Research led by University of Leicester geneticists, comparing the DNA of 150 pairs of men who share British surnames, has shown that about a quarter of pairs are linked genetically. Their findings are to be published in the journal Current Biology on 21 February.
The key is in the Y chromosome -- the part of our genetic material that confers maleness, and is passed, like many surnames, from father to son. A simple link between name and Y chromosome could in principle connect all men sharing a surname into one large family tree.
However, in reality the link may not be so clear cut. Each name may have had several founders, and adoptions, name-changes and non-paternities would confuse any simple genetic link. Previous research had suggested a link for some particular names.
The new study, from Turi King, StÃ©phane Ballereau and Mark Jobling from the University of Leicester, and Kevin SchÃ¼rer from the University of Essex, examines the issue more generally by analysing many names, and recruiting pairs randomly from the population.
Pairs sharing surnames are on average much more likely to share Y chromosomes than pairs with different names, and the link becomes stronger as names become rarer. For example, there is no link for Smith, Jones and Taylor, but a clear link for Attenborough, Widdowson and Grewcock.
Linked men share a common ancestor less than 20 generations ago (about 1300 AD), when surnames were founded. The research has important implications for genealogists wishing to connect branches of their family trees.
It also has a potential use in forensic science, since it suggests that, given large databases of names and Y chromosome profiles, surname prediction from DNA alone may be feasible.
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