Interview with Ugo Perego, genetic genealogist, on the forensic side of the Project

The following interview is abridged due to the considerable length of the original. Complete interview is available on request.

Ivan Fowler: Good morning, Doctor Perego. Can you tell us something about yourself, and your work?

Ugo Perego: I have a Ph. D. in human genetics and molecular biology, and I’m specialized in using genetic tools to reconstruct the history of individuals or populations, using DNA. My work is divided mainly into two components. I have a collaboration with a number of universities, where we produce genetic research and publications in the field of population genetics. The University of Pavia is where I have my affiliation for this type of work. I’m also the CEO of a company called The Genetic Genealogy Consultant, and together with other researchers in that group we provide consulting for individuals that want to use DNA to extend or verify their genealogical research.

IF: Thank you. Now, in the case of Edward II and our research project to try and identify his remains, it may seem logical to simply open the tomb of one of his female relatives that the family tree says has the same mitochondrial DNA as him, and take mitochondrial DNA from the remains in that tomb, and then simply compare the two. But you recommend that we do not do that.

UP: Yes. It is a possibility, but if you don’t know that the person the tomb attributed to King Edward is King Edward, and you also cannot know for sure if the female relative is what you’re going to find in that grave, and so you have two unknown variables. So what if the King is actually the King, and you get a genetic profile, and then you get the female relative, and you think that genealogically she is related, but it’s not the right person in there, so then the genetic profile from the female relative is the incorrect one, how are you going to verify that the King is the King, or is not the King? So who is right and who is wrong in that moment? You have two variables that you assume, based on the genealogies, are correct, but you will not know, in the case of miss­match, who is the right one, in the right place. Of course, if they are a match, and there is the genealogy, then you have a strong case. The problem, though, also comes with requesting permission, to obtain the DNA from these bones. So you have to really provide a strong case both for Edward, and then another strong case for the relative, which most likely could be a famous royal individual; or not, but the process of acquiring permission from city officials, churches, if they are in churches, lawyers, family members who might be alive and have a right to the tomb and prevent you… all of that can require a long, long time, to go through the process a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of costs to do that… So it’s much easier at this point to identify living descendants, and have more than one of those, first.

IF: Why do you say more than one living descendant?

UP: More than one descendant is because… well, we’re using mitochondrial DNA, which is a small genetic molecule, found in organelles called mitochondria within the cell, so it’s not nuclear DNA where the 23 pairs of chromosomes are found, so it’s a small component. Just to give you an idea, you have about three billion pieces of DNA in the nucleus, and then you have about seventeen thousand in the mitochondria, so it’s very manageable as a size, but it has a characteristic which is that it does not mix with the rest of the DNA, so it follows a straight maternal line from a mother to her children, and then all the daughters will pass it on. So the concept that we are dealing here with is the concept of the most recent common ancestor. So, although the female line, the ‘umbilical’ line, is usually more… what’s the word… you don’t have reason to suspect that the mother is not the mother, you know, while you might not be as sure about who the father is, but you still have some unknowns, that perhaps somewhere, especially if you’re considering a case of about eight centuries, there could have been a case of adoption that was not documented. Let’s say, you know, in 1400 there was an adoption, or an illegitimacy, like a daughter who becomes pregnant and you don’t want anybody to know, because she’s not married, and so somebody takes the kid in, so you’re raising a kid with your own name, but biologically is not connected to you. In the last hundred or two hundred years, you might have documents to support that, but as you go back in time, every time somebody is born you add to the possibility that the biology does not match the genealogy. So, two or more descendants going back to this common ancestor that you’re trying to trace, would disprove, or eliminate any NPEs, which are Non Paternity Events, with an adoption or illegitimacy, or so on, that might create a problem with you thinking ‘Hey, this is the right genealogy, I should have the right guy. I have the DNA, it doesn’t match Edward’s, therefore Edward is not in the grave’, right? But what if there was an error in the genealogy, and Edward is in the grave, and you have the wrong DNA in your hands, and then somebody else later on does a similar study to replicate your findings, but does it with more than one descendant, and says ‘No, you did it wrong.’ So that is the reason why it is always better to have at least two, and then you go from there.

IF: Preferably more?

UP: Yes.

IF: One last question. Could you please tell us about your personal experience in contacting descendants and inviting them to take part in studies?

UP: Yes, well, I have several, but one of the largest projects I participated in was a case in which I was trying to link two families, with a very humble surname: the surname is Smith, which is 1 percent of the UK population, or rather, of England, because Smith is an English surname, not a British surname, that is one of those surnames which goes back to a trade, to lock­smiths, black­smiths, gold­smiths… these were all ‘smiths’, so there are any different Smiths which are not related to each other. So my project was to try to identify a connection between a Smith family in the United States with a possible Smith family, that I didn’t know, in England. And so there was a possible connection to a town in England, so once I found that town, I looked at the White Pages online and identified how many Smiths lived in that town: there were 1300. Then I wrote a letter to all 1300 of them, prepared a kit, and this kit had an explanation of the project, who I was, who I was working for, what I was trying to do, there were swabs to collect the DNA, there were return envelopes with the address and the stamp already paid for. So all they had to do was simply respond, and agree, and think that it could be important. The number of people who replied was less than 40, out of 1300. You know, there’s the older generation that might think ‘Who is this guy? Why does he want my DNA in America? I’m not going to do this.’ In your case, since you have a book that talks about this project and reconstructing Edward’s ancestry and posterity, you could use that book as a kind of calling card, that would definitely make a much louder, stronger statement about who you are. And also, in this case, you really have to create personal contact with these people. Ideally, what people do in these cases is actually go to the door of the person, to knock on the door and say ‘this is what we’re doing’. A phone call might work. But if you send a letter, people will go through the first three lines and then throw it away. If there is a book, people tend not to throw it away!

IF: If you ever have to collect samples from an English village again, just let me know. I’ll go to the village pub and take care of it from there. I volunteer.

UP: Alright.

IF: Thank you very much, Ugo.

UP: You’re welcome.


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