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DNA database is as easy as sip, swish, spit

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 27, 2003

Wouldn't it be grand to waltz into your neighborhood forensics laboratory, give them a swab of your DNA and get an analysis in the mail a few weeks later that confirms you are of Irish and American Indian descent? Such a scenario is not as far-fetched as it seems, according to Ugo Perego. He's the project administrator for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Utah. (See One of these days you'll be able to compare your DNA with samples from all over the world, he said in a phone interview. By comparing your DNA with that database, the specifics of your ancestry will be revealed.

The Sorenson Foundation has already obtained 35,000 samples from America, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, England and the Pacific Islands. Local technicians collect the samples. The initial goal is to collect 100,000 samples, said Perego. It would take at least that many to gain an understanding of a certain number of populations. While samples are random, they are taken at different locales to maximize representation.

A technique developed in the past six months makes collecting samples easier. Instead of drawing blood or swabbing the inside of the cheek, donors are given a mouthwash to swish around for 45 seconds. The liquid is spit back into the cup. The cup is sealed and shipped.

Want to participate in the study? Your DNA is welcome. Just log onto the Web site to get a kit. You then collect the sample and simply mail it back to the Foundation. There is no charge. You won't receive a per sonal analysis -- all samples are kept confidential -- but you will be helping to expand the database that will eventually enable you to walk into that lab and get a more specific DNA analysis than is currently available. (SMGF staffers will travel to any location to lecture on the topic and collect samples as long as 200 people agree to participate.)

The mammoth undertaking originally began as a joint project with Brigham Young University. In fact, lab techs came to Largo in February 2001 to collect samples. However, SMGF has since split from BYU. The project has outgrown BYU, Perego said, and misconceptions that the Mormon Church was spearheading the project also created a problem. SMGF does farm out some of its testing to Relative Genetics, an independent lab that extracts the DNA. The lab is not directly involved in the research. (Log on to for more information.)

The burgeoning popularity of genealogy and scientific advancements in DNA research have spurred many to seek out a lab to conduct personal genetic testing. Likewise, many labs have jumped on the lucrative DNA testing bandwagon.

While DNA tests can prove paternity or that you and your siblings share the same mother, it is not yet possible to confirm through a simple DNA test that you're a descendant of a specific tribe in Africa or that you have Hungarian blood. And therein lies the rub.

The problem is with expectations, said Perego. There are two facets to DNA testing -- anthropological and genealogical -- and people need to understand the difference. Anthropological testing involves tracing your ancestry from past to present as in: Here is where your ancestors lived 10,000 years ago. Genealogical testing involves tracing your ancestry from present to past through your direct lines. You, your parents, grandparents, etc.

Thus, a lab may be able to tell from your DNA that a distant ancestor lived in Europe 10,000 years ago, but more research before anyone can tell you that your grandfather was Spanish or that your great-grandmother was Cherokee.

- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest. You can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Or visit her Web site:

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