DNA pro at work on an old mystery
Brighton area woman a part of Lost Colony research

The Ann Arbor News, Ann Arbor, MI, July 27, 2007
Written by Stephenie Koehn, News Special Writer

    It's one of the most haunting and tantalizing mysteries in American folklore.

    The 115 souls who in 1587 constituted the first English attempt at a permanent colony in the New World, on Roanoke Island, N.C., disappeared within three years' time, leaving scarcely a trace.

    Archaeologists, historians and scholars have been trying for years to determine what became of the members of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, to little avail. Now, a Brighton area DNA expert may hold the key to unraveling the 400-year-old mystery.

    Robert Estes, owner of DNA Explain, a private DNA analysis company, is managing a multidisciplinary project, incorporating DNA tracking, geography, geology, history, biology, anthropology and oceanography to track possible descendants of those lost colonists.

    "The question we're setting out to solve is, 'Did any of the colonists survive?'" said Estes, who directs DNA research for the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research in Martin County, N.C. The center's primary mission is to determine the fate of the Lost Colony by funding continued research into the mystery.

    Some researchers believe all the colonists perished, while others believe they were assimilated into friendly Native American tribes in the area. Others believe the truth is a combination of those two theories.

    "One account says colonists were taken as slaves by Indians," Estes said. She and her colleagues at the Lost Colony Center believe they can ferret out the real story using DNA comparisons. The project will test the DNA of people who have similar or the same last names as the colonists or those on a list who had land patents or deeds in the Roanoke Island area, and also people who are known to descend from any of the Native American tribes in the area. The DNA test results, in combination with genealogical and historical information, are "the only way to trace whether any of them survived," Estes said.

    Armed with bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, 30 years' experience in genealogy and six years in DNA-genomics (the study of the DNA in the human genetic structure), Estes is working with researchers at the Lost Colony Center to look for matches between the DNA of interested participants and the DNA of families known to be related to the Lost Colonists.

    "We're bringing real hard science to bear here," said Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony Center, who said he is positive that this line of investigation will solve the mystery. "We'll just fall over and drop dead if we don't nail it," he said.

    Willard said the evidence strongly points to the colonists assimilating with the Croatan Indians, who later became the Hatteras Indians and later, the Mattamuskeet. In fact, one of the few clues to the colony's fate is the word, "Croatan," carved into a post of the fort that sheltered the colony.

    Because of the North American penchant for migration, likely participants do not necessarily live in the Roanoke Island area, Estes said. In fact, in response to an inquiry she put out on RootsWeb.com, a well-used genealogical Internet site, she has had more than 3,000 responses, from all over North America and even some foreign countries. "I had no concept of the magnitude of this," she said.

    In fact, her year-old company, DNA Explain, helps people understand what DNA test results - which are generally provided as a series of seemingly meaningless numbers - actually mean and how they are derived.

    "I started the company because I found I was spending hours explaining the results of these tests to friends and family and thought, why not help more people - and get paid for it?"

    The testing itself - done through Family Tree DNA, the world's largest genealogy-driven DNA testing service - is done by means of cheek swabs to test for paternal and maternal DNA. There is a fee for the tests, the amount depending on how many markers, or points of comparison, are tested.

    Information on testing - and a list of surnames from the Lost Colony, as well as detailed information about it - is available at the center's Web site at www.lost-colony.com.

About DNA Explain

    What: A Brighton Township company that offers detailed explanation of DNA test results.

    Who: Owner Roberta Estes.

    How it works: Estes will study DNA test results for either the maternal (mitochondrial) or paternal (Y-line) side of a person's family, or both. Her analysis, called genetic genealogy, can connect you with people that you neither know nor have heard of before, but who are members of your family who have lived since the time that surnames were adopted. The time frame covered is generally less than 500 years, although it can be as much as 1,000 years, Estes said. With different tools, Estes also can provide more general information about the geographical areas where your ancestors lived and the deep ancestral group or clan, called a "haplogroup,'' from which you descend.

    Cost: Depends on the amount of detail you are interested in, but ranges from about $40 for a Test Plan to point you in the right direction (useful, said Estes, when you realize that the least expensive DNA testing begins at $99), to $149 for a personal analysis of your mitochondrial or Y-line DNA test, to $2,250 for a minutely detailed package that includes analysis of several different types of DNA tests, along with information about your ancestral clan, graphics and photos and up to 40 hours' worth of genealogical research.

    Links: DNA Explain offers links to the world's largest genealogy-driven DNA testing service and to National Geographic's Genographic Project, which seeks to collect and analyze more than 100,000 DNA samples from people around the world to answer the questions of where humans came from and how they evolved.

    Web site: www.dnaexplain.com.

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