Two services launching just a week apart tap a growing interest in DNA testing to help people find their ancestors and learn more about their lives.
GeneTree, which opens Tuesday, and Ancestry.com, which started its DNA Ancestry service last Tuesday, both sell DNA kits for less than $200. Users can build online family trees and contact others with DNA matches to compare family histories.
Genealogy research has become popular in recent years as online services improve access to vast databases of immigration, military and other records from around the world. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a quarter of Internet users have researched their ancestors online.
Lately, many of them have been turning to DNA testing to uncover additional clues, said Dick Eastman, who writes a newsletter about online genealogy. Although DNA won't provide all the answers, such as names and precise dates, he said, it could open new leads.
"Anybody who's got a mystery is going to do this sooner or later, and that's a pretty high percentage of us," Eastman said.
That's particularly true of black Americans, many of whom have trouble tracing roots beyond the slavery era, Eastman said. Eastern Europeans, Jews and certain other groups also find records fragmented, he said.
GeneTree and Ancestry join services from Family Tree DNA and others.
James Lee Sorenson, GeneTree's chief executive, said he believes his site stands out for its exclusive access to records from the nonprofit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. The group has collected DNA samples from 100,000 individuals worldwide and conducted ancestry research on them to produce a larger database of 6 million people.
Ancestry, based in Provo, Utah, is building its DNA database largely from scratch; company officials say they are on track to capture the genetic profiles of 50,000 people within six months.
GeneTree is the latest project from Sorenson and his father, medical-device entrepreneur and billionaire James LeVoy Sorenson. The Salt Lake City-based initiative pulls technologies from the Sorenson foundation and two Sorenson companies.
Both GeneTree and Ancestry use DNA test kits from Sorenson Genomics.
GeneTree sends mouthwash that users swirl in their mouths, spit into a container and mail back for $99 or $149, depending on how much DNA the user wants analyzed. With Ancestry, users return a cheek swab. Ancestry offers a greater variety of tests; the one comparable to GeneTree's higher-end offering costs $179.
Besides finding matches, DNA patterns can help assess the likely origins of an individual's ancestors thousands of years ago, allowing the user to then visually trace migration backward to the first humans, widely believed to hail from Africa.
Both sites are incorporating elements of social networking, akin to those at Facebook and News Corp.'s MySpace.
With GeneTree, each family member in the online tree whether a user of GeneTree or not gets a personal profile page. Users may add photos, video and other documents to their own pages or those of relatives, using free tools from sister company Sorenson Media.
Ancestry already has some tools for adding photos and other files and plans additional features by year's end. For example, Ancestry will let users with the same last name compare DNA results and collaborate.
To protect privacy, individuals born within the past 100 years won't show up by name in searches. A user may try to contact that individual through GeneTree, and only with that person's approval would a name appear. Approval also allows the initial user to view the profile page and add files.
Company officials also say that the segment of DNA analyzed is the portion of little value to law enforcement officials wishing to identify suspects or to insurance companies and employers looking to assess one's predisposition to certain diseases.
That portion happens to be most useful for genealogical research because it doesn't play any role in human functions, meaning it is more likely to withstand mutations over time and provide unique markers for comparison with ancestors.
Ancestry makes similar privacy pledges.
Although some people likely will resist sharing anything related to DNA, Eastman said, many like him would welcome such a research tool.
DNA testing is optional to users of either site, and users can choose to have tests taken elsewhere.