Using Genetic Genealogy to Trace Family History

Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore describes how DNA testing can assist in tracing a family tree.





I’m CeCe Moore and I’m a professional Genetic Geneaologist. What I do is I work with the intersection of DNA and traditional genealogy research, so that would be working with Census records, vital records, things like that, in conjunction with commercial DNA testing. So, people that are researching their roots have started to turn to DNA to tell them more.

In genealogy, we always hit what’s called ‘brick walls’. What that means is we can’t get past a certain part of our tree with our existing records – at least those that have been located thus far. And sometimes it’s as close as grandparent, sometimes it’s fourth great-grandparent. And so, with DNA, we’re often able to get clues that lead us in the right direction.

I always say you can confirm your paper trail research with DNA, you can refute it (or someone else that’s arguing with you), or you can discover new avenues of research. So, if you just don’t even know where to go, sometimes DNA can show you that your ancestors came from a certain area of the world, or even a certain area of the United States, because you can see by those who share DNA with you that there are certain ancestral homelands to you. So, if those are not already in your tree, then you know that’s something that you should be looking at.

For instance, when I did a DNA test, I discovered I had a little bit of Jewish ancestry that I didn’t know about. Well, I have some brick walls of course, and by testing cousins, I’ve been able to zero in on which branch of my tree that Jewish ancestry came down to me from. And that happens to be one of my biggest brick walls, is my second great-grandmother had an unknown father. I think she was probably illegitimate. So it gives me new avenues of research. I didn’t know where to go next with her. There didn’t seem to be any existing record, or maybe there was never any records of her birth, since it was so far back. Now I can look in the area that she was conceived and look for maybe families that had some Jewish ancestry. So that’s just an example of how we might be using it.

It also works wonderfully for people with unknown parentage. So sometimes the brick wall is right here. There’s you and you don’t know the rest. So, I work with adoptees a lot in order to learn more about their heritage, which any commercial DNA test they take will tell them something they didn’t already know in that case, and we can often reunite them with biological relatives as well.

One of the most important things with genetic genealogy now is the growth of the databases. The more people we have tested, the more meaningful our matches are. It used to be, when I first started doing this, it was rare to find a meaningful match. We spent a lot of time going through our results and trying to dig out those gems, but they were few and far between. When there was maybe 30,000 people in one of the autosomal DNA databases. Now, if you add the three commercial companies that are doing this type of DNA matching, it’s over 1.1 million people. So, we’re seeing closer matches, more meaningful matches, and that’s just going to continue. As long as people stay interested in themselves, and keep testing, the databases will grow and we’ll all be able to learn much more about ourselves than when we first started this.

We also have more advanced type of Y DNA testing. We’re getting greater geographic specificity. Also with mtDNA, we were never able to do too much with that in the genealogical timeframe since it (as you know) mutates so slowly, but with the full mitochondrial DNA sequence, we’re starting to finally get into the genealogical timeframe, and I’ve worked on some amazing cases where very specific mutations were tied back to very specific geographic regions, and it often comes to a real surprise to the person that has tested.

So, I just see more of that. More testing. I’m a non-scientist, so I’m counting on all of you scientists here at the conference to help push this forward, and the citizen scientist community is also a large part of that. We have the time, and often the resources to some of the work that the scientists don’t have the resources or the ability to delve into, because they’re counting on grants, or they’ve got to teach their classes, of course. And there’s so many of us now that so invested in this field that we’re helping to push it forward. Spencer Wells says the citizen scientists are a huge part of this community, and I totally agree with him, because sometimes things that we discover then help the scientists to go further with that. To go the next step. And sometimes it works the other way too. They’ll come up with something new, and then we’ll apply that to our research. So, it’s an extremely exciting field. It changes every day. I wake up every day saying, “What new thing is in my inbox today? What interesting opportunity or new discovery – what new match does one of the cases that I’m working on have?” So, I couldn’t think of something that’s more exciting to do at this point.