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What's in a Name?

Professor Jobling and Turi King (pictured right) researching the Y chromosome chain and genetic links within surnames

What's in a Name?

Research undertaken at the University on the genetic link between people with shared surnames, has discovered something rather surprising. It was during the course of this research that they made the startling discovery of the rare African Y chromosome, previously only found in 25 people – all in West Africa. (Article first appeared in Graduates' Review Spring 2007)

During the examination of DNA from volunteers the researchers Professor Mark Jobling from the University’s Department of Genetics and PhD student Turi King happened across a very rare Y chromosome, previously found only in West Africa – in a Yorkshire man living in Leicester.

The original basis for the research was to try and identify a genetic link between people with shared surnames through the study of their Y chromosomes.

Professor Mark Jobling, who led the research, explains: “Y chromosomes are passed down from father to son in the same way as surnames are. Therefore by studying the Y chromosomes from a series of volunteers we hoped to identify the wide degree to which a shared surname also indicated shared ancestry, or ‘hidden relatedness’.”

In order to achieve this, the researchers focussed on 150 pairs of men with shared surnames but with no known shared ancestry The Y chromosomes of each pair were examined and compared to find any genetic links. Within this group the researchers found a 25% chance of a shared surname also resulting in a shared Y chromosome, and therefore a common ancestor.

Removal of high frequency names, such as Smith, increased the chance of sharing to 50% and when the test was applied in more detail to rare names, such as Attenborough, this increased to 80%.

African Link

It was during the course of this research that they made the startling discovery of the rare African Y chromosome, previously only found in 25 people – all in West Africa.

“It is extremely rare,” said co-author of the study Turi King, “there are only 25 other people known worldwide and they are all African.”

Following this discovery the researchers collected DNA from 18 men with the same surname and discovered that 7 of them also shared this rare Y chromosome link. The men are all white and were all unaware of their African ancestry until the study.

The original volunteer, John Revis, a Yorkshire man now living in Leicester was also unaware of his African connection. He told the Mail on Sunday: “I started looking into my family history and traced my ancestors back to the mid-1700s….There was nothing to suggest I was African.”

Following the discovery the University employed a genealogist to undertake traditional ‘paper-trail’ research which linked the chromosome back to two family trees in Yorkshire. These trees can be traced back to around 1780 but no link between them has yet been found leading the researchers to believe that they probably joined up somewhere in the early 18th century – some two centuries earlier than the significant immigration of the middle of the 20th century.

There are two trains of thought regarding how the Revis’ ancestor entered the UK. It is known that the Romans brought a garrison of soldiers from North Africa with them in about 200 AD. The second, and researchers believe more likely, route is via the slave trade. In the la te 18th century there were about 10,000 black people resident in the UK. However, until now, these immigrations did not seem to have left a trace; however, this research has highlighted the fact that a level of integration must have taken place.

“This study shows what it means to be British is complicated and always has been.” Professor Jobling says: “Human migration history is clearly very complex, particularly for an island nation such as ours, and this study further debunks the idea that there are simple and distinct populations or ‘races’.”


The results of the original research could also have massive implications for the matching of crime scene DNA to potential suspects, in cases were no immediate match to an individual on the National DNA Database can be found.

Professor Jobling explains: “If the police had access to a large enough database of names and Y chromosome data they could run the DNA found at the crime scene against it to see if they could find a Y chromosome match. In 20% of cases this could lead to a surname match, which could potentially help the police to reduce the size of their suspect pool”.

While police would still need to obtain a full DNA profile this approach could act as an effective investigative tool, dramatically reducing the amount of time police currently spend investigating suspects.

The research also has implications for traditional genealogy: “This research raises the possibility of tracing surnames back to single founders, and of linking together branches of family trees by the information written in DNA, rather than birth, marriage and death certificates,” Professor Jobling said.

This could enable people to research their family trees more rapidly than has previously been possible by identifying people who share surnames and undertaking genetic research.

The research results are also of interest to social historians. Any illegitimacy in the chain at any stage would have impacted on the research results as the Y chromosome chain would have been broken. However the research has shown that this was extremely rare.

“If you asked most people, even most geneticists, what the legitimacy rate was they would probably say around 10%. However, this research shows that the actual level is likely to be closer to 1%,” Professor Jobling said.

This shows that social norms held today have remained strong throughout the last few centuries.

Future research

The researchers are already looking into ways to further develop this research and its applications, “We are currently working with the Forensic Science Service with regards to testing the use of Y chromosome testing at crime scenes. We are also undertaking a further, larger surname study later in the year,” Professor Jobling said.

Let’s hope that the discoveries next time are just as fascinating.


Article first appeared in Graduates' Review 2007, the original article can be found here

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