The Dark Side of DNA

Happy Dia Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  This year, for Halloween, one of my family members created two glow in the dark pumpkins and a skull and dressed a skeleton to look like Disney’s Coco’s grandpa, Hector.  Sneaky way to get little ones to learn about genealogy relationships!  It was quite lifelike, or should I write, really dead looking?  Two little girls burst into tears which was not my intention and I felt awful but the mom’s said they loved the movie.  I had to show the girls that it wasn’t real.  One little boy was so enamored he said he had questions for Hector and could he come inside.  I told him Hector wasn’t talking tonight and would want the boy to enjoy his candy collecting.  Ahh, children and genealogy, what an interesting mix.  Their reaction is just like adults – some run when you start asking about family history and others want all the details.  

Two weeks ago I wrote about DNA now being available from hair follicles.  Right after reading that article, I found another story that I suspect relates to it though the articles purpose is to bring up a controversial side of DNA and genealogy.  The Messy Consequences of the Golden State Killer Case by Sarah Zhang published in The Atlantic 1 October 2019 will give you a better understanding of why GedMatch and Family Tree Genealogy recently changed their policies. 

As technology evolves, past policies must be rethought.  I’ve blogged in the past about clients and colleagues mentioning that their returned DNA results were just plain wrong.  We all understand that DNA is a Pandora’s box of family secrets but it never crossed my mind that medical procedures acquired as an adult could skew the results.  When I read A Woman Found Her AncestryDNA Test Revealed a Medical Secret also written by Sarah Zhang and published in The Atlantic on 13 September 2019, I was shocked by the findings.  I’m not going to give you a spoiler alert – you must read this article if you have DNA results that seem skewed.  Who would have thought this?!  Clearly not the specialists who first heard their patient’s stories.

Both articles are thought provoking whether you are a donor or are making the decision of sharing your DNA results.

The last DNA related article I’d like to share is a topic I’ve also blogged about in the past.  Accepting the foibles of your family history can be difficult.  Although the author, Ken Bradford, used DNA to build his tree, the old fashion research methods also provide the same results – acquiring the knowledge of the past sins of our forefathers.  Look What the DNA Brought In published in Notre Dame Magazine Autumn 2019 can be helpful if your wrestling with the dark side of your family findings.

All of this is quite spooky, don’t you think?  Happy Day of the Dead

DNA Today from Hair of the Past

Short blog this week as I’m slammed with work.  I just read something I think is super interesting – Hair DNA Advance Hailed as Forensic Game Changer.  A family member knows I’m interested in DNA and genealogy and passed the article along to me.  Personally I think it’s going to be a boon to family genealogy once the new technology gets simplified.  Imagine being able to take in grandpa’s hair brush or that Victorian hair ring you inherited but have no idea who it originally belonged to!  Better yet, think of mummies that still have clumps of hair or even woolly mammoths.  I can’t even imagine all the new information that will result from these DNA samples.

Promethease – Limited Time Offer

Ahhh, the constantly changing world of genealogy changes!  If you’ve been thinking about uploading your DNA results to Promethease you need to get a move on it.  Recently, MyHeritage announced that they were acquiring Promethease and after the end of this year, the site will no longer be free.  Anyone who had an account with Promethease will continue to have it unless you opt out.  If you are living in Europe, you must do so by November 1st – click here for that link.  If you’d like to read the full story, check out MyHeritage’s blog article.

If you aren’t sure what Promethease is – I found the best definition from Google that explains “Promethease is a computer program developed by the SNPedia team which allows users to compare personal genomics results against the SNPedia database, generating a report with information about a person’s attributes, such as propensity to diseases, based on the presence of specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).”

I have used it and discussed the results with my physician and have compared my close family’s DNA results.  Although Promethease has been free for awhile, I had to pay a nominal fee, I think it was a few dollars, back in the day when I first did it.  I intend to go back on the site and update my results to see if there is any new developments.  Since I’m a member of MyHeritage I will still have access but my family is not so I want to be able to get them an updated report. 

The Changing Norms of Genealogy – Dealing With DNA

Twice a year, my local genealogy society holds a free Meet a Genealogist Day at a regional library.  The well attended event allows the general public with little knowledge of genealogy to meet with a professional to kick start their research.  Over the years that I’ve participated, the trend has been more and more questions about DNA. 

The genealogy society does provide free classes on a variety of topics during the year but unfortunately, most are held during the day which working people can’t attend.  I think that’s one of the reasons the Meet a Genealogist Day is so widely attended as it’s held on a Saturday. 

I just received an email with the new date and a new format.  The event will be held in two rooms – one for general research (which I call old school methods) and the other for those interested only in DNA research. 

I’m not sure where I’ll be placed as I’m fine with either group but I am looking forward to the “data” that shows the interest level of the two groups.  One part of me says that it’s all the same – that you need to use both historical record research and DNA results.  The other part of me, from my participating in past events, understands why there is a new division.  People are getting DNA results and not understanding what they mean or how to move forward with their findings. 

I’m not criticizing the companies who are providing the results.  Most have done an amazing job with giving lots of helpful information on their sites.  Even so, it is overwhelming to many and unfortunately, sometimes the results are disappointing. 

We all know real life is not T.V., however, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone came to me saying they thought they’d find a family connection with an entire tree done once they had their DNA results back.  Then there’s the smaller number of people who insist that the DNA lab messed up their results and that they aren’t the ethnicity that was stated.  A few have insisted that the results were just plain wrong when the results show they aren’t related to a known relative.  I know of one local genealogist who insists that happened.  Interestingly, the individual did not get retested.  Personally, if this happened to me I would contact the company AND I would test with another company to compare results.  Mistakes happen but I’ve never ever heard that the mistake was made by the lab. 

So, the underlying issue is having difficulty accepting the DNA results. Like with all of life’s disappointments, that healing takes time.

DNA Dumbness – What Not To Do When You Take a Test!

You may be contemplating taking advantage of the DNA specials that are currently offered – Ancestry.com and MyHeritageDNA.com are both being sold for $59.00 plus shipping.  Maybe you’re like me and have tested with a number of different companies over the past several years and believe you know the directions well enough to not read them.  I am going to share an embarrasingly dumb mistake I made last month when taking a DNA test to spare you having to learn this lesson on your own.

At my annual wellness physical my physician and I discussed genealogy.  Side note:  Physicians and genealogists share a lot in common, especially at parties where acquaintances want to poke your brain and get free advice on their chronic complaint – a health issue for the docs and a brick wall for the genealogist.  

My medical provider was sharing the results of her recent DNA test and I told her how I had compiled an ancestor health history going back several generations as I believe that some genetic conditions reoccur farther than the two generations back that typically the medical community zeroes in on when you complete the initial paperwork of who had what conditions.  

Granted, I have no proof of my theory other than what I’ve discovered in my own family tree and usually, when I mention this to a doctor, I get the same look that is given when you tell them you tried to self diagnose using WebMD.  I understand I’m enchroaching on their professional judgement but I mean no disrespect.  My current physician is very understanding of this tendency I have and although neither my parents or grandparents had medical concerns that DNA testing could show might affect me, I had two aunts that clearly carried a trait.  We both agreed it would be beneficial for me to be tested for medical information.

Deciding I could handle the test’s results, I made a followup appointment to spit into the test tube the next week.  The receptionist reiterated what the doctor said, don’t eat or drink anything within an hour of the test.  Yeah, yeah, I know already, I’m an expert DNA test taker!

Since my appointment was scheduled as the first visit of the morning, I decided I wouldn’t eat or drink anything after dinner the previous evening.  I even brushed my teeth right after dinner so there’d be no chance of a toothpaste interference. 

The next morning I got ready quickly and drove straight to the doctor’s office.  After signing in and being taken back to an exam room, the MA asked if I had eaten or drank anything in the last hour.  “No,” I replied, “Nothing since last night about 6:00.”  She then handed me the test tube and told me foam didn’t count so make sure to spit to the line.  

No worries, I got this.  My only thought was why didn’t they just take a cheek swab as in the days of old – that’s how I took my first Ancestry.com DNA test.  

MA left the room and I began to fill the test tube.  I was really going to town so I didn’t stop to look at the tube for a bit.  When I finally did, I had quite a shock.  My spit was not clear; it was tinged with pink.  

My first thought was I was bleeding but I felt fine.  Then it hit me; I had put lipstick on that morning.  

Lipstick does not process in my brain as food or drink.  It reminds me of my history as my maternal relatives never left the house without applying it.  I asked my grandmother why when I was about 8 and she said you should always put your best face forward.  That is, except when you’re taking a DNA test in the doctor’s office.

I didn’t know what to do; should I go look for the MA and ask if I should continue or should I just finish filling the tube?  I opened the door and saw no one in the hall so I decided to finish and maybe the test would be valid.

A few minutes later the MA returned and I sheepishly showed her the pink vial.  “I’ll check to see if that’s okay,” she said, “Never had that happen before.”  That made two of us.  Returning, she told me that the test wasn’t going to be acceptable and I needed to “Wash off your makeup, wait an hour and we’ll retest.”  

The last time someone told me to “Wash off that makeup” was in 8th grade and my lipstick of choice was Wow Wow White that looked awesome with my then braces.  Sister Rosarita felt differently and I was sent to the girl’s gang bathroom to remove it.  Then, I was angry at the school rule that was enchroaching on my lifestyle.  At the doctor’s office, I was angry at myself for being so stupid.

I was planning on meeting my husband after the appointment so I texted him I’d be late because, well, my lipstick got between my DNA and the tube.  He thought that was hysterical.  Me, not at all.  

A little over an hour later the MA called me from the waiting room and asked if I was sure I had gotten all the lipstick off.  I showed her my pale pink lips and said, “This is what they really look like.”  She laughed and said, “Nice color.”  

The second test went smoothly.  My results have been returned and they’re good, too.  

The doctor’s office staff were so kind about my mistake and said they’d make sure that they mention “NO LIP PRODUCTS” to future women who will DNA test.  I’m letting my dear readers know that, too.  

Even on Vacation Genealogy Abounds

I’m back from my dream vacation in Peru.  Ever since I was in the 3rd grade, I’ve yearned to travel there thanks to a National Geographic for Kids article.  Finally got the opportunity and even though it was a bucket list item and not for genealogical purposes, I’m sure you’re not surprised that genealogy related happenings occurred.

Our guide, Washington, related on our first meeting that he was 50% Incan and 50% Spanish, known as a mestizo.  He introduced us to one of sixty remaining shaman who lives in the Andes and speaks Quechuan.  Thankfully, Washington was an awesome translator as the shaman doesn’t speak Spanish or English.  Washington learned Quechuan as his mother’s side has passed it down for centuries.  The shaman had his DNA done and reported he was between 96-98% Incan, depending on the test.  Nice reminder that the test pool determines the percentage, even in the most remote areas of the planet!

One of our stops was to visit a cemetery in Cuzco, pictured above.  Families may “rent” a burial site and if the rent is not renewed or the space purchased, the body is cremated and interred in another portion of the cemetery.  Families visit the cemetery often and remember the dead by displaying memorabilia from their life in a niche in front of the coffin that had been plastered into the assigned space.  Items for purchase – such as flowers, vases, alcohol in tiny bottles, and career related articles – a small truck for a former truck driver, for example – may be purchased by vendors lined up outside the grounds. 

Remembering ancestors is so important to this culture that high school honor students are selected to intern in the cemetery to serve as helpers to families who have come to visit their loved ones.  As young people, they climb the ladders to change the flowers, tidy the memorial and clean the glass that keeps out the dirt.  Washington translated for us a conversation with one of the students who was hoping to earn a spot in a technical college to study tourism.  He demonstrated how he takes care of a niche. 

As a genealogist, I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries so I guess it was not surprising that I recognized Washington’s surname shortly after arriving.  I asked him if he was related and he said he didn’t know.  I then asked if his surname was considered common.  He said it was not.  I recommended he ask his mother about the relationship as he had mentioned, as the family matriarch, she knew the family’s history.  Made me laugh when he said he often wondered about the relationship; just like clients in my area who never think to ask until it’s too late.

The Inca’s probably had a written language, however, most records were destroyed by the Spanish.  If you’re looking to discover your lineage, the oldest records will not be found in Peru.  Just like the oldest records from Florida and Cuba, where I traveled last summer, the earliest documents were returned to Spain. 

Why You Should Share Your DNA Results

I have uploaded by DNA results to several sites and you could benefit from doing that, too.  The reason is simple – think about why you tested with the company you chose.  I tested with 23andMe because I wanted to find out the amount of Neandertal ancestry I  carry and that feature wasn’t available through the other major sites (Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com).  

Some folks may have selected a company based on pricing.  Others may have received a kit as a gift.  In the U.S., Ancestry.com commercials are everywhere but that’s not necessarily true in other parts of the world.  You stand the greatest chance of maximizing your DNA results by uploading them to sites that accept results.

Last week, I received an email from MyHeritage.com that I have several new DNA matches.  Typically, they are 3rd to 5th cousins that I’ve connected with in the past.  This time, was different.  Luckily, I recognized the surname as one of my maternal line’s great grandmothers of which I have scant information as she had died young in childbirth.  

Immediately, I clicked on the “cousins” tree which only contained 10 entries, most of which was private but I could see the geographic region and I knew that this proved promising.  I wrote the cousin an email and was happily surprised when he responded a few hours later.  We wrote back and forth all week.  The irony is that he lives just a little over 100 miles from the homestead but has no knowledge of the family.  Why?  His grandfather had relocated the family during World War II and never spoke to his children about the family’s history.  The grandfather died a few years before the cousin I was corresponding with was born so he could never ask him directly.  There is now only one elderly relative, in his 80’s remaining.  He plans on taking my family stories to the elder.  I’m anxiously awaiting his knowledge.  

No telling what you might discover from connecting with a family member across the pond!  DNA matching makes it easy and inexpensive.  

My Latest DNA Results

Recently, my St. Patrick’s Day Ancestry.com special DNA deal results were returned.  I had tested with Ancestry years ago prior to autosomal’s availability.  When the price for autosomal dropped, I decided to test with two other companies to gain access to their testing population and opted to have my children test with Ancestry.  I decided to purchase the Ancestry test because the price was right ($49.00), I wanted to go back one generation further than my children could do in search for my Morrison and Adams brick wall lines, and I wanted to play with Ancestry’s new DNA feature, Thru Lines, without having to wade through my husband’s side that my children inherited.

I’m pleased to connect with one Morrison and five Adams’ family members.  Although this certainly doesn’t resolve my brick wall it does support the direction I was going in with my research.  I suspected that my Edward Adams was the grandson of Sylvanus Adams of Sussex County, New Jersey but not being able to identify Edward’s father, I couldn’t prove it.  My hunch was due to the interesting male name of Evi.  After Edward died intestate in Perry County, Ohio in 1822, an Evi Adams living in the area served as administrator.  Evi died a few years later and I never was able to find his father, either.  Evi was about the same age as Edward so I surmised that they were either brothers or cousins.  There were several Evi’s in Sylvanus Adams’ lines before and after him so I felt strongly that Edward’s brother/cousin must be related somehow.  DNA seems to be showing that’s correct but I still haven’t found that one document that’s out there somewhere to prove it.

Although I’m pleased with the results I can understand how people who are new to genealogy and DNA give up after getting their results.  I know that the ethnic percents are only as valid as the pool used to compare findings.  In Ancestry’s case, I’m 51% German.  I don’t know how that’s possible since I would have gotten half of my DNA from my mom, who was full blooded Croatian and half from my dad, who was a mix of German, Irish, English, Welsh and Scotts.  Ancestry shows me with NO Irish, English Welsh or Scotts.  According to Ancestry, I’m only 4% French.  23andMe had me as all French and no German. 

I not only understand the pools from which the sample was compared differed, but the history of the areas.  My dad’s people were from the Palatinate, the German-French area that experienced bloodshed for years and went back and forth between the two countries. So, am I French or German?  I realize I’m a mix of both and I’m fine with that.  If I didn’t understand how this works, though, I would be totally confused. 

Recently Ancestry got into trouble with their latest DNA commercial.  I believe their well loved commercial about the man trading his lederhosen in for a kilt should have been an eye opener.  I’m thinking that man needs to test elsewhere to get a fuller picture of his ancestry. 

Growing Your Genealogy with Living Family Member Interaction

Zen needed

Sometimes, you just have to practice self control when you’re around your family.  (‘m referring to the living ones and not the death ones who left no documents or photos behind.)  I bet, as the family historian, you’ve encountered some of the following situations:

  • They just make one excuse after another for not going into (Fill in the blank – attic, basement, closet, storage facility, garage) to retrieve the (Fill in the blank – birth certificate, Bible, photo)  that you desperately need yet…
  • You receive a frantic call at an inopportune time wanting to know if your family is related to a celebrity
  • Your family expects you to help them for FREE join a lineage society
  • Even though you’ve shared all the discoveries you’ve found and ignored the glassy eyed bored looks you’ve gotten in return, they want some arcane piece of info on some distant ancestor because someone at work or some show on TV made them think about that story you told, only you have no knowledge of what they’re talking about because they’ve jumbled different people and events together in their minds
  • You’ve bought the DNA kit, helped them follow the simple instructions, mailed it back for them and monitor it and they don’t believe the results (even though your DNA and theirs is a close match)

Those are my top 5 pet peeves and over the past holiday season, each of them raised their ugly heads.  Two of the above became the most problematic.  

The first situation was the result of Ancestry’s recent upgrade of their DNA results.  With the old results, one family member showed more Swedish than anyone else in the family.  As a genealogist, my take on it is “So what” as we all know that the percentages are fluid since they’re based on the pool tested.  As the pool grows, so the results change.  I have explained this in the past but I guess somehow I’m not doing a good job.  In my family’s case, the updated stats shifted the percent slightly making the former number 1 in second place and the the former second place in first.  No big deal, right?  Evidently it was.  Instead of just asking for my take on the change, the newly placed number 1 decided that the results were questionable and so purchased a test from a competitor.  Of course, the competitor’s pool was different and the results varied but in this individual’s head, those results were more valid (because they hadn’t been updated yet).  Since the percents of test two were even less than the first test results, the individual became upset at all the ‘misleading info and the waste of money.”

It was time to take a deep breath.  I ignored the waste of money part since I had paid for the first test and the individual had gotten a deep discount on the second test.  I brought up my own results from several companies and showed how the results vary and again explained why.  I don’t think it got through any better than the previous times I’ve explained but it did end the conversation on a positive note.  

The second situation was a family member who asked me to write down the birth and death dates for two ancestors.  When I did, I was informed that I was wrong.  I had to bite my tongue to not respond, “If you know the information why are you asking me?”  Instead, after a pause, I asked if the individual wanted a copy of the birth and death certificates.  The response was no.  I then asked why the information was being questioned.  The answer was it didn’t seem like it had been that long ago when the individuals died.  Sure, as we age, time seems to go much quicker.  In this situation, I owned the problem as I jumped to the conclusion that the asker doubted my research when that wasn’t the case at all.  

Family can be a help in our genealogy quest – not just with gaining names and dates of ancestors but in showing us character areas where we need to grow.  

Interesting News on Life Span


I read 2 articles this week (Thanks to the NEGHS Newsletter) that at first look appeared to be unrelated but as I processed the information, realized that they were indeed related. The first, Life span has little to do with genes, analysis of large ancestry database shows by Sharon Begley clearly surprised me. Not having a medical background, I assumed, wrongly it appears, that genes were a much stronger indicator to longevity. The article is also interesting in that the data analyzed most likely included my people and yours, if you are an Ancestry.com member. I have no problem with my tree info being shared for research purposes but if you do, and you didn’t take the time to read the disclaimers when you were signing up, you need to be aware that your information is being used by third parties.
The second article, ‘She was like a second mother’: the German woman who saved our Jewish family history by Simon Finch drove home to me how fortunate my family has been in leaving areas of unrest in the nick of time. Those that bravely fought for freedom, from Jacob Wilson Parrot,the First Congressional Medal of Honor awardee from the Civil War and my first cousin three times removed, to two Purple Heart recipients (WW I and II), George Bryant and George Willard Harbaugh, my husband’s grandfather and uncle, all made it home safely.
Family mortality has always interested me. Aside from the occasional accident, such as my great grandfather Frank Landfair falling off a train platform, to my Great Uncle Francis Earl Landfair, being struck my lightening while standing outside talking with friends, I attempted to deduce longevity by averaging the prior three generations of family members, taking into account gender, and adding two years for men and three for women to account for medical advancements. This seemed to work for both my maternal and paternal sides. I guess my data set was too small to make an inference.
I’d be interested to hear if you’ve looked at your ancestor’s longevity and drawn any conclusions. Let me know if you have!