Who's your daddy?
July 25, 2007 7:40 PM   Subscribe

After 68 years, my mom still doesn't know who her real dad was. Is it possible to find out?

Leaving out the long story, (and yes, there is a loooong story) my mom is either the daughter of the older Greek man who married my grandmother OR my grandmother's brother in law (who along with his wife-mom's aunt who couldn't have any kids-actually raised my mom after the Greek man died.)

We do know where both men are buried (in both cases, locally) but I was wondering if there was a way my mom could have some sort of DNA test that could tell whether or not she was part Greek.

I think we are part Greek as we both look it-besides, we are both short while her adoptive father was tall-but family gossip is insistent otherwise.

Anyway, Mom really wants to know the truth. How easy would it be for her to have that?
posted by konolia to Human Relations (12 answers total)
You may have thought of this, but if you know all of their blood types, there's a small chance you could figure it out that way. Unlikely to be the case, but easy.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:00 PM on July 25, 2007

Do you know of any living blood relatives of your grandmother's husband? If so, a DNA test to determine if your mother is related to them would probably be the easiest way to find out.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:16 PM on July 25, 2007

There's no locus of genes which says "Greek", so a blood test of your grandmother alone wouldn't tell you anything.

But if there are relatives (of which you are certain) of each of the two, say two or three each, then a genetic test of your grandmother and all of those others could probably settle the question.

The more distant the relatives, the less likely they are to be of use, and from the sound of it close relatives are not available. That's why you'd need several for each man.

Phenotype is probably not useful except in very specific cases. There are a few such things which are conclusive (e.g. it is impossible for two parents who have blue eyes to have a child with brown eyes) but "I look more like one than the other" is not conclusive at all.

(My immediate family is a good example of that. My dad's hair was black. My mom's hair was dark brown. They had three kids, all of whom turned out to be red-heads.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2007

(And yes, there is no doubt whatever that he is my dad. I inherited some things from him, too.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:19 PM on July 25, 2007

Response by poster: No living relatives on either side.

The Greeks kicked grandma's husband out of the family for marrying a nongreek. His brother and niece are buried in the same plot, though.
posted by konolia at 8:34 PM on July 25, 2007

Short answer, no.

This test allows people to identify the regions of the world where their genetic lineage comes from, unfortunately though, it won't work in your case because the father is identified through Y chromosome DNA, which your mother doesn't have.

You could bring in some pictures of the two possible men and your grandmother to a genetic consultant and have them compare traits like attached earlobes, eye color, or chin clefts in order to see if they could rule out one of the possibilities.
posted by 517 at 8:54 PM on July 25, 2007

If she really wants to do this she has to arrange for (and pay for) disinterment for both bodies, which is not granted lightly and which may be blocked by other family members. The legal permissions, the disinterment, and the testing can run into the thousands. The rules differ from community to community, so she needs to see a lawyer, and DNA from remains isn't always easily obtainable (sometimes the remains have decayed to the point that they can't isolate anything).

Oh, and one piece of trivia above is incorrect: two people with blue eyes can indeed have a brown-eyed child. Some people who are genetically brown-eyed have blueish eyes, yet can pass on the gene for brown eyes to their children.
posted by watsondog at 8:59 PM on July 25, 2007

517's answer is too limited, I think.

Try this DNA paternity testing FAQ:
[If] the alleged father is deceased, what options are available for DNA paternity testing to determine if he was the child’s biological father?

A biological sample collected from the alleged father may have been collected prior to his death and may be available. A sample containing his DNA may have been collected and retained by a medical examiner or a coroner if an autopsy had been performed. Alternatively, the deceased alleged fathers genetic makeup can be reconstructed using samples obtained from close relatives such as his parents, siblings or other legitimate children. Depending upon what family members are available for testing, each family reconstruction may be unique. Therefore, it is important that interested parties consult one of our laboratory directors for guidance and more information.

What if other possible fathers are related to the man who has been tested?

Brothers and fathers and sons (1st order relatives) share 50% of their genetic material, half brothers and uncle/nephews (2nd order relatives) share 25% of their genetic material and first cousins (3rd order relatives) share 12.5% of their genetic material. Without the laboratory being provided additional information, the statistical calculations in a standard paternity test assumes that other possible fathers are unrelated to the tested man. If there is reason to believe otherwise, this should be brought to our attention as soon as possible. Although it is more difficult to distinguish between close relatives, who are expected to share genetic characteristics, as opposed to unrelated individuals, UNTHSC has the ability to test additional genetic markers so that the DNA tests can almost always distinguish between close relatives such as brothers.

I think if your mother's two sets of relatives are willing to participate (and you don't need all of them, just some on each side), current technology should allow you to exclude one or the other as biological relatives, thus giving you your likely answer.
posted by dhartung at 12:26 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, looks like mom is hosed. No living relatives or at least any that could be tracked down. And I doubt she really wants to dig anybody up.

I will see if she has any pics of the Greek. He died when she was an infant, and I don't think any pics are out there but it's worth a shot.
posted by konolia at 6:07 AM on July 26, 2007

This wouldn't be definitive, of course, but you could take a blood test to see if your Mom is heterozygous for beta thalassemia (aka Mediterranean anemia). It's a lot more prevalent among Greeks/Italians according to that article. (My dad is Greek and my mom is German and I'm heterozygous for it - yay, malarial resistance!) Wiki. Article.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:17 AM on July 26, 2007

Best answer: Hi Konolia,

I actually dabble quite a bit in genetic genealogy and run three DNA surname projects over at FamilyTreeDNA.com (and am relatively involved in one ethnic sub-group project), so I hope I can help a little. :-)

First off, we need to make sure there's really nothing left of your mom's two possible fathers. This is a long shot, but do you have any old letters from the Greek man and/or your mom's Uncle? DNA can be recovered from the stamps or the licked back of the envelope. Or hair samples? Or toothbrushes? DNA has even been recovered from the smidgen of cells left on people's hearing aids or old bandages. (Ew.)

Also, obvious question here, but I don't suppose your mom has any brothers, or better yet brothers with surviving children? Y-chromosome DNA testing would really be the ideal thing here, because even if you never got a sample from Greek-dad or Uncle, you could upload the known DNA to a public DNA database like ysearch.org and see if it more closely matches people from northern or southern Europe, or better yet someone else with the same surname as either Greek-dad or Uncle.

If we assume that 1) there are NO DNA samples left from either man, and 2) there are NO males left in either line for comparisons, then what your mom needs is AUTOSOMAL DNA testing, not y-chromosome. It's definitely not as exact or as advanced (yet) as y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA testing is, but it's getting better every year. It's particularly lucky that your mom may (or may not) be a 50/50 mix of two different areas of the world; if both her putative fathers were of British-Isles-ancestry this would be a lot harder. (For purposes of this reply, I'm going to assume that your Uncle is of majority British-Isles-derived stock, even though that's just a guess on my part.)

DNA Tribes is probably the best known company for this kind of biogeographical work, overall, with the greatest number of worldwide ethnicities sampled and updates all the time. But since you already know you're specifically looking to discriminate between two different European population subgroups, I really think you should look at the Euro 2.0 DNA test from AncestryByDNA.com. It claims greater specificity between the following five European ethnic groupings:
* Southeastern European (SEE)
* Iberian (IB)
* Basque (BAS)
* Continental European (CE)
* Northeastern European (NEE)
The test was just released to the public last month, June 2007, so I haven't heard any reports through any DNA-Genealogy mailing lists as to whether its sensitivity has been increased as much as the company claims. But I have heard decent reports from people about its older version, EuroDNA 1.0, so I presume 2.0 is a step up.

If your mom tests as, say, 50% NEE and 50% SEE, then I think Greek guy is your likely guy. If she has very little SEE in her, then I think Uncle would be your guy. (Note that a British guy can also have quite a lot of CE in him, thanks to the Anglo-Saxon invasions, which brought DNA to the Isles from Central Germany.)

But in the real world, these percentages are never that perfect, and like I said, autosomal testing has a long way to go to get as refined as the y-chromosome and mtDNA testing has gotten. For example, I was "scored" as 3% Native American on one of the very old types of these autosomal tests (a worldwide one, not a Euro-only one), from a different company -- which was impossible since I have copies of the 19th and early 20th Century immigration records of almost all my ancestors (to New York City and New Haven), and am Ashkenazic to boot. What likely happened there is that Native American groups and Central Asian groups can have very similar DNA types (y-chromosome haplogroup Q, for example), but the company's test wasn't sensitive enough to distinguish one from the other, Kazakh or Turkic from Aleut or Hopi.

Also, please know that if your mom gets a DNA test somewhere, then some companies may be able to keep her spit sample on file in a freezer for several years and retest it for a fee as newer and better versions of the test come out every year or two, for the forseeable future. As your mom is getting up in years, you may even want to send out two samples, just in case. I know FamilyTreeDNA does this -- keeps spit samples on file in their Arizona labs' freezers -- but I would check with the other companies to see if that's their policy too.

Finally, Google is getting into the genetic genealogy game with a new startup called 23andme.com, led by one of the Google founders' wives. Esther Dyson wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about it just the other day; she's donating her entire genome to be sequenced as one of their starter sample genomes. The company will focus on personalized DNA testing, partly for genealogy reasons and partly for health reasons. The site doesn't exist yet, but maybe early next year, and since it's Google-backed, we may see some neat new avenues of research come out of there soon, which could yield new tests to help your mom and other people in her situation, like adoptees.

(Finally, if anyone else has read this far, let me just say that for traditional DNA work, like tracing direct paternal or maternal lines, then FamilyTreeDNA.com is definitely the way to go, IMHO. And if you know anyone with the surnames GANZ or GANS, SCHREIER or SHRYER, or RUSSO or ROUSSO, or any other spelling variants of those surnames, from any ethnic group or region in the world, please send 'em my way! Thanks.)

Hope this helps! E-mail in profile if you have questions.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:13 PM on July 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Mom's an only child, probably no leftover DNA lying around anywhere (or at least that wouldn't take a court order and a backhoe) BUT the testing you recommend is a perfectly good straw to grasp at. And yes, the uncle is of the typical British Isles ancestry.

Thank you.
posted by konolia at 2:00 PM on July 26, 2007

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