Sorenson Genomics uses DNA to unlock life's secrets

How one Utah company is linking humans with DNA

Published: Sunday, March 13 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Lab supervisor Breeann Shafer uses the Tecan DNA extraction machine for paternity tests in the extraction lab at Sorenson Genomics.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes, truth hides in plain sight, but you have to have special skills to find it.

Truth for Barbara Rocky, who was murdered in 1974, was found in a tiny bit of tissue in the soil near where her body lay. Murder victims Cathy Cobb and Karin Strom both carried it under their fingernails, as did little Anna Palmer, a 10-year-old girl killed in Salt Lake City in 1998.

For a generation raised on crime TV shows, it's no surprise their truths were found in analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA, the body's genetic blueprint, has segments unique enough to tie them to a single individual.

What does surprises is that the company that answered the questions surrounding each of their deaths was formed to process genetic samples for a foundation created to link genetic information to ancestry data. That genetics and genealogy company eventually spun off what is now one of the top three forensic DNA labs in America, and another of its subsidiaries put the first paternity test on the neighborhood drugstore shelf, not far from the company's take-home test for sexually transmitted diseases.

Nothing about the squat, tan building that houses Sorenson Genomics near dozens of others that look much like it on West Temple hints at the cutting-edge tools and techniques employed inside.

Late Utah inventor and billionaire James L. Sorenson, who made his money in real estate and in medical device patents, was passionately certain that all people are more alike than they are different. They're related, he said, and should be kinder to each other. To prove it, he established the nonprofit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation so that deep analysis could show that DNA from George Washington and Eva Peron and virtually everyone else had at some point in time resided in the same regions, maybe even the same towns.

He also founded Sorenson Genomics for the sole purpose of analyzing the genetic samples for the foundation — a job it did so well that it developed a unique core competency in DNA analysis.

Since finding the threads that stitch all of humanity together was an expensive dream, mid-decade Sorenson also reminded the staff that Sorenson Genomics was not a not-for-profit. It must create products, hone expertise and provide services that could transform lives and make enough money to support the foundation, he said.

"We were doing more extensive analysis of DNA than any commercial lab," says Doug Fogg, chief operating officer of Sorenson Genomics, which just turned 10. "We recognized that forensic DNA is about human identity, just as ancestry DNA is. It was an expertise we had in house."

It was summer 2006 and Myriad Genetics was dismantling its forensic lab team. It was a short hop from ancestry work to becoming a forensic lab. Sorenson Genomics snapped up the well-trained forensic scientists and analysts, turned them loose on its own excellent equipment and DNA analysis capability and a company within the company — Sorenson Forensics — was born.

Even Sorenson, who died in early 2008, would probably not have predicted he was creating a company whose fast, accurate and high-volume DNA analysis could put names to the question marks that linger after disaster and crime: "Who was she?" Or, "Who did this?" Or that Sorenson Forensics would be involved in some way with every cold case solved in Utah in the past few years — and many elsewhere, as well.

The foundation still has the largest correlated genealogical and genetic database, though others compete in genetic ancestry testing services. Still, no one has come close to the depths of DNA analysis by Sorenson Genomics for the database. "We're not even using those tests commercially," Fogg says. "It is quite costly." And the forensic lab and other spin-offs each make waves in their own specialties.

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