- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

A D.C. company is using the latest genetic research to help black Americans make once-impossible connections to their ancestral homelands.

African Ancestry Inc. also is attracting the skepticism of some bioethicists who say its sales pitch raises unreasonable expectations.

Almost 30 years after Alex Haley’s “Roots” book started a genealogical renaissance, black Americans are exploiting the latest genetic research to make once-impossible connections to their ancestral homelands.

African Ancestry offers two types of DNA tests and says it can usually trace at least one family bloodline to specific geographic areas on the African continent.

It has compiled a DNA database of 10,000 people representing 85 ethnic groups from Africa. Each of those groups has telltale genetic markers not found in other people. Those markers were passed on generationally and appear in black Americans’ cells today.

The company’s most common test tracks mitochondrial DNA, a mysterious strand of genetic material found outside the cell nucleus and apart from regular genes.

Evolutionary biologists believe each person’s mitochondrial DNA is a copy of their mother’s, their grandmother’s and so on — a maternal thread that reaches back to the dawn of the species.

This led to the theory that all humans descended from an African Eve — though that theory was tested a bit last year when Danish scientists documented a case in which a man’s muscle cells contained mitochondria descended from his father.

Because mitochondrial DNA mutates more rapidly than regular genes, scientists have been able to track the rate of such changes, making it possible to identify individual bloodlines.

Forensic specialists tasked with identifying corpses have turned to mitochondrial DNA for years, identifying some World Trade Center victims with such tests.

African Ancestry also tests DNA in Y-chromosomes, found only in males, theoretically documenting a person’s paternal bloodline. But only males can take the Y-chromosome test, whereas both sexes can submit to mitochondrial screening.

It’s also more likely to show European ancestry because of “the dynamics of the plantation,” as company President Gina Paige delicately puts it.

African Ancestry assembled its database by plucking genetic sequences of African tribes published in scientific literature and by collecting DNA samples from volunteers in Africa.

So with a swab of Monica Myles’ cheek and for a $349 payment, the company was able to tell the family law lawyer in Mitchellville that she was descended, in part, from the Ibo tribe — one of the largest ethnic groups in western Africa, where most slaves came from.

Assembling her family tree has been something of an obsession for Miss Myles. She followed her ancestral paper trail to 1810, but ran into a dead end and couldn’t place any of her family on any of the estimated 30,000 slave voyages made between 1400 and 1860.

“It was frustrating not knowing where we came from,” said Mrs. Myles, who still doesn’t have any detailed information before 1810.

But knowing that at least one of her ancestors was an Ibo adds an additional, albeit vague, limb to her family tree she couldn’t otherwise find.

Nonetheless, some professional genealogists and bioethicists are skeptical.

“What worries me most is people overselling the technology,” said Hank Greely, a Stanford University law professor and bioethicist. “I don’t think it can accurately give people the details they want.”

Mr. Greely said results showing just one-sixteenth of a person’s heritage can be misleading. What if the other fifteen-sixteenths are completely different?

Still, company founders and others say the service they sell has profound benefits.

“People are going to connect with communities in Africa,” said Rick Kittles, a Howard University geneticist and a company co-founder. He said the service could encourage cultural exchanges, fostering closer ties between U.S. blacks and Africans.

African Ancestry has sold about 300 tests since starting in February. Meanwhile, companies serving other ethnic groups have also sprouted in recent months.

Trace Genetics of Davis, Calif., which has amassed about 4,000 DNA samples, offers to test for American Indian ancestry.

“DNA is going to be very important and it’s on the cutting edge,” said professional genealogist Tony Burroughs, who teaches at Chicago State University.

“But it’s not a panacea. You’re not going to discover your entire family tree from a little spit on a cotton swab.”

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