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Earlier this month Joanna Mountain, 23andMe’s senior director of research, spoke during a panel discussion at the annual Genealogy Jamboree hosted by the Southern California Genealogical Society in Burbank.
Starting in 2013, the four-day conference has included a day devoted to the use of genetic testing to inform the search for family history and ancestry. This year, Joanna participated in a discussion about what the future might hold.
“People are going to start seeing how they’re related to one another,” Joanna said, and then looking around at the audience she added, “Maybe at one of these conferences, they’ll put up on the screen how all attendees are related.”
Most of the other panelists — which included Bennett Greenspan, the president and CEO of FamilyTree DNA, Jake Byrnes, of AncestryDNA, and the genetic genealogist, Diahan Southard — agreed. As more and more people are tested, as genetic databases grow, tracing relationships between people will become more commonplace.
Moderator Blaine T. Bettinger wondered if in the future there might be some kind of universal family tree, a tree that includes every living person and shows the relationships amongst all of us.
“It could be terribly convenient for those of us who are studying genealogy,” said Blaine.
While a world family tree isn’t necessary for the effective use of genetic genealogy, it is a way to merge genetic information with information from family trees and research documents to inform people about their family history.
“I see a universal world tree emerging from the combined efforts of everyone in this room and at companies,” Joanna said in Burbank. “It’s already happening to some extent — kind of a crowd-sourcing effort.”
This is happening because individuals are sharing information, but also because companies like 23andMe are allowing developers to create APIs that will offer consumers more tools to use in their searches.
But Joanna also reminded those in the audience that people test for many reasons. They might want to know about their family’s or their own risk for disease, or see traits they might pass onto their children, but in testing they might learn something they didn’t know about their ancestry. 23andMe is trying to allow consumers to explore their DNA through all those facets, she said. They might also learn that their ancestry makes them more or less prone to certain health conditions.
“We’re looking for ways to integrate both the health side and the ancestry/genealogy side (because those) go hand-in-hand,” she said.