Genealogy foundation achieves milestone for DNA database

Published April 28, 2010 7:21 pm
100,000 samples » Sorenson Foundation has DNA from 170 nations
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Like many avid genealogists, Daryl Polley hit a "brick wall" while tracing his ancestry.

"I could trace back to 1802 where my ancestor got married in Adair County, Ky. I couldn't find the records to document it any further back," the Kentucky resident said. He suspects he is descended from an Englishman named George Polley who arrived in the Massachusetts colony in 1640.

Polley's experience shows the limits of paper records pose for plumbing family histories. But we all carry clues to our lineage in our own spit.

The late Utah philanthropist James LeVoy Sorenson sought to capitalize on genetic material found in saliva and blood when he started the Molecular Genealogy Foundation 10 years ago with then-Brigham Young University professor Scott Woodward. The organization this year achieved a goal of amassing 100,000 DNA samples from around the world. The database includes demographic data and a family history on each person who gave samples.

"This deep and diverse sample collection provides us with a critical mass of genetic information that will enable us to bring almost any two people in the world together, and show them their relatedness and common ancestors," said Woodward, who holds a doctorate in genetics from the University of Utah. He serves as executive director of the foundation, a non-profit owned by Sorenson Companies.

The database covers 170 nations touching nearly every corner of the globe. Samples have come from remote villages in South and Central America inhabited by descendants of the Incan, Mayan, Aztec and Toltec empires; Mennonite populations in North America; China, Singapore, Micronesia, Nepal, Kyrgystan and the Mongolian steppes; and from every African and European nation.

"That is one of the real beauties of this database," Woodward said. "The Sorensons were willing to put in tens of millions of dollars to accomplish this goal."

The foundation's target number of 100,000 was not arbitrary. Woodward wanted 200 samples each from 500 different population groups.

"We had to make sure we represented much of the world. It was a massive undertaking," Woodward said. "We thought if we have 100,000 samples then we would have an idea of whether the idea would work."

The database has already proved useful to science. Anthropologists and archeologists have tapped it to help reconstruct ancient migrations of people across Europe and from Asia to America.

The organization's DNA sample gathering continues, targeting spots where samplings are thin. But it is moving forward on the next phase of Sorenson's vision -- pushing the dataset out to the public through its subsidiary, GeneTree, at www.genetree.com.

Gathering the samples took extraordinary planning. Each country presented a different set of issues and complexities, Woodward said. Meanwhile, the group worked under its institutional review board to ensure sample gathering was ethical.

"We work closely with a university or government organizations to make sure we follow all the procedures that are affected," he said. "It's very different from country to country. Each takes six months to a year of planning."

A few years ago, Sorenson zeroed in on Mongolia, which it covered with the help of three Mongolian academics to collect 3,000 samples from every part of the sparsely populated central Asian nation.

In the early years, Woodward's staff gathered blood, but that proved expensive and unwieldy.

"Now we use a saliva sample. We use a mouth rinse, instead of the swab," Woodward said. The samples are stored in a refrigerated room.

So far, the database has enabled people like Polley to peer further into their ancestry and find unexpected connections. The Sorenson database helped him trace his lineage back a couple more generations to Virginia and discover that he shares an ancestor with a man living in Australia.

"[The foundation] is on the forefront of such a dynamic movement that it is impossible to say what tomorrow will bring in the way of new markers, new approaches and new connections," Polley said. "I am excited to see what it helps us discover in the years ahead."


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