Monday, March 26, 2012

"Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr." - DNA in The First Two Episodes

Last night was the premiere of PBS' Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. with two episodes featuring 1) musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis and 2) politicians Cory A. Booker and John Lewis. Although I enjoy any television show that brings genealogy into the public eye, I think this series is much more fulfilling for the serious genealogist than NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? In this new series, as in all of his past genealogy shows, you can count on Dr. Gates to present a well laid out, thought provoking story - he never disappoints!

I was really happy to see that genetic genealogy was integrated into both of the night's episodes. It was also great to see that both of my favorite DNA testing companies 23andMe and Family Tree DNA were featured in the show.

In the first episode, in a really fun segment, Dr. Gates DNA tested his friends from the barbershop to determine their genetic makeup. Early in the show, he had each of them guess what percentage of their ancestry was African, European and Native American and then, later, shared with them their actual results. Although they showed a swab collection kit instead of the usual 23andMe spit tube (probably because it was more telegenic), I am quite sure those results were from 23andMe's Ancestry Painting feature that examines a tester's DNA one segment at a time and determines for each stretch whether it was most likely inherited from ancestors in Africa, Europe or Asia (a stand-in for Native American in this case). I thought Gates' presentation of his friends' ancestral origins results using a pie chart format rather than 23andMe's usual 22 chromosome chart was a good choice for the television audience. 

I did feel like a good opportunity for demonstrating the application of Y-DNA testing (offered by FTDNA) was overlooked during the portion where Dr. Gates determined which of the men were the progenitors of Branford's direct paternal line based on the marriage records. Perhaps, Gates and his producers had more information than we in the audience did, but it seemed that a Y-DNA test would have been a more reliable tool for reaching the conclusion that Branford's great-great grandfather was Isaac Black than basing it on the absence of a signature on a marriage license.

The second episode illustrated one of my favorite uses of autosomal DNA by testing Michael Hislop, the theorized (half) second cousin of Cory Booker, and confirming that they were indeed both great grandsons of Dr. Stephen H. Brown (full second cousins would be expected to have an average of 3.125% of their DNA in common, in this case it would be half that since they only share one great grandparent, not two). Mayor Booker's family had an oral history that his maternal grandfather, Limuary Jordan, was fathered by a white doctor, but had no way to determine who that might have been until Dr. Gates' team (which included Megan Smolenyak for this segment) and this DNA test solved the century-old mystery.

Mayor Booker's newfound cousin Michael's comment in response to an inquiry regarding how he felt about being asked to DNA test for the show, was one all enthusiastic genetic genealogist would do well to remember before approaching relatives for their DNA. Implying that he was eased into the idea he reminded, "That wasn't the first conversation that we had!"

Strangely, the collection kit shown for this segment was undeniably a Family Tree DNA kit, but 23andMe's Dr. Joanna Mountain was the one who explained on camera how this type of test works. In reality, both companies offer this service - 23andMe's Relative Finder feature and Family Tree DNA's Family Finder can confirm familial relationships from siblings out to second cousins with confidence. Third cousins and beyond can also sometimes be confirmed, though with more difficulty and diminishing accuracy as the relationship becomes more distant.

23andMe prudently seized the opportunity to debut their new 15-second commercials as "bumpers" at the beginning and end of each episode. You can view them, vote for your favorite and enter a contest to win an iPad3 here.

I was very pleased with the application of and exposure for genetic genealogy in this fascinating new series and look forward to enjoying it every Sunday night through May 20th. I plan on writing a summary about the DNA portion after each episode for those who might want more information on the tests, the methods and the companies used - so be sure and check back!

***Blaine Bettinger shares some interesting insights into the use of DNA testing for this show on his blog The Genetic Genealogist.

 [Disclosure - my company StudioINTV has an existing production agreement with FTDNA that has no bearing on the opinions I express. I also receive a small commission from FTDNA on non-sale orders through my affiliate link, which I use to fund DNA tests. I am currently serving in a volunteer advisory position for 23andMe, for which I may receive a small number of 23andMe kits for my DNA research.  Any opinions that I express here on my blog are my own and do not reflect those of management at either company.  I receive no other compensation in relation to any of the companies or products referenced in my blog.]


  1. Hi,

    You made this statement which I am asking if you could fact check a bit more:

    "Dr. Gates' team (which included Megan Smolenyak)"

    I believe that Megan has worked with Dr. Gates in "previous TV programs" but not on the current "Finding Your Roots" series.

    Johni Cerny is the Genealogist listed at the above site and I believe it is "her" and her team of researchers and other Genealogists which Gates uses to connect the dots on the on the "Genealogy" paper trail.

    23andMe and FTDNA and their experts take care of the "Genetic" Genealogy portion.


    1. Thanks for your comment, George. Megan tweeted numerous times during the show last night that she had researched Cory's genealogy for the show. (!/megansmolenyak)
      I added "for this segment" just to clarify.

    2. Here is her first tweet regarding this:!/megansmolenyak/status/184039452946083840
      There are many others along this line following.

  2. Megan Smolenyak was "specifically requested to research Cory Booker". See:

  3. Thanks for the followup CeCe!

    Kudos to Megan for Cory's research.

    IMHO, Dr. Gates has assembled a superb term of documentary film makers, writers, researchers and genealogists.

    The segment which moved and intrigued me the most was the one on Rep. John Lewis.

    This was Genealogy at its finest moment in helping us to understand The Eminence Spirit in Rep. Lewis and in each of us.

    Rep. Lewis said:

    "We all come from some place, we have some connection, some existence."

    "I wish it were possible for every person to know this for him or herself"

    The best way to describe "this", I believe, is to closely consider the meanings in "The Eminence Spirit".

    I think Rep. Lewis is very desirous of determining a way to help many others in finding their roots.

    Is this best done by educating and tuning out vast numbers of new "Beginner" Genetic Genealogists or perhaps done best by a group of "Advanced Volunteer" Genetic Genealogists?

    If the later, what type of Volunteer Organisation could take on such a pro bono task to let's say help 10,000 African Americans a year in finding their roots using the vast array of Genetic Genealogy tools and methodologies?

    Or, if a Foundation had to contract for such services ... what would be the average cost per person ... $1000? $2500? $5000?

  4. I do not understand how the fact of finding long shared segments in autosomal DNA could serve as evidence for having a common male ancestor in the person of Dr. Stephen H. Brown, unless they also had a perfect match in the Y-DNA of the two male descendants, which was not mentioned nor shown to the audience (unless I missed something). They could share common ancestors, not necessarily in the patrilineage.


    1. @Jacques - It is true that the one DNA test alone is not ABSOLUTE evidence, however the chances of the two sharing another common ancestor close enough for them to share enough autosomal DNA to be determined to be (half) second cousins seem astronomical. This is especially true when you consider why this particular man was chosen to test. There was already circumstantial evidence of a relationship. When you get further out in the pedigree, it becomes more and more difficult to confidently assign the source of the shared DNA, however at the level of half 2nd cousins, two people would share an average of 1.563% of their DNA. That is actually a lot! True, it is circumstantial evidence without testing other family members, but VERY strong. My guess is that they also tested Booker's mother and Michael's uncle, who would be half first cousins and share about 6.25% of their DNA. That is a pretty undeniable confirmation!
      Since the cousin's connection did not lie on either of their direct paternal lines, they could not use Y-DNA testing. The connection was through Mayor Booker's mother and apparently Michael's mother as well since his last name was not Brown.
      Thanks for commenting!

    2. I see no particular reason why the connection had to be through Michael's mother, given that Dr. Brown was his great-grandfather.

      Michael had a parent X who was a child of Y who was in turn a child of Dr. Brown. All we can say is that X and Y cannot both have been men, because otherwise Michael's surname would be Brown. So one of X or Y was a woman, or both.

      In particular if X was male and Y was female, i.e. if Michael Hislop's father's mother was a daughter of Dr. Brown, that's consistent with the evidence you describe.

  5. If your DNA results show a large percentage of British Isles origin, is there a test that can differentiate within those countries? Even a specific geographical area?

    1. Not yet, however with the new data coming out from the People of the British Isles project, this may be possible in the near future.
      Thanks for writing,