IRA FLATOW, host:
For the rest of the hour, putting genes in genealogy. Tracing your family history is, you know, is a big pastime for many folks. But if you've ever tried it like I have, you'll know that building a complete picture of your family tree takes a good, hard detective work and more than a little luck. But there is a high-tech solution; high-tech help is on the way.
This week, one genealogy-related Web site, ancestry.com, an asset that was teaming up with the genetics lab to offer itself, offer you a handy-dandy home DNA test kit. So starting later this summer, you can compare your DNA to that of other people who have chosen to file their genetic patterns in the company's DNA database. And who knows? Maybe you'll find some distantly related person with whom you can compare notes, discover a remote relative, who knows? Maybe there's somebody you know you want to send them a kit, right? So, you know what? I think we're related. Okay, send me a kit, we'll do this DNA thing ourselves and see if there's anything to it.
Joining me now is Megan Smolenyak. She is chief family historian for ancestry.com, and the co-author of the book, "Trace Your Roots with DNA Using Genetic Tests to Explore your Family Tree." She joins us by phone from New Jersey. Welcome back to the program.
Ms. MEGAN SMOLENYAK (Chief Family Historian, Ancestry.com; Co-Author, "Trace Your Roots with DNA Using Genetic Tests to Explore your Family Tree"): Thank you.
FLATOW: Is it basically that simple what I said, how I described it?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: It's pretty straightforward. It's mostly a matchmaking game. Basically, you take a DNA test and it's like conventional databases. Normally you would be searching for, say, other John Smiths. This time the databases are comparing a bunch of numbers that you got from your DNA results. And whenever you find somebody who's a match with you, that's when you want to start comparing notes. And obviously, you're particularly interested in anybody who shares the same surname...
Ms. SMOLENYAK: And has the same genetic signature.
FLATOW: So what do you get in this kit?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: It's straightforward. It's a mouth swab. Usually, you get two of them, just to be sure. And you just scrape the inside of your cheek and you have the paperwork, you fill that out and just send it right back. And about two or three weeks later, you get your results.
FLATOW: Now, when you say get your results. I mean, it's not going to be a little sad - it's not going to be something that you understand, is it? What is it going to tell you?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: As I said, the results are usually a piled numbers and people try to - they make themselves crazy trying to read some meaning into it. And I tell people just to think of it as parts list. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean you're going to have blue eyes or be short or anything like that. It's mostly junk DNA. But you use it for the matchmaking game. So you use the databases and you compare, you look for anybody else who's a close fit and hopefully, you end up matching somebody who's done a little more homework than you have.
So for instance, last year, I was speaking in Oklahoma. There was a Shields in the audience and I happen to belong to the Shields surname project. And he decided to join us. It's a tiny project, only 16 people. He met somebody perfectly, shot him off an e-mail, poof, 450 new relatives.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah.
FLATOW: They may not be good news...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Just what kind of relatives are you looking for?
FLATOW: If somebody found you after all of those years and you owed them money or something like that.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah, there's all sorts of games you can play, I suppose, if you got creative.
FLATOW: What are you actually testing for? What does the test look for?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Well, the most popular test for roots purposes is - it uses a Y-chromosome, which, of course, only men have. So if women want to play, they have to talk to either their dad or their brother into representing them. But we basically piggyback also the efforts of population geneticists and it's, you know, it's still cost-prohibitive to test the entire genome. So they have picked out certain markers that are highly variable and so they're good at distinguishing between populations and we found even between people.
And so in a typical test, you have say 20 some odd of these markers tested and that's what you're playing the matchmaking game. You get a number for each one of those markers and the databases are running those numbers against everybody else's.
FLATOW: And you're looking for the Y-chromosome that gets passed down from generation untouched?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah, it gets passed down intact from father to son down to the generations just like surnames do, which is why this is the number one toy for genealogists. It's, you know, basically the Y-DNA and the surnames travel on tandems through history. And so this is why it's our most popular application.
FLATOW: But does that mean you can only find men on this?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: No, there is - there are other kinds of tests - the mitochondrial DNA test that you can use on the maternal side. But what it will do, for example, when I wanted to test the family I was born into, I just ask my dad to take the test so he represented me by proxy. So men are taking the test but everybody can play. You just may have to, you know, pester a cousin if you're a woman.
FLATOW: Of course, you might find your real parents?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: You know, all sorts...
FLATOW: If you're adopted.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: If people are really, really creative, I suppose people could do some pretty remarkable things with it. But the Y-chromosome, it's not like what people see on CSI.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: It doesn't give away all your secrets. It's not giving away any medical clues. You're not going to end up in any criminal databases. Some people have privacy concerns, but it's - I always describe it to my audience as a little bit more innocent, because it's more restrictive. It's just looking at a tiny snippet of your DNA.
FLATOW: In your own test, were you able to trace back where your family came from?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Well, yeah, actually, I had an interesting experience. Because like most people, I started by testing my own surname, which is Smolenyak, and there's not too many of us. And there's, in fact, only four families of us. We all come from a (unintelligible) village in Slovakia and had all four lines traced back to the 1700s, but I still haven't found our common ancestor.
So I tested all four lines to prove that we were all related. Lo and behold, none of us matched. So at first I was disappointed, then I realized, I just saved myself several decades in trying to prove something that's just completely false. So that's an example of what DNA testing can do that the paper trail is never going to do.
FLATOW: You've done away with the mythology.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Exactly, exactly. I was just completely wrong and that was the only way I would have found that out.
FLATOW: There are tests that claim to tell you if you're probably related to Genghis Khan, for example, or...
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah, yeah. There's some different types of ethnic tests and so forth. The company that has the Genghis Khan test, props for marketing. If you've matched that particular genetic signature, you get a free dinner for two in a Mongolian restaurant in London, which is great. But really, you could just take a regular old test and compare your results against his signature, which is floating out there on the Internet.
FLATOW: Now, if you go into the database and you get a hit, is there a way to say how closely related you are?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: It doesn't tell you exactly. These tests can't tell you that, okay, it's your mutual great, great, grandfather...
Ms. SMOLENYAK: ...but you know that if you have a perfect match that your lines do connect up at some point. And so what you want to do is shoot that individual an e-mail and start, you know, talking back and forth, and if you're really lucky, you know, you hit somebody who's been already digging into their roots for some time.
FLATOW: Can you refine these tests anymore to give you anything?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah. It's - it's, you know, back when the very first tests were launched, which was, oh, five, six years ago? The highest test available was four markers, which to us is laughable now. So that gives you some sense of the progress. Most people these days test 20 some odd markers.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: And it's possible, a lot of companies may do as high as 40 some odd, you can even get as high as 67 markers.
FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow talking now with Megan Smolenyak. She's the chief family historian for ancestry.com and co-author of the book, "Trace your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore your Family Tree."
Is this a very popular thing now that the Internet is around? You know, I know since, you know, I sort of have a semi-famous name. People are always asking me, am I related. Now, that the Internet is here, people see, you know, all kinds of relationships going on.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah, it's - all of a sudden it's become very popular just in last year or so. I'm not quite sure what the trigger has been, but, yeah, sure that - in my mind, there's been two revolutions in genealogy. The first was the Internet because that made it possible to find your second and third and fourth cousins. Now with DNA, it's going to make it possible to find, you know, your ninth and your 16th cousin. So it's pretty remarkable.
FLATOW: So you don't need to - people may be worried, hey, I have to send in a blood sample or something. You just need a swab from the inside of your mouth.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Yeah, yeah. And that's a common myth by the way. I know that one scientific study had to actually switch the way they gathered samples because they used to do blood samples and their database was becoming lopsided because, and I didn't know this, a lot of men are afraid of needles. And so their database was becoming predominantly female. So it doesn't hurt. It's just plain old mouth swab. Looks like a glorified Q-Tip.
FLATOW: All right. Let's see if we have a caller here. Andrew(ph) in St. Paul. Hi, Andrew.
ANDREW (Caller): Hi. I'm just calling to suggest that ancestry.com might be opening up a little bit of can of worms because I ran across some information that there's surprisingly large number of people in the country that are being raped by people who they think are their father, but might not necessarily be. So I just thought that that might be a possible landmine for you, guys. Thanks for taking my call.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: In genealogical terms, actually, the phrase we use for that is NPE, non-paternity events. And, you know, that possibility always exist but in most cases, in fact, when we're researching the book, we found, you know, some sort of whoopsies(ph) in projects about two-thirds of the time. But in most cases, usually the whoopsy you're uncovering occurred maybe 100, 200, 300 years ago. And so it's usually not a big deal to folks.
But yeah, that possibility does exist. If somebody wanted to try to use genealogical test more on of paternity kind of style, but then again, you know, all the men who are related on the paternal side with the father would share that same genetic signature. So it's not nearly as definitive as an actual paternity test.
FLATOW: Now, where would you go from there? Let's say you get a match. What would - how would you progress toward narrowing down and widening your search?
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Well, what you want to do is you want to swap e-mails with anybody who is a perfect match to you. If you have a really unusual genetic signature, you may not have any perfect matches so you might be interested in exchanging e-mails with people who are one or two mutations off of you.
But you are going to just bounce back and forth and compare notes and say yeah, you know, we have the same surname. Well, get this, we're from the same part in Ireland, that kind of thing. And you're going to widdle it down, naturally, to the ones that are of greatest interested to you. And it's just a quicker way to find those folks, those distant cousins out there, especially once still back in the old country.
FLATOW: Yeah, when you say a perfect match, people may think that, gee, I have a twin out there. They're not the same - that of a twin.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: No, again. This is just looking at a tiny snippet of your DNA. It's not the kind that uses autosomal DNA like what the FBI uses or what you see on CSI. It's not giving away any sort of secrets. It's basically, let's say somebody did get a hold of, say, your results and put them out there in the Internet with your name attached to it. The worst that would happen really is people could figure out they're distant cousins of yours. So we still, obviously, don't do that kind of thing. We're very protective of all the data. But it's not giving away all sorts of secrets.
FLATOW: All right. Megan, thank you for making time to be with us.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: Oh, my pleasure.
FLATOW: Have a good weekend.
Ms. SMOLENYAK: You too.
FLATOW: Megan Smolenyak is chief family historian for ancestry.com and co-author of the book, "Trace your Roots with DNA Using Genetic Tests to Explore your Family Tree."
Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.