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Louis Kessler's Behold Blog

FTDNA’s 13th IGG Conference Lab Tour - Mon, 13 Nov 2017

#FTDNA2017 – What a great conference! So many people I could talk to at a technical level and so many that I learned from. I averaged less than 5 hours of sleep per night just because the day was so full, every morning was an early wakeup, and I had to watch Saturday Night Live. I left Winnipeg with 5 cm (2 inches) of snow on the ground and –10 C (14 F) temperatures, and Houston was 20 to 25 C (68 F to 77 F) but I wasn’t outside more than 5 minutes in those 4 days.

The morning after the Conference, I was signed up for the 9 a.m. Lab Tour at Family Tree DNA. Judy Russell and I shared a Lyft ride from the hotel to the FTDNA headquarters. That was my first ever ride of that type and I was impressed by both the service and the price and how you pay online (and tip online) and don’t have to mess with either cash or credit with the driver. But I can still say I’ve still never taken a Uber, which we don’t have in Winnipeg. (My taxi driver on the way home from the airport told me both Uber and Lyft will be starting in Winnipeg in February.)

The hour long Lab tour was something special. First of all, how often is your tourguide the President of the company? Bennett Greenspan got a dozen of us to put on white lab coats and those who had open toed shoes had to put disposable socks on, which were supplied.

I’m a software guy, and hardware baffles me. This is ALL hardware. We started with a robotic sorter, that placed several dozen samples into units that hold (I can’t remember any numbers so I’ll estimate everything) about 60 in each unit. These get placed in cases. Since everyone gives 2 samples, one goes for the current test and the other goes into 25 year storage.

We then saw the very large storage unit that is designed to store 2 million samples long term. This unit is not in service yet. It is the one talked about yesterday that they had to crane up to the 8th floor and remove the window to get it in.

We then were shown various DNA decoders ranging from the newest – a very slick looking device about the size of a washing machine costing a million dollars (Bennett said that particular cheque was hard to write), to two of the oldest that were of the type used to decode the first genome at a cost of billions of dollars. It took 100 of these devices and they cost $250,000 each. Bennett keeps them around because, although they are much slower, they do everything and are the gold standard against which they measure and check the newer machines.

We also saw and were given a glass chip to look hold and inspect. It is like and about the size of the glass slides you’d use with a microscope. It contained 24 small rectangles. Each of those is the results of a sample and is infused with the 700,000 SNP values from the sample.

There were way more steps than this, and I am amazed that this can even be done. Family Tree DNA is proud of their lab and its certifications and is continuously working to make improve the process with automation and increase throughput while maintaining quality control. Very impressive!

Photos were not allowed during the tour. To give you a feeling of the whole thing, the best I can do is provide a YouTube video by Family Tree DNA which shows and describes some of their lab equipment. It was made in 2015 so does not include the latest equipment, but gives you a good idea as to what it looks like, and the description is much better than my recollection of what Bennett said.

If you’re ever in Houston, see if Family Tree DNA is giving lab tours and sign up for one. After you’ve done that, then you can go see NASA (which I didn’t get to go to).

Below are my posts about each day of the Conference:

Jennifer Zinck posted a set of extensive notes from the Conference:

Judy Russell wrote a nice article about Michael Hammer’s talk:

Maurice Gleeson has his 2 talks from the Conference on YouTube:

Rob van Drie posted this report in German:


Followup: After telling my daughter who has a genetics degree about my lab tour, she told me she learned about the whole process in her molecular biology course. And she pointed me to the following video which I simply must pass on:

The PCR Song, from 2008. (Polymerase Chain Reaction)

    FTDNA’s 13th International Genetic Genealogy Conf Day 3 - Sun, 12 Nov 2017

    #FTDNA2017 - First up, another breakfast sponsored by FTDNA. This was followed at 8 a.m. by an ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy) chapter meeting, my first. It was led by Katherine Bodger, the Director and co-founder of the society. ISOGG was founded in 2005 after the first Family Tree DNA Conference. The ISOGG wiki is a vast resource of DNA information related to genetic genealogy to which Debbie Kennett adds most of the content, but it is open to anyone for editing once they are approved for an account. Leah Larkin is the editor of the JOGG (Journal of Genetic Genealogy). Derrell Oakley Teat is retiring from being the ISOGG European FTDNA Coordinator and received an award.

    At 9 a.m., Matt Dexter presented his own story: “Finding His Father – An Adoptee’s DNA Experience”. Matt knew almost nothing about his parents. It took him 7 years. In 2009, he met his mother. Through extensive DNA testing and learning how to do it, he finally discovered and met his father in 2016 and found several siblings. It was quite a story.

    Matt Dexter

    At 10:15 a.m., Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, who claims she is a genealogist who just happens to be a lawyer, and not the other way around, presented: “After the Courthouse Burns: Rekindling Family History through DNA”. Judy explained how she solved a genealogical puzzle with DNA in a period when the genealogy records had been lost and no longer exist.

    Max with Judy Russell

    At 11:15 am, Michael Davila, the director of Product Development for Family Tree DNA gave the 2017 Product Update. He said: “A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.” He talked about some of the challenges the company faced, and went over some of the current projects. Caleb Davis followed Michael and gave information about new things with Big Y.

    Bennett with Michael Davila

    By now, it was very apparent that Family Tree DNA has refined their Conference after 13 years so that all the little details were just right. Of all the conferences and talks I’ve ever been to, this is the first one that left pads of papers and pens on the tables at each seat so that questions could be written for the speaker. At the end of the talk, FTDNA staff would collect the questions and give them to the speaker. The speaker would read the questions and give answers quickly and efficiently. So much better than people randomly jumping up, no one can hear them, and spouting off something not as well though out as written words would be. Staff was at the back of each room throughout the conference, listening, learning, assisting and enjoying. It was such a pleasure.

    At the buffet lunch, I sat with Judy Russell. This is the 4th conference we’ve been at together in 20 months. I always thank Judy for imploring me to get my 94 year old uncle DNA tested last year and getting me into this DNA thing which has since sucked up all the free time I hoped to have after I retired.

    There was a set of breakout sessions at 1:15 pm. I chose to hear Roberta Estes once again, who talked about “Autosomal DNA through the Generations”. Roberta showed a 4 generation chromosome browser chart with her mother, herself, her son and granddaughters. Roberta’s mother died 5 years before Family Finder became available. But a sample was at FTDNA and they were still able to use it when the Family Finder test came out. One thing surprised me. Roberta asked the audience how many people had half-siblings. I couldn’t believe that a third of the people put up their hands. Roberta calls half-siblings: “God’s gift to genealogists.”

    Roberta Estes

    At 2:30, Elliot Greenspan, the head of IT at FTDNA, gave the Year in Review, and then the plans for Future Development. The latter includes new hardware, new technology, faster updates, and new hires.

    Elliot Greenspan

    Brent Manning, the Lab Manager, then gave us a very interesting update about the lab. FTDNA launched in 2000. In 2006 they opened their Genomics Research Center. In 2008, Hurricane Ike destroyed the lab and the building had to be reconstructed. They built an impenetrable fortress that worked to make it unscathed through Hurricane Harvey this year. Their lab is now 9,000 square feet taking up the entire 8th floor of their building and 50 people now work in the lab. They have been installing all sorts of new equipment and robots. The Automated Sample Sorter (to remain acronymless) was so large, they needed to remove the 8th floor window and rent a 70 ton crane to get it up there. This all means expanded capacity, throughput and ability to store millions of samples, all the while eliminating everything that can be automated. Brent summarized by saying “the future is freaking awesome, completely mindblowing” and it can’t get much  better than that.

    Brent Manning

    Max and Bennett closed the conference with a Q&A period, using all the questions handed in over the past two days that hadn’t been answered yet.They covered anything and everything. My notes:  The Illumina chip switch will happen in 5 to 6 months, but Illumina made some concessions to FTDNA and mods will make for better backwards compatibility and better matching. All the new equipment and efficiencies likely will soon improve time to get results down to as little as 2 to 4 weeks. A full genome takes the same time to run as 800 Big Y tests, so full genomes are not in FTDNA’s current plans. Will FTDNA/Gene-by-Gene ever go public? “Never!!”, said Bennett.

    Max and Bennett answering Questions

    FTDNA’s 13th International Genetic Genealogy Conf Day 2 - Sat, 11 Nov 2017

    The day began with Max Blankfeld and Bennett Greenspan greeting the entire group. After honoring the veterans, and there must have been 50 in the room who stood to loud applause, they provided a bit of information about the conference. There are 240 in attendance. About 50 people, including myself, raised their hands as first timers. FTDNA currently has about 140 employees with many assisting with the Conference.

    Max and Bennett

    Peter Sjolund, http://www.dnaacademy.se/, the ISOGG Regional Coordinator for Sweden, next presented information about the Swedish Haplogroup Database, and how Y-DNA and mtDNA tests are helping to map the genealogy of Sweden back to the 1600’s. Peter came out with a power drill and a skull. He explained that the current FTDNA method of DNA testing is inefficient and then proceeded to drill into the skull and said that this was the new way. Of course, he said, it should not be used on living persons. He told us about the research being done by DNA tests on the many old skeletons being found in the world. These are being recorded at: www.ancestraljourneys.com. Peter showed how these old skeletons are being used to trace the ancestral paths to Sweden. He recommends everyone submit their mtDNA data to the world GenBank at:  http://www.tinyurl.com/mtDNAtoGenbank

    At 10:15 am, Janine Cloud, the do-everything person for Family Tree DNA, presented “GAP Guidelines and You” – rules for Groups Projects Managers to follow. Basically, have fun and be nice. Janine says that some days, enforcing the GAP guidelines is like herding cats, or maybe sheep. There are almost 10,000 FTDNA projects now, managed by 8,000 Admins and Coadmins.

    At 11 am, Frank Billingsley, a Houston TV weatherman, presented the story in his book “Swabbed and Found”. Frank was adopted and didn’t know who his parents were, and this was the story of his DNA journey to find them. This was the book that every attendee received free in their registration package. Frank’s presentation was very interesting and his story has many twists. He said: “The book is funny like me and cute like me. It reads like a Hardy Boys book. I hope you read it.” I waited with many others to get my copy personally signed by Frank. I look forward to reading it on the plane ride home after the Conference.

    Frank Billingsley

    Frank’s book, Swabbed and Found, is available at Amazon:

    Family Tree DNA provided a nice buffet lunch.

    The afternoon started with a couple of breakout session with 3 choices. For the first session, I chose to listen to Jim Bartlett with “Specific Steps to Success with Autosomal DNA”. He started by asking how many people here have taken an autosomal test. Everyone put up their hand. He said 5 years ago, only 5 or 6 hands went up. Jim is retired and puts maybe 8 hours a day into mapping his DNA and he’s now mapped about 98% of it. See Jim’s fantastic website that I consider my bible of autosomal DNA analysis techniques at: www.segmentology.org

    Bennett introducing Jim Bartlett

    In the 2nd breakout session, I heard Roberta Estes talk on “Nine Autosomal Tools at Family Tree DNA & How to Use Them”. She gave all sorts of tips about less known features at FTDNA. She mentioned that Shared Origins can show matches by ethnicity. Profiles can show hidden information. Be sure to click on the “+” as well. Roberta talked about triangulation towards the end of her talk.

    Max introducing Roberta Estes

    At 3:20, we went back to a single session. Dr. Michael Hammer presented “Top 10 Human Evolutionary Genomics”. Dr Hammer was the person that Bennett 18 years ago asked to do a DNA test for him … and the rest is history. Michael explained that humans today do not make up different subspecies or races because we only have a FST (a measure of population differentiation) of 15%. To be different races, 25% or more is needed. Neanderthal would be a different subspecies if it existed today, but humans are similar. His example was to show us photos of different people, and to see if we could place them as to where in the world they would come from, and no one got the majority correct. He gave a few interesting facts: Every individual has on average 100 DNA mutations. Fathers give 4 mutations  for every 1 mothers give. And the number of mutations grow as the father is older. So “watch out for old men”. He also talked about the Clint Eastwood effect, which is 7 children starting at age 34, ending at age 66, with 5 women.

    Dr. Michael Hammer

    Jim Brewster and Michael Sager then told the crowd about FTDNA’s Y-Haplotree & SNP Pack Update. Then Max, Bennett and Elliot answered any and all questions about anything to do with Family Tree DNA. The loudest laugh was when Bennett meant to say “The full mt” but by mistake said “The full Monty”.

    Bennett, Elliot and Max in Q&A

    For supper, I joined a group of about 25 Jewish FTDNA group administrators who were attending the conference. Many of them I had met for the first time at IAJGS in Orlando last July. It was nice to get together again.

    Picture by Adam Brown reprinted with his permission:Supper Group - Picture by Adam Brown reprinted with his permission

    Following supper, there was an ISOGG reception downstairs with about 50 people still there when I got there. I finished the evening off with a really nice talk with Tim Janzen. Earlier in the day I had great talks with David Pike, Goran Runfeldt, Janet Akaha and Mags Gaulden. And Brock Shamberg and I had a wonderful talk on stock market investing.