Michael Cooley's Genetic Genealogy Blog GEN • GEN
5 March 2018

The Ashenhurst DNA Project

During my lifetime, I've met only two real-life, fully-bred Ashenhursts: my great-grandmother, Eunie Ashenhurst McDowell, and her youngest sister who I knew as Aunt Eva. I know there are others out there. I've seen photos and even corresponded with a large number of them. And I've seen their DNA! Even so, Ashenhurst is a pretty rare name. Surnames DB rates it the 7,532nd most common name, well behind Cooley, which sits at 477. A non-Ashenhurst meeting an Ashenhurst may be something akin to winning the lottery!

Well, there's a point to that bit of silliness. There are so few Ashenhursts in the world that it's possible they all descend from the same man, a man we can refer to as the Ashenhurst Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA), the man who gave rise to all Ashenhursts, a man who might have lived so long ago that he, himself, probably didn't possess the name, and who might even have birthed clans of other surnames. We may never discover the name that man went by, but we can one day learn when (generally) he lived, among what hills and valleys he roamed, and what Y-DNA markers he possessed. Indeed, I recently wrote about such a man of the Strother/Struthers realm in my article "The Man Who Would Be BY23988." It's always a slow journey, one that will requires multiple DNA testing, plenty of time, and a lot of thought.

Of course, it's possible that more than one family took the name Ashenhurst or some variation, say 800 years ago. If survivors of a second or third Ashenhurst progenitor live to this day, we can know them via their Y-DNA prints. It's also possible several men took the name but only one line is extant. And it's possible that a man with surviving descendants was adopted into the Ashenhursts, say 500 years ago, or that another was the inheritor of Ashenhurst lands and, therefore, of the name. We can't know it all but, if we look, we can glean scraps of data from the archaeological-like excavation of the Y.

The acquisition of names is simply due to social customs and is really somewhat arbitrary. (At one time, I was given the option of keeping my birth name or using my step-father's name. In fact, for a few months in 1963 and 1964, I was known as Michael Gordon.) So, for this study, an understanding of our customs isn't very important. We're looking at something far more resilient and telling: the Y chromosome.

Two Basic Forms of DNA

Every cellular nucleus in the human body has 23 pairs of chromosomes arranged in the familiar double-helix pattern. In total, they contain about 3.1 billion pairs of the genetic letters A, C, T, and G. This number is so huge that if you arranged the DNA strands from our trillions of cells and made a ribbon it would stretch (theoretically, of course) to the moon.

Floating outside of the nucleus are tiny organelles called mitochondria. Depending on the cell type, each cell has a handful to several hundred. They provide our cells with its energy and are often referred to as the cells' batteries. (So goes the mitochondria, so goes our lives.) Each mitochondrion includes a small loop of more than 16,000 genetic letters.

But I'm not going to discuss mitochodrial DNA in this article. Suffice it for now to say that it comes from our mothers.

Two Types of Nucleic DNA

Of the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus, the first 22 are called autosomes. One set came from the bearer's father, via the sperm, and another from the mother's impregnated egg. Each are products of recombination, a process that takes place in the gonads. The results reassemble the characteristics of its bearer's parental DNA, thereby creating wholly unique sperm and eggs. (This is why we're individuals and not clones.) This continued recombination through the generations ensures that virtually all our ancestors (going back several generations, anyway) are represented in our genome. Test results from Ancestry DNA and 23andMe are autosomal. (23andMe additionally provides low resolution mitochondrial and Y chromosome results), and FTDNA offers the test as the Family Finder option among its menu of products.

The 24th pair of chromosomes are referred to as the sex chromosomes. As most of us know, men have an X and Y, and women have two Xes. This is getting closer to the subject of this article. I'm not going to discuss autosomes further.

Two Versions of Sex Chromosomes

By chromosome standards, the Y is puny. Like men, its raison d'etre is rather simple-minded: to produce men. It accomplishes this task when an egg has been inseminated by a Y-bearing sperm, which includes the SRY gene. It's the presence of the SRY in the zygote (the union of the sperm and egg) that causes the genitalia to descend during fetal development. Therefore, the SRY is referred to as the male sex gene. Eggs do not have an SRY and, therefore, maleness can never be conferred by the mother. The SRY never comes from her father; Y chromosome genes are not recessive or dominant; and they never skip generations.

As we can tell from the diagram above, the X chromosome is much plumper and richer in genetic material than the Y. And women get to have two of them! After all, it was an X, not a Y, that was delivered by their fathers. The X chromosome itself makes for very interesting study and is as unique as the Y in that it has some interesting inheritance properties (and is responsible for my red-green color blindness), but it's irrelevant to the current study.

Two Kinds of Y-DNA Testing

Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) are exactly what they sound like! A single DNA letter (nucleotide) morphs to one of the others, a T to a G, for example. These are rare events, and one that occurs on the Y chromosome is even rarer. A SNP mutation occurring in the middle of a gene can be devastating. But most mutations are found in the vast majority of the DNA that has nothing to do with protein manufacture. I'll discuss SNPs a little further down.

Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) are also pretty much what they sound like: Short snippets of DNA that repeat in tandem to one another X number of times. For example, at X-marks-the-spot in this table, all four of our Ashenhurst testers have 13 repeats of AGAT in that position, known as DYS393.

Ashenhurst Y-STR DNA Test Results to 37 Markers

Kit #X---------- -------------------

And here we get to the crux of the matter. The complete STR results can be found in their full glory at the Ashenhurst DNA Project. The numbers simply mean as I stated above. What really matters is the difference between numbers. This is called genetic distance (GD). For example, all four testers have a GD of 0 or 1 at 12 markers. Since there exists the suspicion that all Ashenhursts may have had a common ancestor, especially among those who immigrated out of Ireland, that's not a surprise.

It's also no surprise that kits 297464 and 813734 are a GD of 3 out of 37 from one another. This is well-within the theoretical limit of 5 mismatches out of 37. But it's not always as simple as that. Consider the following points:

The first lesson here is that if we want to weed out those who are probably not related, at least 37 markers need to be tested. (I find that 67 markers are rarely required.) But here's a bigger lesson.

Y-STRs are like Shifting Sands

When we look at STRs we're looking for trends. In other words, GD matters but single values might mean nothing in and of themselves. The Ashenhurst Project (at least as it now stands) is a perfect example. We see in the fourth allele position above (known as DYS391) that our testers are split 50/50 between a value of 10 and 11. Because there's a general consensus at most other positions, we know something about the Y-STRs that our mutual Ashenhurst ancestor (who isn't positively identified) possessed—even if he lived 400 years ago. But because repeats can go either up or down (additions and deletions), we have no idea what his DYS391 value was.

Fair enough. But can those markers tell us something about the manner of descent from the MRCA? Although clues can be observed in STR values, that's not true in the case of DYS391. Consider,

Canadian Lineages U.S. Lineages
William m Sarah Campbell
Robert (1799-1865)
William m Sarah Campbell
Alexander (1819-1910)
William m Nancy Ashenhurst
Oliver (1793-1859)
Oliver Taylor
Ralph m Sarah Campbell
James (1809-1897)

The Canadian lines share William and Sarah as their MRCAs. Obviously, the mutation occurred in one of the two lines (if not both). Since we cannot know what the Canadian MRCA (William) had in that position, we certainly can't know what the Irish Ashenhurst MRCA had. We observe the same problem among the U.S. testers.

Now, if we had ten testers (12 markers is only $59!), a likely trend will present itself and we can determine what the ancestral value was at that position—which might turn out to be of some help further down the research road.

Y-SNPs are like Mountains

SNP ybp*





*years before

If Y-STRs slowly mutate back and forth over the course of time, much like desert or beach dunes, SNPs are rock-solid mountains. We can stand atop them (figuratively) and look out over a vast terrain and the unstoppable human parade. Once formed, SNPs are virtually unmovable. Whereas the shifting DYS391 might be only 200-300 years (and there's value in that), SNP mutations can be thousands, tens, even hundreds of thousands years old, passing from one generation to the next completely unchanged. SNPs can fix our exact place on the huge evolutionary tree!

Some time ago, one of the male descendants of William and Nancy Ashenhurst tested his autosomes at 23andMe.com. As I stated, autosomes aren't generally helpful for surname studies, but the company does provide low resolution SNP testing for the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. Remember, a SNP happens when one of the four genetic letters mutates to one of the others. In this case, a C became a T at position 8928037 of the Y. This mutation is reported at 23andMe as M405 although most of the rest of the genetic community know it as U106. (It's also known as S21. See Naming SNPs.)

It took a lot longer than usual to receive the results, but one of the testers at FTDNA has finally been determined to be positive for U106, which confirms the earlier test at 23andMe. Undoubtedly, all the Irish Ashenhursts are of that clan—as are a great many others! As we see from the table on the right, it's downstream of M269, one of the most common SNPs in Western Europe, and it's downstream of M343, which dominates Western Europe and might have originated in the area of the Black Sea.

I have, of course, a reasonable degree of cousinship to the Ashenhursts through my great-grandmother. But to put this in context, my patrilineage breaks off at M173—more than 20,000 years ago! (That's not a reasonable degree of cousinship!) Whereas M343 (also known as R1b) "owns" Western Europe, my ancestor, M420 (R1a), dominates Eastern Europe. The ancestor brothers (R1a and R1b) may well have parted ways in the Caucasus Mountains!

I know my SNP lineage nineteen degrees downstream of our common partilineal ancestor. My terminal SNP is called YP4491 and is something in the neighborhood of 400 years old. I can follow my SNP heritage from the Black Sea, to Eastern Europe, to Scandinavia, to Norway, to Scotland (possibly during the Viking Age), down to England, and across the Atlantic. YP4491 is so recent, and so far within the genealogical timeframe, that anyone who has it is certainly a Cooley cousin (well, there's a mysterious association with a Whitefield family). Not only would such a person be a Cooley, but we'd know that he's one of my Cooleys and not one of about another dozen Cooley clans discovered to date.

Given that, the Ashenhurst SNP tree undoubtedly continues to about a dozen or so SNPs. We could one day discover an Ashenhurst SNP that emerged during their years in Ireland and one that might well the define the Ashenhursts of Ashenhurst and/or Beard Halls in England.

We can see from the U106 SNP Tree at YFull.com that it's very large and diverse—and that's just among YFull's clients. There are additional downstream SNPs in FTDNA's database. What's more, given that there are no 37-marker matches to the Ashenhursts, the terminal SNP for the Ashenhurst MRCA is probably not represented on either tree. To find those SNPs requires a process known as SNP Discovery accomplished through FTDNA's (expensive) Big Y test, which looks at ten million positions on the Y chromosome. There's a cheaper alternative called the R1b-U106 SNP Pack. It looks at 99 known SNPs downstream of U106 for $119 (Y-STR results are first required). It's anyone's bet, however, as to what extent the Ashenhursts fit into the known SNP landscape. SNP Packs are a gamble, if reasonably inexpensive, but Big Y's high price tag of $575 does provide useful and definitive results. (Now, that's a whole story right there.)

But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Defining Our Goals

Individually, a genealogist's goal is to take her lineages back as far as possible. Most researchers, however, have reached the inevitable brick wall. So now we're turning the genetics to smash through it. Here are some the questions we're trying to answer:

  1. Are all Ashenhursts related?
    • No. How many Ashenhurst "origin stories" can we uncover?
    • Yes. Can they be broken down genetically into subclades?
  2. Do the Ashenhursts who relocated to Ireland have identifiable genetic markers?
  3. Are any of the Ashenhursts of Ashenhurst Hall extant? Judging from some early London records, I suspect they may be. But only genealogy will ultimately answer that question.
    • Yes. Do the markers match to the Irish Ashenhursts?
  4. Are we having fun yet?
    • Yes.

We can easily answer the first question by gathering together all the Y-DNA results we can, even if they amount only to the $59 12-marker test (although 37 markers is preferred).

I would also suggest that those who have tested (especially testers with at least 37 markers) join the R-U106 Project. Only FTDNA members can join and there is no fee. The admins might be able to identify which downstream subclade you belong to and, once they've posted your results inside the group, I can poke around and see how you stand in respect to the others. I might be able to make an educated guess about further SNP testing.

And finally, the project has funds of $11. Anyone can contribute to future tests. The funds go directly into an account at FTDNA and cannot be used for anything other than FTDNA products—and they will be used to further test our members. And if you're a male Ashenhurst, please consider testing! I'm happy to apply any available funds to your test. (As above, that presently amounts to $11.)