Some startling genetic discoveries and a good dose of curiosity have linked Mike Anderson to family in America and revealed the epic journey of his own ancient ancestors.
Mike Anderson believes two powerful ingredients - the internet and DNA testing - have revolutionised family history research forever. LISA MINNER talked to the Dubbo pharmacist about the benefits of merging technology, genes and history.
AS A THIRD generation pharmacist with a curious mind, it was no surprise to anyone when Mike Anderson’s love of science and history led him to the fascinating world of DNA-based genealogy.
After tracing parts of his family’s migration from Lincolnshire in the UK to the Richmond region of Australia to the Central West of NSW, last year Mike stumbled across direct living relatives in Nebraska in the USA, thanks to information he had uploaded on a well-known genealogy site.
And when the connection of the two families was made; the similarities between them were “amazing”.
After coming to a dead end of tracing his family to England in the 1800s, Mike had joined an online Anderson family name project to see what happened to the rest. Only one Anderson brother had taken advantage of the Bounty scheme which provided assisted immigration to Australia– his great great grandfather William – and there was no trace of where the rest of his William’s siblings had scattered to.
“I found a US-based open-sourced website called Wikitree and uploaded my family information from both Australia and England,” he said.
“Shortly after that, I got an email from some Andersons in America saying ‘Hey! We think you’re our lost cousin.”
Mike said the family explained there were stories that one relative had gone to Australia but no-one knew whether it was true.
The American cousins had found Mike’s family information on the genealogy website and discovered they shared a common ancestor.
Five of Mike’s great grandfather’s brothers went to America but instead, William chose to settle in Australia.
The American-bound brothers ended up working as farmers in Illinois, Missouri and finally Nebraska.
After pooling their shared history, Mike suggested doing a DNA test with the American ANdersons to confirm genetic linkages.
“I wanted to see if our written records were backed up by science,” he said.
And science confirmed what they suspected.
“As luck would have it, we matched perfectly and the results estimated we were anywhere between third or fourth cousins - it turned out that we were fourth cousins and they were the closest I’d matched with anyone on my database,” Mike said.
Around the same time, Mike’s daughter Tori was exploring options for her 2013 school exchange to the US. The family discovered there was a school in Omaha, Nebraska she could attend which was the same home town as the American Andersons.
“I rang them and told them about Tori and they were really excited and said they wished I were coming over too.
“They suggested we both come for a week or two and they’d show us around.”
Mike said he discussed the idea with his wife Cathy and shuffled a few frequent flier points around to make it happen.
“I took Tori over and stayed with the family for two weeks and had the time of my life!” he said.
“They were fantastic, and the irony is that I had been visiting America for 20 to 30 years and never knew I had family there. I wish I had known earlier.”
Mike said another coincidence was when they discovered that Tori had a cousin at the school she was attending in Omaha.
As a result of the trip, the families have remained in contact and have established a lasting connection.
Nebraskan cousin Ricky Anderson was just as thrilled as Mike to discover the link with his Aussie family.
“It was incredible that we found family across the planet, delightful to have Mike and Tori in Omaha, and magnificent to spend time with them,” Ricky said.
“We had a lot of laughs. Mike went with us on the Taco Ride - a 20 mile ride ending with beer and tacos - and we had a blast.
“We were lucky to have Mike and Tori visit Omaha.”
The American Andersons intention is to visit Australia in the near future and Mike would love to bring them out to Dubbo.
In the early days, Mike’s interest in genealogy took a leap forward when he realised he had a wealth of first-hand information available to him via his older living relatives.
Determined to gather as much info as possible, he organised an Anderson family reunion and picked as many brains as he could.
One aunt had already sketched out the beginnings of a family tree which Mike was able to build on.
He took the information and utilised the wealth of genealogy and DNA resources online to help him begin to piece together thousands of years of his genetic history.
“I found a UK-based website called Genes Reunited and discovered quite a bit of information about the Andersons and how they originated from a small village in Lincolnshire called Toynton in the 1600s and finally emigrated from Wainfleet, a coastal town only 20km away,” he said.
“Incredible to think the family only moved 20km in 200 years!”
Mike’s interest in his family history really piqued when DNA testing became accessible to the public. When testing first became available it was expensive and very few people knew much about it. Despite this he got on board with the technology early and has been keeping up with its progression ever since.
The pharmacist said the combination of both the internet and home testing kits really began to reveal masses of information about “deep ancestry,” as it’s known, worldwide.
Deep ancestry is not traditional genealogy and it is not generally used for tracing family linkages. Deep ancestry harks back much further, tens of thousands of years in fact, to our ancient ancestral beginnings. Deep ancestry focuses on tracing population movements and reveals a person’s genetic beginnings to a fairly specific location somewhere in the world.
After author Bryan Sykes’ book, The Seven Daughters of Eve came out in 2001, DNA companies began to spring up all across America. The book was the first of its kind to explain mitochondrial genetics and human evolution, in a way average people could understand. It captured people’s imaginations.
Sykes claimed mitochondrial DNA could be traced back to seven specific women - or clan mothers. Interestingly, all seven of those mothers could then be traced back to one mother collectively known as Mitochondrial Eve.
“It was after that I discovered Family Tree DNA which is now the biggest company of its kind in the world for genealogy purposes,” Mike explained.
“It’s exploding enormously, especially in America; the amount of people getting DNA tested is doubling or tripling every year. Millions of people have been tested now,” he said.
A study being conducted by American geneticist Dr Spencer Wells and National Geographic magazine – The Genographic 2.0 Beta Project - is an ambitious one-of-a kind initiative that is aiming to analyse historical patterns in DNA of people from all around the world.
Participants discover the migratory paths of their ancestors, and learn specific details about their ancestors.
The project which requires only a cheek swab, is non-medical, non-profit and anonymous and costs $159.95.
So far, this deep ancestry project has seen a whopping 619,000 people jump on board.
Mike believes this is just one example of how the internet has completely revolutionised the study of genealogy.
“If you were to go onto Wikitree and look me up, it would tell you that Mike Anderson has done a DNA test at FamilytreeDna.com and if you wanted to see if you were related to me, you would click to do the test and show a match.”
This is the first time in history that technology has been able to allow this.
“If this were only five years ago, that kind of result would have been impossible - it’s really quite amazing,” he said.
Mike said the way matching occurs from your DNA is by identifying your mutations. In lay terms, he said every time your genes are copied, there is an opportunity for a mutation to occur.
“If you get a mutation you will then pass it on to your relatives. “
So when geneticists are trying to match or link people together, they are basically linking similar copying errors which have occurred when creating a new cell. This results in a unique DNA signature. Most of these however, have no effect on us.
Mike said that as more and more people have their DNA testing done, smaller, less obvious mutations can be identified and closer linkages can be made.
Analysis of Mike’s family name line (YDNA) indicated he matched with a few Scottish Clans including the McGregors, McClouds and Davidsons. It seems some time during migration from the north, his family adopted the Anderson name probably due to political reasons.
At various times, the English banned the use of Clan surnames. From his DNA surname project, Mike found 15 other groups of Andersons who did the same but are not related by genes, only name.
Delving further back into history, his DNA group classified R1b arrived in Europe 25,000 years ago, the Middle East 30,000 years ago and finally leaving Africa 50,000 years ago.
The other test he took examined his mother’s line (Mitochondria DNA). This showed a much earlier departure from Africa 70,000 years ago reaching Asia Minor at 50,000 and Europe 40,000 years ago. The final test was an Autosomal DNA test which highlighted his ethnic mix of 96 per cent Western European and four per cent Middle Eastern. Autosomal testing can trace family connections five generations back on both sides of a family.
The pharmacist said many people get nervous about DNA analysis because they think it is going to delve into their medical history, but in this case the parts of the DNA being looked at are not the medical parts which are generally found in full mitochondrial sequencing.
“Medical information has to be sought out in a completely different way,” he explained.
Mike said testing medical DNA is popular for different reasons, with people easily and inexpensively able to determine conditions which predispose them to potential future illnesses - and the ability to predict responses to treatment.
When asked if there were any “big brother,” type repercussions to having your DNA laid bare for the world to see (and perhaps use for ulterior purposes), he said legislation had been introduced in the USA recently to halt the potential misuse of information - some of which could include genetic or even insurance discrimination. The federal Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA) passed in 2008, said employers and health insurers cannot use information from genetic tests against you.
Most countries are passing similar legislation to protect the population in this area.
Some genetic testing companies like 23andMe.com look at medical issues but analysis of their clinical relevance is in its infancy and should probably be used in collaboration with GP advice.
Named after the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in a human cell, 23andMe.com, backed by cashed-up Google Inc, is one of the most popular medical DNA testing companies in the US. Their saliva-based DNA test was named Invention of the Year in 2008 by Time magazine. The price of the test sits at around $99 - a tenth of the cost of what it was only a couple of years ago. Their aim of reducing the price was to encourage the growth of their data base to around one million users worldwide. The company predominately examines congenital risk factors and inherited traits in an individual.
“The good thing about testing DNA for medical issues is knowing how to change your lifestyle to reduce the risk of heart disease or a million other things you could be genetically predisposed to,” Mike said.
He noted one example he had encountered with a family member whose test revealed she had a dysfunction in her ability to metabolise heavy metals.
“If you have this, you really have to make sure you stay away from chemicals. The information gives you the ability to make choices that will support your health,” he said.
“There are so many things you can do other than drug therapy, you can modify so many disease states through nutrition, alone.”
Genetic testing was recently in the media spotlight when actress Angelina Jolie was DNA tested. A gene mutation (BRACA1 linked to ancient Jewish communities) predisposed her to a 90 per cent chance of developing breast cancer. The results saw her request an immediate double mastectomy. Her well-publicised story is said to have caused a surge in genetic testing among women keen to discover their own genetic flaws.
Other than at-home testing kits, Mike said a few doctors in Dubbo were offering administered testing. He said this came with the added benefit of recommendations and ongoing care based on the DNA test results.
Prices start at around $300 to 400.