Site uses DNA and social networks to trace ancestors

New GeneTree offering promises to trace lineage of users back to the 1500s

GeneTree, a new genealogy site set to launch on Tuesday, adds a new twist to online family history searches by allowing users to submit their own DNA and to collaborate with others using social networking tools.

The new site is being launched by several companies owned by Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Cos., including Sorenson Media and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF), which operates a genetic database that contains DNA samples from 80,000 people in 170 countries.

GeneTree will expand that database as users send in cheek swabs to be analyzed by Sorenson Genomics, a Web-based DNA testing company. The new site also will use digital video compression technology developed by Sorenson Media to let users share pictures and video clips on the site to create interactive digital family trees, noted James Lee Sorenson, CEO of GeneTree.

"GeneTree is a family history sharing Web site," Sorenson said. "It uses DNA to extend the concept of family. We enable [users] to connect and share with close and distant family. Once an individual has submitted their DNA ... that is compared against the database, and we can show people how they connect in he past and the present."

For between US$99 and US$149, users can submit DNA samples to be matched against dozens of subgroups of DNA. It will then be used to map the global origin of a person's ancestors and digitally show the migration of relatives throughout the world to discover a family's history that may predate written records.

For example, SMGF recently collected 3,000 DNA samples of the tribes of Mongolia, noted Scott Woodward, executive director and chief scientific officer of the foundation.

The program also allows users to set up social networking sites to post photos, videos and other content for families and individuals.

Woodward noted that GeneTree will analyze only a piece of a the mitochondrial DNA, which traces a person's family history on his mother's side.

"Every single person in the world today belongs to a very specific DNA subgroup," he said. "We have a history that is locked in that mitochondrial DNA. By looking at mitochondrial DNA, we can trace a very specific pattern back through your family history. We can tie those patterns back to common ancestors and to a woman back in the past who was the mother to us all."

The piece of DNA that GeneTree analyzes does not contain the genetic coding material that may indicate a higher likelihood of a disease like breast cancer. In addition, the program requires that all personal information like names and birth dates be stored separately from the genetic information to ensure security, Woodward said.

GeneTree does not reveal the names of people born in the past 100 years, to ensure that only the names of deceased people are available, he said. Furthermore, Woodward added, all the information on the site about a person is visible only to that user, unless he opts to share information about himself with family members who contact him through GeneTree.

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Heather Havenstein

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