Sample text for The genetic strand : exploring a family history through DNA / Edward Ball.

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A STRANGE DISCOVERY caused me to write these pages, like the frozen hunters that have fallen out of melting glaciers in the Alps, and thousand-year-old bog people who have surfaced from moors in Ireland. I found something similar to these things, though not an ice-covered mummy. Due to the chance appearance of a stash of ancient DNA, which turned up in the living room, I became, for a couple of years, an amateur forensic examiner. I recommend the experience, except for this part of it: after falling under the scrutiny of genetics, I could no longer be sure who or what I was. Whereas there used to be no doubt.

What follows is a personal investigation of DNA science. It begins with an intimate finding. Many years ago, some distant relatives collected biological material -- from themselves. They wanted to preserve it, but they probably didn't expect that someone in the future would want to subject it to laboratory analysis, extract genetic material from it, and draw conclusions about them from the results. Which is what occurred, the events that take place in this book.

After discovering a hoard of family genes, I brought it to the attention of DNA scientists and forensic examiners. I educated myself about molecular biology and the things people do with deoxyribonucleic acid in forensic inquiries and in genetics labs. At the start, possibly the most trenchant thing I knew about DNA, the majestic manual of life, was that up close it looked like the Guggenheim Museum. In part, this was because I'm that suspect thing in the eyes of the scientific enterprise: a nonscientist. Chemistry and biology had never aroused me, and I didn't feel the excitement for the "miracles of science" that the public is called on to admire. Nevertheless, my living room was to become a molecular biology salon, part genetics classroom and part forensics office. I wanted to be entertained and enlightened. I didn't plan on a crisis of identity.

DNA science calls a lot of narcissism into the room. What genes do you carry? Who are you? Where did you come from? People with restless minds go over these things in a loop. The wondering about biological inheritance, what has come from your parents, and, for parents, what's going from you to your children, leaves you vulnerable to half-made answers. But, having returned from a kind of genetic quest, I testify that fantastic discoveries lie along the way, provided you don't think of them as having the truth of religion.

The forensic investigation I planned and the one I got turned out to be very different. Using my unusual collection of DNA, I'd expected to write a genetic profile of a family. By reputation, genetics was that miracle tool that could see through the body, and so I thought it might be possible to document one family's biological nature. It didn't happen. Instead, I've written a story that tracks some of the limits of genetics, rather than showing off its reach. But this result is more interesting, and more disturbing.

My tale has two plots. In the first, it is a scientific travelogue, one person's journey through the field of genes. I visit researchers in their laboratories and habitats, talking to people who do DNA analysis, learning how they do it. In a parallel plot, this book is a piece of family history, though it's a special kind, one made possible by forensics and not solely by memory or research. These pages tell the stories of several people, long dead, whose lives are lighted up by trace biological evidence they left behind. The idea of a genetic family portrait survives, but it's more modest; the surprises come from what the scientists do to the evidence, not from their revelations about it.

When I finished, I realized that I had set up a kind of forensics of the self. An esoteric field that will be of little use to the police, but gratifying to the person who wonders who they "are." It's an old enigma -- who you and your family are, your race, your identity -- that genetics and detective work promise to decipher in a different way.

The investigation began, dumbly enough, with a mute piece of furniture.

Copyright © 2007 by Edward Ball

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Ball family.
Charleston Region (S.C.) -- Biography.
Mitochondrial DNA -- Analysis.
DNA fingerprinting.