Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book Review - "The Genetic Strand" by Edward Ball

After hearing mention of the book "The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA" by Edward Ball, I picked it off the "What's New" shelf at the library several weeks ago.

This is the story about Ball's search for his genetic ancestry, using DNA research to determine genetic origins for some of his ancestors. He bought a house in Charleston SC in 2000, and obtained an heirloom desk dating to the mid-1800's, which had a secret drawer. Inside the drawer were nine envelopes with locks of hair, nicely labelled. The locks were from his family members that lived in the 1825-1860 time frame. The book describes the lives of these people and the results from DNA analysis of them.

The book really has two stories - there is a lot of technical DNA description, based on the different tests and testing methods used to determine Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA results. The second, and most interesting, story is the people themselves, the family relationships and the family history uncovered in the search. The book has a very helpful family tree chart in the front, with the names of people found in the narrative, and the contributors of the hair locks denoted.

Four of the hair locks were from males, but all were from the Ball family, so their Y-DNA should be identical, but no Y-DNA can be recovered from hair. However, these four males had three different mothers between them, and the five females with hair locks had two more mothers between them. Two of these "mothers" had the "Ball" surname in earlier generations; this results in five mitochondrial DNA candidates.

There was a rumor of African-American and of Native American heritage in this family, and the author tried very hard to determine if they were true. He had a false positive early in the search with one of the male locks, but a subsequent mtDNA test did not show the tell-tale markers.

A living female second cousin was tested for "ancestral proportions" that showed 85% European, 11% East Asian/Native American and 4% Sub-Saharan African ancestry, which indicated possible "race-mixing" five generations before. The author thought he knew which great-grandparent was the result of this event, but could not find any records for the parents of Kate Fuller (1857-1893).

The author and a male second cousin had their Y-DNA tested and it was found to be identical for the two of them. The author described several other Y-DNA test results, including the Jefferson-Hemings data, to cover the subject.

Lastly, the author explores cousin marriages, mental depression and lead poisoning using toxicology analysis of the hair locks. He found significant lead content in several of the males - 1,400 micrograms, almost 6 times the threshold for alarm. He postulated that wealthy families had Wedgwood "china" with a glaze with high lead content, and this might be the origin of early family deaths. He also discussed mercury and asbestos poisoning.

All in all, this was an interesting book for me because of the family history details, the detective search process and the application of the DNA results to the family history. However, many of the DNA technical descriptions were mind-numbing for me. The discussions the author had with some of the analysts was useful and their examples of other research results was interesting.

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