Researchers use DNA to search for ancestors

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    By Lacey McMurry

    A Salt Lake research company released Monday the first database of its kind that will allow genealogical researchers to search for their ancestors using DNA sequences.

    In a move that will do much to help genealogical buffs find lost ancestors, officials from the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation have made the database free of charge and available to the public at www.smgf.org.

    “This database is designed to become a genealogical tool to help people find their ancestors,” said Allison Welch, communications specialist for the foundation. “It will help people get past brick walls in their genealogical research.”

    To search the database for ancestral relatives, participants must have a mouth swab test done by a genetics testing company. The saliva gathered from the test will provide the DNA sequence for the individual, which can then be entered in the database and used to locate ancestors with similar genetic sequences.

    “The DNA I have is not created from nothing; that DNA was inherited,” said Ugo Perego, senior project administrator. “So it makes sense that parts of the DNA present in my body is also found in that of my ancestors.”

    Scientists can infer what the DNA sequences of deceased people would look like because people who belong to the same family groups share common genetic identifiers in their DNA, Perego said.

    Researchers use the Y chromosome, the DNA passed down through the father”s line, to identify ancestors. Researchers collect Y-chromosome data from people who are willing to submit their DNA samples and family pedigree charts. This information is then added to the database and made available for people to search.

    Perego said the success of the project, which began in a BYU laboratory more than four years ago, depends on the willingness of people to donate this type of information.

    “The larger the base, the more precise we can be in linking people with their ancestors,” he said.

    The names of the participants who donate DNA are kept confidential and can only be identified through a bar code sequence, Perego said. DNA sequencing tests are also provided free of charge to donors.

    So far, the foundation has collected 40,000 DNA samples and ancestry records and plans to release more samples each quarter, said Scott Woodward, a BYU professor and chief scientific officer of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. Ultimately, researchers hope their database will be the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

    As more genetic data is released, historians will track worldwide migration patterns and help trace family origins, Welch said.

    Perego said the response from the public has been positive. Although the database was not officially up until Monday, 20,000 people logged on to the Web site Sunday to learn more about the project.

    The project is completely funded by Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation founder and president James Sorenson, a Utah billionaire. In a company news release, Sorenson said he thinks this project will not only benefit those interested in genealogy, but also make the world a better place to live.

    “I believe that if people know how closely related we are, we will treat each other better,” he said.

    Though the project began in a laboratory at BYU, it moved to Salt Lake City when Sorenson took over the project funding.

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