Galletta: Mapping ancestors in a 'lickety-spit'

Galletta: Mapping ancestors in a 'lickety-spit'

June 17th, 2012 by Jan Galletta in Life Entertainment

My saliva soon may be the springboard to uncovering some family history, maybe even some dark family secrets.

That's because I aim to submit it to a new DNA-mapping effort being mounted by the online genealogy-research service to which I subscribe. When I receive my requested kit, I'm supposed to swab inside my mouth and send the sample off for what's called "auto somal testing," lab work that I understand looks at both male and female genetic material.

Then, for a fairly modest fee of less than $100, scientists supposedly will compare my particular 23 chromosome pairs to those of individuals who belong to an alleged 34 million family trees on their (the scientists') database -- people who hail from roughly 700,000 locations around the globe and figure in this Internet site's reported 9 billion records.

The sales pitch promises that the study will pinpoint definitively where my ancestors were and my current relatives are. It hints that the genealogical matches will foster new connections with kinsmen I didn't know existed.

Who could resist such a fact-finding offer? Still, I know that DNA can divulge unsettling information, and I'm not just talking about paternity-testing.

On my own family tree, for example, there's an immediate (uncomfortably close) relative whose parents were first cousins. In every photo I've seen of him, he glares at the camera, looking ready to spit venom if only his burning eyes could focus accurately upon a target.

Although well educated for his time, he died in a mental institution, and I'm thinking that the singular dance of his dominant and recessive genes may account for an unfortunate strain of psychosis that periodically shows up in my blood relations.

What's more, I've long been concerned about the damage my own DNA could wreak. I fret that a murdered body or illegal contraband will be found in a motel room I've recently vacated. Perhaps the toothpaste blobs I've left in the sink, hairs I've shed in the shower or facial tissue I blew my nose on and discarded will serve as calling cards to make me "a person of interest" in police investigations.

My husband, Fred, scoffs at this notion. He says, "You watch way too much crime-drama TV. Forensic experts couldn't separate your DNA from all the deposits other overnighters leave.

"The housekeeping at the places we stay isn't all that good."

He's probably right to suggest that my DNA wouldn't stand out from other people's, that my genetic makeup is no great shakes. Almost surely, my saliva report won't reveal the exotic genome character of one of my brothers-in-law, for instance, who is half-French, half-Vietnamese and was raised in Africa where he had decidedly different earlier forebears.

It probably won't be as diverse as that of one of my nephews, whose mother is pure Cuban and whose father is a rich stew of Italian, American Indian and Anglo-Saxon.

Yet I've always felt that my saliva was special. Not to brag, but my late dentist once told me that my salivary glands were so active he couldn't keep me dry long enough to seat fillings. And that same saliva surplus had me asking the OB/GYN I saw during my last pregnancy 33 years ago about the possibility of having a gestational complication I read about, a condition that caused expectant mothers to secrete up to two quarts of saliva a day.

Like Fred, my physician pooh-poohed all my fears. He said, "You don't have ptyalism. What you have is an overactive imagination."

So, OK, what that vivid imagination is producing right now is all manner of new genealogical nuggets disclosed by the mother lode of saliva-DNA exploration. It sounds kind of cheesy to say it, but I'm literally drooling at the prospect.

Email Jan Galletta at jangalletta@yahoo.com.