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The $79 genetic surprise



The ads on TV are intriguing. Send in a sample of your DNA and discover your ethnic roots.

“I traded my lederhosen in for a kilt,” says one supposedly surprised customer in an Ancestry DNA ad.

Not so fast, says local genealogist Greg Liverman — he thinks the gentleman in the ad should probably keep both in his closet. The DNA results might tell you the science of your roots, but it doesn’t necessarily account for the cultural heritage of your ancestors. And it’s both of these elements that comprise your family tree.

I’ve long wondered whether the stories from my family were true: My maternal grandmother said our family hailed from England and Spain. My father said Russia and Poland, and a cousin on dad’s side said Germany was in our mix. My father’s last name (Shernowitz) offered no clues as I did my own searches — the only Shernowitzes I could find out there were directly related to us.

So I ordered a kit (on sale for $79 from Ancestry) and conjured up a quarter teaspoon of spit. (It doesn’t sound like much, but without eating or drinking for 30 minutes prior, it was a challenge.)

The element of surprise is real with these results. Nicole Wing, who runs the DNA Study group with the Pikes Peak Genealogical Society, says many people are more surprised by what’s not reported. “Ethnicity tests only give estimates,” she says. Despite the millions in the Ancestry DNA database, she says ethnicity testing is still in its infancy.

You can choose to make your DNA results public to be cross-referenced with others. Doing so, you will receive notice of “matches” out there. My closest match was a second cousin, who only lists initials on the site. After that, there were 14 third cousins and thousands of fourth cousins and beyond. Looks like I won’t be attending any family reunions any time soon.

Not so for a dear friend of mine — he solved the mystery of who his real father was. Part of what prompted him to test his DNA was an interest in his health. But after being alerted to a match that was greater than first cousin, he found his half brother — and the entire family of siblings and cousins. He sent me a photo of his (now deceased) father — and the resemblance is striking.

Also, no surprise today doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t find some in the future, as more and more people are sending in their fluids. Ancestry reported 1 million tested in July 2015, 3 million in January of this year and 4 million in late April. (Also, multiple companies perform these services, but with their ad budget, Ancestry seems to be the biggest.)
Finding out that my DNA pointed to 85 percent European Jew was expected. Seven percent Scandinavian? Not so much. Liverman explained the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe kept to themselves and married their own. Somewhere one of my ancestors didn’t “marry a nice Jewish boy (or girl)” — diluting the pool a bit. (The remaining 8 percent is a mix of minuscule results best described as “other.”)

Liverman looked online and told me the mystery of my dad’s last name can probably be chalked up to a misspelling somewhere along the way (there was a Romanian town of Chernivsti and the subsequent phonetic spellings are plentiful). As someone who cares deeply about grammar and spelling, I can laugh at the irony of a “typo” uprooting my family tree.

I’m more interested in who we are than where we came from. Wing and Liverman explain those answers come from documents that are widely available on the internet. Learning from his death certificate that my great-grandfather Joseph died when he fell from an under-construction New York skyscraper tells me more than DNA. Census data is scanned in — and from this you can see who lived with whom, their ages and occupations. If you don’t know where to start, Pikes Peak Genealogical Society meets regularly and can provide guidance.

One more thing I asked Liverman: Is there danger in having our DNA out there in databases? He says that for now, we’re protected — our DNA cannot keep us from employment or health-care coverage. And if the long-time IT worker trusts the process, then so do I.

But that doesn’t mean things won’t change. 23andMe, another testing company with about 1 million records, reports genetic health risks. In a political world where “pre-existing conditions” are part of health-care reform conversations, there’s always the chance this information could hurt us.

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