TGG Interview Series VI – Ann Turner

Ann Turner has been a member of the genetic genealogy community since 2000, and during that time she has made great contributions to field (as will become obvious from her interview). According to her brief biography at the Journal of Genetic Genealogy:

Ann Turner is the founder of the GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list at RootsWeb and the co-author (with Megan Smolenyak) of “Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree.” She received her undergraduate degree in biology in 1964 and her M.D. from Stanford University in 1970. In recent years, she developed software for neuropsychological testing and wrote utility programs for the PAF genealogy program. One of these utilities provided a way to split out all people in a database who were related via their mitochondrial DNA, six years before mtDNA tests were commercially available. The inspiration for this feature came from the (then) forward-looking predictions of Dr. Thomas Roderick, now associate editor of JoGG.

As stated in her bio, Ann is the co-author of “Trace Your Roots With DNA”, the premiere book on genetic genealogy (the other co-author, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, was featured earlier in this series). Ann continues to contribute frequently to the GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list at Rootsweb, and has been especially active in genetic genealogical analysis of new SNP testing by companies such as 23andMe and deCODEme. Once again, I highly recommend subscribing to the GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list if you are interested in genetic genealogy testing!

In the following interview, Ann discusses her introduction to genetic genealogy, some of her experiences with testing, and the use of large-scale SNP testing for genealogical purposes.

TGG: How long have you been actively involved in genetic genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?

Ann Turner: I’ve been actively involved since the year 2000, when DNA testing for the ordinary consumer first came to market. I had been waiting for that moment for a long time, though. I was first inspired by an article in the NEHGS magazine by Thomas Roderick, Mary-Claire King, and Robert Charles Anderson. It was the first to point out the potential of tracing long matrilineal lines with mtDNA. That was written clear back in 1992, so it took a while for my dream to become reality. I wanted to have someone to chat with about this new field, so I founded the GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list. Be careful what you wish for! The list now carries thousands of messages per month. But it was also the means by which I “met” Megan Smolenyak, my co-author for “Trace Your Roots with DNA” and countless other wonderful fellow travelers in this strange new land.

TGG: Have you undergone genetic genealogy testing? Were you surprised with the results? Did the results help you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

AT: Yes, I’ve experimented with many different types of tests. One of the most satisfying endeavors was learning the real surnname and origins of a great-grandfather, who was orphaned at a young age. There were family legends that he had a half-brother, who was taken in by another family and never heard from again. Through traditional genealogy research, I tracked down a potential descendant and ordered a Y-DNA test for him and a cousin of mine. The result was a perfect match. The next step was to connect this family to a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania line, which traced its origins and an unusual spelling of the surname back to 1740. I simply put out a call for any male named Shreiner, and the respondent was also a perfect match. Again, this technique was combined with traditional genealogical research, which always goes hand-in-hand with DNA testing, but it was the DNA that enabled me to span centuries: 150 years forward to a descendant of the half-brother, and 150 years back to the origins of the surname in the United States.

TGG: I know that you have been analyzing the results of large-scale genome scanning tests by 23andMe and deCODEme, and I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding the applicability of these results to genetic genealogy. Will these SNP tests shed light on the human Y-DNA or mtDNA trees, or should we just wait a few years for full-genome sequencing?

AT: The mtDNA and Y-SNP tests from the genome scans are no substitute for the mtDNA and Y tests offered through the genealogically oriented companies, which offer much greater resolution. I regard those features as fringe benefits of the scans, which provide access to an unprecedented amount of autosomal data. Someday it may be possible to trace small segments of autosomal DNA (“haplotype blocks”) to a common ancestor. That will require massive databases and massive computational power! Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation is pioneering in this new domain.

TGG: Thank you Ann, for a terrific interview!