Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

My Mitochondria

Have you ever thought about your mitochondrion. Our bodies are home to millions of mitochondria. These microscopic organelles provide each cell of our body with energy. Before tenth grade cell biology, I doubt I was aware of these mitochondria. As far as cellular organelles go—known as the power house of the cell—they are a pretty cool. Top of the food chain you might say. Yesterday, wanting to take advantage of the warm winter day, I decided to go out for a bike ride. As I was pedaling heavily, I was pondering my mitochondria. I was neither wondering how hard my mitochondria were working to supply the energy necessary for my pedaling, nor was I concern with the affects of record breaking temperatures on mitochondrial work load. I was contemplating their DNA, my DNA.

If you've been following my blog, by now, you know at least one important fact about me. I'm obsessed with the past. Turns out my mitochondria are going to take me much deeper into my past that I have ever thought possible.

I've spent the better part of the last three years, researching my past, studying my family history. I've succeeded in tracing my linage seven or eight generations back. If we count each generation to be 25 years, then I've traced my family history about two hundred years into the early 1800s. I can name my fourth great-mother and make an educated guess as to where she lived. Being from an Eastern European Jewish background, it's difficult to go much further than that. Tracking Jews prior to the early 1800 is particularly difficult because traditionally, Jews did not use surnames. Instead they used a patronymic system of naming, a first name followed by "son of" and the name of the father. As part of the emancipation process, recognizing Jews as citizens of Europe, the Austrian Emperor passed a law which compelled Jews to take a last name. Those of us interested in genealogy are eternally grateful to this decree which lead the way for most European Jews to choose a name. This made it much easier to trace and study Jewish families. Earlier generations and family histories frequently remain a mystery.

This is where the mitochondrion comes in. Scientist have discovered that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down practically unchanged from a mother to her children. Unlike nuclear DNA, which is composed of maternal and paternal DNA, the mitochondrion genetic code is directly inherited from the mother with very rare mutations. In the past few years, genealogist have been able to utilized advances in genetic decoding to map mitochondria DNA in families. mtDNA testing, traces one's maternal line. This means that my mtDNA, is identical to my mothers, my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers etc. These are the women, I inherited my mtDNA from:

her mother
Chaya Minucha Yarmovsky (maiden name unknown)
her mother

Amazing! If you think of Eve as the mother of all mothers, than we can look at Sarah, wife of Abraham, as the mother of all Jews. Let's think of her as an actual person and not a mythological figure for the sake of this discussion. This Sarah, who lived more than 3000 years ago, is hypothetically my 12,000th great-grandmother. Her mtDNA is practically identical to mine and every other Jewish woman on this planet. Luckily, there have been some mutations over the years, so not all us Jewish women carry the exact same DNA. mtDNA is not the maternal equivalent of a paternity test, but it can detect family lines which separated hundreds of years ago with a fairly high level of accuracy. This means that while  maternal cousins have identical mtDNA, studying our family mtDNA will tell us something about our foremothers who lived 400 years ago or earlier. Ancestors that so far have been a complete mystery.

My great-grandmother Minnie Kranowitz has already become somewhat of a celebrity. In her Memoir, Stored Treasures, I recorded vast amounts of information about our family history, which her journals provided and my research supplemented. One story she told my uncle did not make the book.  Before he passed away, my uncle Larry, shared with me, that Minnie believed our family arrived in Belitsa, now part of Belarus around four hundred years ago, during the time of the Jewish expulsion from Spain (1492 CE). This tid-bit, did not make my book, because I could not corroborate it. After consulting with experts on the subject, I know that this kind of story passed down for generations, tends to be true. Here is the cool thing: my mitochondrial genetic code may contain the clue I need to confirm this story. It not only can trace general migration patterns, but the larger of the databases such as is connecting families genetically.

So this is what I decided during my bike ride. It's time to take jump into DNA testing. I've invited my male cousins—sons of sons—to test their y-DNA. I ordered my kit mtDNA kit from, the premier genetic genealogy company. Soon we will know which of the Kranowitz/Yarmovsky lines indeed came from Spain. And you, my blog followers will be the first to hear the results!

Have you tested your family's DNA? What have you learned? Have you been hesitant to get tested? I would love to hear more about your process! Share your comments with us!

For results of the DNA test see: Is My Mitochondria Doing Anything for Me? (Part I)


  1. I have tested about 15 people - from both me and my husband's lines. I started with the usual yDNA tests for tthe guys and the mtDNA for the ladies. I am super excited about what the Family Finder test is about though. This tests detects cousins and I find it of greater use for genealogists!

  2. I'm so excited as well! Have you actually been able to link to cousins you couldn't link before? I'm exploring a few of those leads as well. It really is taking our work to another level no?

  3. Can't wait for the results! Fascinating!

  4. I had never thought of pursuing this before. Coincidentally, just yesterday, I just had a wonderful visit with my daughter, who is currently majoring in history/archaeology. She got to talking about the mtDNA test. The more she explained, the more firmly I was convinced to do this test and to persuade other family members to participate. Thanks for the recommendation. I hope you continue to post progress reports as you go through this process.

  5. Jacqi, clearly your daughter and I think alike. I will continue to post progress. I think it's very cool to be able to share this next step from the beginning of the process.

  6. My mDNA, although interesting, didn't yield a lot genealogy wise, but the ydna tests that I ran gave great results to compare to others. One piece of advice - go for the higher amt of markers if you can afford it. 12 just doesn't cut it.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  7. Thanks Theresa for the advice. As I woman, I am intrigued by the mother-daughter connection and what our mDNA, but you are probably correct that the YDNA will yield more info. It does get costly to go for the full pannel doesn't it. I was thinking about the 67 marker one. I like the fact that you can always upgrade later. For that reason, I'm considering have my son tested rather than me, since his mtDNA will yield the same information as mine but I can add on his yDNA which will tell me about my husband's paternal line. (not as romantic for the mother-daughter chain, but probably a better investment). Did you also add the Family Finder component when you did the testing?

  8. Very interesting blog, l have always thought for genelogy reasons, that foing a DNA test would be a waste of time and money for my line particularly. But having just read this am thinking differenty. An l 'get it' now. And as l have a new grandchild on the way would be great to find out their DNA heritage. Already found my youngest has her fathers blood group, different to mine and my sons. So looking for my mitochondria sounds like a must do pursuit.

  9. Julie, I'm this post got you inspired to think about this post. My mtDNA and my cousin's Y DNA is "cooking". I have a few other cousins excited and lined up to go for further testing of other branches! I'll keep you posted on the results when they come in in April!. Just one tip: is offering the same tests (through FamilytreeDNA at a discount price to their members (in case you're a member).

  10. Are you curious how my DNA testing is coming along? I have a progress report/report card out today: I would love your comments!


Thanks for sharing your comments!