[Update (2/24/12): Some genealogy forums are reporting that callers to Ancestry.com are being told that the autosomal DNA test will publicly launch in approximately 1 month (late March or early April).]
Tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featured African-American actor Blair Underwood. For those not familiar with Who Do You Think You Are, the 1-hour program examines the genealogy of a celebrity, typically focusing on one or two of their most interesting families.
This episode was of particular interest to me because it featured Ancestry.com’s new autosomal DNA testing service, which I’ve written about before (see “Ancestry.com’s Autosomal DNA Product – An Update”). While there wasn’t too much new information about the DNA product in this episode, it was an interesting sneak peek at the service.
In the beginning of the episode, as Mr. Underwood visits with his family to get a start with his genealogy, he shows a DNA collection kit with two long swabs and a mail return envelope. Ancestry.com is using cheek swabs rather than a saliva sample to collect DNA.
Later in the episode, Mr. Underwood reviews his DNA test results with Dr. Ken Chahine (LinkedIn profile), who is described as the “General Manager Ancestry DNA” in the episode. Dr. Chahine has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a J.D. (very similar to my own background). According to Dr. Chahine, the test Mr. Underwood used examined approximately 700,000 “links” (or SNPs) in the DNA chain.
Mr. Underwood’s results suggested that the DNA examined was approximately 26% European and 74% African, which is a fairly common admixture for African Americans. Under the “European” tab of the user interface, he was described as 20% French/Swiss and 6% German. Under the “African” tab, the results showed 27% Bamoun, 22% Brong, 13% Yoruba, and 12% Igbo (a total of 74%).
Next, Dr. Chahine asked, “Where would we find your closest DNA matches?” In other words, the Ancestry.com autosomal testing service will also include the ability to identify genetic cousins in the database.
The service identified a distant cousin (somewhere around the 10th cousin range) who lived in Cameroon (an Eric Sonjowoh). Mr. Sonjowoh was already in the Ancestry.com database, which is why they were able to compare him to Mr. Underwood. According to Eric, someone approached him in 2005 and asked him for his DNA because African Americans were trying to trace their family back to Cameroon. I’m not sure what database the DNA was in, but it shows that Ancestry.com has pre-populated its database with at least some samples from other public and/or proprietary data sources.
Interestingly, Dr. Chahine indicated that Mr. Underwood and Mr. Sonjowoh are related through Mr. Underwood’s paternal line. I’m guessing that they determined this by also testing one of Mr. Underwood’s parents (either directly testing his father, or by process of elimination by testing his mother).
At the end of the episode, Mr. Underwood and his father traveled to Cameroon to meet Mr. Sonjowoh and his family, which was a touching reunion. Although their relationship is extremely distant (perhaps as much as 300 to 400 years), it provided Mr. Underwood with a connection to his roots in Africa.
Thanks for the update. I was watching it and as an African American who has tested with Family Tree DNA and 23 and Me I was blown out of the water by the exactness of the new autosomal test by Ancestry.com. I wonder how they knew it was from his paternal line too.
He probably did the paternal DNA swab test.
I agree with A Martin that it’s quite likely that Blair Underwood and Eric Sonjowoh were matched as 10th cousins by yDNA testing, not autosomal. I base this on a couple of factors.
First, Eric says that someone came to him in 2005 and asked him to take a DNA test. There was no commercial company testing autosomal at that point. I think it’s possible that he was tested through SMGF. According to the demographics of their yDNA database, they have 1,372 samples from Cameroon. It would be no big feat for Ancestry.com to compare Underwood’s yDNA results (assuming they did this) to SMGF’s database and find Sonjowoh as a close match.
Also, the Ancestry.com DNA person is definite in saying that Sonjowoh is related to Underwood through Underwood’s paternal side. Unless Ancestry also tested Underwood’s father and Sonjowoh turned up as a cousin to his father too, how could Ancestry be so certain that the common ancestor was on Underwood’s paternal side? If the match was based on yDNA, not autosomal, then it would have to be a paternal side match.
It is good they did not have hom do 23andme’s test and he came up 3%-7% “Asian” and they pretended it was Native American.
Comments are closed.