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Decoding your life, growing family trees with DNA tests

You’re not who you think you are, and now science can prove it.

Individuals might have genes from ancestors who practiced discrimination as well as genes from the people against whom they discriminated.

As gay poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Today, with a little spit and about $200, millions of people are learning about the multitude of ancestors embodied in their DNA. Through personal genomic testing, they’re gaining unprecedented insights into themselves and their family histories.

People are also reaching a better understanding of how they connect to one another. Simply looking at our ancestral composition map elicits a feeling of connectedness as a species.

“You can find out if you’re part Irish, Scandinavian, Cameroonian or one of the other 23 ethnicities. And you might even discover cousins you never knew you had,” AncestryDNA says in its promotion inviting people to test the test sold by Ancestry, the parent of

While the world seems to be divided along racial, ethnic and geographic lines, our genes tell a story of just how connected humans are on planet Earth. Diversity resides in harmony within all of us.

“What do the 23 pairs of chromosomes in your DNA say about you?” teases 23andMe,’s chief rival in the consumer market and the maker of probably the best-known home DNA test kit.

With these the tests, people around the world are gaining new perspectives on their personalities and their health. And, many are getting surprises — large and small — with their results.

One member of WiG’s extended family took the test and learned that the family trees buried in a memory box at the back of her closet contain errors and are vastly incomplete, while the family crests her dad’s been buying over the years apparently belong to someone else’s family.

Using 23andMe, she learned that she’s 0.8 percent Middle Eastern/North African, less than 0.1 percent East Asian/Native American and 99.1 percent European.

The analysis of her European ancestry shows her to be: 94.1 percent northwestern European, including 49.1 percent British/Irish; 15.4 percent French/German; 2.3 percent Scandinavian; 0.1 percent Finnish; and 28 percent “broadly Northwestern European.”

She has 289 Neanderthal variants, which is more than 69 percent of other 23andMe customers, but her Neanderthal ancestry accounts for less than 4 percent of her overall DNA.

Laura Weber of Green Bay took the test last year and found that Neanderthal ancestry accounts for less than 3 percent of her overall DNA.

“I learned that I’m not 100 percent German, which my mom led me to believe for 56 years,” Weber said.

On Mother’s Day, Weber said she might ask her mom to take the test, just to be certain she’s her mom.

She was joking, but people who use 23andMe and AncestryDNA can make life-changing discoveries.

How it works

Here’s how 23andMe testing and analysis works:

A kit is purchased online for about $200 and, soon after, a small box containing instructions and a vial is delivered. This is the “home-based saliva collection kit.”

An account is created on and the unique identifier code that arrived with the kit is registered with the account.

Then, taking care to rinse out the mouth first, the customer spits into the vial, places the sample in a plastic bag that’s tucked into the box and ships the package — postage pre-paid — to the lab.

After that, there’s a wait until one day an email arrives with a notice that the analysis is complete and the results are ready.

The customer signs on to to dive in and learn about his or her genetic code. An individual’s 23 pairs of chromosomes provide a lot of information about ancestry, health and traits. There are reports for:

• Ancestry composition and maternal and paternal lineage, probably the first batch of information viewed by a new customer.

• Wellness research for lifestyle choices, including research about lactose intolerance, muscle composition, sleep movement, and caffeine consumption.

• Traits, from physical attributes to food preferences. Traits include: asparagus odor detection, bitter taste perception, cheek dimples, cleft chin, earlobe type, earwax type, eye color, finger length ratio, freckles, hair curliness, hair loss, reflex, toe-length ratio, and widow’s peaks.

• Carrier status and inherited conditions, including for cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, hereditary hearing loss.

For a couple of years, 23andMe couldn’t provide health-related information in the United States by order of the Food and Drug Administration. The government’s concern was that the information might lead people to take steps to mitigate serious diseases that they don’t have — or to ignore symptoms assuming they can’t have an illness.

Last year, 23andMe launched a new user experience, which provides carrier status, wellness, traits and ancestry reports

“My family did it for Christmas,” said Kevin Laws of Madison. “It really was pretty cool.”

Growing knowledge base

Laws, who has a background in chemistry, said he’s most interested in the health information and taking the 23andMe surveys to further research. People take the test and then take online surveys linked to scientific studies, which grows the knowledge base.

There’s a broad range of surveys.

Earlier this year, a study based on a 23andMe survey was published in Nature Communications and identified 15 locations in DNA associated with “morningness.”

“In this study, we set out to discover more about an individual’s preference toward rising and were able to identify the genetic associations with ‘morningness,’ as well as ties to lifestyle patterns and other traits,” said Youna Hu, the lead author on the paper. “This type of study speaks to the power of the 23andMe database, which can yield genetic insights into a variety of conditions and traits and potentially (show) how those genetic factors are affected by behavior and environment.”

The study of more than 89,000 customers found that seven of the loci associated with “morningness” are near genes previously known to be involved in the circadian rhythm.

Additionally, the study found 56 percent of those surveyed considered themselves night owls. Women and adults over age 60 are more likely to be morning people, and morning people are less likely to suffer insomnia or need eight hours of sleep each day.

Weber said she’s a morning person. Laws is an owl.

“The beauty of 23andMe is the ability to conduct research on common traits like being a lark or a night owl, which affect everyone, yet typically wouldn’t receive funding for a study,” said 23andME senior scientist David Hinds, a co-author of the paper. “With the information we have, we can uncover the genetics behind a variety of conditions and diseases, and hopefully reach a better understanding of how we differ from one another.”

In addition to accessing reports and taking surveys, customers on 23andMe, which partners with, can opt to share their genetic fingerprints, which allows for relatives — close and distant — to connect with them.

Customers also can learn ancestral compositions and build family trees using and its AncestryDNA autosomal DNA test, which costs about $100.

Branching out

Using MyHeritage and, a person can grow a family tree from a sapling to a redwood overnight.

Both websites offer tools to search billions of historical records, find archival photos, collect newspaper articles and bookmark histories.

When MyHeritage and 23andMe announced their collaboration, MyHeritage CEO Gilad Japhet said, “Combining genealogy with DNA-based ancestry is the next evolution in uncovering family history. DNA testing can connect you to relatives you never knew existed, who descend from shared ancestors centuries ago. … Family trees and historical records are critical to map and fully understand these connections.”

Laws said he was surprised to find a marriage record showing he had great-great grandparents who married in their teens. Weber said she was thrilled to come across a census account showing 12 people in her family lived together during World War II in an apartment on Chicago’s West Side.

The services also can do the work of building a tree, which makes adding ancestors as easy as making friends on Facebook.

“The next thing for me is to find out who all these people were,” said Laws, whose tree currently goes back to 1587. “Right now, they are names and dates and some bits of information.”

Polling conducted by for its Global Family History Report found that Americans would prefer to find they are descendants of explorers, royalty, Mayflower travelers and Revolutionary and Civil War veterans. That could explain why one WiG staffer knew two people who claimed to have learned from psychics that they were the reincarnation of Cleopatra. The ensuing feud over who was the real Egyptian queen ended their friendship.

Genetic science, unlike psychics, tells the truth, which often is less glamorous. Most people learn they descend from World War II vets, immigrants and entrepreneurs.

And Americans, the polling found, would prefer not to find thieves, drunkards or murderers in their family tree.

Though Laws said he wouldn’t mind a thief if he left a fortune.


An early 23andMe study examined what DNA reveals about the U.S. population, migration and the rate of “ancestry mixing” among populations.

The research, led by Katarzyna Bryc, showed the signature of historical migrations in the United States can be found in the DNA of today’s population.

• About 3.5 percent of European Americans have 1 percent or more African ancestry.

• European Americans with African ancestry are found at much higher rates in the southern states.

• The highest levels of African ancestry among self-reported African Americans are found in the southern states, especially South Carolina and Georgia.

• One in every 20 African Americans has Native American ancestry.

• Among self-reported Latinos in the United States, those from the South and Southwest have the highest percentage of Native American ancestry.

— Lisa Neff

Did you know?

National DNA Day is observed annually on April 25 to celebrate the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. This year, the National Human Genome Research Institute celebrated with a series of events.

The test kits from 23 & Me. — PHOTO: Courtesy

The test kits from 23 & Me. — PHOTO: Courtesy


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