DNA test helps 6 News reporter discover genetic ethnicity

DNA test helps 6 News reporter discover genetic ethnicity

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Dr. George Sweitzer, a genealogist and professor at the University of Tennessee, reviews Erica Estep's family history. Dr. George Sweitzer, a genealogist and professor at the University of Tennessee, reviews Erica Estep's family history.
Erica prepares to take a DNA test. Erica prepares to take a DNA test.

By ERICA ESTEP
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Tracing your roots is easier than ever with online records available at the click of a mouse, but with traditional research, many people hit a brick wall. Sometimes there's just one piece of a puzzle you can't find, but DNA tests can help.

Science is offering a deeper understanding of where you come from. I traced my roots to a small town in Southwest Virginia, but still had a lot of un-answered questions.

I turned to DNA tests to help fill in the blanks.

Tracing my roots using library resources, and court records helped me un-cover so many new exciting things about my family tree. A trip to Russell County, Virginia revealed a town named after my Swiss-German ancestors, and gave me a better sense of the life they lived.

I even met a distant cousin in Honaker, Virginia, Alma Jean Honaker-Martin. When I shared an abundance of surnames that she recognized like Honaker, Lockhart, and Stump, she recalled, "I thought, gosh, we have to be related some way."

Mrs. Martin had pictures of her ancestors lining her living room walls, and you could tell family history was important to her. She even saw a resemblance in me.

"You look like a Honaker, right through here," she said, pointing at her eyes, "and the smile, I think."

I've always been told that I have Native American ancestors, and found pictures of relatives with darker complexions, just like one Alma showed me of her great aunt. 

When asked about what she knows of her heritage she said, "Spanish and German, I think. Yeah, and a possibility of Indian, there's a little bit of Indian in there, somewhere."

My fourth great grandfather was also listed as mulatto in the 1850 census. Researchers at the East Tennessee History Center told me that would not be surprising.

"It's highly probable," said Dr. George Sweitzer, a genealogist and professor at the University of Tennessee. "Mulatto meant that you had black blood."

However, Sweitzer cautioned that there were lots of mistakes made in early census records.

"You must only assume that the census taker was drunk," he joked. "Now you do want to be careful though. Sometimes this can be a way of the census taker getting even. But, it is moderately common because, of course, there were slaves, and there were slave owners that were fathers of mulatto children."    

Researchers uncovered ancestors who were slave owners and others who lived among the Indians. Nothing other than German, Swiss and Scots-Irish ancestry could be confirmed in my background. So we turned to science.

I ordered DNA tests from three leading companies, Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and Ancestry.com. After taking two cheek swabs and one saliva test, the truth would soon be revealed.

I viewed my results for the first time with a researcher in the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Graciela Cabana. As soon as the results popped up, I was surprised to see the pie graph in front of me all lit up in blue.

"It's all blue, showing all Europe," I said. 

"You have 103 matches showing in the United Kingdom," said Dr. Cabana.

The Ancestry.com test showed me as 100% European, mostly from the British Isles. Both the Family Tree DNA, and the 23andMe tests seemed to confirm it, with varying percentages.

Scientists from each company weighed in.  

"Your chromosomes are 100% European," confirmed Dr. Emily Drabrant, researcher with 23andMe.

"If you do have Native American it's probably significantly lower than the five percent," added Ken Chahin, VP of Ancestry.com DNA division.

"If there's Native American, I can tell you it was not in the direct maternal line," added Max Blankfeld, VP of operations, Family Tree DNA. "It was not from your mother's, mother's, mother's direct maternal line. It may have come from a spouse that married into your maternal line."

Since women don't have a Y chromosome, which men pass on to male offspring, we're only looking at my maternal line, but other details about my makeup don't point to any other ethnicity either.

I also received another surprise.

"There are three sections of your genome that have been traced to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry," explained 23andMe's Dr. Drabrant. "So you have some Jewish ancestry. Is that a surprise to you?"

It was.

All three companies use DNA samples from all over the world to reach their results. Family Tree DNA has the largest database, having tested more than 400,000 people. They performed two tests on me, the mitochondrial test to trace my maternal line, and the Family Finder test to locate relatives that share my DNA.  

"Family Finder covers all ancestral lines," explained Blankfeld, "which means all sixteen sets of great grandparents."

23andMe offers both ancestry and medical information based on your DNA profile. You can find you risk for things like high blood pressure, migraines, and even diseases like Alzheimers based on your unique genetic signature.

Ancestry.com ties it's customers' family tree research to their DNA results. They are the newest to the DNA testing category, but are constantly adding to their database to provide more detailed results.

They all offer a service that matches you to potential relatives.

"We've connected you to several other members in our database that we feel, based on the amount of DNA that you share, you guys are likely fourth to sixth cousins," said Chahin of the AncestryDNA.

"If you have two individuals who have a shared ancestor, they have overlapping segments of DNA that are identical," explained Drabrant.

Blankfeld said one of the neatest things about FamilyTree DNA is the family finder matching service. "We provide you with the name and email address of those individuals. That is so that you can contact them, exchange information about your family trees, and see where exactly you share the common ancestor."

The same day my DNA results were posted on one of the sites, I received two emails from cousins looking for more information. Three weeks after the results were posted on all sites, I had dozens of potential matches, and a dozen emails.

The DNA tests we used range in price from $99 up to about $300 for a single test, all depending on what it is you're trying to learn.

Each company's website provides detailed information, video tutorials, and support to help you along the way.

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