Genetic Ancestry Testing – A Brief History of Genetic Ancestry Testing

The intricacies of genetic ancestry testing have been thrust to the forefront of genealogical studies in recent years, and DNA testing for ancestry is now widely available to anyone who can afford it. Yet, still few people understand how genetic ancestry testing works in relation to discovering their long lost ancestors. Perhaps the mysteries of this miraculous science can best be understood if we know a little about its own "roots". Following is a brief, yet informative history, of genetic ancestry testing.

The Beginnings of Genetic Ancestry Testing

Humans had known for centuries that certain traits were passed from one generation to another by plants, animals, and themselves, but didn't begin to understand the specifics of genetic ancestry testing until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1865, Gregor Mendel, an Augustine Monk, came to understand that particular "hidden" factors contributed to the formation of individual traits. These "hidden factors" later became known as genes, and today form the basis of genetic ancestry testing. Mendel backed up his theory with a simple experiment using plants; the first ever in genetic ancestry testing. He began with "parent" plants of a known genetic background, so as to provide a basis for future comparisons, and then he recorded individual plants that shared similar traits in successive generations.

Mendel specifically focused on particular, easily identifiable characteristics common to several plants, and found that each characteristic had two different forms, i.e. seed colour could be brown or green. He cross bred plants in various combination and analyzed the results of this early form of genetic ancestry testing. What he discovered revolutionized agriculture forever. Mendel found that certain traits were passed on by specific genes, and through particular parents. He then needed to discover which parent passed which gene, which he did through further genetic ancestry tests and experiments.

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20th Century Progress in Genetic Ancestry Testing

Unfortunately Gregor Mendel was ahead of his time, and his forays into genetic ancestry testing and the resultant discoveries of his research were unappreciated by scientists of his era. His work was forgotten until 1900 when his results were confirmed by three different European scientists. It was strongly believed at this time that genes were the biological building blocks of life, and further study of cells and chromosomal behaviour revealed that cells contained their own inherent ability to reproduce. Scientists continued to document how chromosomes behaved during cell reproduction, and discovered that after making copies of its chromosomes, each cell divides and becomes two new cells, each having identical chromosome sets.

The Modern Era of Genetic Ancestry Testing

The modern era of genetic ancestry testing was ushered in by a group of students from Columbia University and their professor, Thomas Hunt Morgan. Whereas the previous experiments in genetic ancestry testing had been conducted on plants, Morgan and his pupils studied the genetic inheritance patterns of the common fruit fly. Their experiments focusing on cross breeding flies of different eye colour resulted in the ground breaking discovery that the gene that determines eye colour is physically attached to the X chromosome.

Morgan and the students at Columbia University conducted further experiments which provide the basis of genetic ancestry testing today. As well as discovering that genes were located on chromosomes, they realized that genes often recombine, and can be used to identify the lineage of a plant or animal. Of course today the science of genetic ancestry testing has many uses. Criminal forensics, genetic manufacturing, nano-molecular technology, and simple paternity tests, all stem from the original genetic ancestry testing experiments conducted by Gregor Mendel on plants.

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Genetic ancestry testing is not a perfect science, nor is it likely to be in the future. The complexity of the human body's design and make-up leaves lots of ground yet to be explored. It has grown in leaps and bounds however, and will continue to expand as new research and technological breakthroughs occur. One thing for certain is that genetic ancestry testing has become a valuable genealogical tool, and is being used by many on a daily basis to trace their ancestral lineage. I wonder if anyone has found that they are related to Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic ancestry testing!

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