email.

Ethnicity answer

Coringrato said there weren't many surprises in her results, but she may have the answer to her great-grandmother's ethnicity.

"There was a significant percentage of the Balkans region that would account for the Albanian," she said. "It was almost as much as the Italian percentage. So that kind of surprised me. That was pretty cool."

These tests have evolved from the early days when people were searching for very specific answers: Who is my father? Are we related?

"The first people who tested were what I called early adopters - had an intention, goal, knew what they wanted to do," said Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of Family Tree DNA.

When he first started the company, the initial tests were on men with unusual surnames who wanted to know if they were related.

"That was how the industry began," he said.

It has evolved far beyond that today. Family Tree and 23 and Me show people exactly which chromosomes match. Thanks to that information, Coringrato has found some distant relatives.


"On the X chromosome, I have seven people, and five of us all share with each other, which means it's coming from the same woman up the line somewhere," she said. "We just haven't figured out who yet. It's pretty neat, though."

Coringrato's sister is now considering taking the Family Tree test to see how the results compare. Like Traynor and me, they're likely to see some interesting discrepancies.

I did two tests, Family Tree and Ancestry and this is what I now know: All DNA tests are not alike. Not only were the ethnicity results different, they seemed significantly different.

Ancestry said I was 88 percent European, the majority being 75 percent Italy/Greece with 8 percent Caucasus and 4 percent Middle Eastern. Family Tree put the majority of my ethnic DNA (62.66 percent) at French, Basque, Spanish and Tuscan and called the remaining percentage Middle Eastern, listing Bedouin, Druze, Iranian, Jewish and Palestinian.

Those latter results had a margin of error at greater than 25 percent. The website explains it this way: "In this case, we cannot distinguish as clearly between the populations, and we are less confident that some proportion of your DNA came from one population rather than the other. This does not affect our ability to predict the continent you are from, but does affect our prediction of what proportion of your ancestry is from the continents listed."

According to Zerubavel, the groupings in both sets of results don't make much sense. Italians and Greeks, he said, are very different, having been separated for thousands of years, but he was particularly intrigued with Basque being in there. The Basque people have a unique language and DNA makeup, he said.

"To lump it together with Tuscany?" he said. "This is so strange."

So the mystery not only remains, it deepens. This much we know: I am a mutt. I may be Italian. I may be Basque. I could choose to say I'm French if the spirit moves me. I could possibly have been denied my rightful bat mitzvah. My adopted grandparent may have been Middle Eastern, but that's a broad term, and specifically where remains unknown.

"Even if you're adopted and we don't know anything about you, at least I can tell an adopted person whether her mom's mom's mom was likely an African-American or European Caucasian or Native American," Greenspan said.

That's the idea and the hope, at least, but unlike episodes of "NCIS," a DNA test for genealogy and ethnicity may be interesting, but it does not immediately solve all mysteries.