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GeneTree sprouts genealogy branches

James Lee Sorenson oversees a social-networking genealogy Web site, tapping into what he calls the most viral network today--the family.

Ask James Lee Sorenson where he's from and you're apt to get more than a simple, "from Utah."

Sorenson, vice chairman of Sorenson Companies, which makes the digital video compression and encoding technology Sorenson Squeeze, will likely tell you he's not only from Utah but his ancestral roots take him back 10 to 12 generations to Scandinavia and Western Europe.

And now, he'll be able to do more than just tell you with the Sorenson Companies' recent beta launch of GeneTree, a social-networking genealogy Web site that incorporates the use of DNA testing.

The social-networking site melds the offerings of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates one of the world's largest DNA and genealogy information databases, with Sorenson Media, creator of Sorenson Squeeze and Squish.

The popularity of online genealogy is gaining steam, as sites like Ancestry.com beef up their offerings with DNA research, as well. Last week, the parent of Ancestry.com, The Generations Network, said one of its existing investors would lead a $300 million buyout of the company.

Listen up

Father?s vision
James Lee Sorenson, chief executive of the Sorenson companies, discusses why his father wanted to create a genealogy database.

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Building a database
Sorenson on the creation of the DNA Genealogy database.

Download mp3 (344KB)

The bigger picture
Sorenson looks at the potential of a genealogy database.

Download mp3 (351KB)

Meanwhile, Sorenson, the son of company founder and biotech billionaire James LeVoy Sorenson, recently sat down with CNET News.com to talk about the launch of GeneTree.

Q: How did you and your father become interested in genealogy?
Sorenson: This dates back about 10 years ago. Dad had the idea that through DNA linked with genealogy, you could perhaps fill in the missing links and enable people to see how they were connected. He didn't really have any scientific basis behind this, but he felt so strongly about it and started investigating it through some of the scientific centers and universities around the country. He wanted to see whether or not this had any validity and he came across Dr. Scott Woodard. He called him early in the morning one day. In fact, it was about 2 a.m. when he called with this idea. And from that, the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation was ultimately developed.

What drives your dad's interest in the subject?
Sorenson: I think he wanted to see greater brotherhood fostered by people realizing that they were connected. And with the advances in DNA and genealogy, that became more of a reality as we looked at the possibilities.

How does your site work?
Sorenson: When people come to the site, they request a DNA kit that is sent to their home. There are two different kits, one for $99 and one for $149. The $149 has more information and will provide more granularity (with the results). They would take a swab of their mouth and return it to Sorenson Genomics, which is a separate entity. That information, along with the written genealogy, goes into the database.

As soon as the information is there in the database, it gets posted and they will be notified of a DNA connection of relatives in the past or of ones in the database. They will be notified that they are related to someone in the database and asked if they would like to make a connection with that individual.

We are addressing the privacy concerns by making it such that there is a default and that someone is not just allowed into someone's else's (profile page). But if someone allows a new member in, they can start communicating and sharing family information. There are tools and features that allow them to see graphically where their genes were, say 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. They can see the connections and link them to the people who are living here today.

They will be able to communicate with each other and share their family histories, share their videos, their pictures and deepen those relationships.

Will this be a subscription-based service, or ad-supported?
Sorenson: The membership will be free and will have some premium subscriptions for some of the advanced features, like storing media. In the future, there could be the potential for advertising. And, of course, the DNA test is something we charge for the data.

How far back does your database go? As far back to the caveman era?
Sorenson: We're talking about 10 to 12 generations. Ultimately, we'd like to see that as far back as 20 generations. In fact, if you were able to have a database, as far back as say 20 generations, you'd find just about anyone in a room, at any time, would have a common connection. Imagine yourself in a meeting of the United Nations and looking across from you, you realize you are related to that individual and how you are related. What a powerful influence that might be.

How would you describe the typical user of GeneTree?
Sorenson: We believe we're tapping into the most viral network today and that's the family. These will be families all over the world and I would say these are people who are interested in genealogy. Genealogy is the second most popular activity, or hobby, on the Internet today. There is a very big market there. We'll be tapping into people who like to share media, pictures, videos, and to socially network.

Are the people who are interested in genealogy of a certain age group?
Sorenson: It's been interesting, in that it's quite a wide span of interest. We see people who are young who are very interested in genealogy, as well as those who are older. We typically see in families those who really get into it, and they are the ones who tend to keep all the information for the others.

What have you found out about yourself?
Sorenson: I have a pretty rich heritage that comes from many parts of the world, but particularly the Scandinavian and Western European regions. My ancestors arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s and have pretty much centered in the inner-mountain region since that period of time. It's been a great experience for me to understand the multitude of connections that I have to people, when I had no idea that there was any kind of connection or relation.