In January, Life Technologies Corp. introduced a new machine designed to map an entire human genome for $1,000 in just one day, according to The Wall Street Journal. In addition, two major family history companies with offices in Utah, MyHeritage Genealogy and Ancestry.com, have started offering smaller-scale DNA tests from $99 to $837 to the public to help trace family lines.
In April 2003, the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced the completion of the Human Genome Project. From its official launch in 1990, 20 laboratories and research institutes in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany and China have combined efforts to sequence and map the entire human genome, according to genome.gov. Using the technology available then, the project took 13 years and roughly $3 billion to complete.
"I see this as another tool that not just genealogists but anybody interested in family history could use to find a lot more," said John Pereira, the vice president of business development for Ancestry.com. "When you research a line, there's only so far back you can go when the paper trail ends. DNA can bridge that gap and get you past roadblocks. There's also a large population of people interested in genealogy that don't have time to research themselves. Now they can learn more about themselves than they thought was possible."
Ancestry.com has offered Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing for four years, Pereira said. These tests are specialized to trace paternal and maternal ancestry. Ancestry.com is currently in the process of adding another test to the list, one designed to trace both family lines using autosomal DNA — it’s currently in beta form. People can volunteer to take the test by signing up at dna.ancestry.com. The test is being offered for $99 to Ancestry.com subscribers.
MyHeritage Genealogy, through a partnership with Family Tree DNA, offers an autosomal "Family Finder" test for $289. That's half of what it cost in the late 1980s to take a DNA test to diagnose an illness, or a paternity test in 1995, before DNA testing was available for genealogical research.
Thousands have already requested autosomal DNA tests from both Ancestry.com and MyHeritage, which started offering its DNA service in mid-February. Ancestry's demand has been so great, the company invites people from the online list to take the test. The tests offered by MyHeritage and Family Tree have been popular, too.
"In less than half a year, several thousands of users have purchased them, some users purchasing more than one DNA test," Mark Olsen, MyHeritage Genealogy business development manager, said in an email.
Here's how the tests work: Once customers have sent a cell sample to the company, scientists extract the DNA from the sample in a laboratory and check its genetic markers against the other genetic records in the company's database. They look for close matches to the genetic "fingerprint" that identifies probable relatives and countries the customer's ancestors came from. Each database is meticulously built sample by sample, with information about the locations the samples came from. Although it sounds like a long process to build up a database of any significance, it isn't quite as slow as one might think.
"By looking at the DNA from living people, you can reconstruct the DNA from the deceased," Genetic Genealogy Consultant CEO Ugo Perego said. "Your DNA represents everyone who lived before you. Some people that are related to you share some of the same DNA you have. So 1,000 samples really represent 5,000."
Ancestry.com uses saliva as its source of DNA, collected in tubes sent to customers in its DNA testing kits. MyHeritage includes a cotton "toothed" swab in its kit for the customer to swab the inside of his or her mouth, collecting cheek cells. Both companies have access to millions of online genealogy records that allow them to match up the test results with living people that could stimulate a collaboration that leads to new ancestral discoveries.
Ancestry.com and MyHeritage both provide ways to contact the relatives found by the DNA test as well as privacy options that allow customers to choose how much personal information is shared with potential relatives, if any. On Ancestry.com, if a family tree is public, anyone can explore it to find the common ancestor or see if it has information he or she does not. No information, not even the names, of persons marked "living" is ever shared through a public family tree.
The two companies also have access to large databases of genetic information that are continually enlarged with each new customer that takes a DNA test. In March, Ancestry.com acquired Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation and its extensive database. SMGF was started in 2004 by local geneticist Scott Woodward and Utah businessman James Sorenson.
"They (SMGF) were very interesting to us because of their database that was unparalleled," Ancestry.com's Pereira said. "They made their database very powerful in terms of variety and ethnicity. We're talking over 100,000 samples from around the world, from some countries where it's now illegal to obtain samples."
Through its partnership with Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage has access to a database of comparable size. The test results for both companies are delivered electronically, within six to eight weeks, and are closely integrated with their websites. Pereira in particular spoke highly of Ancestry.com's result interface.
"We've done a lot of usability testing," he said. "It's by no means perfect, but we're really proud of it (and) there's a ton more we want to provide."