2012 has been a very busy year for genetic genealogists. There have been lots of discoveries and announcements that affect everyone, now and in the future. The watchwords for 2012 would be “churn” and “explosive growth.” Let’s take a look at the 10 most important events, why they are important and what they mean for the future of genetic genealogy.
These items are in what I think are relatively good order, ranked by their importance, although I had a very difficult time deciding between number 1 and 2.
1. The New Root – Haplogroup A00
At the Family Tree DNA conference in November, Michael Hammer, Bonnie Schrack and Thomas Krahn announced that they had made a monumental discovery in the age of modern man known as Y-line Adam. The discovery of Haplogroup A00 pushes the “birth” of mankind back from about 140,000 years ago to an amazing 338,000 years ago. Utterly amazing. The DNA came from an American family from South Carolina. This discovery highlights the importance of citizen science. Bonnie is a haplogroup administrator who recognized the potential importance of one of her participants’ DNA. Thomas Krahn of course is with Family Tree DNA and ran the WTY test, and Michael Hammer is at the University of Arizona. So you have the perfect blend here of participant, citizen scientist, commercial lab and academia. What was never thought possible a decade or so ago is not only working, it’s working well and changing the face of both science and humanity.
2. Geno 2.0
Geno 2.0 is the Nickname for the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project version 2.0. That mouthful is why it has a nickname.
This amazing project has leveraged the results of the past 7 years of research from the original Genographic project into a new groundbreaking product. Geno 2.0, utilizing the GenoChip, a sequencing chip created specifically for Nat Geo, offers the most complete Y tree in the world today, expanding the SNP tree from just over 800 SNPs to over 12,000. They are in essence redrawing the Y chromosome tree as I write this. In addition, the person who purchases Geno 2.0 will receive a mitochondrial DNA haplogroup assignment. Over 3300 new mitochondrial mutations were discovered. A brand new anthropological “percentages of ethnicity” report is featured based on over 75,000 Ancestry Informative Markers, many only recently discovered by the Genographic project. Additionally, participants will receive their percentage of both Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry based on 30,000 SNPs identified that signal interbreeding between the hominids. A new website will also facilitate social networking and uploading information to Family Tree DNA.
The wonderful news is that there is a massive amount of new information here that will change the landscape of genetic genealogy. The difficulty is that we are struggling a bit under the load of that massive amount of information that is just beginning to descend upon us. It’s a great problem to have!
3. Reconstructed Sapiens Reference Sequence (RSRS)
In July, Family Tree DNA implemented the RSRS that in effect reconstructs the genetic profile of Mitochondrial Eve and bases the comparison of our DNA today against the RSRS sequence as opposed to the Cambridge Reference Sequence (rCRS) created in 1981 that is or was the current standard. The RSRS is a result of the watershed paper published in April 2012 by Dr. Doron Behar and 8 other authors titled “A “Copernican” Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root.” A complementary research website, www.mtdnacommunity.org, accompanies the paper.
4. Full Genome and Exome Sequence Offered Commercially by Gene by Gene
It was announced at the November DNA conference that Gene by Gene, the parent company of Family Tree DNA, through their division titled DNA DTC is offering full genomic sequencing for the amazing price of $5495 for the full genome and $695 for the exome. This is a first in the consumer marketspace. Today, this doesn’t have a lot of application for genetic genealogy, but as the price continues to drop, and utilities are built to process the full genomic data, certainly a market and applications will emerge. This is an important step forward in the industry with a product that still cost 3 million dollars in 2007.
5. Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA
It’s official – they did it. Yep, they interbred and well, they are not them anymore, they are us. Given that everyone in Asia and Europe carries a part of them, but not people from Africa, it would appear that two populations admixed rather thoroughly in Eurasia and/or the populations were small. The amount of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA will continue at approximately the proportions seen today in Europe (2% Neanderthal) and Asia unless a significant amount of admixture from a population (Africa) that does not carry this admixture is introduced. So if you’re European, you carry both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. They are your ancestors. The good news is that you can find how much of each through the Geno 2.0 test. 23andMe results give you the percentage of Neanderthal, but not Denisovan.
6. Ancestral Genome Reconstruction Begins, Led by Falling Autosomal Prices and the Ability to Fish in Multiple Ponds
2012 has been the year of autosomal testing price reductions and a great deal of churn in this marketspace. Companies are playing leap-frog with one another. However, sometimes things are not all that they seem.
Initially, 23andMe opted for an initial payment plus monthly subscription model, which they abandoned for a one time payment price of $299 in early 2012. Family Tree DNA was slightly less, at $289.
Ancestry led the price war by giving away kits, then selling them for $99, then $129 plus a subscription as an entrance into this market. However, looking at the Ancestry consent form hints at possible reasons why they were selling below the cost of the tests. You are in essence giving them permission to sell your DNA and associated information. In addition, to gain full access to your results and matches, you must maintain some level of subscription to Ancestry.com, increasing the total effective price.
Next came Family Tree DNA’s sale where they dropped their autosomal price to $199, but they were shortly upstaged by 23andMe whose price has now dropped to $99 permanently, apparently, a result of a 50 million dollar investment in order to reach 1 million customers. They currently have about 180,000. 23andMe has always been in the medical/health business, so their clients have always understood what they were consenting to and for.
Not to be outdone, Family Tree DNA introduced the ability earlier in 2012 to upload your data files from 23andMe to FamilyTree DNA for $89, far less than a second test, which allows you to fish in a second pond where genealogists live for matches. The challenge at 23andMe is that most of their clients test for the health traits and either don’t answer inquiries or match requests, or know little about their genealogy if they do. At Family Tree DNA, matches don’t have to answer and allow a match, testers are automatically matched with all participants who take the Family Finder test (or upload their 23andMe results) and testers are provided with their matches’ e-mail address.
Of course, Geno 2.0 was also introduced in the midst of this, in July, for $199 with the additional lollipop of new SNPS, lots of them, that others simply don’t have access to yet.
The good news is that consumers have benefitted from this leapfrogging, I think. Let’s hope that the subsidized tests at Ancestry and 23andMe don’t serve long term to water down the demand to the point where unsubsidized companies (who don’t selling participants genetic results to others) have problems remaining viable.
Personally, I’ve tested at all of these companies. I’ll be evaluating the results shortly in detail on my blog at www.dna-explained.com.
The tools provided by most testing companies, plus GedMatch, and multiple ponds to fish in are allowing the serious genetic genealogist to “reconstruct” their genome, attributing segments to specific ancestors. Conversely, we will also be able to “reconstruct” specific ancestral family lines as well by identifying autosomal segments in multiple descendants. This new vision of autosomal genetic genealogy will allow much more accurate ancestral line matching, and ancestor identification in the not-so-distant future.
7. Ethnicity Tests Mature – Minus 1
The good news is that the various ethnicity tests (known as BGA or biogeographical ancestry tests) that provide participants with their percentages of various world populations are improving. The bad news is that there is currently one bad apple in the card with very misleading percentages – and that is Ancestry.com.
23andMe introduced a new version of their ethnicity product in December, expanding from only 3 geographic categories to several. The Geno 2.0 test results are just beginning to be returned which include ethnicity predictions and references to several base populations.
Family Tree DNA finally has some competition in this arena where for years they have been the only serious player, although opinions differ widely about which of these three organizations results are the most accurate. All four are Illumina chip based, using hundreds of thousands of locations, as compared with the previous CODIS type tests which used between 15 and 300 markers and are now outdated. All companies use different reference populations which, of course, provide somewhat different results to participants. All companies, except Ancestry, have documented and shared their reference population information.
Outside of these companies, Doug McDonald offers a private analysis and Gedmatch offers a series of BGA comparisons written by third parties.
While this industry continues to grow and mature, I’m thinking about just averaging the autosomal ethnic results and calling it good:)
8. Finding Your Roots PBS Series with Henry Louis Gates
PBS sponsored a wonderful series in the spring of 2012 hosted by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, the chair of African American Studies at Harvard. This series followed a lesser known 2010 series. The 2012 inspirational series reached tens of thousands of people and increased awareness of genetic genealogy as well as sparked an interest in genealogy itself, especially for mixed race and African American people. I was disappointed that the series did not pursue the Native American results unexpectedly obtained for one participant. It seemed like a missed opportunity. Series like this bring DNA testing for genealogy into the mainstream, making it less “strange” and frightening and more desirable for the average person. These stories were both inspirational and heartwarming. I hope we can look forward to similar programs in the future.
CeCe Moore covered this series in March and April on her blog.
9. Ancestry, GeneTree and Sorenson
GeneTree, a for profit company and Sorenson, a non-profit company were both purchased by Ancestry.com. This was about the same time as Ancestry introduced their autosomal AncestryDNA product. Speculation was that the autosomal results at Sorenson might be the foundation for the new autosomal test comparisons, although there has been no subsequent evidence of this.
Ancestry initially gave away several thousand kits in order to build their data base, then sold thousands more for $99 before raising the price to what appears to be a normalized price of $129 plus an annual ancestry subscription.
While GeneTree was never a major player in the DNA testing marketspace, Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation played an important role for many years as a nonprofit research institute. There was significant distress in the genetic genealogy community related to the DNA contributed to Sorenson for research being absorbed by Ancestry as a “for profit” company. Ancestry is maintaining the www.smgf.org website, but no additional results will be added. Sorenson has been entirely shuttered. Many of the Sorenson/GeneTree employees appear to have moved over to Ancestry.
The initial AncestryDNA autosomal product offering is poor, lacks tools and the ethnicity portion has significant issues. It’s strength is that many people who test are already Ancestry subscribers and have attached their trees. So you can’t see how you connect genetically to your matches (lack of tools), but you can see the trees, if they are attached and not marked as private, of those with whom you match. Ancestry provides “hints” relative to matching individuals or surnames.
Eventually, if Ancestry improves its products, provides tools and releases the raw data to consumers, this may be a good thing. It’s an important event in 2012 because of the massive size of Ancestry, but the product is mediocre at best. Ancestry seems unwilling to acknowledge issues unless their feet are held to the fire publicly as illustrated with a “lab error” erroneous match for an adoptee caught by the consuming public and ignored by Ancestry until CeCe Moore exposed them in her blog. Whether Ancestry ultimately helps or hurts the genetic genealogy industry is a story yet to be told. There is very little positive press in the genetic genealogy community surrounding the Ancestry product, but with their captive audience, they are clearly going to be a player.
GedMatch, www.gedmatch.com, created by John Olson and Curtis Rogers, isn’t new in 2012, but it’s maturing into a tool that is becoming the defacto workhorse of the serious autosomal community. People who test at either 23andMe or Family Tree DNA download their raw results and other match information and then use a variety of tools at GedMatch to look at results in different ways and using different thresholds. GedMatch is currently working to accept the newly arriving Geno 2.0 data files. Ancestry does not at this time allow their customers access to their raw data files, so there is nothing to upload. The bad news is that not everyone downloads/uploads their information. Only the most savvy users, and the download/upload is not always a smooth process, often necessitating several attempts, a magic wand and some fairy dust for luck.
GedMatch is a volunteer effort funded by donations on the GedMatch site. The magnitude of this project came to light when they needed new servers this year because the amount of traffic disabled their internet service provider. It may be a volunteer effort, but it has mainstream requirements. Therefore, while occasionally frustrating, it’s easy to understand why it’s light on documentation and one has to poke around a bit to figure things out. I would actually prefer that they make it a subscription site, clean up the bugs, add the documentation and take it to the next level. It would also be very nice if they could arrange something with the major players in terms of a seamless data transfer for clients. All told, it’s an amazing contribution as a volunteer site. Hats off to Curtis and John for their ongoing contribution to genetic genealogists!!!