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Expert to demystify genealogical DNA testing

COURTESY PHOTO - Lisa McCullough will provide the necessary toold for people to uncover genealogical secrets at the Washington County Genealogical Societys meeting later this month in Hillsboro.  Lisa McCullough gives fair warning about the DNA testing now so easily available to so many laypeople.

"There can be some crazy surprises in store for people who want to pursue this. You might find out that your sibling might not be your full sibling or that your parents are related, or maybe you're adopted and you weren't told. DNA testing can tell you these things if the person in question is also tested. If you're ready, go for it, but if you're not, don't. DNA doesn't lie."

McCullough is one of those who decided to go for it.

As a child in Indiana, she went to huge family reunions every year: one on her father's side of the family and one on her mother's. Each side had its own family historian to keep track of genealogies. Eventually, McCullough noticed something peculiar — that even though she received the McCullough name from her father, there were more McCulloughs on her mother's side of the family.

"There were so many McCulloughs living in the area, I figured they maybe were related," she said.

In junior high school, this mystery launched McCullough into the realm of DNA testing, which she'll talk about at the Genealogical Society of Washington County's monthly meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, in the community room of the Hillsboro Main Library, 2850 N.E. Brookwood Parkway. The meeting is free and open to the public.

Long seen as the exclusive province of scientific research, DNA testing entered popular culture in the 1980s as a way to track down birth parents, settle paternity questions or otherwise discover whether two people were related to each other. It also became important for medical reasons, letting people know whether they have a genetic propensity for certain illnesses. But in the last decade, a new wave of people have been using it to verify and elaborate on their genealogical history.

For as low as $99, a simple test can show what countries or ethnic groups your ancestors came from and their relative percentages in your genetic makeup.

Cornelius resident Willie Collins, for example, knew he had a strong Irish background but the tests held a surprise.

"He got a tiny suggestion that he might have North African and southern Mediterranean heritage," said his wife, Monica Gorman. "So I wanted to see if I had any surprises. I found out I was exactly the heritage my parents claimed — British Isles, Ireland and a dash of Scandinavia. But ancestry.com was able to name some distant cousins of mine, third and fourth removed, since they also tested."

Gorman hasn't contacted them yet, but hopes to when she has time.

McCullough remembers helping an adopted man who never knew his parents. "He found his mother by conventional means, but she said she didn't know who his father was. Through DNA testing he was able to find his father's family, although his father had passed by the time he made the discovery," she said.

McCullough herself hasn't yet learned whether her parents are actually distant cousins of each other, but she's still looking for the connection. Some DNA tests, like mitochondrial DNA testing, can trace a direct maternal ancestor by looking at mtDNA, which is passed down by the mother, unchanged, to all children. But autosomal DNA testing analyzes all 23 pairs of chromosomes, a more thorough approach which can track families much farther back — at least four to six generations.

Most of McCullough's ancestors came to America before the Revolutionary War. She's only been able to track her genealogy to areas in Kentucky, not back to her relatives in Scotland, Great Britain and Ireland.

McCullough attributes the recent surge in DNA testing to technological advancements and pricing. Many of the different DNA testings require a simple scrape of the inside of a cheek or a saliva sample. Send in the samples and results come back in four to eight weeks.

McCullough now teaches classes in DNA, chairs a group that helps people interpret and analyze their DNA test results, and is active in several special interest groups at the Genealogical Forum in Portland, which can help members order tests at a group rate.

"I know more about DNA now than I did in my high school biology class," she said.