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Solving Mysteries on the Family Tree


President and CEO Bennett Greenspan in the FTDNA state-of-the-art laboratory in Houston.

A Houston DNA Lab Connects People Around The World

By Melanie Saxton | Photography by Kevin West

If you’ve ever “gotten stuck” compiling your family tree, a Houston company offers DNA testing to anyone in the world. Bennett Greenspan is the founder of Family Tree DNA and has helped hundreds of thousands of people discover who they are and where their ancestors came from. As a genealogical expert, Greenspan has spoken at numerous assemblies including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Plymouth Rock Foundation. His state-of-the-art lab is the testing partner for the National Geographic’s Genographic Project, and several additional projects are in the works, one involving the Mayflower Society.

 

A CHILDHOOD HOBBY

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Greenspan focused on tracing his family lineage while his friends played sports. His maternal Grandmother Nitz died when he was 12, and as relatives converged in Omaha for the funeral, he walked around and gathered names, dates, and relationships. After the service his father took his hand, his mother took his brother’s hand, and they toured the cemetery.

While many of his Nitz relatives died in Omaha, Greenspan realized that even more had migrated from the Midwest and left few clues. He vowed to some day add them to the family tree, but huge obstacles stood in the way. The Internet was not available at that time and people had to travel extensively to locate church records and courthouse documents—something he could not do as a boy.

 

A EUREKA! MOMENT

At the University of Texas, Greenspan majored in political science and minored in history due to an interest in the changing borders in Europe, which complemented his fascination with genealogy. He became an entrepreneur and opened a photographic supply company, and also founded the college resources website, GoCollege.­com, with business partner Max Blankfeld. After semi-retiring in 1997 he became a “house husband” and made a nuisance of himself in the kitchen. Finally his wife Robin suggested he either take up golf or revisit his interest in genealogy.

He chose the latter and began researching his Nitz eighth-great-grandparents. Surprisingly, he discovered a cousin in California and another in Buenos Aires, although their connection couldn’t be proven on paper.

Then came a “Eureka! Moment.” DNA testing was first done in England in the 1980s during a criminal investigation, and Greenspan realized he could use Y-chromosomes to fit together pieces in his own genealogical puzzle. He decided to launch Family Tree DNA as a resource to help himself and others untangle complicated ancestries. In 1999 he began “proof of concept” testing to validate the methodologies required to sell DNA kits to non-scientists and convinced the University of Arizona to partner with him.

The scientific trial involved 24 men in Houston, including twins and participants with the same last name. Their biological connections were successfully established through Y-DNA testing. “I knew then that genealogists would avail themselves of this powerful confirmation tool,” says Greenspan. Family Tree DNA, also known as FTDNA, officially opened for business in 2000.

 

PUBLIC FASCINATION

TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Family demonstrate the popularity of genealogy, and advanced DNA testing has brought hope to millions, especially adoptees. For instance, Houston meteorologist Frank Billingsley of KPRC used an FTDNA kit to help unravel his closed adoption, which is chronicled in his book Swabbed and Found: An Adopted Man’s DNA Journey to the Truth. DNA testing can confirm or deny family rumors and old wives’ tales passed down through generations. It might even reveal surprises such as “non-paternal” events in which a father is proven not to be the biological parent.

“This isn’t just a business—it’s a passion that helps others find the important stories on their own family trees,” says Greenspan. “The storybook is within ourselves and the challenge is how to read it.” FTDNA operates within 25,000 square feet of space including a robotic lab filled with cutting-edge equipment and a large specimen freezing station. Eight percent of his clients are within the U.S., and the company’s top competitor is in China. FTNDA levels the playing field by combining the skills of knowledge-based workers with ultra-productive robotic automation. Greenspan explains that all FTDNA test results are determined on-site at the Houston lab. In contrast, AncestryDNA and 23andMe outsource their lab work.

 

HOW AND “Y”

Y-DNA — or Y Chromosome DNA — involves male-only testing and traces direct male line ancestry passed from fathers to sons. Since women lack a Y chromosome, Greenspan added mtDNA — or a Mitochondrial DNA — testing kits that trace both male and female DNA passed to each child from their direct maternal line. Autosomal DNA, inherited from fathers, mothers, and grandparents, is also offered to match shared DNA within five generations. Through DNA testing Greenspan got an exact match between his Nitz cousins in California and Argentina, and learned that both branches of the family originated on the Crimean Peninsula. After a dispute, one group crossed the North Atlantic Ocean en route to the United States, while the other crossed the South Atlantic Ocean and settled on the continent of South America.

Today FTDNA is the largest Y-DNA and mtDNA database in the world for genealogical research and the only company offering all three tests: Y-DNA, mtDNA and Autosomal. Kits range from just under $100 to $500 based on complexity, and can be mailed to clients anywhere in the world. After a simple cheek scrape from the comfort of home, clients place the specimen in a vial and send it back to the lab in the envelope provided. If they choose, they can connect with newly identified family members through email addresses and transfer their data from other services such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and the National Geographic Genographic Project (which can trace roots back to Neanderthals). The results are stored for 25 years.

“DNA kits are popular gifts,” explains Greenspan. The turnaround for processing is typically two to four weeks depending on demand, which increases around Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Kits can be ordered on the FamilyTreeDNA.com website, which is filled with testing information, a learning center, discussion forums and a FAQ list.

 

Laboratory Technician Mary Hubley processing DNA samples.

Laboratory Technician Mary Hubley processing DNA samples.

 

Laboratory technician Tasha Schuett starting the DNA extraction process.

Laboratory technician Tasha Schuett starting the DNA extraction process.

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Laboratory freezer containing materials for Family Tree DNA’s flagship Family Finder product.

 

Lab substances used for the FTDNA’s Family Finder product.

Lab substances used for the FTDNA’s Family Finder product.

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Laboratory Assistant Jesus Luis preparing a buffer solution used in the DNA collection kits sent to customers.

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Laboratory Technician Kristen Estlund preparing samples for DNA extraction.


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