"Here is the news at 1800 hours on 19 April, 2015. Police have launched a renewed appeal for help in identifying a serial rapist who has attacked five women in West London during the past two years. Forensic experts said tests have shown that the man, who struck again last week, may have the surname Edmonds."

Far from science fiction, researchers announced last month that it could one day be possible to predict the surname of a male criminal by testing any DNA he left behind at the scene of his crime. Police wanting to solve rapes, murders, burglaries and indeed any crime where a male suspect had left behind any of his blood, semen, skin cells, or hair could in the future provide the public not only with a physical description but possibly also a name.

Professor Bryan Sykes, of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford in the UK, told BioWorld International: "Assuming our initial studies are borne out, then if you had a very large-scale register of Y chromosomes linked with surnames, you would be able to make a prediction - although this would not be 100 percent accurate - about the likely surname or surnames associated with DNA left behind by a man at the scene of a crime." Such a large-scale undertaking could really only be done in conjunction with a forensic service, he added.

Sykes, together with his co-author, Catherine Irven, also of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, has reported that about half of a randomly selected sample of males with the surname "Sykes" had identical Y chromosomes to each other. Their study is described in the April edition of the American Journal of Human Genetics, in a paper titled "Surnames and the Y Chromosome."

A worldwide patent application on the method used is pending. Oxford University has set up a company called Oxford Ancestors to exploit the finding. It is seeking equity investors. The company also will offer testing of mitochondrial DNA to women seeking information about their ancestry.

The high level of non-identical Y chromosomes makes it questionable, however, whether it could ever be practicable to set up a forensic database to link surnames with Y chromosomes. Commenting on the paper, Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, said it was his guess that the more common the surname, the more frequent the "non-belongers." "So any idea that you could take a blood sample from a man and say that his name is Sykes strikes me as quite unlikely. I don't think you will ever find a real one-to-one fit of surnames and genes."

Sykes hit on the idea for his study a couple of years ago when he was about to meet Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome plc, of Greenford, UK. He did not know if he was related to Sir Richard, and decided to ask him for a sample of cheek cells so that he could test both their Y chromosomes and find out. (They were.)

Bryan Sykes said, "So then I thought, it's no good just doing him and me, I'll do a lot of other Sykeses as well."

Having identified almost 1,000 males with the surname Sykes from voters lists and other registers, he wrote to 269 at random, requesting a cheek-cell sample. In all, 61 replied and DNA was successfully extracted and genotyped from 48 of these men.

Sykes and Irven set up two control groups. The first comprised 139 native English males from all over England; the second was a group of 21 unrelated male neighbors recruited by the Sykes males, in an effort to control for local genotypes.

To establish relationships between the Y chromosomes obtained from these groups, the researchers carried out genotyping at four microsatellite loci. This allowed them to count the tandem repeats present at each of these loci, which are normally highly variable between different individuals, and establish the genetic pattern, or haplotype, of each man.

They found that almost half of their sample had the haplotype 15-23-11-14. (These numbers reflect the number of repeats at each of the four microsatellite loci.) None of the members of the two control groups had this haplotype.

Sykes and Irven write in their paper: "Only two haplotypes, carried by four Sykes males, are one mutational step removed from 15-23-11-14. If a stepwise mutational model is assumed, this suggests that there has been relatively little divergence on that chromosome during the past 700 years; and this makes it unlikely that the bulk of other Sykes haplotypes arose from the common 15-23-11-14 ancestor during that period."

Sykes told BioWorld International, "This result can only mean one thing - that all the Sykes had only one founder. This was a big surprise because genealogists have thought that there would be many founders of the name Sykes, but it turns out that there weren't."

The name Sykes is taken from a local Yorkshire word meaning "moorland stream." Sykes explained that people began to adopt surnames around 1300 when it became possible for a man to pass a land tenancy on to his children. Many took their names from common features of the landscape, like Lane or Hill, or from nicknames, occupations or hobbies.

But what of the other 50 percent of Sykes who did not share the 15-23-11-14 haplotype? Sykes speculated that these represent the accumulation, since surnames began to be assumed, of adoptions or nonpaternity. "It works out at just over 1 percent per generation, which is very low compared to modern estimates," he said. The Mrs. Sykeses of bygone generations must have been very faithful to their husbands, he concluded.

The finding has excited genealogists, too. Dr. George Redmonds, an historian specializing in names who is based in Huddersfield, UK, told BioWorld International, "There is the potential to produce some sort of database for the Y chromosomes linked with certain surnames. One-name societies might decide to commission DNA studies from their members, and then if you had the same Y chromosome you would know that you were connected to that group of people."

Redmonds, the author of "Surnames and Genealogy: a New Approach" (NEHGS, Boston, 1997), said that Americans, in particular, would find the discovery fascinating. "They might be able to establish their roots in England without ever being able to do that through traditional genealogical methods," he said.

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