Thursday, August 03, 2006

Genetealogy: Jamestown & Shoah Initiatives

Thought it was time to prove that I actually think about something other than Annie Moore from time to time! So a few thoughts on some recent genetic genealogy news, starting with a pair of somewhat similar -- and yet, very different -- large-scale DNA projects:

Jamestown DNA Project
This one, I confess, has me a little confused -- perhaps because the press release is slightly vague. Apparently, there's going to be an effort to link folks "genetically and historically" around the
Jamestown 2007 initiative. I'm a part-time resident of Williamsburg, VA (5 miles down the road from Jamestown), so I know from the local paper that the Jamestown 2007 project itself has a troubled history -- late in starting and getting organized. So perhaps that's part of why a project of this ambitious scope is being launched in August 2006 when the celebration begins in just a few months. But it seems it would have been a good idea to start this in, say, 2004.

I'm also a little unclear on what they're going to do. I would assume that they're going to locate direct line male descendants of Jamestown founders (and at this late date, they're going to have to rely mostly on previously conducted research) and snag Y-DNA samples from them to create some sort of mini-database that others could get tested and compare against. Now, that's just a guess, but otherwise, I'm not sure how they might tackle this. If this is the approach, though, they better use very high resolution testing (or perhaps a combination of STR and SNP testing) because the founders were primarily British -- and that means lots of haplogroup R1b -- sort of the genetic equivalent of being a Smith. And that sets the bar higher on the testing that has to be done. Otherwise, there's going to be a ton of false positives -- folks thinking they're related to Jamestown founders whose connection is perhaps thousands of years in the past.

I'm a fan of attempts to combine history and DNA in general, and I like
Relative Genetics -- folks who certainly understand these genetic testing nuances better than I do -- but I find it a little concerning that this effort is so last-minute.

DNA Shoah Project
This is a project to create a genetic database of Holocaust victim families that, according to the site, will be used to:

  • Assist in the identification of Holocaust victims whose remains continue to surface
  • Aid in the future identification of mass-graves projects
  • Assist global orphan-placement organizations to identify siblings and close relatives separated by World War II
  • With signed permission, DNA data can be used to help in genetic disease research

You can learn more about the project here.

The organizers and advisors -- who include the likes of Dr. James D. Watson and Dr. Michael Hammer -- freely admit that this will be challenging and is just the beginning of what will likely be a 20-30 year initiative. Add to this the fact that most Holocaust survivors who are still alive today (estimated at roughly 300,000) have been identified (some 52,000 have been interviewed on videotape by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation), and that DNA samples from their children and grandchildren can also be used, this sounds tough but ultimately doable. And teaming with organizations like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Gene Codes Forensics (which developed software that helped identify 9/11 victims) can only help.

I, for one, will be very interested to watch the progress of both these initiatives.


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