The Gene Pull

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Working to fill those knowledge gaps, Whitely has been conducting experiments with brook trout—a species easier to experimentally study than large predators—in which his team has moved fish into four different isolated populations and introduced fish from elsewhere to mate with them. Today, biologists are considering literal tinkering with animal genomes, by genetically engineering them to have certain traits.

But researchers in his group and elsewhere say they are just in the preliminary stages of investigating this technique. Oliver Ryder , director of Conservation Genetics at San Diego Zoo Global , says these techniques could someday prove invaluable, but that broader discussions about the ethics and logistics would need to come first.

Ryder is involved in a broader effort to develop yet another genetic rescue approach, and is interested in using it to save the Northern White Rhino. The technique, which is still years away, would use stem cell technology to produce eggs and sperm from frozen Northern White Rhinos cells stored at the San Diego Zoo Global. His team is also looking into using frozen sperm to create embryos from eggs obtained either from the last living females or through stem cell techniques. They would then theoretically transfer embryos into closely related rhinos, who would serve as surrogates.

This rhino is the perfect candidate for such an approach, in part because there are only three of these individuals left that are all unable to breed naturally, Ryder says. For now, researchers generally agree that traditional genetic rescue without genetic modification offers the most immediate conservation solution. However, it will never be the end-all solution to saving degrading populations. But as more and more populations become isolated and threatened by increasing human pressures and development, he says he has come to realize that some compromises may be necessary. Continue or Give a Gift.

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In the spirit of the season and fueled by a good bit of liquid holiday cheer, we marveled at the coincidence and speculated that we might be related, knowing quite well that, in fact, we were not: he is black and Baptist with roots in the Deep South; I am white and Jewish and entirely a product of New York City. He explained he was often taken for Jewish, at least by those who encountered him only on the telephone, but he did not, as far as he knew, have even a single Jewish forebear.

He did, however, inform me that in the part of north-central Louisiana where his father grew up, there were hundreds of people named Rubin, all of whom were black. Naturally, this stoked my imagination. How did this happen? It occurred to me, of course, that if I wanted to solve this mystery, I should just go down to Louisiana and investigate; but it also occurred to me that this would involve genealogical research, and that still carried certain negative associations in my mind.

This could be the thin end of the wedge, I thought, a gateway drug to a full-fledged addiction. Start out on a simple academic quest, end up like those poor trembling souls at the Massachusetts Archives, ever frantic to find just one more ancestor. Did I really need this? Perhaps not, but curiosity has a way of working on me over time, and after about six years I was able to rationalize that, since I wouldn't actually be tracing my own family tree, I wouldn't fall into the genealogy trap. I was wrong, as it happened, but by the time I figured that out it was far too late.

And here's the strange part: I never was able to solve that mystery, but I got hooked on genealogy anyway. It started early: the first time I pored over a Louisiana census roll and spotted the name Rubin in one of the columns, I experienced the same mixture of astonishment, excitement, and joy that I had as a child in the s when, canvassing a local park with a metal detector, I dug up a quarter from Actually this was even better, because there was no chance some nosy grownup was going to call my parents and tell them I was defacing public property. We were all grownups this time. At the genealogy library in Alexandria, Louisiana—housed in the town's old Carnegie library building—there were nothing but adults, along with several thousand microfilms and reference books.

After a few days there I started to recognize a solid core of regulars, middle-aged men and women who seemed to spend every long lunch hour at the place, tracking down some great-great-grand-stepsomebody or other. I introduced myself to them; they, in turn, introduced me to some of the more byzantine corners of the lifestyle genealogy, you see, is often too consuming a passion to be labeled a mere hobby , most of them linked somehow to the census, the old decennial government ritual that often seems rather dull to the uninitiated but which is absolutely indispensable to any American genealogical quest.

There is, for starters, the Soundex, an unusual index that assigns numerical values to combinations of consonants; originally a Works Progress Administration make-work project, the Soundex has proven invaluable to legions of researchers by grouping together surnames that sound similar but are spelled differently—Rubin, Reuben, Ruben, Ruban, Rubinstein, Rabinowitz, and so on—and thus compensating for variables like the evolution of names, as well as census takers who sometimes had a casual relationship with spelling and good penmanship.

Gene Flow - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

And then there is the great tragedy of the census, which burned in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D. If you want to make a genealogist sigh ruefully, just say " Most significant, I learned that the peculiar feeling I experienced upon spotting a familiar name in the rolls was not unique. It was, however, quite addictive. Moreover, it seemed to intensify with every new discovery—especially once I made the transition to tracing my own ancestors.

It was only natural, I suppose. After all, I had done all this legwork, acquired all these new research skills; it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify not applying them to my own family tree. One day, while I had the census handy, I thought I'd try—just for fun, naturally—to see if I could find anyone in there from whom I was actually descended.

And that's when the trouble really began. If you're going to be serious about the pursuit, at some point you're probably going to feel obligated to visit the mecca of genealogy: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The place looms so large in the imaginations of genealogists that I was surprised to find, when I finally got there myself, that it wasn't some sort of tall, gleaming castle but rather a plain concrete box.

No one seems to mind, though; on the days I went, deep into a frigid winter, dozens of people queued up to get in when the doors opened at 8 a. In the warmer months, I'm told, the line stretches for blocks. It is, at first glance, no more impressive on the inside.


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Aside from the panoramic painting hanging behind the reception desk that depicts the intersection of religion and genealogy—and a large mural that illustrates how Stephen Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Bush, and Mitt Romney are all descended from colonist Anne Hutchinson a chart that doubtless inspires many a tired tree-tracer to plug on —it looks very much like a typical research library, albeit a very large one. There are scores of computer terminals and hundreds of microfilm viewers and vertiginously long rows of file cabinets containing more than 2.

Many of them arrive for the first time with a misconception of what the library is. Contrary to popular belief, the Mormons aren't really in that business although many of their library's regulars—professional researchers—are , and what's more, almost all of the records you can find in that facility can also be found throughout the rest of the country and the world in local libraries and courthouses and archives. What makes the CLDS Family History Library so special is that it has them all in one place—and that, by and large, everyone who comes to visit the library has the same objective in mind.

There is a certain camaraderie in the tree-tracing trenches, since genealogy is hardly a zero-sum game and everyone has a pretty good sense of what that guy in the next carrel, who just spent four hours poring over ship manifests and came away with nothing, is going through. But they are also unfailingly determined, and most of the time the place resembles nothing so much as a casino, rows upon rows upon rows of microfilm viewers lined up like slot machines, the people sitting at them rhythmically tugging the cranks, their faces slack as they watch page after page of film spin past, yet ever ready to spring back into joyous focus if and when they hit the jackpot and a familiar name pops up.

And even though the library has clocks and windows all over the place, a great many visitors pass six or eight or even 10 hours without noticing and scarcely without budging, because they know what I learned that afternoon in Alexandria, Louisiana, when I thought I'd take a break from tracing someone else's family tree and see if I could actually find anyone from my own. I did, of course, without too much effort; and then I found another, and another, names on a paper—not even a paper, really, just a photograph of one—that I'd heard before: a grandfather's uncle who was a pioneer in the movie business; a great-grandfather who owned a grocery store in Connecticut; another great-grandfather who made his living airbrushing photographs and who died of emphysema contracted from the chemicals he used in his work; a great-great-grandfather who emigrated from Russia in and died just eight years later, in his early 50s, of peritonitis.

And with each successive discovery, that metal-detector-unearthing-a-quarter-from sensation increased exponentially, because each discovery matched a name to a story or a story to a name, and each connected me more securely to an ever-expanding network that linked me to a history, to my history, and helped me understand that I am who I am because they were who they were. Yes, on some level people get into genealogy because they want to learn more about themselves; but on another, deeper level they do it for the same reason that people do almost everything that's not directly related to putting food on the table or perpetuating the species: because they want to feel that they are a part of something much bigger than just themselves.

Now, perhaps that's no more noble a rationale than vanity or self-realization; perhaps it's not even all that different. But it's also about as purely human a motivation as there is, and many a noble thing has been done with that as an impetus. And genealogists, in the bargain, get to join two new and ever-burgeoning communities: the community of their ancestors and the community they find online, in courthouses, and at libraries.

And that's a lot more than many people will ever have.

As for practical advice: the most persistent bit I've heard floating about holds that the best place to start scaling your family tree is the branch closest to the ground—that is, you. What bits and pieces of the picture do you already have in your possession, perhaps without even realizing it?

What stories and anecdotes and legends did your parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents share with you in your youth? You'd be surprised at how many of them contain at least a particle of truth.