The Surprising New World of Molecular Genealogy
by G.G. Vandagriff

You literally carry pieces of your ancestral past within you.

Did you know that you literally carry pieces of your ancestral past within you? Did you know that a physical part of your mother, her mother, her mother and all the mothers beyond, exists in your body as an integral element of who you are?

These bits of cellular matter are called mitochondria and they actually exist outside the actual nucleus of the DNA as independent “organelles” with the important mission to provide the body with energy. When the egg and the sperm unite within the mother to form an embryo, these mitochondria are passed from mother to child in a physical inheritance as real as a glove or any other earthly legacy. This means that part of me once lived in Denmark, possibly as far back as the middle ages!

Because of work being done at Brigham Young University on a project dubbed “molecular genealogy,” it will be possible in a few years for each of us to find within us the map to our ancestral homes. Dr. Scott Woodward, the head of the project, is currently taking DNA samples from volunteers throughout the world. From these, he is constructing a giant database of genetic information that will enable him and his co-workers to advance genealogical research by determining the genetic compositions of major populations of the earth.

“At present, there are two fairly straightforward genetic tests of a person’s ancestral identity,” Dr. Woodward says. The first of these involves mtDNA, or mitochondria, which divide inside the embryo and become the most numerous of our “genetic markers.” They are passed from mothers to all their children, but only their daughters can pass them on. Looking at the standard pedigree chart, mitochondrial DNA would trace the bottom line-the mother’s mother’s mother, etc. As mentioned above, mitochondrially, my ancestral home is Denmark. I was born in Fresno, California, my mother in Raymond, Washington, her mother in Redmond, Utah, her mother in Denmark. Our genealogy traces that family back in Denmark for generations. If my mitochondrial DNA were to be isolated and compared with that of someone else who was from Denmark that many generations ago, we would show evidence of being from the same gene pool in mid-nineteenth century Denmark and further back.

The other test that is presently most reliable is the comparison of the Y-cs chromosome. These chromosomes are passed down the surname line from father to son. On a pedigree chart, this would be the very top line. In my genealogy, there is some confusion over an ancestor named John Gibson who fought in the Revolutionary War. My research has identified him as, in all probability, being an individual who was in the right place at the right time to fit in with the existing facts. However, my third great uncle, a great grandson of John Gibson, sent information into the National Archives identifying another John Gibson as his ancestor. This John Gibson’s children are all accounted for and I cannot see how any of them fits into my family. I believe that the great grandson got the two John Gibsons mixed up. According to Dr. Woodward, it would be a relatively simple matter to clear up this question by using the Y-cs chromosome test. I would need to locate a male Gibson surname descendant of the John Gibson I believe to be my ancestor and convince him to have his DNA tested. Then my brother or one of his sons (who also bear the name of Gibson) would be tested. “Their DNA would be compared and if the Y chromosome is identical, we can assign a probability that they are from the same John Gibson,” Dr. Woodward says. “This is exactly the kind of procedure we want to use the project for.”

But what of all those pedigree lines between the very bottom line (the mitochondrial line) and the very top (the Y chromosome line)? That is where things become exponentially difficult. Dr. Woodward explains, “The real purpose of the study is to develop a large enough database to make it possible to identify the genetics of these ancestors in between the outer lines of the pedigree chart.” This database will necessarily take years to build and will require blood samples from all over the world.

Each of us carries within us a history of who we are and where our genes have been. However this history is encoded within our DNA and must be unlocked using modern technology and the new knowledge that has recently been made available through the mapping of the human genome. According to Dr. Woodward, such an attempt would not have been possible even two years ago.

How can you participate? The procedure of decoding our genetic ancestral maps begins when we agree to donate blood to the molecular genealogy project. At that time we also submit a four-generation pedigree chart. Our DNA is then separated out from the blood and scientifically analyzed for genetic “markers” which are entered into the database along with the information on our pedigree charts. For instance, my entry will show that my gene pool was part of the Fresno, California gene pool on my birth date. Noted among my data will be the fact that fifty percent of my genes come from my mother, or the Raymond, Washington gene pool of the 1920’s, and fifty percent of my genes come from my father, or the Indianapolis, Indiana gene pool of the 1920’s. One generation further back my genes resided with my grandparents in Doenhof, Russia; Redmond, Utah; Hampden, Connecticut; and Saginaw, Michigan. In the fourth generation back I have Doenhof, Russia; Doenhof, Russia; Denmark; Rock Island, Illinois; Mainz, Germany; Neustettin, Germany; Ontario, Canada; and Saginaw, Michigan. These places are all entered into the database along with my DNA. As more and more samples are collected, the computer and the known science of the genome will make it possible to make matches between people with similar DNA markers who have the same ancestral home. In that way, the database will begin to “map” the world with gene pools of a specific makeup. Eventually, Dr. Woodward or one of his co-workers will be able to take an unknown individual and, by comparing his DNA with that in the database, determine his ancestral genetic homes.

Of course, given the nature of American life, this whole procedure is very complex. I protested that though I was born in Fresno, I only lived there six months and so really could not be said to come from the Fresno gene pool. He helped me to see that the further back I go on my pedigree chart, the closer I get to my real ancestral homes-Denmark, Scotland, Germany, England. Because my ancestors lived in those places for long periods of time, I will have large concentrations of DNA that derived from there. “Eventually, we will be able to show that even though it says on your pedigree chart that you were born in Fresno, you are not in reality part of the Fresno gene pool, but that you come from other places,” Dr. Woodward explained.

One genealogical problem that plagues the modern family historian is migrations of peoples to or from places with a lack of written records. I have long had a great affinity for things Russian. Long before I knew my grandfather was born there, or that I had any Russian connection at all, I got my master’s degree in Eastern European studies with a concentration on Russia. When I found my grandfather was born there and not in Denver, Colorado, as I had always been told, it was an epiphany of amazing proportions. His ancestors had lived in a German colony there for 160 years. I have wondered time and time again if I have any Russian blood, but my curiosity has been stymied because of the lack of records. Now, through Dr.Woodward’s study, it will be possible to answer this question. By comparing my DNA with the DNA of a person who had Russian ancestors along the Volga River at the same time period, he will be able to note whether there are similarities in the gene pools which indicate a probability of my having ancestors who intermarried with Russians. Using the same procedure, it will be possible for people of African American descent to determine from what part of Africa their ancestors came. Though this may not give us specific genealogical data, to goes a long way towards resolving questions of identity. And there is a great value to be found in knowing where to look for information.

When asked about the genesis of his project, Dr. Woodward replied that it all really began as he was investigating the DNA of mummies. He started by trying to determine the relatedness of people buried together, suggesting that they might be families. From this, he developed a curiosity about the relatedness of ancient peoples to modern peoples. He could do DNA analysis on both, but what about all the generations in between? How were we really related to those ancient civilizations? His idea for the database grew out of that question. “We hope that eventually the database will operate as a huge template upon which we can place the known data of the ancients. Then the pieces should fit together like a puzzle,” he explains.

In my mind, this gives rise to a significant question. What about the Blood of Israel? Had they been able to trace the Blood of Israel in Native Americans? To this, Dr. Woodward responded with a question. Where would I go to find a sample of DNA that I was absolutely sure was from a descendant of Manasseh? Such a sample would be necessary for comparison in order to identify the genetic markers needed for such a study. Of course, I had no answer. We don’t know what Manasseh’s DNA looked like. And, as Dr. Woodward pointed out, it was half Egyptian to begin with, as his mother was the priest Potipherah’s daughter, Asenath. He hopes that in time the study will be large enough that some questions of this type will be answerable. But as all members of the church are told that they are descendants of the tribes of Israel, and as all their DNA is distinctly different, he does not know that it will ever be possible to determine the Blood of Israel from DNA.

At this time, all Dr. Woodward knows for certain about the Native Americans is that their mitochondrial DNA (16,000 bits of genetic information out of three billion) is ninety percent akin to the Asian populations. This indicates that there was significant intermarriage of Lehi’s progeny with Asians. We don’t know what Lehi’s DNA looked like, so we can’t search for it. However, it wouldn’t appear in the mitochondria of the Lamanites in any case. Whose mitochondria did the Lamanites of pure descent carry? Think for a moment. Mitochondria are passed from mother to daughter. Lehi’s sons married daughters of Ishmael. So the mitochondrial DNA of their children would have been from Ishmael’s wife. And we have no idea who she was!

Has this grabbed your imagination? Would you like to participate? If you are eighteen years or older, of any geographic origin or ethnic background, you are needed for this study. If you can get to the Brigham Young University campus, you may go to room 731 of the Widtsoe Building any Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 9-12 or 1-4 to have approximately two tablespoons of blood drawn. You must bring a four-generation pedigree chart with you. You will be compensated $10.00 for your contribution. Anyone who cannot get to BYU should check the project’s website at . There is a link that lists coming events where future blood draws will take place. Places mentioned at present are Grand Junction, Colorado, San Diego, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If a draw is not scheduled in your area, but you can put together a group of 100+ interested individuals, the department will schedule an appointment to come to you. A good way to arrange and co-ordinate this is through your family history center. Anyone who desires to contribute to the project in this way or with monetary assistance can contact the project by e-mail at

Clearly, the frontiers opened to us by molecular genealogy and by this study in particular are vast. Dr. Woodward’s goal is to provide all those who have contributed their DNA to this project access this database and the resources to map their own gene pool. You would then be able to tell in a very real way “who you are and where you have been.” Consenting individuals will be able to determine their degree of relatedness. Many people with “blocked” genealogical lines will be given new hope. The Spirit of Elijah has been given an enormous technological and scientific boost that is almost beyond comprehension. In 1974, President Kimball stated with regard to genealogy, “I believe that the Lord is anxious to put into our hands inventions of which we laymen have hardly had a glimpse.” At that time the personal computer, the Internet, and the mapping of the human genome all lay in the future. Dr. Woodward’s molecular genealogy project is the latest in a series of miracles which President Kimball foretold and which will move genealogical research forward in a way we never could have imagined a few short years ago. Indeed, one wonders if it is just the tip of the iceberg. What will the future hold?


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.