Last week we discussed the valuable information and story that data, specifically DNA data, can reveal. I shared our experience with canine DNA and what story our dogs’ DNA told us.

We did the canine experiments several years ago and valued the information provided to us by the company about breed specific diseases, behaviors, etc. to help us provide the best care for our animals.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that we decided to do the human DNA testing this past fall. What can I say? We are data junkies.

The process is similar except collecting saliva is a little easier on humans. Dogs don’t spit on command. The results were surprising to say the least.

First let’s start with my husband. With a last name of Smith you would think it might be fairly benign and boring. But his grandmother’s last name is Romagnoli, as is a huge portion of his father’s side of the family. My husband has dark hair and plenty of it. His great-grandfather was from Sicily and brought to the United States to be a chef at a renown healthcare facility. These are things we already knew. As you can imagine we were expecting a significant portion of his DNA to show ancestry from Italy.

The chart below shows how wrong we were.

Just .8% of his DNA revealed Italian heritage. With the majority of 49.1% coming from Britain or Ireland.

Other interesting details from his report included a shared paternal-line ancestor with some royalty from the 4th century. Niall of the Nine Hostages, was a prehistoric Irish king, the ancestor of the Uí Néill dynasties that dominated the northern half of Ireland from the 6th to the 10th century.

These haplogroup discoveries are quite interesting. Most of the DNA in your body is packaged into 23 pairs of chromosomes. The first 22 pairs are matching, meaning that they contain roughly the same DNA inherited from both parents. The 23rd pair is different because in men, the pair does not match. The chromosomes in this pair are known as “sex” chromosomes and they have different names: X and Y. Typically, women have two X chromosomes and men have one X and one Y.

Your genetic sex is determined by which sex chromosome you inherited from your father. If you are genetically male, you received a copy of your father’s Y chromosome along with a gene known as SRY (short for sex-determining region Y) that is important for male sexual development. If you are genetically female, you received a copy of the X chromosome from both of your parents. It is the Y chromosome that is used to determined paternal haplogroups.

Maternal haplogroups are determined by sets of genetic variants in a tiny, unusual loop of DNA called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). As the name suggests, mtDNA is found in the mitochondria, small but mighty structures inside our cells that turn fuel from the food we eat into energy.

Mitochondria evolved over billions of years from an independent bacterial cell that was engulfed by another cell. Instead of becoming lunch, the bacterium helped its new host use oxygen to produce energy. Over time it completely lost its independence and became an integrated part of the larger cell. However, your mitochondria still contain a small, separate piece of genetic code: your mtDNA.

My husband belonged to the same maternal haplogroup as the Markina Gora Skeleton. At an estimated 36,000 years old, it is the second most ancient modern human to have his DNA fully sequenced. He was discovered in 1954 in southwest Russia, and recently analyzed to find clues about ancient European ancestry. The genomic data recovered from Markina Gora is further evidence that the population of our world by humans was very complex, and we have a long way to go before we understand it.

It is all very interesting. Well, at least my husband’s was interesting. Mine was boring compared to his. No surprises, no interesting connections to famous skeletons or queens. The only interesting discovery for me was that I had always been told that my great grandfather on my mother’s side was at least half Native American. Apparently I only inherited .1% of that DNA.

We found this little experiment to be insightful and interesting without having to spend a lot of time researching. I do have friends who are “all in” on the ancestry train and discover new ancestors every day, complete with details and photos. We all have stories and thank goodness for the data that helps us to tell them.

Melody K. Smith

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