Researcher to Use DNA to Reunite Houston Families Disrupted by the Holocaust

HOUSTON, TX (March 3, 2009) – The information gathered from one cheek swab may be enough to reunite families separated for decades by the Holocaust.

Or at least, that is the hope of an Arizona researcher who is asking Houston survivors of the Holocaust to contribute to a new database of genetic material that ultimately could help families locate lost relatives.

Research scientist Matthew Kaplan will explain the effort in a special presentation "The DNA Shoah Project: Using Forensic Science to Reunite Survivors of the Holocaust" at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 15, 2009 at Holocaust Museum Houston’s Morgan Family Center, 5401 Caroline St., in Houston’s Museum District. Admission is free.

Kaplan, who serves as associate staff scientist in the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Biotechnology at the University of Arizona, will chart the goals of the project and discuss the science behind the plan. After his presentation, facilitators will be available to gather DNA from audience members who decide to join the project. There is no charge for those who choose to participate.

The DNA Shoah Project aims to reunite families whose lives were disrupted by the Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew) by creating a database of survivors’ genetic material and that of their immediate descendants. After collecting the genetic material, project founders hope to use the data to inform Holocaust orphans and lost children about their biological family members. Researchers would also like to assist in identifying the still-surfacing remains of Holocaust victims once the DNA database reaches a sufficient size.

Kaplan said that no families have been reunited yet, as the project is only in its beginning stages. He expressed, however, the goal to reunite as many families as possible. "If enough individuals participate, then everyone who can be reunited will be reunited," he said.

Kaplan noted that people still hear of survivors who, by random chance, have found their family members, but that the use of DNA technology can remove that element of randomness. The DNA database will be able to determine who is related to whom based on the similarities in their genetic information.

"We are using the same kind of technology used to identify the victims of Sept. 11," Kaplan said. He added that the technology is also used for paternity and missing persons tests.

Kaplan said the database that will hold participants’ information is secure and that the anonymity of participants is assured because the genetic information is kept separate from personal identities until a match is located.

The DNA Shoah Project is funded by gifts from personal donors and receives partial support from the University of Arizona. Donations are tax-deductible, he said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biological science at the University of Vermont, Kaplan worked as a researcher in the Lesser Antilles, studying the ecological and evolutionary aspects of malaria in a population of lizards. He then moved to the University of Arizona to work as a research technician in the Laboratory Molecular Systematics and Evolution and entered the university’s doctoral program. As a graduate research assistant to Dr. Michael Hammer, he worked on several research projects using the Y chromosome and mitochondria DNA to investigate the population genetics and history of Jewish populations.

In the fall of 1999, he started a collaborative project between the University of Arizona and Family Tree DNA in Hammer’s laboratory to test DNA for genealogical reconstruction and developed the protocols and infrastructure for this project. Over the next five years, the collaboration tested tens of thousands of individuals.

In April 2005, Family Tree DNA and the university teamed up to provide public DNA testing for National Geographic and IBM’s Genographic Project. Kaplan is now the project leader of the Human Origins Genotyping Laboratory at the university, and his research group has tested more than 350,000 samples since April 2005.

This presentation is cosponsored with the Houston Council of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Second Generation, with special thanks to Continental Airlines, official airline of Holocaust Museum Houston.

Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors' legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, the Museum teaches the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.

Holocaust Museum Houston is free and open to the public and is located in Houston’s Museum District at 5401 Caroline St., Houston, TX 77004.

For more information about "The DNA Shoah Project," visit www.dnashoah.org. For more information about the Museum, call 713-942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.

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