Jim Wells, a longtime University of Kentucky mathematics professor, went to bed one night pondering a maddening and fruitless decades-long search for the origins of an ancestor. He woke up the next day to have his history handed to him in an e-mail.
"It's astonishing," says the 70-year-old Wells of the recent revelations regarding his fifth great-grandfather, John Wells, who turned out, as Jim Wells had suspected but could never prove, to be a Pennsylvania Quaker with British roots.
"It just didn't seem possible we would ever learn his origins."
Jim Wells, of suburban Lexington, Ky., was part of something called the Wells Family DNA Project, organized by a determined armchair genealogist named Orin Wells. It enlists an intriguing new tool called surname DNA testing.
The technology, built on advances in the science of DNA over the past 15 years, rests upon research showing that the Y-chromosome element of DNA passes from father to son basically unchanged over the generations. Hence it serves as a highly accurate marker of paternity. In Jim Wells' case, by volunteering a blood sample to a testing lab, he threw his DNA into a test pool of scores of other Wellses, many of them from 24 American Wells branches that have kept meticulous genealogies going back to the 1600s.
The idea: "Orphans" such as Wells might make a genetic match with one of these families and, by comparing what he knows of his genealogy with the new data, fill in missing pieces. By doing that, Jim Wells not only verified his theories about John Wells but found out his roots actually go all the way back to one Henry Wells, an English Quaker who immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1684.
Until a few years ago, surname DNA testing was the province of universities and research laboratories but not commercially available. Now, three for-profit labs, Relative Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City, Family Tree DNA of Houston and Oxford Ancestors of Oxfordshire, England, have sprung up to serve a growing consumer interest. Though the Wells project, with more than 250 participants, is the largest to date, about 550 other surname DNA projects are under way in the United States and abroad, says Kevin Duerinck, a Rochester, N.Y., genealogy enthusiast who tracks such things on his Web site.
He organized his own surname DNA project about two years ago to answer a question unanswerable by conventional means because ancient records that might have shed light had been destroyed in fires: Was his family related to one or more of some 28 ancient Germanic clans with surnames spelled similarly to his? He rounded up a dozen volunteers representing a range of those names.
To date, the tests, conducted by Family Tree DNA, show that the Duerincks are relatives of at least two of those clans, the Durincks and the Diericks. "We're talking about establishing a relationship to thousands of people," says the 46-year-old Duerinck.
To see a glimmer of surname DNA's possibilities, some 60 percent of all Americans are pursuing their family trees. Ancestry.com, with almost a million paid subscribers, is not only the Web's most popular genealogy site, with 600 million page visits a month, but the fourth-largest paid Web subscriber service (excluding pornography sites).
Still, the commercial surname-DNA market has had some hitches. Ancestry.com, after briefly offering surname DNA tests through its Web site in a joint venture with Relative Genetics, has pulled back for now. For one thing, the tests are expensive, at about $200 a person. And many DNA databases aren't yet large enough to be of much use to the solitary researcher looking for his roots. Most of the surname business comes from clusters of people — groups as small as four or five and as large as the Wells Family Project — who already have some notion that they are related and can use DNA to be sure.
DNA is the blueprint of life. It has long been used by forensic experts to link suspects to crimes and by lawyers to establish paternity. More recently, DNA sampling has emerged as a method in so-called deep genealogy, which has allowed African-Americans to broadly trace their origins to African tribal regions or even specific tribes by following what are known as haplotypes — genetic markers unique to groups of individuals.
Surname DNA got a big boost in 2000 when Brigham Young University, with money from Mormon philanthropist James LeVoy Sorenson, launched a DNA-collecting program whose primary goal is to determine "the genetic composition of major populations throughout the world," according to its Web site. (Dutiful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long been interested in ritual baptism of their ancestors, and genealogy has helped find them.) The project is seeking 100,000 DNA donors from at least 500 populations scattered over the globe.
In Kent, Wash., Orin Wells, a computer consultant who had gotten into genealogy 20 years earlier in order to solve a mystery in his own family tree, heard about the BYU project. He pitched researchers there on the usefulness of including a Wells surname project as "a good special case study" to test the practical usefulness of surname DNA testing.
Since 1988, he has presided over the Wells Family Research Association, a nonprofit organization that has been a Web clearinghouse and bulletin board for the collected genealogy of the dozens of early U.S. Wells families. With hundreds of thousands of names, these family trees represent one of the largest surname collections in the United States, and a significant baseline against which the relationship of people named Wells could be tested.
BYU agreed, and the testing has since been taken over by Relative Genetics, a commercial spinoff of the BYU project. Jim Wells hopes to broaden the project to at least 600 volunteers globally. Of the more than 180 participants who have seen results so far, about 65 orphans such as Jim Wells have been connected to baseline families. The results have also disconnected some people from the Wells lines they thought they belonged to but redirected them to others, or to at least five new family branches that have been brought to light by DNA results.
The Wells Family Project uses what is called a 26-marker Y-chromosome test. DNA, extracted from blood samples or cells scraped from the inner wall of the cheek, is run through a sequencer that generates numbers for each of the markers. If all 26 of your markers match all 26 of another participant's markers, chances are extremely high that you share a common ancestor within a few generations. Matches of 23 to 25 markers prove relationships, but farther up the family tree. Less than 23 markers and you aren't related at all.
In some cases, results have delivered bad news. In five instances so far, participants have learned that they aren't Wellses at all — or at least, their DNA doesn't match any of the other Wellses in the project.