DNA exploration reveals biological connections

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published February 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 1, 2013 at 8:55 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Dorothy Morris of Hot Springs, left, moves into position to have her picture taken by artist and photographer Laurel Nakadate at night on Hot Springs Mountain. After having their DNA analyzed, the two women discovered they share a common ancestor. Nakadate is traveling across the country taking photographs of her bio-cousins.

“I meet all my new relatives at night,” said Laurel Nakadate, a New York photographer and video artist, as she enjoyed a warm January night just outside the entrance to the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa in Hot Springs.

“Actually, this is much better lighting than where I usually meet them,” she said. “We meet under the starlight and moonlight, and I carry a flashlight. After all, that’s how we find people in the dark.”

This was Nakadate’s first time in Arkansas, and she had come to meet someone she hadn’t known, but with whom she shares a great biological connection.

“We are cousins,” said Dorothy Morris, whose family has lived in Arkansas for generations. She is a philanthropist and a supporter of arts and cultural activism, known for her enthusiasm. On this night, her fascination with Nakadate and their connection shined — even in the dark.

“We found a connection when we had our DNA tested, and we found we have a common ancestor somewhere in the last 200 years,” Morris said. “That’s why we are cousins.”

Morris explained that both women sent samples of DNA to 23andMe, a company that extracts the genetic code and analyzes it for variants and traits that would be of interest to the person providing the sample.

“You get this kit and send them some of your spit, and they read about 2 million of the more than 3 billion strands of DNA you have,” Morris said. “They can tell you where you come from and some tendencies you might have for some diseases or conditions.”

Morris has talked with Dr. Bradley Schaefer in Little Rock, director of the division of genetics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine. He has told her that providing a DNA sample helps further research, but that the information gathered is not yet enough to really be of specific medical use.

“The field now is in a stage where the technology of reading DNA exceeds our medical knowledge,” Schaefer said in a phone interview. “At this time, a look at the 2 million codes, called a snip-clip, can provide good information. It is interesting, we can talk about risk factors for an illness, but we don’t know what to do to reduce the risk.”

He said the goal is to develop personalized medicines that can treat or cure illnesses for a specific person. However, he said, while the science is good and there have been amazing advances in research to understand the genetic code, the tests are not yet approved for medical use and should be considered for entertainment.

“It took 13 years and millions of dollars to read the first human genome,” Schaefer said. “With the technology we have now, a person can have their entire DNA read in six months for $9,000. The tests Morris and Nakadate took cost $99 from 23andMe.

Morris said she found out that her ancestors came from northern Europe and that the odds are better than average that she will not develop some of the major ailments that can strike people down. She also found out she shared a lot of genetic material with many others who have had their DNA read.

Through testing a person’s genetic materials, scientists can track maternal lineage back as far as 10,000 years, according to the 23andMe website. They look for matches from more than 150,000 members who have had their genetic composition, or genotype, read and recorded.

“[23andMe finds] connections, and if you chose to, you can get in touch with those people whose DNA carries a lot of matching code, like Laurel and I,” Morris said.

“You can make connections only if you choose to, and we chose to because we are adventurous,” Nakadate said.

“We’re explorers,” Morris said, wrapping an arm about her newly discovered cousin.

Born in Texas and raised in Iowa, Nakadate said she has found almost 1,000 matches on the 23andMe website.

“All are from my mother,” she said. “My father was a Japanese-American, and there are few connections in Japan because few have had their DNA recorded in this way because the company is in America.”

Both Morris and Nakadate are confident that more relationships will be revealed as more people have their genes read and are added to the database.

Morris, who submitted her DNA for analysis last May, said she has made contact with eight people who share as much as 80 percent of her genetic code.

“I have met all kinds of people, including a lady who was orphaned and doesn’t know her parents,” she said. “I can be a resource for her to learn more about her biological family.”

Nakadate, who added her genotype to the database in 2011, said knowing all those cousins are out there inspired her.

“As I learn more about who I came from, it hit me one day that I needed to meet all these people,” she said.

That desire turned into a creative effort to meet and record some of her DNA relatives. Nakadate is traveling around the country, meeting those bio-relations at night and taking their picture, set in local and natural surroundings.

First, she wrote to some of her bio-matches from the website and introduced herself.

“It took me a week to write that message,” Nakadate said. “I was nervous about such a strange journey. These people were unknown, but related, and I wanted to meet them.”

The artist said she was surprised with how open many of the people were to her invitations.

“They have been generous,” Nakadate said. “After all, I was asking them to meet me, a stranger, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere.”

Morris said she was thrilled when she received the invitation.

“I thought, ‘How exciting.’ It was so neat, I responded immediately,” she said. “After all, we are cousins.”

Nakadate said she has traveled to more than half of the contiguous states to meet and photograph about 70 of her DNA relatives.

“I have met a Jewish man in Queens, a Mennonite in Oregon and a transgender in St. Louis,” she said. “They have been black, white and Native American. I met an English-looking woman in one place, and 20 minutes away, I met a black family — all connected.

After talking with Morris and several of her friends, the two women walked across the Arlington Lawn and took a path up Hot Springs Mountain. Just above the Grand Promenade, Nakadate placed Morris near a tree that had been damaged in the ice and snow storm at Christmas.

The photographs were long exposures without a flash.

“Taking a long exposure is the old way of taking pictures and is a serious way to treat this image,” Nakadate said.

During the long exposure, she takes a flashlight and sweeps it down over the subject — in this case, Morris — for a few seconds. The result is the details of the landscape are revealed, and the subject appears in a glow of light, contrasting with the darkness. The long exposure can also capture the color of the night sky, shaded purple by the starlight.

The photographs Nakadate is taking will be enlarged to 50-by-60 inches when they are displayed. She plans to create an exhibition with as many as 100 images of her DNA relatives.

Morris said she would like to see the work exhibited in Arkansas, perhaps at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Over dinner after the pictures were taken, Nakadate said she would leave for Texas the next morning to meet with another newly discovered genetic cousin.

“It was great to know Laurel and to be a part of this and be connected with so many people,” Morris said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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