What was the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation? It made DNA history by starting a pioneering genetic genealogy database. The SMGF is also part of OUR history. Enjoy these memories and pictures from the exciting, early days of using DNA to explore family history!
Here at Your DNA Guide, we’re sometimes asked about the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. The SMGF isn’t just part of DNA history: it’s part of our history. Your DNA Guide Founder Diahan Southard worked there. So did I, and so did a third member of our team, Katie Ritchie. But there’s not a lot of history out there about the SMGF. So we thought we’d honor its legacy by sharing some memories. Thank you to Scott Woodward for reviewing this article before we published it, and thanks to Jayne Ekins for writing it.
“We’ll do the DNA of the World”
Back in the late 1990s, when cell phones weren’t the right of every 5th grader and didn’t accompany the masses to the bathroom, a molecular biologist named Dr Scott Woodward (pictured, right) picked up the phone to a man who sounded like he was calling from an echo chamber. It was James LeVoy Sorenson, a philanthropist and billionaire, calling from his personal “brick” phone. From a bathroom.
Sorenson was intrigued by a documentary he’d seen that followed Dr. Woodward’s work on ancient Egyptian mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs. In the 1990s, Dr. Woodward worked with the DNA of royal mummies, as well as the remains of servants and everyday people from Egyptian burials. His avant-garde genetics research reconstructed family relationships and human characteristics of people who had been gone for millennia.
Sorenson began to pick Dr. Woodward’s brain. He wanted to know whether similar DNA methods could be used to help piece together parts of his own Norwegian family history that had been elusive in the written record. Their echo-ey conversation quickly gained momentum and scope. It was punctuated with Mr Sorenson’s invitation, “We’ll do the DNA of the world!” That’s the story of how one of the most prescient pronouncements from the 1990s came from a brick phone in the men’s lavatory.
From Mummies to Modern DNA
It is astonishing to me how Mr. Sorenson’s ambitious hope from over 20 years ago has taken shape. Scientists and every person who contributes their DNA to an ancestry database are chipping away at “doing the DNA” of literally the whole world. And there have been such tangible results for both individuals (brick walls blasted!), and our collective understanding of human history, like the transatlantic slave trade and migratory patterns in the United States. And there’s so much more to come.
As a 19-year-old, my treks across campus often crossed Dr. Woodward’s as he headed to teach a course with a skull in hand or some other ancient artifact with a story. So cool! The man was like a modern Indiana Jones, armed with the burgeoning tools of molecular biology to solve his mystery. From time to time, the media caught on to his work and a magazine spread would show pictures of him mentoring students waist-high in a parched excavation of the desert hardpan of the Egyptian Fayum, tents and camels in the background. The wow-factor of the findings of his investigations with these provocative new tools inspired the imaginations of overflowing lecture halls. It became my fond hope to be a part of this.
One day, gathering all my courage, I marched to his office and did one of the gutsiest things I’d ever done: I knocked on his door. I asked, “Can I please be your indentured servant?” To my surprise, he said yes on the spot and took me on a tour of his labs.
This is where many of the contributors of Your DNA Guide first met. The first project that Katie Ritchie and I worked on a was a behemoth of an undertaking to manage an exponentially-increasing population of drosophila melanogaster flies. They had to be tended to every 12 hours 24/7 for several months. (Somehow Diahan missed out on that adventure! She was safely sheltered in the world of Peruvian mitochondrial DNA, which kept her too tied up to jump into the ever-multiplying and buzzing test tubes of flies. And I don’t think she was too sad about that!) Another of our fellow students who eventually worked with Your DNA Guide, Christi Jacobsen, was in yet another part of the lab. Her careful work and consistent ability to deliver clean results with mummy samples gave her lordship over the ancient DNA realm of the lab.
We were all nerdily happy with our polyacrilimide gels and fruit flies, when Dr Woodward issued an invitation to our lab. It was a big announcement over dinner at the nicest restaurant in our college town. (I wasn’t gonna miss that!) In the upper room of Los Hermanos as I munched on tortilla chips and salsa fresca, he told us about his men’s room phone call with Mr. Sorenson and the generous grant he was dispensing to fund our lab to tackle a new endeavor.
We would build a DNA database of unprecedented size and scope, correlating genetic and genealogical data from living people, as many as we could find from all over the planet. Dazzled, we all could feel that we were witnessing the beginning of something singular that could change the world. A database participant once said something to me that captured the far-seeing sense of awe: “This is like being present for the beginning of the internet.” I couldn’t believe my incredible fortune, as one of tens of thousands of aspiring molecular biology undergraduates, to have the chance to work on a project so grand and consequential: the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation.
Gathering Pedigrees and Blood Samples
From every database participant, we would need 4-generation pedigrees…and blood. The streamlined process used today (spit or swab) had not been developed yet. We started out with an well-established protocol that required a tube full of blood to harvest DNA. Seeing that we were going to be in the business of phlebotomy, another lab-friend, Stan, and I set out to learn on each other how to safely draw blood. And we got pretty good at it. So did Diahan. Here’s a picture of her in our lab drawing blood from her own mom, taken about 2000.
Work began right away. We learned how to use new automated equipment to analyze DNA, which we fed with samples around the clock to keep the data coming. Our weekends were spent on planes en route to distant convention centers where hundreds of participants gathered at a time, 4-generation pedigree charts in hand, sleeves rolled up to give their blood. I wish I had pictures of the incredible scenes, but we were pretty busy and this was back in the day when you had to bring an actual camera instead of spontaneously snapping a shot on your phone. Hundreds of people patiently waited in switch-backed lines snaking through a hall–sometimes for a couple of hours–to be stuck by a needle (everyone’s favorite thing to do, right?).
And there was no tangible benefit to them, because nobody knew exactly how the public would be able to tap into this or on what timeline it would become available, if at all. Donating their DNA was purely an act of humanity to others who might benefit in the future. The generosity, foresight, and sense of community of these tens of thousands of first participants humbles me. I have deep respect for their offering still, because it has produced an enormously powerful tool from which all of us now benefit. These donors are the backbone on which modern genetic genealogy has been built. Data from these people, collected by the SMGF, became the foundational platform from which the AncestryDNA database was developed and launched. These altruistic gatherings continued globally for 3 or 4 years until we started collecting mouthwash samples in the mail.
One evening during this time, a small mining community in central Utah hosted a gathering of participants one evening. It was Dr. Woodward’s hometown. Several of us caravanned through a winding canyon highway in pouring rain, with our co-worker Ugo in the lead. I’m not sure what kind of car Ugo was driving because it was ancient and I’ve never seen one like it before or since, but it did look a lot like the embattled German U-boat from the Matthew McConaughey movie U-571 that was in theaters at the time. As we cleared the canyon and neared Dr. Woodward’s hometown, the U-boat took her last breath and died right there on the shoulder of the road. With our several cars pulled over, and Dr. Woodward and Ugo talking animatedly on the roadside in pouring rain about how we were going to get to our destination on time, we made for some interesting rubber-necking. And then another car pulled over in front of our pack.
It was a hearse.
As if things were not already interesting.
We watched the hearse driver join Dr. Woodward and Ugo on the roadside and talk for a minute. Then they opened up the back of the hearse and started moving all the supplies and passengers from Ugo’s car into the curtained chamber. Dr. Woodward secured the hearse door and came back to our car to get the sideshow back underway. “Can you explain what just happened?” we asked when he got back in the car. “Oh, that’s my buddy from high school. He’s just coming back from making a delivery to a nearby town. Glad he saw us and had a vacancy in his hearse so we can get to this meeting on time.”
We made it to the event. And a couple hundred generous people, with love for humanity and drive for discovery, rolled up their sleeves and helped us continue to build the foundation of this remarkable database.
I wish I had a picture of the hearse in the rain. I don’t. But I do have these ones. For some of the local DNA trips, Mr. Sorenson insisted we use his old RV called “The Fireball.” It never actually blew up, but it did break down at inconvenient moments. Here’s my handsome husband summiting The Fireball.
Eventually, the SMGF labs and offices relocated from a university setting to a private research complex. We were tasked with safely moving this very valuable collection. It was a 40 minute drive on crowded freeways. My handsome husband helped transport 40,000 vials of DNA from database participants in the back of our 1991 Subaru Loyale wagon. We notified Dr Woodward when we arrived and moved everything into the new cold storage facility. “You did what?! How could you be so careless? You moved them all at the same time?! What if you had been in an accident?”
Woops, didn’t think of that. I guess we would have been dead too, but that’s beside the point…at least the DNA was OK!
A Lasting DNA Legacy
Mr. Sorenson passed away in 2008, so he hasn’t seen how these early efforts at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation have come to such prodigious fruition. I think he’d be very pleased. And Dr. Woodward’s innovative work with the DNA of ancient families has come forward to the present. Now, regular people like you and me–not just ancient Egyptian pharoahs–can tap into these powerful tools to illuminate our own family history mysteries.
It’s one of the great privileges of my whole life to have witnessed it from the beginning.
DNA and YOUR History
You’ve got your own rich and interesting history too. Learn about how you can learn more about your history using DNA with our free guide, “Three Things DNA Can Tell You About Your Birth Roots”.
Get Free Guide: Birth Roots and DNA
I love this story. So many places it could have gone wrong, but here we are, thanks to a hearse and no wrecks in the the transport of the DNA. Thank you for sharing.
I remember giving blood to Ugo in Santa Rosa CA
Thanks for the history lesson and photos.
That must have been interesting working on the mummy. There has been a lot of advances in DNA.
Where did they get the idea of using spit instead of blood for DNA?
Spit is a lot easier to collect than blood! Maybe soon there will be advances so that we don’t even have to use spit anymore to collect DNA!
It’s tragic that Ancestry retired the SMGF database. Does anyone have any ideas on how to appeal to them to make it available again? It would be incredibly helpful considering all of the testing that is now happening.
This is a great idea Samanatha. It would be so helpful to have all that data, wouldn’t it?
I enjoyed reading this article. What fun for the students to be a part of something so historic.
Did SMGF ever collect hair samples? My cousin asked for my hair sample to contribute to a project.
Not exactly. We didn’t ever from general donors. But we did do work with hair samples from other countries.
You have all led charmed lives!
Thanks for writing this piece about the Sorenson Project. I had heard bits about it over the last ten years I’ve been doing DNA, and knew Diahan was involved from the beginnings as I’ve heard her talk about it. However I’d not heard the actual story of how it started and progressed. It was really good interesting.
For years, I have heard Diahan mention her career began at SMGF. So, I enjoyed reading the story of the beginning of the SMGF. It was like putting a face to a name. Thank goodness James LeVoy Sorenson caught the vision and value DNA would become and provided the resources to make advances possible.