24 February 2007

DNA in genealogy

Imagine you walk into a family history conference and are handed a small strip of paper, asked to moisten it in your mouth and insert it in a slot in a machine about the size of a cellphone. At the end of the opening plenary session you receive an envelope directing you to one of the conference rooms. Arriving there you find yourself amongst family -- family you didn't know about but whose DNA is a close match to yours. For most people the common ancestor is too far back to be able to confirm it with traditional genealogical documentation, but many in the room find a common geographic region in their family past. A few, some who may have known each other for years, find an unsuspected link between their family trees.

Fact or fiction? It could be closer than you'd think if the Pocket DNA Barcoder being proposed for animal species identification ever comes to pass and is adapted for human DNA. As explained in this item at ScientificAmerican.com, although the basic technology is available--and the DNA testing has been shown to work--it requires a clean, sterile lab to ensure accuracy. According to the article the pocket-sized gadget remains a further-off goal. I've learned not to underestimate the rate of technological change. Maybe we'll be experiencing this sooner than they think.

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