News Report 8/4/2000

What's in a name? ....A relative.

WASHINGTON - Curious about your forebears? Professor Brian Sykes, an Oxford geneticist, can answer your questions.

He said yesterday he had checked the DNA of dozens of men who had the same surname and found, to his surprise, that they all seem to have descended from the same ancestor.

Examining men with the same surname as his own, Sykes used genetic fingerprinting to examine the men's Y chromosome, which is handed down with very little change from father to son.

"I wrote to 250 men, a random sample, with the same surname, and I wrote to Sykeses because I felt confident approaching people with the same name as mine," Sykes said.

He tracked the men in three English counties known to have many people named Sykes - York, Cheshire and Lancashire. He sent them home DNA kits that included a brush to take a few cells from the inside of the mouth.

"I got 61 returns of DNA on little brushes and, of those, half had a Y chromosome microsatellite fingerprint which showed they had exactly the same Y chromosome."

Microsatellites are little repeated sequences of the four nucleotides - A, C, T and G - that seem to carry no important genetic instructions but which can be used as "fingerprints" to identify genes.

Before 1300, most English peasants went by one name or did not pass on their name to their children.

"Surnames became inherited because it was a time you were able to transfer the tenancy of your land to your children," Sykes said.

Sykes, whose laboratory linked the 9000-year-old skeleton known as "Cheddar Man" to an Englishman living nearby in 1997, said the applications of this latest work will be valuable to people tracing family histories.

"It is astounding news for genealogists," he said.

Noting that written records were rare before 1700, he said it would be a good way for people to track their ancestry.

Anticipating this, he has patented the test for an association between a surname and the Y chromosome. He has started up a company, with the University, to perform the tests.


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