Unlocking DNA for family history

Founder’s goal is to build brotherhood by extending kinship among humanity

Some people picket for world peace. Others move away into the desert or forest or turn to pottery.

But LDS philanthropist James L. Sorenson has turned his search for peace and brotherly love toward the microscopic world of cells and molecules.

Molecules are units that make up each cell. Within a cell's nucleus are molecules of gently twisting ribbons of DNA, double chains bound together in a spiral staircase formation. These are the basic material of genes, which, as one may remember from high school biology, convey hereditary characteristics.

Because DNA controls the genetic code of heredity, it also contains direct evidence of a human beings's forebears. It is this aspect of DNA that has made it a subject of pursuit for Brother Sorenson and his Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, started at BYU in 1999 and later moved to an independent site. The foundation has no connection with the Church.

It is within the keys of ancestry that the keys of brotherhood are found, he believes. When people realize how closely they are related, they will treat each other better.

"We are all closer than we think," he said. "We've studied differences (between people) so much, so long and so hard. Now, let us study similarities. The fact of life is that we are all one. We breathe the same air, drink the same water."

And so the work proceeds. Every day in a small, white-walled laboratory in Salt Lake City, the Sorenson staff extracts DNA from samples submitted and add the information to their databank now containing random bits of genetic information of more than 40,000 individuals. The goal is to first build the database to 100,000 individuals of Western European ancestry, then within five years expand it to other populations, such as Latin, African, Asian and so forth. Brother Sorenson hopes to eventually collect a worldwide database of such proportion that everyone could find some family history information.

The foundation reaches for peace by collecting samples from such areas as Ireland, some from Africa, the Middle East, and others.

"We are already getting samples from conflicting societies," Brother Sorenson said. "We are so anxious to get to the real truth."

Processed at the laboratory each week are the samples from about 200 people, along with their ancestry. Originally, four generations of ancestry was required with each sample, but now the foundation takes all the generations it can get. Scott R. Woodward, a BYU professor on leave to be chief scientific officer of the foundation, explained that the more generations, the greater the ultimate value of the database.

Part 1 of the project is the collection phase. In collecting DNA, said Brother Woodward, they receive molecular strands that are infinitely complex and carry incredibly rich information, far more than the foundation needs or wants. So they collect some 300 bits of hereditary information from the Y chromosome and the the mitochondrial DNA. The Y chromosome follows the paternal line, while the mitochondrial DNA follows the maternal line. The rest of the bits fill in additional blanks of ancestry. On a pedigree chart, these comprise the two outside lines and are relevant back to about seven or eight generations.

However, what the database won't do is also important: It won't reveal any information of individuals living after 1900 to protect their privacy, or any "skeletons in the closet." It won't contain any medical information because none is collected. Neither will it produce a pedigree chart. In fact, in this, Part 1, of the project, no information at all is promised. The samples are donated on a service basis strictly as a contribution to the project. As samples and genealogy are received, an extensive database will be built that can eventually help those who have missing data receive informative hints about their progenitors.

The Western Institutional Review Board in Olympia, Wash., oversees the foundation, as it does other DNA collections.

Some of the earliest Y chromosome information is now on a website. The website, with 40 pages of information, is www.smgf.org. Information on how to participate with the project is found on the site. Those who participate are required to have at least four generations of their genealogy.

Part 2 of the project will begin to give back the information, said Brother Woodward. Some time in the future, if all goes well, the database will contain enough information to benefit family history research.

The database is designed to be maximally helpful only to about 10 generations back.

Before the advent of modern computers, this database was not possible. It would not now be possible but for the considerable support of Brother Sorenson. When asked about his willingness to devote so much resource to so innovative, expensive, broad and hopeful a project, Brother Sorenson replied:

"Anything that is worthwhile is expensive. I've been in a lot of creative areas. I have always been an innovator. When you start something new, it scares everybody. When I got the computer in hospitals, the doctors were reluctant to use them. Now a computer is in every room of the hospital for all kinds of things.

He said that when he started computer-based monitoring of cardiovascular dynamics, it raised the standard of health care as well as giving him the means to move on to other areas.

He said that of all the philanthropies he has contributed to, this one is by far the biggest.

"If I can leave behind some tools, it will bring more hope, more faith. We are losing a lot of that (hope and faith) now — it's getting scarce. I wonder what is going to happen in this world. There are so many things that I didn't have to deal with when I was a kid that my kids have to deal with now.

"I am just trying to leave behind a legacy that unites technology with the Spirit, and that the Spirit rules," he continued. "If we can make the world more peaceful, more loving — if we can reduce fear and replace it with love, one to another, then I have met my goal."

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