Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Finding out who you are

DNA testing kits help people discover origins, research health

July 13, 2006


Alice Lieberman always defined herself as a full-blooded European Jew until her DNA told her otherwise.

A few months ago, she purchased a partly self-administered DNA testing kit for $180 from Family Tree DNA. She used the enclosed swab to scrape a few cells from the inside of her cheek, placed the specimen in a plastic tube and sent it off to the Family Tree DNA lab.

A few weeks later, she found out something she might never have known.

"The thing that surprised me was how much Western European was in there ... the English and the Irish," said Lieberman, a Kansas University professor of social welfare. "I feel so identified as being a European Jew that it just struck me as odd."

But Lieberman also had confirmed some things she'd always believed. Her ancestors originated in Asia, and many later settled in Eastern European countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. She also confirmed her place in the Ashkenazi Jewish tribe.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, this is who I am,'" she said, remembering the moment she learned her results.

Lieberman is one of a growing number of people, locally and nationally, who are testing their own DNA to learn about their ancestry and, essentially, themselves.

Exponential interest

The leading company in the field, Family Tree DNA, sells 30,000 kits every year. So far, about 40 of them have been to people in Lawrence. President Bennett Greenspan said his business has grown "exponentially" since its humble beginnings in 2000.

Alice Lieberman, a Kansas University professor, recently bought a DNA testing kit for herself and got some surprising results about her ancestry. The kits are becoming increasingly popular for those tracing family trees and researching health questions.

Alice Lieberman, a Kansas University professor, recently bought a DNA testing kit for herself and got some surprising results about her ancestry. The kits are becoming increasingly popular for those tracing family trees and researching health questions.

He also said Family Tree DNA was the first company to sell DNA testing kits for genealogical purposes.

In 2005, the company struck a deal with National Geographic to promote personal DNA testing. That's how Lieberman found out about it.

But genealogy isn't the only thing revealed by personal DNA tests.

Chuck Bryceland, of Bronxville, N.Y., recently tested his DNA for health purposes. He bought two tests - one to examine his genetic propensity for heart disease, another to screen for his body's ability to absorb nutrients - after spotting them on the shelf in a drugstore while traveling.

He paid $199 for one test and $99 for the other, which told him that he is unlikely to develop heart disease but that his body poorly absorbs Vitamin B. Since then, he's been campaigning to get his wife, his parents and other family members to take the tests, too.

"If there's information out there that we can use to help our health, then why wouldn't I take it?" Bryceland asked.

How it works

Michael Crawford, a Kansas University professor who specializes in biological anthropology, said that the technology behind these at-home testing kits has been around for 20 years.

How it works is highly complicated.

Audio documentary about getting personal DNA information


Crawford explained that scientists first gather the human cells. Then they extract the DNA, purify it and chop it into fragments.

Those fragments are examined by scientists, who look for mutations in specific genes. People who share common mutations are considered to be related.

"I use molecular genetics to reconstruct human history," Crawford said. "We've pretty well reconstructed the human diaspora ... 100,000 years ago, humans began migrating from Africa into Europe, Asia, etc."

Crawford even tested himself with his lab's DNA sequencer before the practice was common. What he found didn't surprise him; his ancestors came from Russia and Scotland. But what does surprise him, even after years of research, is the unchanging nature of DNA.

He cited the case of Thomas Jefferson's DNA as an example.

"Going from Thomas Jefferson's grandfather to the current generation, there is only a single mutation in the Y-chromosome, which is kind of exciting," Crawford said.

While genes passed from father to son are fairly reliable, the genes in women aren't as easy to decipher. For example, Lieberman said that she'd like to find out whether or not she is a Cohen.

A Cohen is, in religious terms, a member of a Jewish tribe who is a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. They were once the high priests of Judaism.

"I think it would be fabulous to find out," Lieberman said. "I did everything a woman can be tested for, but I don't know."

Lieberman will most likely never know, because the Cohen marker doesn't show up in female DNA.

Family history

Ardie Grimes, a librarian and genealogist who lives in Baldwin, said she bought her husband a DNA testing kit because she knew her DNA wouldn't yield many results.

She said she had been researching his family history when she hit a "brick wall."

"We knew very little about the paternal side of the family, so I was hoping that the DNA testing would give us insight into that, and as it turns out, it really hasn't," Grimes said.

Her husband Greg's DNA results told them little they didn't know and only yielded one match with a person on Family Tree DNA database.

A match on the database means that there's someone else with DNA similar to yours. The matches can be strong or weak, but they usually mean that the two people share common ancestry.

Grimes said there were some matches she found going back 28 generations. That may be interesting, but it didn't help her construct a family tree.

"Well, I don't have any research from 28 generations back," she said. "So I guess I was hoping that we would find some immediate ancestors within three or four (generations) that we could share data with."

That hasn't happened yet, but in the future, as more and more people place their genetic information on the Family Tree DNA database, matches should become more common.

At least that's what Lieberman's hoping.

She said aside from finding out she's more Western than Eastern European, her DNA test didn't tell her a whole lot.

"I check periodically to see if anything's been added in terms of new matches, and I'm looking for higher resolution matches than I may have," Lieberman said.

Still, she said, testing her DNA "may well be worth it in the long run."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Kelly Powell 11 years, 11 months ago

Cool....I would love to find out how big of a euro mutt I am.

Steve Mechels 11 years, 11 months ago

I love genetics and the power that the knowledge of the genome holds...guess I better start saving my money!

OldEnuf2BYurDad 11 years, 11 months ago

I think I may have to do this. I have ancestry from most of the continents, yet do not have a deep understanding of my family's background.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 11 years, 11 months ago

I just got my test results back! I'm on "message board time" which is faster than real time.

It says my ancestors were:

56% Unknown (shucks!)

18% Sasquatch (those stories about my lumberjack great-grandmother must have been true)

13% Slacker-ite

11% Philistine (that's a surprise)

1% Zulu

Well. At least now I know. My Sasquatch-American heritage should qualify me for Federal assistance and a 1/2 share in "reparations".

And don't any of you racists start calling me a "hairy-back". I'm Sasquatch-American, and proud of it.

lawrencephilosopher 11 years, 11 months ago

Just Arkansas only one citizen would have to buy and take the test and the whole state would have their results!

lunacydetector 11 years, 11 months ago

i think it is a cool idea and all, have to put your total faith into this company. it could be a HUGE scam, and who would correlate their data?

OldEnuf2BYurDad 11 years, 11 months ago

If you take the test, and your total is not equal to 100%, is that bad?

Calliope877 11 years, 11 months ago

OldEnuf2BYurDad --

Nah, the missing percentage just means you have some alien-hybrid genes mixed in.:)

lawrencephilosopher --

Good one! LOL

John Spencer 11 years, 11 months ago

Lunacy: (in best Inigo Montoya voice) "Correlate? I do not think it means what you think it means. " Did you mean corroborate? OE2BYD: Only if you have all your appendages.

ladysilk 11 years, 11 months ago

lawrencephilosopher: LOL, I don't care who you are that was funny right there.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 11 years, 11 months ago

The double-helix graphic on the right really doesn't do much to "enhance" the story.

twbenson 11 years, 11 months ago

Ok... I'm gonna have to get me one of those!

Terry Jacobsen 11 years, 11 months ago

DNA has nothing to do with who you are. How you treat others, knowing your place in the world and the universe and caring for those around you is who you are. DNA is only chemicals and water.

bearded_gnome 11 years, 11 months ago

sorry, DNA does determine some of what and who you are TJ. i.e. TJ, if your genes say you're male, you ain't gonna have a child, any time soon. furthermore, we're not all blessed with the genes which would have allowed us to run like Jim Ryun in his prime. there are some relationships between physique and temperment; that is, how you are physically might predispose you to some emotional and intellectual responses more than others.
you are right, "nurture" does make a lot of difference in "who you are" but not all.

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