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The Future of Genealogy - D.N.A Testing

This is a transcription of a video that can be found in the Multimedia Section

In genealogy there is an entirely new technology that has recently become available to us, that is offering very interesting, new possibilities for our research; and for the determination of relationships among people.  This has only been available for about 5 years now - it's DNA testing.

The whole field has been greatly boosted by the National Geographic Society in the United States which sponsored what is called the Genographic Project through which DNA testing became very affordable for people.  The large volume of tests being done of course brought the prices down for each test.

Now DNA testing consists basically of 2 different types of analyses.  One is the y DNA, the y chromosomes which can be analyzed.  This is the particle of DNA that is passed on from a father to a child who becomes a son.  This sort of DNA, like all other DNA, changes very slowly and therefore is essentially identical from father to son over many generations.  There may be minor changes that will occur as frequently as once in seven generations but rarely more frequently than that.  Of course, the modifications or mutations can occur at any time but the average frequency of change is only about once in every seven generations or so; or in other words, about two and a half centuries.

On the other side of the issue of the developing technology is the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA.  This is the part of our DNA that comes to us from our mothers.  It also doesn't change, or changes very, very slowly; it evolves very slowly over very long periods of time.  It is the part of the DNA that our mothers pass on to all of her children but which can only be passed along by the daughters. So it only passes along the female line.  It evolves even more slowly than the y DNA and it can be basically analyzed through 3 different sorts of tests that are available.  All of these tests determine haplotype.  Haplotypes are the great divisions, the great classifications of the DNA.

The tests consist of the first basic test which analyzes the mutations or identifies mutations in the Hyper Variable Region #1.  This is the first sequence of DNA that is analyzed.  If there's a perfect match between two persons in the Hyper Variable Region #1 that indicates that there's an even chance that they have a common female ancestor in the maternal line within 1,300 years.  It's a long period of time; about approximately 52 generations.

If the second test is undertaken, which analyzes the mutations in the Hyper Variable Region #2, we reduce this period to 700 years or approximately 28 generations.  Here again, this is not terribly useful for genealogical purposes because very few of us can trace our ancestors over a period of seven centuries.

Most recently there has come out a new test, or that has become more popular, a new test called the full genomic sequence test.  This tests, or analyzes, all of the mutations across the whole chain.

Up to this time these tests have been relatively few so there are, or there haven't been yet, enough of the results of these tests for the scientists to be able to give us specific parameters regarding what this sort of information can tell.  We don't know exactly, for example, or we haven't any specific information on exactly how many generations are involved or, if we have a perfect match, where there might be a connection in terms of time and generations.  It is said that it might be within something like 2 - 400 years.  So it might be as few as 5 generations or as perhaps as many as 15 or 20.  Nevertheless, 400 years is within the time period over which we do have records in New Brunswick and in Canada.  So this type of information can be potentially very useful for research purposes in terms of our genealogies.

As the great databases have been built up with DNA evidence, scientists have learned much about the enormous migrations of humans, the various invasions in history, and other big events in the past of human beings on this planet.  Different haplogroups have been distributed in different manners into different parts of the planet; of the earth.

The scientists have developed major classifications, the haplogroups or haplotypes, that 5:45 identification of the various populations to which our ancestors may have belonged.  In other words in the context of New Brunswick and eastern Canada in general, by having a DNA test, one may learn, for example, whether ones ancestors arrived in this area 3 or 400 years ago as colonists or whether they had been here many, many centuries before that.  In others words, whether they were First Nations people.

In terms of the relationships, question of relationships in terms of genealogy, as I have mentioned the analyzes of the first 2 Hyper Variable Regions, does not help a great deal to identify common ancestors, at least not in the context of Native peoples because the possible relationships would go back far earlier than any possible records we can find.  However, it is very important to understand something else about DNA testing, that is if we find there is no match between the DNA, even in the first Hyper Variable Region or the second, than that conclusively proves that there's no relationship between two persons.  And this too could be of considerable importance in trying to reestablish our genealogies.

Now the great potential for Native genealogy and where this might be of eventually very great importance for Native genealogy, is in the area of the full genomics sequence.  As I said, this is something that is just recently becoming available and we don't know exactly what we will be able to do with it.  Once the scientists provide us with enough data in order to be able to specify what time area is involved, this could be exceptionally useful.  It's possible to test many lineages back to the 18th century and being able to trace back to the 18th century may be enough in order to take advantage of this type of information.

There is in fact, one such case of which I am aware, in Atlantic Canada.  This involves several persons who have all had the full genomic sequence tested and there results are all identical.  Their results also indicate that they have Native American ancestry. These persons all descend from three women who lived in the earlier 19th century.  We do not know specific relationships among these three women, but the likelihood, from a genealogical stand point, is that they were all second cousins and that they had a common great-grandmother.  In fact, in the community in which they lived, there is one likely person who might have been that common grandmother; one person who was indeed a Native, a First Nations person, and would have been, quite probably, the ancestor of the three.

We have thus been able to develop, through this DNA testing, a reasonable sound hypothesis regarding their genealogy which will eventually, we hope, lead into further research that will unravel the mystery.  Without the DNA testing that was done we would probably never have guessed that there were relationships among these three people.

Like all other sources of information, the data that we get from the DNA testing has to be exploited in conjunction with other source material.  The conclusions that we may be able to draw will depend upon the circumstances and all the other evidence that may suggest one kind of an outcome over another.

In the future, it is to be hoped that the building of further DNA databases will continue and diversify; and when enough data has been accumulated, it will be analyzed and it may lead us to results that will surprise us!