Science helps trace roots of family tree - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Who Do You Think You Are? Ursula turns to science

(WMC-TV) – For many months we've shown you how to trace your roots using genealogy resources here in the Mid-South, but now we're turning to science.

A DNA testing kit created by a company called GeneTree is accessible to anyone who's serious about researching their family tree, and for Action News 5's Ursula Madden the results were both surprising and humbling.

I began this journey almost two years ago. With the help of genealogists from LDS Family History Centers in Memphis, I was able to trace my family tree back several generations.

I even learned of a great-great-great-grandfather who bought his own son out of slavery.

But tracing African-American ancestry isn't easy because the paper trail eventually goes cold.

That's why I turned to DNA testing. It offers a way to really answer the question: Who do you think you are?

The DNA testing kit from GeneTree costs a couple hundred dollars.

The directions are simple. Take a drink of water, swish for 45 seconds, spit it in the cup provided and mail it back.

The lab needs the sample within 48 hours.

And since I'm female, my dad had to send a sample too.

Scientists at GeneTree traced my mitochondrial-DNA, the genetic information passed down from my mother's side of the family.

They tested my dad's genetic markers to establish the paternal line.

"What we've done over the last ten years is gone throughout the world and collected about 112,000 DNA samples that represent more than 170 different countries," said Scott Woodward, a GeneTree scientist.

Woodward and his team compared my dad's DNA with thousands of samples so they could find people in the GeneTree database who have the same genetic markers.

And what they found is that my father's side of the family likely came from Cameroon, a country in West Africa.

Woodward said about 500 years separate me and a cousin living in Cameroon today.

Turns out, my dad shares a distant ancestor with Today Show weather man Al Roker, and possibly actor Blair Underwood.

Underwood recently discovered he too has roots in Cameroon on the NBC hit show Who Do You Think You Are?

That's my dad's line, but my maternal roots run deep. Very deep.

Like my father, my mother's line also reaches back to West Africa with the highest concentrations in Mali and Togo.

But my mom's DNA goes way back – 145,000 years.

"If we go to a database that searches on your mother's side - wow there's a lot," Woodward said. "You have a lot of cousins out there.

"Everyone living on the Earth today has ancestry that came out of Africa," he said. "Some of us came out more recently than others, and some of us can trace our roots back into Africa, where the original human population was. You're one of those."

It's a rare instance, scientists say, when an African-American can trace both sides of their family back to Africa and essentially the beginning of time.

For me, the DNA kit provided a humbling answer to the question: Who do you think you are?

Now, the next step on this journey is to connect all those family dots to see just how big my family tree is.

You can order your own DNA kit from GeneTree. They cost between $150 and $300.

If you're female and you can't get a DNA sample from your father, a brother will do.

 

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