Friday, July 21, 2006

You Can Still View DNAPrint's e-Symposium on Genetic Genealogy

Back on July 12th, I wrote about an upcoming online e-symposium on Genetic Genealogy being hosted by DNAPrint Genomics. I attended the conference a couple of days ago and found most of the presentations to be quite interesting.

In particular, I was intrigued by Edward Ball's talk on his upcoming book (to be published next year by Simon & Schuster), which he describes as a "genetic memoir." I had read two of Ball's captivating books, Slaves in the Family and The Sweet Hell Inside, so probably shouldn't have been surprised that he would venture into the world of genetic genealogy.

He had the good fortune to be born into a fascinating family, and as it turns out, his luck hasn't run out yet. As you can see from the mini-screen capture below (this will give you a sense of how an e-symposium works -- you hear a voice narrate over what appear to be PowerPoint slides), he discovered a bunch of hair samples from his ancestors -- each one carefully labelled and dated. Who gets that lucky?

At any rate, he decided to delve into genetealogy to see what these hair samples might reveal. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a myth that hair is a good source for DNA. Unless there are roots involved, you'll probably only be able to get mtDNA -- and if the sample is old, even that is questionable. So I wasn't surprised to hear that Ball found the results somewhat disappointing -- less than precise and occasionally conflicting (as he consulted geneticists around the globe).

While I'll be one of the first in line for his new book, I hope he doesn't come out as anti-genetealogy based on his hair expedition. Avid genetic genealogists are well aware of the limitations of mtDNA, which is why it's such a distant second to Y-DNA.

When I speak on the topic, I always explain that mtDNA is primarily a deep ancestry tool and is usually not all that helpful in a genealogical sense. There are a few exceptions -- and as testing advances, mtDNA will likely become more useful in the future -- but right now, mtDNA is mostly used to give you a sense of roughly when and how your direct maternal line migrated out of Africa.

I may be way off-base, and perhaps I didn't listen carefully enough (I freely admit that I haven't listened to his talk a second time yet, so my memory could be faulty). And Ball may be withholding a lot of information about the measures he took until the book comes out. Maybe he did all sorts of testing on all sorts of people. Maybe he sought out all the necessary distant cousins to create a genetic pedigree. I don't know.

But the impression I was left with the other day is that he had relied primarily on mtDNA and was disappointed with the results -- as those acquainted with genetic genealogy would expect. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that my initial sense is off -- that he used several types of testing on both the dearly departed and his many living cousins. We'll see what next year brings.

Now here's the good news. If you'd like to see Ball's talk yourself -- or any of the others -- you still can. Go to and register (it's free). Then click on the speaker you want to hear, and you're good to go! (One suggestion: do it using Internet Explorer. I tried initially with Mozilla Foxfire and it hung up.)


At 6:07 PM, Blogger Randy Seaver said...


Thanks for the link and the description - it convinced me to go look at the E-symposium concept and the talks. The talks were over my head, of ocurse, but the guy with the hairballs in the old family desk was intriguing, to say the least.

Have there been other Genealogy E-symposiums? I fear that I've missed something!

I had so much fun doing this that I blogged about it.

Cheers -- Randy

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...

Hi Randy,

As far as I know, this is the first use of e-Symposium services in the genealogical world. It was co-sponsored by DNAPrint Genomics and Family Tree Magazine.

Take care,

At 10:20 AM, Blogger JDR said...


Thanks to your initial posting I signed up for this symposium. "Hair" Ball's talk was the most relevant for genealogists. I missed parts owing to interruptions so went back and listened again. His reference to Forster, regarding the lack of repeatability of mtDNA results, was interesting. Is that concern specific to ancient DNA, as in the hair samples, or does is extend to fresh samples? Do the commercial DNA testing labs generally have some sort of ISO or similar accredition?

As someone who has organized a speaker program for a local genealogical society I wonder about the impact of E-symposia on them. Perhaps a 20 minute presentation is just a sampler and would only serve to encourage turnout for a more extended in-person presentation.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...


I assume the lack of repeatability stems from the use of ancient DNA, as I haven't heard of anyone being tested today having this problem. Doesn't mean it's never happened, but it's certainly not something I've seen or heard any grumbling about.

And of course, when you're dealing with ancient DNA, you always have to worry about contamination -- that is, other folks handling the sample and getting their DNA all over it! Then you have to test to eliminate the other candidates, etc.

And yes, labs these days are getting certified and otherwise taking a number of quality control measures. For instance, Sorenson Genomics is ISO 17025 certified. In the early days of genetealogy, you would hear of an occasional hiccup, but now things are pretty well automated and processed according to rigid (and sometimes actually certified) procedures.

With regard to e-Symposiums, I'm curious what effect they might have as well. Why not be a pioneer and let the rest of us know?!

Take care,


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