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Talk of The Town
At Familytree DNA, itís all Relative
By: Pam Gibbens
Greater Houston Weekly / Houston Chronicle
Max Blankfeld (left) and Bennett Greenspanís
Houston-Based Firm is the Largest Genealogical DNA Testing CompanyIn the World
More than 80 million people are Actively engaged in it. Numerous websites are inundated with hits from researchers. Itís the second largest and most popular hobby in the United State. What is it?
"It" is genealogy, the study of oneís own history and heritage.
The pursuit of the past inspires those interested in genealogy to unearth information about long lost relatives and their ancestral homes. While digging around, a few skeletons are sometimes found in the dark recesses of the family closet.
Years ago, the duty of record keeping was usually left up to a family member who would scour the libraries and comb through records at the county courthouse to uncover tidbits of lives once lived.
Kindly "Aunt Jane" would examine handwritten personal diaries, certificates of marriage and birth and death notices. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle, the process was tedious and time-consuming. Discerning delicious details about distant kin was both fascinating and frustrating. More often than not, a simmering paper trail would eventually grow cold.
Today, genealogists and rank amateurs are discovering that their own family trees, with deep roots and expansive canopies of branches, twigs and leaves, are much more complex than they ever imagined.
Thanks to the internet and the innovation of two Houston entrepreneurs, you donít have to be a rocket scientist to be a genealogist.
Meet Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, owners of FamilyTree DNA. Housed in one of the buildings they own, just off of the North Loop West, FamilyTree DNA has been profiled in The New York Times, Newsweek and made the cover of U.S. News and World Reports in January of 2001.
Since then, their budding business has blossomed into the largest genealogical DNA testing company in the world, generating $5 millions in sales in 2005.
"Last year, we tested 20,000 people", said Blankfeld. "In the first five years of business, altogether we tested 50,000. This year alone, in the first two and a half months, we have already sold 7,5000 kits. If this keeps up, weíre probably on our way to testing 30,000 to 40,000 people this year.
A roomful of mail and returned test kits attest to the success of FamilyTree DNA.
"This is just the mail we received from Saturday and Monday", Greenspan said, smiling broadly. "Some people think genealogy is for old fuddy duddies but itís not true. Itís the second most popular hobby in America and there are millions and millions of people who are interested in it."
With only 12 employees, processing the latest DNA deliveries takes five hours or more.
The genetic kit consists of a cheek scraper and a collection tube. Once a sample is obtained, the results are processed, compared and stored in a secure, confidential database, identified by barcodes, at the University of Arizona. Once the results are analyzed, the person is notified if their DNA markers match others in the database.
FamilyTree DNA can help determine a relationship with either a 99.9 percent probability of "yes" or a 100 percent certainty that no relationship existed.
"Samples or stored for 25 years," Greenspan noted. "In six years, weíve destroyed only two samples. Most people want us to hold onto their samples so that if we bring out a new test to run against their kit, weíd be able to do that."
By comparing results, occasionally relatives are surprised to learn that they are not related at all.
"Sometimes we find the result of an adoption or a false paternity," said Greenspan. "Weíre not in the paternity business, but I canít prevent two brothers from testing. The truth is, if two brothers test, the results should come back identical. Thereís a very small percentage of cases where they donít come back identical because there is some mutation between the father and his first son and not his second son. But thatís extremely uncommon.
Blankfeld, a businessman who moved to Houston from Brazil 14 years ago, gives credit for their efficacious enterprise to his longtime friend and neighbor.
"Bennett and I, in addition to being friends, were engaged in other businesses together. The (DNA) business was Bennettís brainchild because he was deeply involved in genealogy for 30 years.
Bennett was running a real small operation almost as a hobby out of his home. He was selling maybe one kit a day and really nothing the next. I said to Bennett, ĎWe have a building. Why donít we make one room for the DNA business?í We hired someone to do a nice website so that weíd have a more professional interface with our customers. And from that point on, we started seeing the numbers grow and we knew we had a business in our hands that had full potential for growth."
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Greenspan moved to Texas in 1980. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and received his M.B.A. from Rice University.
Pointing to an elongated paper history of his family tacked to the wall in his office, Greenspan said he began working on his own ancestry 30 years ago.
"Iím listed here and my mother is listed there," he explained. "Her father, whose last name was Nitz, was from the Yalta peninsula. They actually moved to the United States from this area in eastern Europe. After I had done the genealogy, I did some internet searches and I found this girl in Argentina who had the same last name and basic story that we had. Her family came from the same place that we came from. We tried to determine a relationship with paper but we couldnít. Itís not uncommon. Eventually everyone fails with paper."
But Greenspan was more determined than ever to find a familial connection.
"I was disappointed," he admitted. "Thatís when I said thereís got to be another way, another solution. I really wanted to tie together the girl in Argentina with her cousins and my cousins."
Greenspan decided to probe more deeply, using a newer, more scientific method: DNA testing.
"I contacted an American cousin and the woman in Argentina who didnít speak much English. She took her uncleís sample and compared it to a sample of my cousinís (male) relative out in Culver City, California, and they matched. What that told us was that they had a common male ancestor. In 2001, about a year after we proved we were related, I visited her family in Buenos Aires."
By examining a maleís DNA, specifically the Y chromosome, researchers are able to determine if another male is a direct descendant from their paternal line (Mitochondrial DNA is from the female side).
"The Y chromosome passes from father to son to grandson almost unchanged with very few mutations," said Blankfeld. "So I can find out if Iím related to someone who lived 300 years ago if we have common ancestry."
Quite often people are of mixed heritage, said Greenspan. "They might be a combination of Native American, Caucasian or African descent. Weíll work with them to try to sort that out genetically. We donít do genealogical research. We work with the DNA aspect of it."
When asked if he shared any traits with Alan Greenspan, the famous former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Greenspan quickly shot back, "If I could get his DNA and test it, I would. So far, Iíve had no success in that area."
Both Greenspan and Blankfeld believe that FamilyTree DNA is perfectly poised to take its place at the helm of genealogical and anthropological research.
"We all have a storybook within ourselves," said Greenspan. "The real challenge is figuring our how to read it. We really donít know where this is going but Iím convinced because of the scientific teams we work with, that wherever this leads, we will be at the forefront of the next cutting-edge revolution."
For more information about FamilyTree DNA, visit www.familytreedna.com or call 713-868-1438.
May 1, 2006