The Sorenson family of companies today launched a Web site that can help make the term "long-lost relative" obsolete.
The Salt Lake-based companies' GeneTree combines elements of DNA profiles, genealogy and family history and social networking as a means to let users learn about relatives, contact them and share information with them — all at GeneTree.com.
"We're answering questions like 'Who am I,' 'How am I connected to others,' and 'Where did I come from?'" said James Lee Sorenson, GeneTree's chief executive officer. "It's done through a combination of technology, of science and of social networking, and we'll enable people to collaborate with each other by being able to very easily share their family histories and their photos and their videos in a way that they've never been able to before."
GeneTree uses elements of Sorenson Media's digital video compression and encoding technology, the genetic and genealogy information of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation and the consumer genetic testing of Sorenson Genomics.
"There are a number of moving parts here," Sorenson said. "We've taken these core competencies and combined them. That's the value and the uniqueness of GeneTree."
"These (three) are interesting trends, in and of themselves," said Matt Cupal, president and chief operating officer of Sorenson Media. "Now we're bringing them together in a single experience, and we think that the whole is much more than the sum of the parts."
The Sorenson announcement comes a week after Provo-based Ancestry.com said it would offer DNA Ancestry, a service linking DNA testing with its collection of names in historical records and its online family history community.
Ancestry.com says its new service, with DNA tests using Sorenson Genomics ranging in price from $149 to $199, provides results that can predict ancestors' origins and migrations. In coming months, the DNA results will be added to online family trees, and by year-end, users will be able to create and join social networks based on genetic connections.
Joining the GeneTree network is free, and one starting point for users is to have their DNA tested by Sorenson Genomics. The cost ranges from $99 to $149. They then can map those results with the foundation's database to discover parts of their family histories that even predate written records. Users can build family trees, contact other participants with DNA connections and collaborate with them to compile family histories.
Information about users and their ancestors can be shared as Sorenson Media technologies make it easy to post digital media about relatives. A cousin, for instance, could let a user see photos or videos of Uncle Charlie that the user may never have known existed, or see photos and videos of relatives they previously never even knew they had, perhaps half a world away.
Each participant and all of their ancestors get their own home pages, and users can upload information, audio, video and document files to their ancestors' pages.
Living participants control the amount of access they provide to others. Matches are kept anonymous, and GeneTree brokers initial communication. The message recipient chooses whether to reply, and if they do, to control how much they reveal.
"We are a private network, and the user controls who sees their page," Cupal said. "You have control of your DNA profile, and you only let in people you want in."
Another tool is the GeneTree DNAvigator, which uses visuals to show a participant's genetic family history. For example, a person could learn that at a certain point in history, their ancestors lived primarily in western Europe or see their migratory patterns over time.
Sorenson said GeneTree helps extend the concept of "family," lets people connect and share once they know their common ancestors and preserves family memories and histories.
Cupal said GeneTree represents an improvement over written records, which sometimes often do not exist. "A lot of people hit walls in their research, and the DNA can help you jump over that wall and find a new channel," he said.
"The human story is fundamentally extremely complex. How we are all intermingled is extremely complex. The power of a network really helps all the individuals out there within their scope of influence help them discover that between themselves. GeneTree provides tools to help you discover who you are, where you came from, where do you belong and how you are connected, and lets you make those connections."
Sorenson figures it has a huge head start against any potential competitors. Sorenson Media is currently on more than a billion computers worldwide, and the foundation's database contains information on more than 6 million ancestors in about 170 countries.
"The value and the predictive accuracy of this database improves over time as it becomes larger and richer and more diverse in DNA samples and genealogies," Sorenson said.
GeneTree, while free to users, likely will add premium subscriptions for additional services and perhaps advertising in addition to the DNA testing as a way to make money.
"We have high expectations. We think what we've combined here is playing into a very rich area of interest. We did a fair amount of market research going in and were surprised at the high number of people interested in genealogy, willing to supply their DNA for this kind of information and also in the sharing of rich media. We know there is a tremendous interest out there. And we know of no more viral network for social networking than the family," Sorenson said.
But, he acknowledges, there is more to GeneTree than financial gain.
"We think there is a perfect storm here for really taking this to the world and making a contribution," he said. "One of the unique things about this is it brings people closer to together. It helps people realize they have connections they didn't realize they had and perhaps bring about a stronger sense of brotherhood in the world."