11 February 2024

Why Y: Connecting chromosomes and surnames

There have been many articles discussing the difference between men and women but this one is all about differences in chromosomes - men have XY chromosomes and women are XX people. This Y chromosome has become increasingly used in innovative ways to catch criminals, even in cold cases decades old.

Many of us inherit our father’s surname and men, specifically, also inherit their father’s Y chromosome and their father, in turn, usually gets both from their father who in turn - you get the point - Y and surnames generally go together. As I wrote about previously, we now have a massive data base of DNA from various ancestry sites, voluntarily submitted by millions, and this can be used to connect surnames and DNA.

Does this all fall apart if the murderer is a woman? It does and it doesn’t. Although women do not have a Y chromosome, women transfer mitochondrial DNA from mother to offspring. The male mitochondrial DNA is, except in very rare cases, eliminated, providing a clear way to trace maternal inheritance. This maternal inheritance allows ancestry sites to trace our maternal ancestors. However, women historically have taken their husband’s name and this makes it difficult to use surnames with the same confidence as we do with males.

Recently, a cold case was solved by using Y chromosomes and surnames, finally giving the family closure after almost fifty years. 

In 1975, a sixteen-year-old Montreal teenager, Sharron Prior, went to meet friends at a Pizzeria. On the way she was abducted by Franklin Romine, who brutally beat, raped and then killed Sharron. Despite having DNA from Romaine’s shirt at the murder scene, for almost fifty years law enforcement was unable to identify the murderer. 

In 1974, a man named Franklin Romine had broken into a house and raped a woman in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Two months later, he was released on a $2,500 bond, fled to Canada, brutally murdered Sharron Prior and, a few months later was captured by Canadian border officials, extradited back to West Virginia and was sentenced to five to ten years in prison for sexual assault in the Parkersburg case. He returned to Canada where he died in 1982 and his body was buried in West Virginia. 

In 2023, this difficult murder was solved using Romine’s Y chromosome’s connection with his last name. In this case, the Y chromosome found at the murder site was connected with the surname ‘Romine’ found on ancestry sites of voluntarily submitted DNA and, it was ascertained that Franklin Romine lived in Montreal at the time of the murder. Although he was dead by this time, he still had two living brothers and both provided a DNA sample that showed a strong match. On the basis of this evidence, the body of Franklin Romine was exhumed and his DNA proved to be an exact match for the DNA found at the crime scene. 

Although the cold case is solved, no charges will be laid because Franklin Romine is dead. For the family of Sharron Prior, this matters: “You may never have come back to our house or Congregation Street that weekend but you have never left our hearts and you never will," Sharron's sister Moreen said."We love you Sharron, now may you truly rest in peace.”


  1. At least, at last... but damn, it does stick in the craw that he died before they could nail him.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn11 February, 2024 15:01

    What you & Eve both said! Also, that photo of Sharron looks disconcertingly like my daughter at that age ...

    1. So upsetting. In every young girl, we seee those we love...

  3. Got to love science, Mary.

    Test kids should carry a warning label about uses of DNA results when signing on. DNA companies 'and their partners' use DNA for purposes well beyond ancestral match if permitted to do so. This was more of a problem in the days before opt-out became available, but it's important for those who guard their privacy.

    Thanks for the article, Mary.

  4. The whole privacy issue is a problem, Leigh, and yet I love when the bad guy gets identified. Tough one, No?

  5. I have the interesting problem of not having any matches below "6th cousin" on Ancestry.com, which basically means perhaps someone I might be distantly related to passed someone in an airport. Apparently, I really am an alien.

    1. I'm certain you aren't an alien, Eve. :)


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