Newsweek - Genealogy Goes High Tech
November 3, 2003

Once genealogy was the pastime of the Burke's Peerage, blue-haired, blue-blood set. But now new advances in DNA technology are opening ancestral doors so both orphans and heirs to the throne can find where their families are from.

Business is catching on. For just $330 and a swath of saliva in the mail, Britain's Roots for Real runs customers' DNA strands through a worldwide database of 20,000 samples. Key evidence lies in mitochondrial DNA whose mutations vary by geographic region, making a Sudanese sample easy to distinguish from a Scottish one. More recent mutations are easier to track: 500-year-old strands can be traced nearly to the town of their origin. Since its 2002 launch, Roots for Real has signed up 330 users, and can expect more customers (and competitors) as word catches on.

The technology isn't perfect. Only 10 percent of Roots for Real's customers get a geographic placement that's smaller than continentwide. Sorry, dads, mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child, so paternal lineage remains hard to trace.

Genetic-tracking technology will improve, and people are using it to rewrite their family histories today. Dorothy Lockhart of Rodgers, Ark., always thought her family was British, till at the age of 81 she got startling data from Roots for Real, making her suddenly Swiss. Lockhart probably won't make it to her newfound country of origin. "But," she says, "maybe one of my grandchildren will."