(Courtesy of 23andMe.com)
NEW YORK (FOX 5 NEWS) - Ever wonder where you came from -- and not just where your parents came from or their parents -- but your actual genetic makeup? Websites that map your ancestry are growing in popularity. Using one of these websites, a Fox 5 employee was able to find his true past.
Michael O'Toole, 58, never knew his father. And his late mother never opened up about him.
"I think it's in all of us to want to know where we belong, how we belong, to want to know about our family," said O'Toole, Fox 5's multimedia promotions manager.
About five years ago after his mother's passing, "a bit of desperation" led Michael to Ancestry.com, where he would find his life forever changed.
Through a DNA sample, Michael not only learned about his late father but discovered he had two half-sisters out of state. He has now become close to the loved ones he once never knew.
"I'm beginning to understand what unconditional love is," he said. "Where you can just accept and care for somebody just because they're family."
While stories like Michael's are some of the most inspiring that come from commercial heritage websites, most customers taking a DNA test are simply looking to learn more information about their family roots and genealogy.
"Growing up talking to our family or maybe we don't know anything," said Anna Swayne, a spokesperson for Ancestry.com. "There's all speculation, there's stories and traditions. And the reality is we don't really know our complete story."
For many people, the results can be surprising. But Dr. Todd Disotell, a biological anthropologist at NYU, said that based on human history, you shouldn't be shocked.
"We've taken different paths to sometimes get to the same location," Dr. Disotell said. "And depending on which ancestral alleles that you have, which markers you have, you might have a marker that's somewhere along that path."
Dr. Alondra Nelson is the dean of Social Science at Columbia University and author of "The Social Life of DNA."
"Everybody's alike and everybody's different," she said. "So it's a paradox and genetic ancestry testing works in that paradox."
So how exactly do companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com uncover your ethnic mix?
"Our laboratory will extract DNA from the cells found in your saliva sample and run it on a chip that reads your DNA at hundreds of thousands of locations in your human genome," said Kristina Pabayo, customer care manager at 23andMe.com, which recently became the first such company approved by the FDA to provide information on genetic health risks. The company said that you should still check with your doctor.