Saturday, June 30, 2012

An Important Update on SMGF from Dr. Tim Janzen


Dr. Tim Janzen generously shared some very important information with me regarding the future of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF). With his kind permission, I have decided to share this timely update with my readers in Tim's own words, as follows:
 

Since early May 2012 it has been officially known that Ancestry.com is purchasing the genetic genealogy company GeneTree. At that same time it was announced that Ancestry.com had also acquired the DNA related assets from the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. (See this post for background regarding that announcement.) Exactly how this would impact the SMGF has been quite unclear since the announcement was made. The origin of the SMGF dates back to 1999 when the billionaire James Sorensen and the geneticist Scott Woodward established the foundation. 

The vision of the SMGF and the promises it made to the genetic genealogy community are summarized here. I will quote some of the content from that web page as follows:  

"The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to building the world's foremost collection of DNA and corresponding genealogical information. The Foundation is a world leader in DNA research with direct application to genealogy. SMGF was inspired by discussions in 1999 between philanthropist James LeVoy Sorenson and BYU Professor Scott Woodward about using DNA in genealogy. Since that time, SMGF has collected more than 100,000 DNA samples, together with four-generation pedigree charts, from volunteers in more than 100 countries around the world. Y-chromosome DNA results and pedigree charts are available for searching in the Sorenson Database. Y-DNA results and pedigrees help you trace your direct paternal line. Mitochondrial DNA results and pedigree charts are available for searching in the Sorenson Database. Mitochondrial DNA results and pedigrees help you trace your direct maternal line. The Foundation is also conducting research on autosomal DNA, and plans to release the Sorenson Autosomal Database in the near future. Autosomal DNA results and pedigrees can help you trace all family lines. We invite you to participate in the SMGF project and search the Sorenson Database. Help grow the genetic family tree, one branch at a time." 

The SMGF was heavily funded by James Sorenson until his death in 2008. After that time the SMGF appears to have significantly slowed its testing of the samples sent to the foundation and the staff has also been reduced substantially. At its peak the SMGF employed about 40 full-time genealogists working on entering the information contributed on pedigree charts into its integrated genealogy database, which had 2,694,224 unique ancestors in it at the time the database was last updated in March 2011. The SMGF stopped offering free kits from its web site over 2 years ago. Additional information about the SMGF may be found here.

On June 2, 2012, Steve Perkins blogged that he queried the SMGF about the status of their databases. The response he received from the SMFG may be found on his blog here.

In that correspondence, SMGF indicated that they would not be releasing the autosomal DNA data that they have accumulated since the foundation started. As of August 2009 the SMGF had tested 78,568 samples for an average of 68.5 autosomal STRs and had tested 73,394 samples for 13 X chromosome STRs. This information has never been made public. 

I have been heavily involved in collecting samples for the SMGF on a volunteer basis since 2006. I have either directly or indirectly collected about 2000 samples and associated pedigree charts that I have sent to the SMGF. About 85% of those samples were from people of Low German Mennonite ancestry. The available Y chromosome data from those Mennonite samples is available here. I have been looking forward to seeing the release of the SMGF's autosomal and X chromosome databases for many years. Now it would appear that this data won't be released anytime in the near future. 

Due to concerns I had about the future of the SMGF, I e-mailed my contact Ali Nelson there on May 31. I received her response on June 5 as below:

"Due to Ancestry.com's acquisition of GeneTree and SMGF, we are no longer updating the database. That will be up to Ancestry to decide how and when to do updates and I don't have any more information than that. SMGF is also not running any more samples - everything now belongs to Ancestry so it is up to them to run the remaining samples. We are winding things down here in the office and actually will not exist for much longer so I don't see any reason for you to send us an updated copy of the Grandma database. All of our assets now belong to Ancestry.com and they are making all of the decisions from here on out. You can contact Ancestry.com directly and hopefully they can give you more details. They have an email address devoted to questions regarding SMGF so you can try contacting them there first - it is smgfsupport@ancestry.com."

On June 21 Ali Nelson sent additional information as follows: 

"In regard to the SMGF website, it is still going to remain functional.  In fact, we will be doing an update in the next week or two so a lot of new samples will go online."  

Ali also said that the SMGF will be officially closing its doors on or about July 13.

The information provided by Ali Nelson in her responses are disappointing in a number of ways as follows:
1. She confirmed that SMGF is closing its doors and will not be operating much longer.
2. The SMGF's Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA databases will be updated within the next several weeks for the very last time.  When and if Ancestry.com decides to do additional updates to the SMGF databases remains to be seen.
3. It is unclear when, if ever, additional testing of samples currently at the SMGF will be carried out.  There are thousands of samples at the SMGF for whom no Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA results have been released.

On the positive side, the SMGF will soon be releasing new data for many people whose data hasn't previously been released. It is also good that the SMGF DNA samples are still safe and sound and are under the watchful care of a large relatively stable company. Hopefully Ancestry.com will provide funds for testing the samples for which no Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA results are available and will also update the SMGF Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA databases from time to time. I would also be grateful if Ancestry.com eventually releases the SMGF's autosomal and X chromosome databases. While it is true that the use of large autosomal SNP arrays has largely supplanted the testing of autosomal STRs, the release of the SMGF's autosomal STR database would be of significant interest and benefit to the genetic genealogy community. In my opinion the demise of the SMGF is a significant loss to the entire genetic genealogy community. The SMGF had an altruistic vision to create an integrated genealogy database with correlated genetic data that would be accessible to the general public. I remain hopeful that something good will come from this and that Ancestry.com will pick up the mission where the SMGF left off.


[*Update 7/11/12 - An email from SMGF]

Tim Janzen is a family practice physician in Portland, Oregon and a highly respected genetic genealogist. He serves as one of six 23andMe Ancestry Ambassadors as well as on the ISOGG Y-DNA Haplogroup Tree committee. He is a leading researcher in the use of  autosomal DNA for genealogical purposes.

4 comments:

  1. How to move results from GeneTree to AncestryDNA FAQ here: http://tinyurl.com/7fpb9fc

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  2. Thanks for providing the update. Tim has outlined the the high points of the situation and explained the implications. I am looking forward to the update of the yDNA and mtDNA SMGF database that was mentioned. It is good news to learn that the database will be available for a while longer.

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    1. Yes, I agree with you Rootstechie. It is good to know that the sale did not hinder the latest update. I know we all hope that the database will continue to be available indefinitely and not hidden behind a pay wall.

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  3. The loss of the SMGF must have been so discouraging to you, Dad. :(

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