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How New Advances in Genetic Genealogy—And a Worried Phone Call from a Friend—Inspired One Crime Novelist


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It all started when a close friend who grew up near me in the forests of northern Wisconsin shared how she had received a phone call out of the blue that led to the discovery that her late father had led a secret life: fathering at least three illegitimate children with three different women. Her father had been very wealthy and my friend was one of his three heirs.

She and her siblings had one question: Did this mean those illegitimate children were also his heirs? At her request, I called an estate lawyer who said that if they had not been specifically excluded by name in her father’s will that the answer was “yes.”

My friend was upset with this news as were her siblings. All three felt their inheritance was at risk.

And that got me thinking: What if someone knew that they were related by birth to a wealthy man who had never acknowledged their existence? What if that person had died but did not exclude them by name from his will?

And more questions: How to prove that they were first degree relatives? Can you get DNA from a deceased person? How? Who can help prove the relationship?  Puzzling over these questions led to my discovery of the explosion in genetic genealogy research: what it is and how it is being used.

In May of 2021, The New York Times published a comprehensive story that detailed the remarkable advances in DNA research that have happened in the field – or “fields” as the story laid out how different efforts in genetic genealogy have dovetailed to provide valuable information for forensic investigators – and mystery writers!

For example, in late 2019, one investigative team trying to solve local murders decided to tackle tracing genetic markers. This meant working with volunteer genealogists and getting access to a million-dollar DNA sequencing machine. The team’s efforts ranged from extracting DNA from decades-old skin cells to using the latest advances including expensive “whole genome sequencing.”

In doing so, the team had stumbled into the dawn of a new industry. And this is in spite of some critics’ worry over the extraordinary access to personal information now available to law enforcement and others. (See The New York Times story “How Your DNA Test Could Send a Relative to Jail,” which ran on December 29, 2021.)

How the Team Worked

They turned first to the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit originally founded to help adoptees find their birth parents. This led them to discover a number of new companies working in DNA science. Other options they found included Parabon NanoLabs, which is a pioneer in the field. For more skeletal remains people could seek out  HudsonAlpha Discovery; and today there is also Astrea Forensics.  More scientists and companies are sure to surface as the demand for genetic genealogy grows.

That information can then be teamed with two national databases, GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA, to provide detailed searches, many of which are helping to solve numerous cold cases today.

It should be noted that the popular Ancestry.com and 23andMe differ in that they do not allow law enforcement access to their databases. Note, too, that as I write this science is also improving the use of human hair for DNA research. Other developments along this line are sure to follow.

Where It Started

But these advances in DNA science owe much to people like Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker, a forensic pathologist in Baltimore who started saving DNA samples from rape kits as far back as the sixties.

A recent article in ProPublica titled “Cold Justice” does a wonderful job of showing how important Dr. Breitenecker’s work has been for today’s evolving DNA science. Many years after his initial efforts in the sixties, his slides – specially treated to preserve the DNA samples – are helping to solve numerous cold cases.

This has proven critical as many rapists often commit other crimes, including murder. Even more important is the effect of discovering the identity of the person who assaulted them has had on victims: Many have found release after years of living in fear and depression.

***

Back to my friend’s phone call, which precipitated my research. She and her siblings found that two of the three individuals whose DNA matched theirs were not interested in making any kind of a connection, not even relative to the inheritance involved. One person was gracious on hearing the news and the family has been happy to include her in their lives and as an heir.

For me, that phone call led me down a fascinating path as I wondered what would happen to the characters in my story who discover their DNA connection.  If you’re interested, too, you’ll have to read Wolf Hollow to find out.

Meanwhile, if you choose to explore genetic genealogy on your own, you may want to check out the DNA research companies mentioned in this article.

Also of note:

National Databases

  • GEDMatch
  • FamilyTreeDNA

Mysteries featuring DNA searches:

  • The One by John Marrs
  • The Lost King of France: How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murdered Son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by Deborah Cadbury
  • The Milkman’s Son: A Memoir of Family History, A DNA Mystery, A Paternal Love by Randy Lindsay

Two Non-Fiction Titles I’ve found to be very helpful:

  • Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell
  • Witness for the Crime: The Stories Bones Tell by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover

Happy Searching!

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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