Blaine Bettinger was one of the earliest to have a blog, The Genetic Genealogist, dedicated to using DNA for genealogy and personal ancestry. When I began using DNA testing for my personal genealogy research in 2005, I read his posts as part what seemed at the time an insurmountably steep learning curve to even basic understanding of results. At the time, Blaine was still a graduate student in biochemistry. His interviews of leaders in the industry years ago are the inspiration for this interview series.
In the years since, I have watched Blaine’s career path grow and his family grow, even as I have watched the personal DNA testing industry grow. Surprisingly, I did not meet Blaine in person for the first time until Rootstech 2014. Unsurprisingly, he proved to be even nicer in person than online.
Rebekah: Please tell me about yourself. Are you currently working or retired? What are your other hobbies or interests outside of genealogy?
Blaine: By day, I’m an intellectual property attorney at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse, NY. By night, I’m a father, genealogist, blogger, and DNA consultant.
I grew up in tiny town in beautiful upstate New York. After college, I obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry with plans to pursue a career in academics, but the entire academics field was already beginning its downward spiral, so I went to law school to be a patent attorney. I love the challenge of helping people protect their work and ideas; just like I love the challenge of searching through old records or reviewing the results of a DNA test. It’s still surprising to me how often the three fields I love so much – science, genealogy, and the law – intersect.
Rebekah: How long have you been actively involved in genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?
Blaine: In 7th grade English class, I was assigned a family tree for homework. I called my paternal grandmother, and she helped me fill out her family tree for generations, far beyond the scope of the assignment. I even had to attach extra sheets of paper!
I’ve essentially spent the 25 years since that assignment trying to fill in the rest of the gaps on my family tree. I still have the original paper, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
After that assignment grabbed my interest, I very slowly followed the common trajectory for genealogists from the collector stage (collecting names and dates without worry about source or citation) to a more experienced stage. In an attempt to continue to improve my genealogical skills, I’m currently in ProGen 21, which has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
Rebekah: At what point did you decide to become involved in genetic genealogy?
Blaine: In 2003 I was a genealogy hobbyist studying biochemistry, and I saw an ad for AncestrybyDNA, one of the very first autosomal DNA tests. It seemed like a natural fit for me, and it’s all been downhill from there!
In early 2007 I started writing The Genetic Genealogist, one of the earliest blogs dedicated to genetic genealogy. Through the blog, I’ve met or interacted with people throughout the world, and it’s been so much fun.
Rebekah: What genetic ancestry tests have you taken?
Blaine: I started, strangely enough in those days, with an autosomal test at AncestrybyDNA. Then I progressed to Y-DNA (67 markers and Geno 2.0), mtDNA (full sequence), and numerous autosomal tests (Family Finder here at FTDNA, 23andme, AncestryDNA, National Genographic). I’ve also had my entire genome sequenced by the Personal Genome Project, but so far it’s had limited usefulness for ancestry.
Rebekah: Have you ever been surprised by your or your family’s test results?
Blaine: I’ve written about most of my surprises on my blog over the years, but my biggest was probably my mtDNA test results, which show that I belong to haplogroup A2w, a Native American haplogroup. I knew my maternal line originated in Honduras, but my understanding was that they were English missionaries. It was a great finding, however, and has significantly broadened my family story.
I was also surprised when I received my Y-DNA results and learned that I had a rare mutation (null439) caused by a SNP that prevented the old DYS439 primers from annealing. At the time the mutation had never been found in individuals with paternal lines outside of the U.K., and my line originated quite solidly, or so I thought, in Germany. Soon thereafter, however, others with lines in Germany began to join the group, so it was an identity crisis averted!
Rebekah: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?
Blaine: I describe the knowledge that my maternal line was Native American as “peeking” past that brick wall, which ends in the early 1800’s. Although the letters “A2w” essentially sum up my entire knowledge of that line, it is vastly more than I had prior to the test, and I can use it to make some educated guesses.
I’m also working very hard to identify the biological parents of my great-grandmother who was born in 1889. Helen Johnson, who I remember meeting as a small child, had no clues as to who her true parents were, and her birth certificate is equally as mysterious. I’m making new discoveries in this search all the time, and I’m hoping that the mystery will be revealed soon.
Then it’s on to the next mystery!
Rebekah: Are you involved as a group project administrator? If so, what projects do you administer or co-administer?
Blaine: I’m the administrator of the Bettinger Surname Project (a tiny project that, for the first time, demonstrated that not all Bettingers in the United States are related through their paternal lines). I’m also a co-administrator of the R1b-L1/S26 Y-DNA Haplogroup Project (formerly The NULL439 DNA Project). I joined the Null439 project not long after the great Leo W. Little passed away, to help out as much as I could. It’s a great group of people, and I’ve learned so much.
Rebekah: What advice would you give someone starting out in ancestry DNA testing?
Blaine: To those starting out in genetic genealogy, I recommend that you educate yourself as much as possible. Join ISOGG, read the handful of dedicated blogs (all of which are terrific), join a mailing list or two, join a few of the many Facebook groups, read the FAQ for the product you purchase, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You will never find a more supportive and engaging community than this one.
Rebekah: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?
Blaine: Predicting the future of genetic genealogy based on past evolution of the field, current scientific developments, and logical trends is one of my areas of focus. I’ve written about it on my blog several times (see, for example, “The Science Fiction Future of Genetic Genealogy”), and I give presentations on the subject.
With the massive data that is currently being generated, it will soon be possible to rebuild at least parts of genomes of ancestors, even those who have no known paper trail. The reconstructed genomes will tell us about their health, physical condition, relatives, even their appearance. Indeed, eventually it won’t be at all unusual to see scholarly articles in national genealogy journals with titles like “Pinpointing the Likely Identity of a DNA-Reconstructed Palantine Ancestor.”
While this is a long way down the road, genetic genealogy promises to bring us new information – and surprises – for decades to come.