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Gene Tests and Surnames

Gene Tests and Surnames
Spring 2000 and Revised: 6 Apr 2000

This is not an April Fool joke, honest, and I'm not making this up.

We found the following article entitled "Gene Test Helps Scientist Trace Family Names" by Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Curious about your noble forebears? Eager to see if you are related to someone else with the same last name? An Oxford genetics professor can answer your questions.

Brian Sykes, an expert in genetics at Britain's Oxford University, said on Tuesday he had checked the DNA of dozens of men who had the same surname and found, to his surprise, that they all seem to have descended from the same ancestor.

Examining men with the same surname as his own, Sykes used a technique known as genetic fingerprinting to examine the men's Y chromosome, which is handed down with very little change from father to son.

``I wrote 250 men, a random sample, with the same surname and I wrote to Sykeses because I felt confident approaching people with the same name as mine,'' Sykes said in a telephone interview. He tracked the men down in three English counties known to have many people with the Sykes name -- York, Cheshire and Lancashire. He sent them home DNA kits that included a brush to take a few cells from the inside of the mouth.

``I got 61 returns of DNA on little brushes and of those, half had a Y chromosome microsatellite fingerprint which showed they had exactly the same Y chromosome,'' Sykes said. Microsatellites are little repeated sequences of the four nucleotides -- A, C, T and G -- that seem to carry no important genetic instructions but which can be used as ``fingerprints'' to identify genes.

Sykes, who reported his findings in the American Journal of Human Genetics, said he was surprised to find the same fingerprint in so many different men who had no idea they were related. ``The only explanation is all Sykeses had come from a single male who first inherited that name,'' he said. ``We reckon from the court records the name first appears in West Yorkshire in just about 1300.''

Before then, most English peasants went by just one name or had names they did not pass on to their children. ``Surnames became inherited because it was a time you were able to transfer the tenancy of your land to your children,'' Sykes said.

He had not expected such a pedigree for his name, in particular, which seems to have had few noble associations. ``Sykeses were all peasants and vagabonds,'' he laughed. ''They were always cropping in the court records as having stolen sheep or burnt woods down.'' He said the name means a small stream and he would have thought many people would have taken such a name.

No Cuckolds In The Sykes Nest

There was another eye opener in his findings. ``With 50 percent having the same Y chromosome ... it works out roughly at about 1 percent per generation for no paternity,'' Sykes said. ``It's really quite low -- lower than the rates we are accustomed to these days. It essentially means that 99 percent of Mrs. Sykeses have been very well-behaved.''

Sykes, whose lab linked a 9,000-year-old skeleton known as ''Cheddar Man'' to an Englishman living nearby in 1997, said the applications of this latest work will be most valuable to people tracing family histories. ``It is astounding news for genealogists,'' he said. Noting that written records are rare before 1700, he said it would be a good way for people to track their ancestry.

Anticipating this, he has patented the test for an association between a surname and the Y chromosome, and, with the university, started up a company to perform the tests. ``We are probably going to call it Oxford Ancestors,'' he said."

So, users of PrenticeNet, should we finance such a study to see if we can identify one or more common ancestors for the various Prentice, Prentis and Prentiss lines?

If you are interested, please contact us at dewald@prenticenet.com.

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