, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 225-252

Genetic Genealogy: The Woodson Family's Experience

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Abstract

In 1998, Foster and colleagues published the results of a genetic study intended to test whether Thomas Jefferson could have fathered any of Sally Hemings' children. They found that the Jefferson Y chromosome haplotype matched that of a descendant of Hemings' youngest child, but not that of the descendants of the eldest son, Thomas Woodson. The Woodson descendants were shocked by the study's finding, which disagreed with their family oral history. They were suspicious of the study conclusions because of the methods used in recruiting participants for the study and the manner in which they learned of the results. The Woodsons' experience as participants in one of the first examples of genetic genealogy illustrates several issues that both geneticists and amateur genetic genealogists will face in studies of this kind. Misperceptions about the relationship between biology and race, and group genetics in general, can make the interpretation of genetic data difficult. Continuing collaborations between the media and the scientific community will help the public to better understand the risks as well as the benefits of genetic genealogy. Researchers must decide prior to beginning their research what role the human subjects will play in the study and when they will be notified of the study's conclusions. Amateur genetic genealogists should anticipate unexpected outcomes, such as the identification of nonpaternity, to minimize any harmful effects to study participants. Although modern genetic methods provide a powerful new tool for genealogical study, they cannot resolve all genealogical issues, as this study shows, and can involve unanticipated risks to the participants.