"Where are you from?"
It's one of the first questions we ask one another. But even though national identity has been used to divide people for generations, nationalities may be more closely connected than we ever imagined. Genetic science is beginning to create a new understanding of human ancestry.
Scott Woodward, chief scientific officer of Sorenson Genomics in Salt Lake City, is now giving people the chance to trace their lineage by using their DNA.
Formerly specializing in paternity testing, Sorenson spent $40 million building the largest DNA database in the country. Over the last seven years, it's collected 100,000 samples of maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA, considered the purest form of genetic inheritance because it barely changes through the generations.
New samples are continually being added to the database, which was conceived by 86-year-old entrepreneur James LeVoy Sorenson. He doesn't give interviews, but "Nightline" spoke with his son James Lee who is in charge of the company.
"Dad is a man of faith. He believes in God. He believes that we're all brothers, that we all share connections," James Lee said. "He believes that there is a genetic Adam and Eve that we all descended from."
Sorenson researchers have collected DNA from 172 countries — more than 90 percent of the world. From Austria to Australia and almost everywhere in between, the company's global research is recorded on video.
"Just recently we sent a team to Mongolia. Mongolia is a very important part of the world. If you look during the period of Ghengis Kahn and all the parts of the world that came under his subjection, we collected 3,000 samples with genealogies there. We are in the process of getting 600 samples from Iraq right now: 200 Shiite, 200 Sunni and 200 Kurd," James Lee said.
I asked what prompted Sorenson to spend millions of dollars putting together a DNA database.
"I think the hypothesis was that if he could get any two people in a room, and through this database show them how they were related and where they came from and how they belonged … that this would change the way they would feel about each other. That instead of animosity perhaps they would feel a connection and that would lead to a more peaceful environment," James Lee said.
The company has now launched GeneTree.com, a Web site where individuals can order a DNA kit for $150. With a unique software program, analogous to a DNA Facebook, users can discover their ancestry.
Jason Kassing, adopted at birth, was one of the first to do so. As a grandfather, and the father of four children, he established a small family tree of his own. But the past remained a mystery.
"I knew my birth date and the place I was born. Nothing else. I was renamed as a baby and brought from California, by the adoption service, to Utah. That's all I know," Kassing said. "I don't know what nationality. I don't know what part of the country. I don't know any history about my grandparents or my great-grandparents. No medical history."
By matching his specific DNA to others within his haplogroup, those who share many of his genetic markers, Kassing quickly made connections.
"You can watch the growth of my lineage and how they moved across the world and came to the United States, and really, how I came to be here," Kassing explained.
Eventually he found out that he originated in Europe, in the Turkish region.
"We've always speculated. … I have dark skin so maybe I'm Italian. Maybe Hispanic. Now I know who I am and why," he said.
'I Was In for a Huge Surprise'
This got me thinking about my own ancestry. I knew that both my parents were born in India and immigrated to Great Britain in 1951 — but I've never met any of my grandparents or other relatives.
I decided to go through the process. I swished around some mouthwash, used swabs to take a saliva sample and then sent my DNA to Sorenson Genomics where research scientist Natalie Myres analyzed my samples and walked me back through my family history.
We looked at a picture of my parents on the computer screen.
"Currently this is as far as your family tree goes because this is all the information that you're aware of," Myres said. "So in order to augment your understanding of your history we analyzed your DNA."
She explained that I was a member of haplogroup "m" and a member of subhaplogroup "m3." The designations "m" and "m3" can be thought of as ancestors of mine along the maternal line.
"Now ancestor 'm' lived about 63,000 years ago," Myres said. "Somewhere between east Africa and the Persian Gulf."
Myres showed me a map that showed my "m" ancestor had descendants spread throughout Eurasia.
I also descended from a subhaplogroup named "m3a" — that ancestor lived about 17,000 years ago probably somewhere in west northern India.
"The other population — are the Brahmans of Utar Pradesh," she said. "Now the Brahmans as I'm sure you know are a priestly caste in the Hindu system, and also the highest cast in the Hindu social system as well."
I told her I liked what I was hearing.
"The other group that I haven't mentioned yet are the Rajputs of Rajistan, and they are also a major caste in India, which claim ancestry from ancient royal warrior dynasties," Myres said.
Now we are getting somewhere!
Although I share ancestry with all of these groups, we don't yet know whether I descended directly from one of them.
Although this royal surprise was uplifting, DNA can also cause some unwelcome shocks. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton recently learned that he descended from a white slave owner. But Sorenson Genomics is convinced that such information will only prove positive for society, making it difficult for people to support hateful ideas with notions of genetic purity, a phenomenon that doesn't truly exist.
"To realize that perhaps this hatred and this bias that has been grown up through environmental influences, there could be a realization that could change that," David said. "It will allow people to see that they're related. That there isn't a so-called pure race. That we all have common roots."