Saturday, September 24, 2016

Finding Joy



It was the third full day of Olympic competition in Rio. In the pool Ryan Murphy had just collected a gold medal for the US in the 100 meter backstroke. Michael Phelps swam semis of 200 meter butterfly. Keri Walsh Jennings & April Ross had convincingly defeated the Chinese team of Wang & Yue 21-16, 21-9 on the beach. Although there was more competition on TV, I had had enough for the night and headed to bed. However, I walked past my computer and felt compelled to check my email.

There was an incoming message from a former colleague in California. I had renewed my acquaintance with Mary during a chance encounter in June at a restaurant in Morro Bay, CA, where we were having lunch with several friends and former neighbors. She walked in to the restaurant with a former genealogy client of mine and we got to chatting about using DNA in family history research. I had previously made a cameo appearance in her journalism class to discuss two aspects of intellectual property that I covered in my course “Ethics in the Information Age” – copyright and plagiarism.
Mary’s email said in part:
I bought your books and am reading and learning as fast as I can, but I don’t think I can find my sister in less than a year. You are so incredibly fast at this relative hunting do you think you can find her for me? I would be happy to pay for your time but it would never be enough.   She is probably 80 by now so time is critical.
Thanks for considering my proposal. I’ve visited more than 90 countries and now I’d just like to talk about the dad she never knew with this half sister. Her family never approved of my dad, the creative inventor, so pushed him away after only a year. Her name is Joy by the way.
I made sure I had the codes to access Mary’s recent DNA test results and went on to bed.

The search turned out to be easier than any of us expected. By the time Mary got up and checked her email the next morning, there was a message asking her to call me AND there were two pictures of Joy waiting in her email box. 



Before noon Nashville time Mary had used one of the phone numbers I had given her to reach Joy and they had talked on the phone for more than an hour and a half. This was to be the first of many, almost daily calls that have followed.

It is rarely this easy. Two years earlier when I had unexpectedly gotten an unknown 1st cousin DNA match, it had taken over seven months to figure out which sibling of one of my parents was responsible for my newly discovered cousin Jim being on this earth. That tale has previously been chronicled in this blog. As difficult as Jim’s search had been, even Jim’s search was easier than many.

Joy was literally just sitting there waiting to be found. She had positioned herself well. Both she and Mary had tested at AncestryDNA. Joy appeared on Mary's match list:


1,857 cM of shared DNA is far too much for a normal 1st cousin match. This almost certainly had to be the half-sister Mary was seeking. All that remained was to locate her.

I immediately left a message for this match in Ancestry’s proprietary process of contacting other members. However, because years of experience have taught me that this indirect method of contact is slow at best and often ineffective. It values the privacy of the matches over efficiency of making contact. It also does not always notify the match that a message is waiting online – particularly if the match has not maintained an ongoing Ancestry subscription.

Fortunately, in this case Joy had not made a serious effort to hide her identity. I was later to find out that she also had been searching for her half-sister off and on for a decade but there are lots of women named Mary out there.

Joy’s Ancestry login was a combination of her initials and married name --not so good for privacy but great for leaving bread crumbs for matches to follow. Joy had posted a brief pedigree chart on Ancestry which listed her as “Private” but outed her husband and included a picture of him. After searching several online directories of living people I found a recent address in Texas and three phone numbers listed in The U.S. Public Records Index. I was able to find accounts for Joy on LinkedIn and Facebook. While exploring LinkedIn, I got a popup suggestion of a person who might be able to introduce us. That person was a person very active in helping adoptees find their birth families. This led me to believe that Joy might be actively seeking her biological relatives – an assumption that turned out to be only partly correct. The pictures on Facebook matched the handsome fellow attached to Joy’s pedigree chart on Ancestry. 

This search was a little more complicated than that but not much. I’ll probably never have an easier case than this. 

Mary sent me a check with a generous tip added; but I’ll always treasure what was written in the memo section of the check more than the money. It said, “For Great Joy".

A big uniting event is planned for early November in Texas. Pictures to follow.

Dr. D. made another interesting find as he located the missing half-sister. It connects him to the sisters; but that is another story for another day -- sometime very soon.     

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's Not My Life! It's Not My Family!


Even if a million copies of The Stranger in My Genes are sold when it is officially released next week, it is unlikely that one single reader would react at every turn as did the protagonist in this very personal memoir. Complex combinations of motivations cause the course of this pilgrimage of personal discovery to be both unpredictable and compelling. Many of us think we know how we would react in certain situations. Then it happens to us and all bets may be off.



Powerful emotions are the driving force for Bill Griffeth’s actions at least as he begins to process information from a DNA test that suggests his biological father may not be the man who raised him. The book cover including a partial family both present and absent in front of a rural church/school is a very appropriate starting point. These forces compete with professional and religious/moral values to lead him on an unpredictable journey that will compel readers to keep turning the pages. What will he do next? Will he be brash or do nothing at all?

This book should be required reading for those who seek unknown parents and those of us who strive to help them in their quests. If there is one important take-away from this book, it is that there is not one single path that is best for all of us.

This is not a book about DNA or about genealogical research methods although those are interwoven throughout. Most of the DNA information is correct except for the brief confusion in Chapter 16 of X chromosome DNA with mitochondrial DNA. However, this does not detract from the story line and will not be noticed by most readers.

One of the paradoxes of the book is that the author and main protagonist was a serious genealogist who had reveled in uncovering family secrets through traditional research methods. However, when a secret affected him very personally and was uncovered by DNA testing, everything was different. Was that because DNA was involved? Probably not. When we are suddenly forced to reevaluate deeply held personal myths which have guided our daily lives for half a century, we are thrown into uncharted territory.

Another paradox is that the author had built a very successful professional career as a high profile investigative interviewer on a live nationally televised show. Would he subject his own personal discovery to the same level of scrutiny that he regularly employed to his on air guests? Why or why not? Is it different to probe business transactions and family values?

You never should judge others until you have walked in their moccasins. For those of us work daily with genetic genealogy, this book can sensitize us to the balancing act we should be employing as we seek the proper equilibrium between the right to know and the right to privacy of various actors in the multifaceted and often deeply emotional dynamics of family life.


I strongly recommend the book. Once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down for long. I don’t think I would have made some of the decisions Griffeth made; but then it was his life not mine and it was not deeply personal for me. In such intimate situations we all need to respect and validate the rights of others to find out what works for them. Our role should be to give them the support they need to process their own emotions and family situations. One solution definitely does not fit all situations.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Thank you James E. Dowell!


For the last quarter century James E. Dowell has been my genealogical mentor in all things Dowell -- well at least until we got to DNA testing. :-) Soon after we moved to California in 1990, I found in the Los Angeles LDS Library the Index of Dowells he had put together in collaboration with Dick Dowell. After exchanging many emails, I visited him in his home in Walnut. We hoped that would be the first of many in person meetings but that turned out not to be. Shortly thereafter he moved to Colorado and I moved to the Central California coast in Morro Bay. We have never been physically together again in spite of a few attempts. However, we have continued to collaborate over the years. 



That index has now been digitized and can be downloaded.

Over the ensuing years James and I, in collaboration with Tadd Bartley, built the "Dowell Family History Site" at MyFamily.com. This became a much used venue for attracting and sharing a great deal of Dowell history materials until Ancestry.com made the unfortunate decision to pull the plug on these sites a few years ago. 

Then came yDNA testing. One of our earliest successes was when Tadd's dad and James were compared and were found to be closely related thus confirming that the Bartleys descended from a woman who cohabited with a male Dowell but never married him. She gave her descendants her maiden name.
The next finding was jolting to some longtime Dowell surname researchers. Even a year or two after receiving the conclusive DNA results, some otherwise rational and objective genealogists were still in a state of disbelief. It long had been assumed that all Dowells were related in some way. If they just were able to push the paper trail back one more generation to the immigrant, they believed he would turn out to the “missing link” between his descendants who settled in both Maryland and Virginia. There were some Dowell researchers who could trace their ancestry back to early Colonial Virginia and some who could trace their roots back to early Maryland. No big deal. Back then, people traveled by water when they could. Roads were barely passable at best since President Eisenhower had not yet built the Interstate Highway system. It appeared obvious that upon passing through Hampton Roads some Dowells had gone west up the James River in Virginia and some had turned right and gone north up the Chesapeake Bay into Maryland. These were the paths that goods took when they came from England and were reversed when tobacco was exported. It would have been a relatively easy trip from central Virginia to southern Maryland via these waterways. But it didn’t happen like that. DNA results have established that the Maryland Dowells and the Virginia Dowells have not had a common male ancestor for about three centuries—a period that would extend far earlier than when surnames like Dowell began to be used. The use of this name had emerged independently in at least two separate locations. [David R. Dowell, NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection. Libraries Unlimited, 2015, p. 29.]

Big Y SNP testing has recently confirmed that the closest common male ancestor of the Virginia Dowells and the Maryland Dowells lived at least four millennia ago. The male progenitors of both Dowell groups were part of the invasion of Haplogroup R1b which sweep into Europe from the steppes five to seven thousand years ago with their horses and chariots thus overwhelmed the hunter gatherers and early farmers who were already there. However, genetically, they soon parted.

In spite of this family split, James has continued to mentor Dowells of all persuasions by willingly sharing the massive amount of family data he has accumulated over the last half century. Most recently he allowed me to copy more than a hundred 3 1/2 inch diskettes to a Dropbox location from which it will be easier for Dowell family researchers to extract data.

Thank you James for continuing to mentor us and to share your research data! We hope to spread far and wide the fruits of your research labor and your willingness to share.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Jamboree



Additional Resources since the Jamboree Syllabus published: 

DNA Day morning session:

"NextGen Y-SNP DNA Testing Can Illuminate Your Paternal Line"

 


John Cleary, "Using SNP Testing & STRs to enhance a genetic genealogy research project." Rerecorded from Who Do You Think You Are Live 2016, Birmingham, England to enhance audio: 





DNA Day afternoon session:

"When Technology Conflicts with Human Values"


Harari (2015):



Haidt (2013):



Mukherjee (2016):


M

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

More Family Finder Matches?



FTDNA project administrators should be getting notices soon that announce the following changes in the threshold Family Finder customers must meet in order to be matched with each other. For those of you who like to monitor how such changes impact the number of matches you are shown, you better document your baseline data quickly. Your number of matches should change soon. 




You asked for it - we listened!

For several years the genetic genealogy community has asked for adjustments to the matching thresholds in the Family Finder autosomal test. After months of research and testing, we have implemented some exciting changes effective very soon.
Currently, the current matching thresholds - the minimum amount of shared DNA required for two people to show as a match are:

       Minimum longest block of at least 7.69 cM for 99% of testers, 5.5 cM for the other one percent
       Minimum 20 total shared centiMorgans 

Some people believed those thresholds to be too restrictive, and through the years requested changes that would loosen those restrictions.

Soon, the following changes will have been implemented to the matching program.

       No minimum shared centiMorgans, but if the cM total is less than 20, at least one segment must be 9 cM or longer.
       If the longest block of shared DNA is greater than 9 cM, the match will show regardless of total shared cM or the number of matching segments.
The entire existing database has been rerun using the new matching criteria, and all new matches have been calculated with the new thresholds. 
Most people will see only minor changes in their matches, mostly in the speculative range. They may lose some matches but gain others.  

I am assuming that most of you will get additional matches -- particularly those formed by single shared segments between 9 and 19 cMs. This will not be close relatives but potentially could be with family members in the 4th to 6th cousin range. Such matches have been suppressed because the shared cMs totaled less than 20. They can be detected in comparisons run at GEDmatch on FTDNA data.

Some die hard genetic genealogists love to analyze the changes in matches reported when adjustments are made such as the one that is imminent from FTDNA. Yesterday Jason Lee reported in a ISOGG Facebook post: "Two thirds of my matches at AncestryDNA are single segment matches under 9 cM." Those wishing to dissect the differences between databases and differences in a single database before and after screening criteria is changed will have a field day as FTDNA rolls out the above change.


If you want to be able to compare your "before" matches with the "after" ones, you better move fast. This change may start rolling out very soon.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

DNA Day Sales & a Birthday Party




Many of you know that we celebrate DNA Day on April 25th to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the publication of the Nature article that detailed the structure of DNA. It's a little late to enter ASHG's DNA Day essay contest this year, but you still may want to contemplate your own response to the assigned topic. Read the next paragraph before you guess what my position might be. 

A few of you may know that this day has a special significance for the Dowells of Nashville. It will be the 2nd birthday of our 2014 DNA Day miracle. Benjamin was born 9 months AFTER he had part of his DNA screened to select a healthy fertilized egg that did not contain his mother's heritable mutated and potentially deadly Brugada gene.



DNA SALES!!!

To help us celebrate Benjamin's 2nd birthday this weekend, at least two of the big three US DNA labs are having sales from now until April 26th.


1. Last night CeCe Moore spread the word about the DNA Day sale at AncestryDNA 
- $79 and free shipping if you use the FREESHIPDNA code -
DNA.ANCESTRY.COM


2. 10 AM Central time today is the kickoff of a big DNA Weekend sale at Family Tree DNA



Ancestry's sale price is for the only product in the company's line of DNA tests. FTDNA's sale includes many but not all of the company's tests -- some of them discounted more than they often are during sales. 

I'm going to a 2 year old's birthday party this weekend dressed as -- (did you guess it?) -- a carnival barker.

So come one, come all and let the spitting and swabbing begin!! 


Sunday, April 17, 2016

My 10th great-grandfather is my 9th great-grandfather?



I was stimulated to write this post by reading Lara Diamond's blog today which has the clever title: My Pedigree Has Collapsed! I figured that anything the Ashkenazi could do us WASPs could  do better. Nothing like a little ethnic rivalry. The other granddad of my three Dowell grandsons is Ashkenazi.

According to my RootsMagic software, my immigrant ancestor Richard CURRIER is my tenth great grandfather. But wait he is also my ninth great grandfather:


Yes, Nathaniel Currier of Currier and Ives fame was a 4th great-grandson of immigrant Richard. Thank you for asking. But back to my main point.

 If you insist in trying to read all the details, your browser may open a somewhat clearer image if you click on each page. All the individuals below the line of type projecting to the left halfway down each page are identical in each line. Only their generation number is different.



So one could theorize that I should have inherited some atDNA from these early Puritan ancestors since my pedigree collapsed under their weight. But that was a long time ago and many generations to pass the segments down. By now they would be well traveled, well worn and often recombined. Thank God for those thorough and well preserved New England vital records. As a result I know that my 10th great grandfather is also my 9th great grandfather is also my 9th great grandfather.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

SNP Tsunami Continues Into Third Year




Many of us spend a great deal of time, energy and money attempting to document that a particular ancestor of ours belonged to a particular tribe or ethnic group. We all get very excited when we find a family Bible or a diary of an ancestor that dates back two or three hundred years.

Don’t you wish your ancestors had carried a passport which got stamped at every branching point of their intercontinental migration route as they trudged through prehistory? Actually they did. In some cases our genomes have recorded more than a hundred thousand years of travel.

This travel is documented in the mitochondrial DNA of all of us. A separate and more detailed path is documented in the yDNA of men. Many call this anthropology. In Chapter 6 of my most recent book, NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection, I call this extreme genealogy. In either case it is the study of haplogroups – or the ancient clans to which our ancestors belonged.

Women ancestors were somewhat limited in what they could communicate to distant descendants because our mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) contains only 16,569 locations in which they can record the presence of one of the four chemical bases that make up our DNA. Their paths through prehistory can be traced for our female lines using mtDNA test results. mtDNA was the basis for Bryan Sykes’ pioneering Seven Daughters of Eve.

Our men ancestors had tens of millions of additional locations where such information could be logged. What we look for today is where on our genomes these ySNPs occurred in this transcribed travel record. Once such a permanent change has occurred, it is passed down to all male descendants.

What are ySNPs and how do they differ from the ySTRs we have been testing since 2000?


Short Tandem Repeat (STR)
Pronounced "stir." This is a repeating pattern of genetic code letters at a location on the genome. The value is the number of times that pattern is repeated at that location.
Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP)
Pronounced "snip." A single and permanent change in the DNA bases at a given location.

Consumer DNA testing to discover family history information began in 2000 with the focus on the Y chromosome (yDNA) which only males possess. Mitochondrial DNA testing for both genders soon followed but is somewhat limited because it has ONLY 16,569 locations to store a single bit of information. By 2010 autosomal DNA testing burst on to the scene and has become the most popular test.

By 2013 a new testing cycle for yDNA became available to genealogists. While the previous cycle had focused on testing ySTRs, the new wave examines ySNPs.

However, yDNA can record 3,500 times the data that mtDNA can. Therefore, it has the power to record a much more detailed migratory history.
Most of yDNA testing to date has been conducted on Short Tandem Repeats (ySTRs). When we talk about 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker tests, we are referring to how many ySTRs were tested. STR testing is analogous to dispatching a census taker to a village which is known to have 12, 25… residences. In our scenario the locations of these residences have been defined by geneticists as being accessible and having a rate of mutation that is somewhat predictable. At each location our census taker records how many STRs are currently in residence.

In NextGen testing the focus shifts to Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Instead of dispatching probes to specific, predefined locations, NextGen ySNP testing is more analogous to take satellite images along the entire Y-chromosome. Although the chromosome contains almost sixty million identifiable locations, current technology allows us to get reliable data from only about a fourth of those locations. Still this is an overwhelming amount of data. The computing power to analyze it has only recently become available.

At present ySNP chasing is only in its infancy. A vast majority of the SNPs we know today have been discovered in the last two years. The statistics in the chart below represent the number that had been placed on the International Society of Genetic Genealogists (ISOGG) yTree committee chaired by Alice Fairhurst:

Cumulative SNPs placed on the ISOGG yTree

Another way to look at this SNP tsunami is to view the new SNPs identified in a two year period (2013-2015) for R1b-L21, the most common male haplogroup in Western Europe today:

Known SNPs in R-L21 haplogroup in mid-2013 (Mike Walsh)

Known SNPs in R-L21 haplogroup in mid-2015 (Mike Walsh)

We are still working to find the exact location and sequence for many of them. In some ways our knowledge today would be like getting a SNP passport with several dozen “check point” stamps on it but in random order. We know that our genomes passed through all those points but are still trying to decipher in what sequence that journey occurred. The charts above for R1b-L21 represent ySNPs that we have been able to arrange in evolutional order. As more men are tested and we can document where they exited the main SNP trail, we can refine our chronology for all of us.

The chart below for sub-clade R-1026 is an expansion of the seven pale pink SNPs clustered at the bottom of the chart above. This subclade was unknown when the previous chart was drawn in 2013.


Courtesy of Alex Williamson -- www.ytree.net 

Even with this deluge there are many more thousands of SNPs to come. The NextGen curve is where the ySTR was in 2003 when 10,000 tests had been sold by FTDNA. Ironically, that is the number of BIG Y tests Bennett Greenspan reports FTDNA has sold to date. Full Genomes report their company has sold 1,500 NextGen tests. 

Most of the ySNPs that have been discovered have yet to be specifically placed and more will be discovered as testing numbers increase. The entire recently discovered R-S1026 haplogroup above is not yet integrated into the ISOGG ytree. It is only partially integrated into the FTDNA ytree. The R-S1026 chart contains many blocks or boxes that group newly discovered SNPs. At this point we believe we have the blocks in the correct chronological order of their appearance. However, we have yet to sort the SNPs within boxes into their correct order of appearance. And more remain to be discovered. Other haplogroups are in a similar state of discovery and growth. The SNP tsunami shows no sign of receding anytime soon. 


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Family Health History: TapGenes




When the possibility of DNA testing for identifying possible health issues is raised, a sizable segment of the medical community responds that such testing is unnecessary because a family health history is more useful. Fortunately, I believe the number of practitioners espousing this belief is diminishing. Actually, it’s not either/or. Genetic testing should be part of a comprehensive family health history.

Those of us who have been serious family historians for a while, recognize that we rarely have a complete health history of three or more generations of our family. Even if we have been able to collect death certificates for our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents (along with their siblings), really don’t have detailed information upon which medical diagnoses can be based. Some of our relatives died in wars, childbirth, epidemics or other causes before their underlying health conditions manifested themselves. In addition, many the causes of demise listed on many death certificates are too vague to add much guidance to present day diagnoses. Most patients, when asked to fill out family health histories in a clinician’s office, have far less reliable information than those of us who are genealogists.

DNA testing, even if is of whole genomes, also represents other challenges. Many medical practitioners are not knowledgeable about DNA and may feel threatened to admit this to their patients. This avenue to information within our bodies was not available when most of them received their professional training. Much as we might wish it were the case, DNA testing cannot provide information on all the causes of our current or future states of health. Environmental factors still contribute significantly.  The long running “nature” versus “nurture” debate rages on.

Part of RootsTech 2016, which I attended earlier this month, was an Innovator Showdown competition for a prize pot of $100,000. An international field of 46 competitors was narrowed to 12 prior to the conference. At the Media Dinner on Wednesday, that group was narrowed to 6 finalists. On Friday these remaining competitors were interviewed before thousands of attendees. The panel of judges then selected the winners with participation of the audience who voted on their smartphones. First place went to TapGenes. The winners received $20,000 in cash and additional in kind awards that more than doubled that amount.   


Yes, the eagle eyes of some readers have identified Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, seated in the lower left background, who was a member of the distinguished panel of judges.


TapGenes offers you the convenience of keeping all your family health history in one safe and secure place.
A visit to the TapGenes website will explain what this prizewinning app has to offer you and your family. If you wish to signup right away please use this link.