The Genetics of Genealogy

One of the most remarkable outgrowths of the Church’s genealogy program may be its unique contribution to medical research.

Using the four-generation file in the Genealogical Library, researchers at the University of Utah Medical Center, the Utah Cancer Registry, and the Bureau of Chronic Disease Control of the Utah State Division of Health are identifying and locating families that have genetically linked diseases which means they would be more likely to get certain diseases than other people.

This kind of research is being done only in Utah because a large number of diligent members of the Church have already taken the first step for the medical researchers—charting the family tree. Thus, the researchers can concentrate on collecting medical information, putting it into the computer for analysis, and working with the families who are more likely to get these diseases, instead of collecting the genealogical data themselves.

One of the team members, Brother Roger R. Williams, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah College of Medicine, says that medical genetics began in Utah in 1946 when a group received funds to study muscular dystrophy and cancer. Dr. Eldon Gardner, one of the researchers, studied 189 families, most of them high cancer risks. When one genetics student told him of several aunts who had had breast cancer, Dr. Gardner did further research and identified forty-six additional women in that family with malignant or premalignant tumors.

In another family, Dr. Gardner and his medical associates identified a genetic condition that caused a number of problems ranging from cancers of the colon to abnormalities in teeth and scar tissue.

In the early 1970s, a planning committee at the University Medical Center invited Dr. Mark Skolnick, a population geneticist, to investigate doing genetic research in Utah. Dr. Skolnick was attracted to the family-oriented community of Salt Lake and was tremendously impressed by the genealogical information available. He was also impressed with the sophisticated computer technology, developed by Dr. Homer Warner and his staff at the University of Utah and the LDS Hospital and used to collect medical data.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health has made it possible to computerize the four-generation file and link it to the already computerized Utah Cancer Registry and to a computer file of death certificates from the Utah State Health Division.

Given only the name and year of birth, the computer can locate one individual out of a file of 750,000 in 1/30th of a second and then locate all other family members in ascending or descending pedigrees, as long as their records have been entered into the master file. Then the researchers use a computer to link the pedigrees with medical data to find and evaluate specific diseases that seem to be common in families. Current computer analyses involved 29,747 cancer cases and 41,187 heart attacks.

A smaller number of individuals—members of families that tend to have certain diseases—are referred by their private physicians for detailed clinical examination.

“When members of families that tend to have certain diseases are identified,” Dr. Williams explains, “we ask them to fill our specially prepared questionnaires and undergo examinations to see if their health is endangered. In the case of families with a high risk of heart attacks, we can teach them to change their diets, exercise more, and sometimes take drugs designed to lower cholesterol. In some cases this intervention might need to begin in childhood, long before the first symptoms of the disease.”

The diseases now being studied include cancer found in all major parts of the body, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and other diseases of the blood, kidneys, and cardiovascular system.

Much of the research is still in the beginning stages. So far, the computer analysis is limited to residents of Utah, but it has the potential, when expanded, to improve health conditions for other Latter-day Saints who submit accurate four-generation group sheets to the Church.

It even has the potential to repay the favor by helping with genealogical research. A process called “probability matching” suggests links in pedigrees where information is incomplete. For instance, a death certificate that contains a person’s name and death date and the parents’ names may help link that person to an existing pedigree containing the parents, even though their birthdates are missing. The computer can make a “search” for parents by checking all couples with the same names to see which were most likely to be the parents of that child. In this way, the computer can perform a search in seconds that would have taken a trained genealogist months or even years.

What kinds of problems have they encountered. Dr. Williams smiles: “What you’d expect—inaccurate pedigree charts. But the advantages are tremendous. Because of the large families that Mormons typically have, we can more accurately find the appearance of genes that would make a person prone to a disease. Another advantage is something that some of my non-Mormon colleagues particularly noticed—family organizations. Latter-day Saint families can work in prevention programs because they know who their relatives are and they are concerned about the health of the whole family. The high level of education among Latter-day Saints and the kind of cooperation that the researchers have received are other advantages. In short, those of us involved with this project are truly proud of Church members because of the unique contribution that they can make to this area of health research.

“We also hope that our computer methods will prove useful to the Lord’s work as we share our findings with the Genealogical Department of the Church.”

Food Storage News

A method of coating grains and beans with ordinary vegetable oil is promising to help members in tropical climates store food successfully. Professor John M. Hill, of BYU’s College of Food Science and Nutrition, who is sponsored by the Benson Institute recently spent six months in Cali, Colombia. It was there he worked with food storage problems as well as other nutritional programs.

Dr. Hill worked with Dr. Aart Van Schoonhoven at CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, on a new way of storing grains and beans using oil. Also, at the request of the mission president, he helped implement food storage practices designed for the tropics among Church members in Colombia.

“The work at CIAT,” says Dr. Hill, “is exciting especially because the oil treatment of beans and grains against insect infestation can be used by individuals quite easily in their own homes.” At CIAT, Dr. Van Schoonhoven discovered that beans and grains treated with vegetable oil killed insects in the grain plus prevented further infestation. Dr. Hill worked with separating the components of the oil to discover what specific component of the oil was the most effective against insects and how much oil was needed on various grains against specific insects. “We found that it is the triglycerides and oleic acid in vegetable oil that kills the insects,” says Dr. Hill, “although we don’t know specifically how they are killed. At first, we thought the insects may be suffocating, but further tests showed that this was not the case. Somehow the ingredients in the oil interfere with metabolic processes of the insects, causing death. Also, grains that have been oil treated do not become reinfested.”

Dr. Hill goes on to explain, “This means that treating grains with vegetable oil will eliminate fumigation, dry ice treatments, and heating to kill insects. It’s simple and any kind of vegetable oil is effective. It will be a particularly valuable method for food storage in the tropics where insects are a major problem, although it is effective in any climate.”


Any type of vegetable oil (peanut, corn, etc.) is effective in preparing grain or beans for storage. The grain or beans should be put in a container with a lid. The oil is then added, the lid closed, and the container rolled until the oil coats the grain. The grain does not need to be soaked in oil, just a coating is all that is needed. Then the grain or beans can be transferred to a storage container.

The storage container cannot be cloth because the oil would be absorbed into the cloth. A sturdy container that would protect the grain from moisture is needed. The oil does become rancid, but the coating of oil involved is such a small amount that it will not affect the taste of the grain or beans. The oil will kill any insects in the grain or beans and will protect against further infestation.

This method is especially recommended for tropical climates and in areas where beans are a staple of the diet. For example, in Guatemala the price of beans fluctuates quite a bit with the lowest prices being at harvest time. If a family could buy a year’s supply of beans at harvest, treat it with oil, and store it for use when the bean prices increase, they could save as much as two-thirds on their food bill for the year.