Discovering my maternal roots through a simple swab of saliva

The Jerusalem Post took a mitochondrial DNA test with Family Tree DNA and local start-up Igentify to trace back my maternal ancestry

Jerusalem Post reporter Ilanit Chernick takes an mtDNA test to find out the unique story of her maternal ancestry line. (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Jerusalem Post reporter Ilanit Chernick takes an mtDNA test to find out the unique story of her maternal ancestry line.
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
When your DNA results are described as “unique,” it’s something to be proud of, or so I was told.
On a mission to continue discovering my family’s history, which began 10 years ago, in December I was given the opportunity by Israeli start-up Igentify to do a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test with Family Tree DNA, which would trace my maternal line.
Igentify is a digital medical company and is the developer of the Digital Genetic Counselor, which is a digital platform for genetic test providers.
The mtDNA test looks at my mothers, mothers, mothers and so on, mitochondrial DNA, and even more interesting, it gives me a solid look at where their origins lie.
My grandmother Rose Jodaikin - nee Blechman - was born in Johannesburg in 1929.
Her mother Lena Donn or Donofoski was born in England but her parents were of Eastern European descent.
I remember my gran saying something about Poland, but my mom seemed to think Lithuania. The question is, who was right?
To do the test, instructions in the swab kit included no eating an hour before doing the test, how to swab each cheek, which needs to be done for about 45 seconds to a minute, and how to drop each swab into the special test tube with liquid that is provided. From there, it was mailed it off to America.
Nice, simple and clean - the best part is there’s no blood or continuous spitting into a test tube involved. Results take about four to eight weeks.
Well, after much anticipation, this week I got my results.
According to Igentify CEO and geneticist Dr. Doron Behar, the results show that I seem to be mostly Ashkenazi - no surprises there - but I don’t come from the main four lines that over 50% of contemporary Ashekenazim come from on the maternal side.
Now that was a shock, is this a good thing or bad thing? Behar assured me that I should be excited by this.
“You are unique,” he stressed.
Behar, who is affiliated with both Igentify and Family Tree DNA, explained to The Jerusalem Post that “mitochondrial DNA is a molecule that passes from a mother to all of her children, but only the daughters keep transmitting it to the next generation.
“That means that the mitochondrial DNA has the ability to trace your direct maternal line the mother of Mother of Mother, mother or father,” Behar explained. “[If] there is another individual who was descended from the same maternal ancestor, then you will share this mitochondrial DNA haplogroup.
“So that's very basically what the mitochondrial [DNA] can tell us about the [maternal] ancestry side,” he added.
Behar also pointed out a similar example with the Y chromosome.
“Most people today know that females are [made up] of [the] XX [chromosome] and males of the XY,” he said. “So that means that the Y chromosome of any man comes only from his father and that stems from his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, so the Y chromosome passes... exclusively from father to son, representing the direct paternal line, [but] the mitochondrial DNA is passing strictly for mothers to daughters, but only the daughters will keep on transmitting it.”
Expounding further on this, he said that many times in West Asian societies - West Asia includes the Middle East, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and so on - a surname is transmitted from father to son.
“That means that we have a demographic event that moves from father to son to son to son and a Y Chromosome accompanies this,” Behar continued. “So that means, if for example, two people have the same surname it might be by chance but it also might be because generations ago, they had the same great great great grandfather, who transmitted this essential name to his respective descendants.”
But Behar made it clear that the Y Chromosome “remembers” and “then you will be able to match Y chromosome surnames, to be able to say something which is of genealogical importance.”
He stressed that Mitochondrial DNA doesn’t allow us to do this because “many times we don’t carry the surname of the mother to her daughters, but it allows you to trace your ancestry.”
Turning to my mtDNA, Behar explained that my haplogroup, which is how are grouped based on my Mitochondrial DNA, is H1aj1.
“This means that you belong to the H haplogroup, which is the biggest branch you can be affiliated with,” he pointed out. “It's a really big branch to be branch that is a very common in Europe and in the Near East.”
The Near East includes Israel, Egypt, Turkey and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
“In Europe, the H haplogroup makes up 40% of all Mitochondrial DNA diversity,” Behar said. “Within your H1 [haplogroup] there are smaller branches within, so that would be a, j and then within that you are 1.”
According to Behar, the deeper one goes down into the haplogroup’s branches, “you will be closer to individuals that you will match than to individuals that belong to [haplogroup] H.”
Now, Behar explained that I belong to the H1aj1 Haplogroup, “and among Ashkenazi Jews, it is very famous that there are four major lineages that are high in frequencies among the [Ashkenazi] population... which make up a bit more than 50% of the contemporary Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry on the maternal side, but you don’t belong to them.”
He said that a lot of the people I matched to, which I was able to view on the site, were of European Ashkenazi descent, but that there were also a few Sephardi matches as well from Morocco and Turkey.
“Even more interesting,” Behar said, “is that in your private results, we know that the Jews, according to the most historical records, emanated from a Levantine source, and therefore not surprisingly, your mitochondria is also shared with one or two Palestinians, which might atest to common ancestry in the region.”
That was something I was not expecting.
“The Sephardi Jews (I’m connected to) might also be a result of this ancient population that lived in the Levant,” he added, encouraging to connect with the matches that
But, the country that I have the closest genetic distance to is... Lithuania, followed further back by the Ukraine, Belarus and Italy. This means my mother’s hunch that my great-grandmother Lena was of Lithuanian descent is true and it’s from her maternal side.
Behar also pointed me to the video that comes with my results that explains in simple terms my maternal family’s migration route and origins through the results of my haplogroup, adding that Family Tree DNA uses Igentify’s engine to create the video
Shocked and in awe of my results, Behar made it clear that “your mitochondrial DNA is beautiful.”
All this from a simple swab of saliva. How cool is that?