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DNA Testing for Genealogy

Learn how to use DNA testing to reconstruct your family history.

DNA and genetic testing offers a scientific route for defining lineage. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
DNA and genetic testing offers a scientific route for defining lineage.

Technology has come a long way in past years, and DNA testing genealogy is no exception. While many individuals think of solving crimes using DNA, an equally important use is establishing genealogy. When family members have been displaced or origins of family history are unknown, DNA testing can help put the pieces of family heritage together. Additionally, DNA testing is often used to establish paternity in child custody court cases.

About DNA

DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is a small molecule that packs tightly into small spaces and determines an individual's hair and eye color, height, bone structure and other physical characteristics. A complete sample of DNA is contained within one human cell. DNA is made up of four building blocks, or nitrogen bases, which scientists refer to as A (adenine), T (thymine), G (guanine) and C (cytosine). There are endless combinations of these letters, producing DNA that is only similar along biological family lineage.

According to the Human Genome Project, there is only a 0.1 percent difference in DNA structure from person to person. DNA can be collected from blood, hair, bone and other body tissues and used to create a DNA profile of an individual. This profile is created by scientifically-designed probes that bind to similar markers in a DNA sample, which creates a distinctive pattern for each individual. These profiles are compared to one another to determine genealogic relationships, among other things.

Types of DNA Testing

There are two main types of DNA testing. RFLP tests require a large, undegraded sample of DNA. PCR-based tests can be performed with a smaller DNA sample with partial degradation. RFLP testing is more reliable and is typically what is used in genealogy and paternity tests because the sample can be controlled. PCR-based testing is most frequently used in crime investigation because it is more sensitive and has faster results.

Paternity DNA Testing

The most common usage of DNA testing for genealogical purposes is establishing paternity. In legal battles regarding children where the parents are not married, the male is typically required by the court to take a paternity test using DNA to be scientifically determined as the father of the child. Establishing paternity can help the mother collect child support or allow the father to have partial custody or visitation rights with his biological child.

A famous paternity case in recent years centered on the "Godfather of Soul" James Brown. Following his death in 2006, several women claimed that he was the father of their children. Additionally, James Brown mentioned six children in his will, but failed to mention the six-year-old son of his partner Tomi Rae Hynie, thus resulting in several paternity tests for confirmations. DNA testing later confirmed that the boy was his, among other children.

The origins of another famous paternity test date back to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. In September of 1802, a journalist claimed that Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Two of Hemings' children claimed through generations of their descendants that Jefferson was their father. Finally, in 1998, DNA testing of both families indicated that Hemings' youngest son, Eston, was connected to the Jefferson lineage, with the most probable conclusion being that Thomas Jefferson was his father.

Heredity DNA Testing

Individuals interested in their family heritage and ancestry can participate in DNA testing to establish family origin. For individuals separated from biological family members through adoption or harsher circumstances, DNA testing could serve to reunite them with long-lost family members.

One interesting use of DNA is helping survivors of the Holocaust. The DNA Shoah Project is dedicated to reuniting relatives who were separated during the war and identifying the remains of those killed.

DNA Testing Labs and Costs

Depending on the location of the DNA testing lab and the type of test performed, establishing paternity can cost anywhere from $400 to $2,000. The test results are typically available within five business days. Individuals interested in learning about their family ancestry should consider participating in The Genographic Project sponsored by National Geographic. The cost is $99.95 (as of 2009) and the results provide the participant's maternal or paternal ancestry.

The American Pregnancy Association recommends that individuals seek a DNA testing lab that is accredited by the AABB (formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks), such as the DNA Diagnostics Center or the American Red Cross.

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