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In my blood: Community learns secrets behind DNA testing

By Staff | Feb 14, 2019

Trials and Tribulations Family History owner Shannon Combs-Bennett, of Manassas, Virginia, discusses “What Your Chromosomes Can Tell You” during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – For Shannon Combs-Bennett, family history isn’t just a matter of curiosity. It’s a way of life.

On Feb. 5, Combs-Bennett, of Manassas, Virginia, spoke about “What Your Chromosomes Can Tell You,” during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ.

Combs-Bennett is currently writing the dissertation for her master’s degree in genealogical, genetic and heraldic studies. She practices her ancestry and genetic researching abilities with her business, Trials and Tribulations Family History, helping people find the missing links in their family trees.

“I grew up in a family as the youngest grandchild on one side and the only grandchild on the other, and grew up hearing family stories. I just assumed that was the same for everyone,” Combs-Bennett said, mentioning she began developing her genealogy research skills after finding out her husband knew little about his family’s past.

“Unfortunately, my husband said he knew nothing about his grandparents,” Combs-Bennett said about a conversation she heard her husband having with their daughter. “The next morning, I started looking up his family history. And that passion hasn’t stopped.

“Since I have a DNA background, I like talking about genetics,” Combs-Bennett said, before explaining the difference between X and Y chromosomes, and how genetic tests are based upon interpreting information within these chromosomes.

While ancestry can be discovered through searching historic records, Combs-Bennett said genetic testing helps people find others who may be distant or “lost” relatives.

“To me, while I can identify genealogy family, I wanted to know about genetics – who else out there is related to me?” Combs-Bennett said, explaining “lost” relatives are often the result of secret adoptions in the past. “DNA can help you to learn about genealogy, to focus on finding out more information about one particular family line.”

According to Combs-Bennett, while she has used genetic testing agencies, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, to learn more about her family’s origins, the test results can be a little misleading.

“Some people get confused by the testing, but you have hundreds of thousands of DNA in each of your cells,” Combs-Bennett said. “Unfortunately, we lose DNA in each generation. So when you take a DNA test, you should be testing the oldest generations, because they are closest to your ancestors.

“If you don’t have any living older generations, you should test each living member of your generation, because while most of your family members will have the same DNA, each will have a unique combination of DNA. Half the DNA from your ancestors is lost between you and your siblings,” Combs-Bennett said, mentioning many full-siblings have come to her, concerned because their DNA was different from their siblings’ or didn’t show their connection to a people group they believed they were descended from.

Another factor people should be aware of, when taking popular DNA tests, is that the technology identifying people groups in DNA is constantly developing. The popular tests cost about $100 per test, which is far below the cost of a more accurate test, like the multi-thousand dollar one taken by Elizabeth Warren, proving her distant Cherokee ancestry.

According to Combs-Bennett, popular DNA test result interpretations are updated every few months, so people should check their test accounts at least once a year, to see what changes may have been made. But, regardless of what the test results say, Combs-Bennett emphasized it’s important for people to not dwell on their test results.

“You can look at it and say, ‘Oh, this is interesting!”‘ Combs-Bennett cautioned, “but then put it away.”

To learn more, visit Combs-Bennett’s Twitter account @tntfamhist, or email her at tntfamhist@kandsbennett.net.