Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is My Mitochondria Doing Anything for Me? (Part I)

I know many of you have been anxiously waiting for my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test results. My Mitochondria post is one of my top three all-time posts—quickly gaining in popularity on A Photo Worth A Thousand Words and Are You on The Fence? Top 10 Reasons to Jump Into Family History! As you may recall, in My Mitochondria I discussed my reasons for taking the leap into Genetic Genealogy. In the past few months, since I've submitted myself and my great-grandmother's elderly nephew (Herb) to a cheek swab, I've received many inquiries from curious family member. My post continues to receive recognition from many reputable on-line genealogy papers such as: The Ancestor Dig Daily, Genealogy-Bloggers, The GeneaBloggers Daily.

What is all the fuss about? Why we so fascinated with this tiny organelle and DNA testing for genealogy? Our modern society is clearly fascinated with science and technology. For so long, the field of genealogy was a study of everything old: old documents, history books, newspapers, tombstones and photos etc. Today, propelled by fast-pace advances in the technology, the science of genealogy is benefitting from the internet and the availability of millions of databases  instantaneously. More recently, genealogist taken a giant leap into the human genome. Our DNA code is promising to reveal so much about where we come from and connect us to relatives we didn't know we had. Sounds familiar? It's what genealogy is all about isn't it? Genealogy DNA is such a hot area, everyone including me is jumping onto the band-wagon. Last February, MyHeritage, the most popular family tree on-line network with over 62 million members, launched a partnership with FamilyTreeDNA, the global leader in genealogy DNA. The competition for leadership in the field is fierce. Just today, in my inbox was an announcement from about their new DNA testing feature. They even included a well polished video promising genetic genealogy will take your family history to another level.

At the risk of alienating my friends at some of these esteemed companies, as well, as discouraging my relatives from participating—in what I believe to be an important part of our family history research—I decided it's time to share with my readers the progress I've made in the world of DNA testing and report on whether it lives up to all the hipe.

So far, My Mitochondria is Not Doing Much for Me! Don't get me wrong. I AM NOT WRITING OFF DNA TESTING. I am still a firm believer and plan to do further testing myself. But before I recommend to my family and readers to shell out hundreds of dollars and get tested, I need to clarify things in the hopes of dispelling misinformation and preventing disappointments.

Back in February—when I ordered my famous mtDNA test and an autosomal test called Family Finder—I set out clear goals. First, find out if I had any sephardic roots, and second, search for clues to propel me past some brick walls in my family research. In today's post, I will tackel only the first of my two aims: Did my great-grandmother's family migrate from Spain to Belarus?

When I shared with my family that Minnie believed her ancestors were Sephardic, I received the following note from Ruthie, a cousin of my grandmother's, who is a concert pianist. Ruthie seemed to feel the Sephardic genes flowing through her veins:
"I am very excited about the information that our family may be connected to the Sephardic Jews that left Spain in 1492.  For many years, I have been seeking out and performing Sephardic songs in the Ladino language with several singers. All my life I wanted to go to Spain, and during the past decade, I was there twice performing the Sephardic song repertoire in Toledo and Alcala de Henares.  During one of these trips, I visited Barcelona and had terrible nightmares several nights in a row.  I jokingly told my colleagues that in a former lifetime, I must have been a Jew at the time of the terrible Barcelona pogrom in 1391 (but I was only half joking.)"
Before confirming Sephardiness, the DNA test needed to confirm Jewishness. Here is what my Family Finder test says about my Jewishness:

There is an 84.82% probability that I am Jewish (Sephardic or Ashkenazi), 15.18% chance I'm European (not Jewish). The margine of error is so high (18.58%), which could make me 100% Jewish or 30% likelihood that I'm not. The margine is so high because there was a lot of mixing between Jews and non jews over the centuries. I think this means I'm Jewish, a fact, I never doubted since I know for sure that I have Jewish ancestors for at least eight generations on both sides. Yet my basic question could not be answered from this population chart. If I understand it correctly, there is not enough population DNA data to distinguish between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. This is a great reason for more people of the tribe to get tested!

Another way FamilyTreeDNA attempts to respond to my question, is by looking at the origins of the families my mtDNA linked up with. Less than 3% of them were Sephardic. I mostly linked to self reported Ashkenazi families. This means that I'm still Ashkenazi, but the possibility that our ancestors have migrated from Spain has not been ruled out. Since I didn't purchase the highest level mtDNA test (I bought the combo pack), nothing has been ruled out. My great-grandmother's nephew Herb, took the Y-DNA tested for Minnie's paternal line (Kranowitz) and had similar non-conclusive results.

It took me a while to figure out what to do next until I join a few Sephardic projects, within FamilyTreeDNA. The projects are created to further study DNA of people who believe they share a certain origin. I was accepted into the Sephardic Heritage Project and here is what the head of the project wrote to me: "Your mtDNA is not surprising: 40% of today's Ashkenazi men are descendants from four Sephardi women who migrated to Eastern Europe from Rome". To's credit, even the president of the company weighed in on my mtDNA. Here is what he said: "I have now looked at your mtDNA. You are in a Semitic Haplogroup, N1b, that came form Judea!, however since it's in both Ashkenazim and Sephardim I do not think that at this time we can say with any confidence that it was originally Sephardic."

The is all very confusing, but the science is intense and in rapidly advancing. The on-line team is impressively responsive and helpful, so hang in there, and ask them questions if you feel lost. As far as my DNA, if forty percent of Ashkenazi Jews are of Sephardic origin, I have a 40/60 chance. I love my mitochondria, but so far, it's not sharing it's secrets with me, Ruthie or the world. The good news is: I am contributing to the study of genealogy DNA by participating in these projects!

Those of you out there who know more about this subject than me, do share! If your thinking about getting tested, DO IT! Just remember, you've been warned. Don't expect concrete answers any time soon.

To be continued: More about my DNA testing experience and breaking brick walls.

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