Just punch into the computer the numerical values of certain genetic biomarkers, and – just like that! – access your own family tree. What if all the individuals in the world could trace their genealogy through their genetic material this way?
That's the question that Utah biotechnology and medical device billionaire James LeVoy Sorenson posed about five years ago when he launched the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (Salt Lake City). The answer to that question – and the mission he set for the foundation – was to map the entire human family tree via genetics.
Scott Woodward, the database's principal investigator, told Medical Device Daily that "probably the overarching goal of all of this work [is] to demonstrate to people all over the world how closely they are related to each other, with the hope that by having that kind of information – that knowledge – that they may look at each other a little bit differently. The idea behind that is that we treat our kin, our close relatives, differently than we treat the rest of the world."
The foundation describes itself as "a non-profit research organization building the world's most comprehensive database of correlated genetic and genealogical information." The foundation said that the "new science of molecular genealogy links individuals to genealogies using genetic profiles, which eliminates guesswork caused by surname changes and incomplete historical records."
Last week, the foundation reported that it had "significantly expanded" the data available on its free web site and enhanced the research tools for visitors.
Today, the database has DNA samples from about 55,000 people, with "just over a million ancestral names associated with genealogies that are connected to those 50,000 DNA samples," Woodward said.
He added that the foundation is "very happy" with those numbers, and that it expects to "double" that number in the not-too-distant future.
The interactive web site can be found at www.smgf.org. While the database is free for anyone to access, the hope is that those who use it also will donate their genetic material and family history for Sorenson's use and so add more information to the database.
Individuals access the database via the web site. But before the database can be utilized, one must first have certain biomarker numeric values determined in a lab so that they can be plugged into database at a certain point. While the database can accommodate a variety of formats for the numeric values, the foundation recommends using a service called Relative Genetics (also Salt Lake City) to submit to a cheek-swab genetic test, although it is offered by many laboratories.
"The main reason we recommend [Relative] is that they are who we have contracted with to actually process our DNA results," Woodward said. "So, people who donate to us, we contract out the actual genetic work for determination of the genetic signatures to Relative Genetics. So, we know their work, and we know that it's going to be compatible with the information in the database."
The foundation said it collects samples of DNA from people all over the world who already have written ancestry records. Sorenson also has "detailed and strict confidentiality" policies, Woodward said, for those who may be concerned that their genetic information could fall into the hands of someone or some entity not of their choosing.
Anyone who considers accessing the database should first be warned that it is currently only for males, meaning, in other words, those with a "Y" chromosome.
Woodward explained why the database was launched with male donors only: "because of the type of heritage that comes down on this Y chromosome and the genetic markers. They come down in a very, very predictable pattern, from father to son to son to son, whereas the rest of the genes that we have are missed between our father and our mother. With each generation, it's more difficult to follow who the grandparents would be."
The foundation is working on adding the capability to allow females to search the database to find their family trees. However, that refinement is not set to be completed before another year or two.
In a telephone interview with MDD, Woodward described, step-by-step, how he used his own genetic biomarker values to discover his own family pedigree. Through the database, he not only knows his family tree for the more immediate past (he can point out a Woodward relative born in 1852), but he also can determine those to whom he was related to as far back as 25 generations, which he said is probably before surnames were even used.
That led to the question of whether the database will ever be completed?
"The answer is [that] the more individuals we have in the database, the better the information becomes," Woodward said. "And if we had a sample of everybody in the world, then it would be complete."
But, he acknowledged: "That's very unlikely, so what we would like to do is approximate" a family tree of the world. "And we think there are some critical turnover points," he said, "like maybe 100,000 or 500,000 or maybe a million individuals [providing samples] that will give us increasing levels of information about populations in the world."