When genetic researcher Professor Bryan Sykes announced that all European men and women were descended from just seven females, he didn't realise the fuss it would cause.

Days after his words were published in the Times, his lab at Oxford University was inundated with requests from hundreds of keen genealogists wanting to trace their ancient ancestors.

Sykes had discovered that by tracing the DNA codes passed between mother and daughter over thousands of years, people could find out the true beginning of their family tree.

"About 20 years ago I was working on the genetics of bones, and an archaeologist suggested to me that we try and find out if there was any DNA latent in bone. I never expected it to work, as DNA usually disintegrates within minutes of leaving the freezer, but it did."

The discovery meant that Professor Sykes could theoretically access genealogical information that was thousands of years old.

And after collecting 6,000 random samples of mitochondrial DNA from women and men across Europe and Polynesia, he concluded that "pretty much everyone could be put into one of seven genetically related groups."

These women - or goddesses as they often described - have taken on a mythical status in the world of family history. Each year hundreds of people call Sykes, asking him to identify to which of the seven daughters of Eve they are related.

Such has been the interest that in 2001 Sykes launched Oxford Ancestors, a company dedicated to tracing people's history using their DNA.

Two years later, a chance remark led Sykes to make another breakthrough. He discovered that using male Y chromosome, inherited from father to son, he could tell two men with the same surname if they were genetically related.

"I was giving a lecture at a big pharmaceuticals company about genetics and they asked if I could be related to their chairman Richard Sykes. So I got some DNA, compared my Y-chromosome to his and they turned out to be the same.

"I followed that up by finding out how many other Sykes I was related to. Taking Sykes at random from the phone book, I found I was related to about 70 per cent of them and we were all descended from an original Mr Sykes, who lived in the 1300s.

"Although I'm not as interested in family history as many enthusiasts, I did go back to the spot where the original Mr Sykes lived. And because I still had the DNA which he had in every cell of my body, I felt a very strong association with the place. I can understand why people find it quite profound."

But although Sykes doesn't spend his evenings leafing through local gazetteers looking for signs of his family name, the academic doesn't need convincing of the positive effect that amateurs can have on his work.

"New discoveries are being made through people's personal research, which hardly ever happens in academia.

"Tens of thousands of amateur genealogists have used the DNA technique to investigate their own backgrounds, they've shared the information and have discovered that the Y chromosome mutates at different rates. The great thing about amateurs is that they're very happy to share the fruits of their research and really know how to use the internet to get their findings out."

Sykes describes some of the more memorable moments of the last few years.

"I had one group from America, eager to establish they were related to an aristocratic family from Wales," he recalls. Laughing at the memory, the genetic researcher explains: "All of them, except one, were related."

Unfortunately he was the president.

"We get a lot of Americans making requests," he continues. "Many of them turn out to have native American maternal DNA. Usually people are delighted and find it rather exotic. But sometimes they don't believe it.

"I got a call from a man who had just received the test results and said his wife had more or less gone into a coma when she found out she was related to a Native American and her ancestors were not, as she had always been led to believe, from Hampshire in England."

Professor Sykes and his team can also help dedicated genealogists narrow their searches.

"Lots of Americans come over in person to trace their ancestors but they don't always know where to look. The Lockwoods of New Hampshire had worked out that their ancestor John Lockwood went to New England in the early 17th century because his name was on a passenger ship list. But they didn't know if he was from Suffolk or Yorkshire. So we took samples from Suffolk Lockwoods and Yorkshire Lockwoods and discovered they didn't have to go to Yorkshire."

So why has this new technique become so popular?

"DNA is different from a photograph or a lock of hair. It's something we feel all feel a profound connection with.

"Believe it or not we've had beauty companies approach us with a view to incorporating some of the so-called goddess DNA into their skincare products. They want to tap into this idea that people care deeply about who they are and where they come from."

I've been researching my family since the 1960sResearching your family history may have become more popular in the past decade but it is not new.

For David Phillips, of Hanley Castle, near Malvern, it started in the late 1960s.

"My son had a school project to find out about his grandparents," said 75-year-old Mr Phillips.

"Family history certainly wasn't as common as it is today but you could do it. For me, I didn't have as much spare time so I had to build it up slowly but I've continued and actually gone quite far back."

Mr Phillips has traced his own family to 1590 and his wife's ancestors to 1550. He even discovered that she is distantly related to Mary Carter, a woman who lived in Shropshire during the 1780s and, according to legend, sparked the tradition of dressing the Arbour tree in Aston-on-Clun.

"It's one of those things that grows on you," said Mr Phillips.

"With every question you answer, two more appear. It's like an on-going detective story."