Decode Your DNA
Can't find the records to prove your Native American or East Asian ancestry? Discover what's in your genes with AncestryByDNA.
In an earlier, less-enlightened era, “racial purity” was highly valued (at least among the race that mostly ran things), and ugly phrases such as “half-breed,” “mongrelization” and “race mixing” were hurled like curses. Today, though bad, old attitudes still linger in dark corners, golf fans root for Tiger Woods, Cher can boast of her Cherokee blood, and genealogists look for exotic rainbows in their roots.
Even as ideas about race have changed, new tools have evolved for studying the subject. Some geneticists now argue, in fact, that the whole concept of “race” isn't really biologically relevant, that the DNA differences underlying our racial divisions are, well, microscopic. Others are using advances in DNA technology to probe the racial mixture of the world's population — and discovering, yet again, that we're more similar than we are different. As Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist and CEO of DNAPrint genomics in Sarasota, Fla., puts it, “In all of us, especially in the US, there is a continuum of ancestries.”
[Note: DNAPrint Genomcs is no longer in business.] A branch of Frudakis' company called AncestryByDNA <> aims to help genealogists explore the racial mix of their family trees with a simple DNA test. Unlike other DNA-testing kits (see the box at right), AncestryByDNA does not rely on Y-chromosome tests (which only males can use) or mitochondrial DNA. Instead, it looks at a person's Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips” for short) — think of them as collections of letters among the long sentences of the human genome. Then, AncestryByDNA compares your SNPs to a database of results representing four main human racial groups, based on continent of origin: sub-Saharan African, Indo-European (Europeans, Middle Easterners and South Asians, such as Indians), East Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Pacific Islanders) and Native American (ancient migrants to both North and South America). Originally, the test used six groups, distinguishing South Asian from European and Pacific Islander from East Asian, but the current version retreats from that until further refinement in an upcoming version 3.0.

AncestryByDNA simply places your DNA along this racial spectrum, which means the test can't connect you with distant DNA cousins, as some genetic-genealogy offerings promise. But if you've always wondered if you have some African roots, for example, AncestryByDNA offers an easy way to put your theories and family stories to the test. At $158 for an individual, it's cheaper than most DNA tests for genealogy, which typically run $200 to $300. And unlike tests that require Y-chromosomes, you don't have to have the cooperation of a male family member.

The test itself couldn't be simpler. When you order, you get two sterile Gene Guard swabs, which look sort of like small dental instruments. You scrape the inside of each cheek with a serrated swab (pictured below left) at least 10 times, using an up-and-down motion and moderate pressure. Then, let the swabs briefly air-dry and pop them in the supplied return envelope.