April 25, 2017

DNA Testing: 3 Tips Before You Ask Your Relatives to Spit

Here’s what you need to know before you encourage your relatives to join you on your genetic genealogy journey. There are a few things to think about before they spit in that tube and our DNA Guide, Diahan Southard, is here to help!

dna_beforeyouspit_featureimage

Did you see those holiday price wars on DNA testing over the holidays? I’m guessing we haven’t seen the end of these now that it’s becoming so trendy! Genealogists are seeing the research payoffs of DNA testing and now another major genealogy website (MyHeritage) is offering testing services, as well.

As the prices and sales generally become more attractive, more of you will want to expand your personal genetic database to include aunts, uncles, and cousins. But what is the best way to proceed? How exactly do you ask someone for his or her DNA? You may just have one shot at this. If so, which test? Which company? Here are three tips to consider before spitting into the tube!

Tip One: Test the Eldest Generation First

You likely have a limited amount of funds with which to populate your family genetic database, so you’ll want to use them wisely. Anyone who does not have both parents living should be tested first. Here’s what I suggest:

  • ordering an autosomal DNA test for everyone
  • ordering a YDNA for one male delegate for each surname you want represented

As for the testing company, you now have four choices:

1. FTDNA
2. 23andMe
3. AncestryDNA
4. MyHeritage

While there are several factors to consider when choosing a company, database size is probably the number one factor. Currently, AncestryDNA has the largest DNA database. The reason this is important is because your DNA will be matched and compared to others who have taken a DNA test. By testing with a company that has done lots of tests, your chance of finding matches goes up tremendously. You can also go to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy’s wiki for a full list of characteristics of each company.

Tip Two: Take Care of Everything for the Person Being Tested

Depending on the needs and interest of your relative, you can handle everything from ordering, payment, to even correspondence. All they have to do is spit or swab! This will often alleviate feelings of trepidation on part of the person being tested, especially if they aren’t really into this genealogy craze in the first place. Here are my recommendations:

If testing at Family Tree DNA: You will need to keep track of the log-in credentials for each relative.

If testing at AncestryDNA: Make sure all kits are registered under your account. The easiest way to do this is to have the family member take a photo of the activation code on the sample collection tube and send it to you so you can register it after you have logged into your Ancestry account. Hint: Register everyone’s DNA test results under the family member who has a subscription to Ancestry!

If testing at MyHeritage: Make sure that all kits are registered under your account. To the best of my knowledge, you order the kit under your account.

If your relative does want to be involved, all the better! You can have them share their Family Tree DNA or 23andMe login with you, or they can share their AncestryDNA results with you. To share their AncestryDNA results with you, visit my website at https://www.yourdnaguide.com/sharing-ancestrydna.

If you haven’t tested with a particular company yourself, familiarize yourself with the sample collection so you can be helpful when they have questions:

FTDNA: https://www.familytreedna.com/learn/using-the-kit/use-swabs/

AncestryDNA: https://www.ancestry.com/dna/activationinstructions

23andMe: https://customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/202904700-Registering-your-kit

MyHeritage: Not available online (yet)

Tip Three: Share Your Own Experience

First of all, nothing speaks louder than your own experience. Before asking your relative to take a test, consider starting with a short summary of your own DNA journey. Keep in mind what might interest them – do they like deep history? If yes, you could share the ethnicity results of your own test. Did they have a special connection to Great-grandpa Joe? In this case, you could show how your DNA connected to a 2nd cousin who was also a descendant of Joe. Maybe you could bust out the photo album. Remind them that while Joe is gone, there are threads of DNA that can speak for him and we need as many of his descendants as possible to be tested in order to preserve his genetic legacy and unravel the mystery of his past.

A Few Last Thoughts on DNA Testing

MyHeritage DNA test savingsOf course, your family is likely going to have questions; questions that you might not be able to answer. My Getting Started: Genetics for the Genealogists quick sheet might be just the thing you need to help them understand exactly what this DNA testing thing is all about and to prepare them for the results they are going to receive. You can also send them over to my website, Your DNA Guide, where I have a bit of information for them to look over. As always, anyone can contact me directly and I will answer any and every question they might have. Well, you know, at least questions about genetic genealogy!

Do you want to try out the new MyHeritage DNA test? Now, you can click on the image to the right for a $20 savings!

 

 

MyHeritage DNA Matching – What I Like About It

MyHeritage DNA is new on the scene of genetic genealogy. With the recent launch of their DNA Matching, I decided to give it a test drive for you. I have now uploaded my test results from another company. Follow along as I share what I like about the MyHeritage DNA site…maybe it is just what you’ve been looking for!

MyHeritage DNA matching

By James Tourtellotte, photo editor of CBP Today[1] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

There is no question that the launch of MyHeritage DNA fully into the genetic genealogy market is exciting news. We absolutely need someone to challenge AncestryDNA. Competition is good.

In September, MyHeritage began to provide matching results for individuals who had uploaded their test results from another company to their site. As of today, uploading your DNA test results to MyHeritage DNA is still free, so if you have been thinking about it, you may want to take advantage sooner rather than later. As expected, the matches are only as good as the depth of the database, and it is early in the game. Their DNA database is small, but even now we can get an idea of what to expect from MyHeritage as they take their first steps into genetic genealogy.

One of the most exciting elements of their November 7, 2016 announcement is their development of a Founder Population project where they have hand-picked individuals to represent their reference population for calculating ethnicity. They plan to launch with 25 population groups, but will likely increase to 100 in a fairly short amount of time. This is a far more advanced ethnicity report than is currently offered anywhere else.

Transferring Your DNA Results to MyHeritage DNA

After you have figured out how to download your raw data from your testing company (see my instructions here: http://www.yourdnaguide.com/transferring), and add it to MyHeritage (you have to add a family tree to MyHeritage to do this), you will need to wait the requisite time to process.  Then, you will receive an email notice that you have new DNA matches:

MyHeritage dna match alert

Email notice from MyHeritage regarding DNA matches.

You can access DNA matches when you log on to the site: under Discoveries, click DNA Matches (as shown below).

myheritage-dna-screenshot

My Favorite Features of MyHeritage DNA

As for my favorite features, I like how they list all the possible relationships that make sense between you and your match, taking into account multiple factors like your age, gender, and your genetics instead of a simple, generic range like 2nd-4th cousins. The accompanying chart, which visually shows you all possible relationships, is also very helpful. You can access the chart by clicking on the little question mark icon next to the relationship suggestions.

I like that these suggestions remind us that our genetic relationships have different genealogical interpretations. Meaning that genetically, a 2nd-cousin-once-removed, a first-cousin-twice-removed, and a second-cousin, all fall within a similar genetic range and it is impossible to determine your exact relationship based on the genetics alone.

myheritage-dna-screenshot-relationship-details

I also like how MyHeritage offers all three genetic descriptors of your relationship:

  • total amount of shared DNA
  • how many segments are shared
  • the size of the longest piece of shared DNA.

While this is more of an intermediate to advanced piece to your results, it can be important as your relationship analysis becomes more involved.

Addressing a Concern of Genetic Genealogists

MyHeritage makes a unique claim in their press release about their matching feature addressing a main concern genetic genealogists have: the lack of pedigree information provided by their matches. MyHeritage claims that 95% of their DNA samples have pedigrees attached. That is remarkable! However, from my own quick calculation of my matches, the number with pedigrees is more like 60%.

They also indicated that they will soon be doing a bit of pedigree-analysis for you by providing a list of shared surnames and locations between you and your match. This will be based on the pedigrees you have both submitted and will certainly be a welcome addition.

According to their November 9th Q and A, MyHeritage hasn’t decided yet if the ethnicity features will be available to those who only transfer, and they hint at many more features they have in the works that may only be offered to those who purchase their test.

In short, the MyHeritage DNA site is currently functioning much like the top three genetic genealogy sites (Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe) and like the free tool Gedmatch: it offers a meeting place for those who have been tested at one company to meet those who have tested at another.

More on DNA Testing and Genealogy

Super DNA quick guide bundleDNA testing is an incredible tool for genealogists. With several different types of tests and testing companies, hundreds of matches, and lots of technical jargon, it can be challenging to make sense of it all. My DNA Quick Guides to help you pick the right test, understand your results, and take the next steps with your matches. These guides can be purchased in printed format or digital downloads.

 

Why I Wish the DAR DNA Policy Was a Little Different

why the DAR DNA

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) accepts limited DNA evidence to prove descent from a Revolutionary War veteran. In my opinion, the DAR DNA policy is a little too limited. Here’s why–and what you can do.

Membership to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) has been a holy grail for U.S. genealogists for 125 years. With its requirement of proof of a “lineal bloodline descendant from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence” in three categories: birth, marriage, and death, as well as proof of Revolutionary War Service, membership is exclusive to those with an iron-clad paper trail.

That is, until 2014, when the DAR added DNA evidence to its list of acceptable documents proving a relationship to a Revolutionary War ancestor.

What does the DAR DNA Policy Accept?

The DAR only accepts one of the three forms of DNA testing which is the Y chromosome test, or YDNA. The YDNA traces only a direct paternal line, making it a great choice when trying to link living males with their Revolutionary counterparts. This YDNA is basically passed unchanged from generation to generation, making the modern day holder of the YDNA the proud owner of possibly exactly the same YDNA that fought the Redcoats. That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

The DAR recently announced that to further help those wanting to use their YDNA as part of their application, they have formed a project at Family Tree DNA, the company that provides the YDNA testing. Projects are absolutely the best way to get the most out of your YDNA testing. There are surname projects, location projects, haplogroup (deep ancestral group) projects, and even special interest group projects, such as this one for the DAR.

While the results of the testing are only available to members of the group, the statistics page gives us an idea of the scope of this project. They currently have 1,242 total members and what looks to be about 430 YDNA tests completed (though it is admittedly difficult to tell based on the chart online.)  This means if you think your paternal line may be a candidate for the DAR, you can have a representative of your line tested and compared to the group. If you find a match, you will have relative certainty that you do connect to that Patriot, and can then be more confident in your traditional research in pursuit of the necessary paper connections.

In April the DAR opened up project membership to include mtDNA and autosomal DNA. They will not be using these two kinds of DNA in their applications (yet), but hopefully this project will pave the way for the addition of those tests in the future (though, for several reasons, inclusion of these tests in the application process will be more difficult.)

Though, in all honesty, they have made the YDNA process difficult enough. Let’s say that you are actually able to trace down multiple generations to find a direct male descendant of your Revolutionary guy to be tested, an individual who is, the DAR mandates, “sharing your maiden name or your mother’s maiden name,” and you convince that unassuming relative to give up his saliva, you still are only half way there. The DAR guidelines also state that you have to have a second individual who is “a descendant of the same Revolutionary War ancestor through a different unbroken male lineage that has been previously proven on a DAR application…” (I added the emphasis here.)

A Practical Example of the DAR DNA Policy

OK, so let’s say you are a genealogical whiz and, let’s face it, you were lucky, and you find two such candidates and have them tested.

Well, the DAR tells us that those two men must match EXACTLY on the 37 YDNA markers tested. Now there is no telling when that YDNA might experience a mutation. So to me it seems a little unfair to require perfection. So it is possible, that even after all the work of finding the right guys to be tested, the test itself may work against you, as even one difference is enough to keep this YDNA off of your application, at least for now.

So while I applaud the DAR for using YDNA testing at all, and for spearheading a special interest project at Family Tree DNA, the reality is that the limitations of direct paternal line genealogy and the requirements of testing make it unlikely that very many will be able to take advantage of the YDNA in their DAR applications.

However, there are a few things you can take away from this article now:

  • First, collect those DNA samples whenever you can, especially for key relatives, like your paternal line and the oldest living generation (whose DNA is less likely to have experienced any mutation.)
  • Second, keep your research paper trail strong. Nothing in the near future of the genetic genealogy industry tells us that distant relative connections (like to your Revolutionary War ancestor) will be provable by DNA alone.
  • And third, definitely look at crowd-sourced studies for your particular DNA. Those surname, location, haplogroup, and special interest group projects I mentioned from FTDNA are just some of the ones that might help your research—or that you could use to help someone else’s. I’ve talked about these studies before: click here to read about them.

My Complete DNA for Genealogy Research Guide Series

I am Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, and the author of a series of genetic genealogy quick guides. My guide called Y Chromosome DNA for the Genealogist is the perfect tool to help guide you through the testing and analysis process. Click here to learn more about this guide and here for all of my guides, or click here to learn more about my series of how-to videos, also available to Gems fans for a special price.

Thanks for sharing this post with your genealogy friends who do DNA research (especially those who may have Revolutionary War ancestors!)

3 Ways to Talk about DNA at Your Next Family Reunion

talk about dna at your next family reunion

Wish your family would take more interest in its history and even have its DNA tested? Here are 3 tips for talking about DNA at your next family reunion or gathering.

In the northern hemisphere, it’s summer time–prime family reunion season! If any of your plans this summer involve visiting with extended family, check out these 3 tips for using DNA to get your family excited about family history.

1. Show your ethnicity results.

Start off with the most flashy and entertaining part of the DNA test, your ethnicity results. Most of the time they don’t actually help you DO family history, but they definitely get people interested.

When you pull out the results, you might also want to have handy your family’s migration chart. This was recently popularized by J. Paul Hawthorne and is a simple way to describe the birth locations of your ancestors so you can visualize the migration of your family over the course of several generations. If you want to try it, here is a link to a spreadsheet I made based on his.

Then you can pull out your DNA test results and talk about how much of your DNA test results are reflected in your ethnicity chart. You might even have a good chuckle over some of the more outlandish claims (22% Scandinavian?! Where did that come from?). Now is a good time to mention any family stories about Native American Princesses or African cousins.

2. Show your DNA match list.

Next, it’s time to segue to how DNA testing really helps your family history. Show them how your relatives show up on your DNA match list. You can then show them an individual on your match list that you have figured out your relationship to.  You can weave in just a bit of the genealogical research you did to find your common ancestor, and end with the cool fact that you actually have DNA from that ancestor, and so does your match! If you are especially lucky, the person you are talking to will also have some connection to this ancestor, and you can tell them that if they take a DNA test, it can help them document their relationship to this ancestor as well.

3. Invite relatives to test.

If you find yourself at a family reunion for a particularly pesky set of ancestors for whom you don’t know much about their parents or grandparents, this is a perfect time to help your family members understand that they might be THE ONE, the one who holds the right combination of genetics to help you bust through that brick wall.

I myself will be attending the Chenoweth Family Reunion this year, though I am only an honorary Chenoweth. They have the ambitious goal of finding direct paternal line descendants of the 21 continuing lines of the 29 grandsons of John Chenoweth and Mary Calvert, and they are over half-way there! As part of their festivities they are including a special DNA lecture on the progress of their project.

Having a specific goal like this really helps focus your family on a particular effort, and lets them track the progress of both the DNA and the traditional research. It is also very unifying, especially for a group as large as theirs. They all wear different colored T-shirts to represent the different lines they descend from. But when we look at the DNA, it is clear that, at least in their YDNA, there is no distinction, they are certainly all part of the same paternal line.

DNA ethnicity results may varyMore DNA Gems from Diahan Southard

3 Reasons to Test Your DNA for Genealogy

When to Do an mtDNA Test for Genealogy

Results May Vary: One Family’s DNA Ethnicity Percentages


Thumbs-Up: AncestryDNA Improves Genetic Matching Technology

ancestrydna matches improvedDouble good news: AncestryDNA has made some improvements to the way they calculate your genetic matches, but they haven’t messed with the site format or layout. There is one downside–so keep reading.

Change is afoot at AncestryDNA. Again.

While stability and predictability seem like honorable qualities in a company or product, when it comes to tech tools, in the ears of tech companies, those words sound more like dated and old. Of course, we are used to this by now. I had a client tell me recently that he wanted to be in touch sooner, but his grandson “upgraded” his computer to Windows 10 and then promptly left for college the next day, leaving him fighting with a new interface and operating system.

The good news is, you won’t have this problem with Ancestry’s new update. There aren’t any changes to the interface or the layout of the information. In fact, many of you will not even notice at first that your match list has changed. You’ll just see this notification when you log in:

AncestryDNA match improvement announcement

But in fact, there likely have been some adjustments made to your match results:

  • Some of your third cousins have been demoted to fourth cousins.
  • Some of your fourth cousins have been demoted to 5th-8th cousins.
  • Some of your Distant Cousins have disappeared off your match list
  • You have new cousins on your Distant Cousin match list.

In general, from what Ancestry has showed us, you gain more than you lose.

Changes in the dregs of your match list may not seem like that big of a deal. But Ancestry has made some big changes in the way that they are calculating matches. They are getting better at it. Which means you match list is now more representative of your ancestral connections, even at the very distant level.

There are two big pieces to this matching puzzle that Ancestry has tinkered with in this latest update: phasing and matching.

You will remember our discussion on DNA phasing and how it can impact your matching. Ancestry has developed a robust reference database of phased DNA in order to better phase our samples. Basically, they have looked through their database at parent-child duos and trios and noted that certain strings of DNA values often travel together. It’s like they have noticed that our DNA says “A black cat scared the mouse” instead of  “The brown cat ate the mouse” and they can then recognize that phrase in our DNA, which in turn helps our DNA tell the true story of our heritage.

In addition to updating the phasing, Ancestry has revamped their matching method. In the past they viewed our DNA in small windows of information, and then stitched those windows together to try to get a better picture of what our DNA looked like. Now instead they have turned to a point-by-point analysis of our DNA. Again to use a sentence example, with the window analysis we may have the following sentence windows:

ack and J

ill went t

he hill t

etch a pai

l of water.

AncestryDNA match comparisonOf those windows, you may share the “etch a pai” with another individual in the database, earning that cousin a spot on your match page. However, the truth is, that bit could say “sketch a painting” or “stretch a painful leg” or “fetch a pail.” With Ancestry’s new method, they are able to see farther on either side of the matching segment, making this clearly “fetch a pail.” That means better matching, which means more confidence in your cousin matches.

The downside to this update is going to come in the reorganization of some of your relationships. Ancestry has tightened their genetic definition of your third and fourth cousins. Basically, that means that some of your true 3rd cousins are going to show up as 4th cousins, and some of your true 4th cousins are going to be shifted down into the abyss of 5th-8th cousins.

This brings us to the downside of this AncestryDNA update: changes to the Shared Matches tool. The shared matches tool allows you to gather matches in the database that are related to you and one other person, provided you are all related at the 4th cousin level or higher. This tightening of the belt on 4th cousins means that some of them are going to drop through the cracks of that tool, really limiting its ability. Grr. Hopefully Ancestry will fix that, and expand this tool to include all of your matches. They have their fairly good reasons for this, but still….

So, as the winds of change blow yet another iteration of the AncestryDNA match page, I think we can see this as an overall win for doing genealogy with our genetics at Ancestry.

More AncestryDNA Gems

AncestryDNA circles not connectionsWhen DNA Circles DON’T Mean Connections on AncestryDNA

Confused by Your AncestryDNA Matches? Read This Post

AncestryDNA Works Toward Genetics + Genealogy Integration


 

YDNA for Genealogy: 3 Scenarios When YDNA is Useful


YDNANot sure how to use YDNA for genealogy? Check out these 3 common reasons to test–or have a male relative do so.

The Y chromosome DNA test, more affectionately referred to as the YDNA test, is the darling of the DNA testing industry. (At least, I think so.) In fact, of the three kinds of DNA tests, the YDNA is my favorite. It has several excellent qualities that make it useful in many genealogical scenarios, but let’s look at three.

Use YDNA for Genealogy When…

1. You Have a Missing Father

Now all of us should be able to identify with this genealogical problem. Every line in your family history has this problem. Any ancestor whose father is currently unknown falls in this category.

And YDNA can help.

The specific quality of YDNA that makes it so attractive in this case is its faithfulness in passing down its record generation after generation, without fail, without changing, from one man to the next. That means that any living male today has the same (or very similar) YDNA as every male in his direct paternal line, back 8, 10, 12+ generations. Therefore every man’s YDNA is the clue that could lead you to discover that missing father. Usually what it takes is a match in the YDNA database with another descendant of your common ancestor. Ideally, this person knows something that you don’t about that missing father, and the two of you can work together to verify and extend your family history.

2. Your Relative is worried about Privacy

While DNA testing has certainly entered a season of relative acceptance among genealogists, there are still many skeptics who wonder what the eventual ramifications of having your DNA tested might bring. While this is a subject that certainly deserves some attention, the YDNA is actually the easiest test to sell to a nervous relative. The very qualities that make YDNA testing valuable, namely that every male descendant of a given ancestor will have the same YDNA, make it equally impossible to identify any particular individual uniquely. This means that the YDNA record that is created when a man takes a YDNA test cannot ever be traced back to him alone. That same record could have easily come from his brother, or 1st, or 5th cousin.

Similarly, the YDNA test results do not have a link to your health. The regions that are tested are generally parts that are not useful for determining any kind of personal health or trait information.

3. You Have a Surname Mix-up

One of the best applications of YDNA for genealogy comes when trying to disentangle the relationships of various men living in close proximity with other men of the same or similar surname. Having descendants of these men test their YDNA is like traveling back in time and conducting personal interviews of each of these men. It’s like saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Moffat? Is this neighbor of yours, Mr. Moffit, your uncle?” Wouldn’t you give anything for a chance to have that conversation? Well, YDNA testing gets you almost there. You might not be able to determine if they are uncle and nephew, but you will at least know if they are kin.

The bonus quality of YDNA is that it is only offered at one testing company, Family Tree DNA. So you don’t even have to decide where to be tested. Your biggest decision will be in determining what level of testing to choose. If your budget allows, you can go with the 67 marker YDNA test. But the 37 marker test is also a very good choice, and you can always upgrade to more markers at a later date without submitting a new sample.

So what are you waiting for? If you have your own YDNA, go out and start the testing process. If you have been blessed instead with two X chromosomes, send this article over to your favorite male relative and let him know that he holds a very old, very valuable record in his DNA and you want to help him make use of it.

Using DNA for Genealogy Ancestry Family Tree DNA GuidesIf this post gets you antsy to test some “Y,” I recommend you check out two of my DNA quick guides: Y Chromosome DNA for Genealogists and Understanding Family Tree DNA. Or learn more from me at YourDNAGuide.com.

3 Reasons to Test Your DNA for Genealogy

genealogy DNA genetic family history testing DNA for genealogyWhy test your DNA for genealogy without even having a specific research question in mind? Here are 3 reasons.

My youngest child, Eleanor, is nearly 8, so it was fun to have a 2 year old over the other day. She loved following Eleanor around, and Eleanor was equally thrilled to have someone to mentor in the ways of big girl play. I took special delight in listening to my daughter’s patient and surprisingly complete answers to our guest’s constant inquiries of “Why?” It got me thinking about the whys of genealogy, and especially of genetic genealogy.

I decided that there are three main reasons to test your DNA for genealogy:

1. DNA is primary information.

In genealogy, primary information is given by a source with firsthand knowledge of an event, with the best primary information being created at or around the time of the event. I think we can safely say that DNA falls into that category on both counts. Therefore, it is an excellent source of genealogical information and should be obtained as part of a thorough genealogical search.

2. DNA is a unique record.

DNA possesses several qualities that make this record type stand out from the rest. First and foremost, it cannot be falsified in any way. No name change, no deception, no miscommunication or misspelling can tarnish this record. Even if it is not a complete record of our family history, the story that it does tell is accurate.

3. DNA is a physical link to our past.

So much of genealogy work, especially in today’s digital world, is intangible. We add ancestors to our pedigree charts with a click of our mouse, having no idea of their physical characteristics, never once setting foot in the same places that they did, or if they preferred bread and butter or toast and jam.

But with the advent of DNA testing, I am able to see a physical connection between me and my ancestor. The first time I saw it seems unremarkable. It was just a blue line on top of a grey line, representing the location in the DNA where I had the same information as my cousin. But that line meant that we had both inherited a physical piece of DNA from our common ancestor, Lucy J. Claunch.

That realization didn’t add names or dates to my pedigree chart- Lucy had been on my chart since the beginning. But it did add a sense of purpose and reality to my genealogical work. In short, it inspired me to know more about Lucy and to tell her story because I felt inextricably tied to it. Perhaps many of you don’t need a DNA test to feel similarly motivated. Perhaps you already understand what I learned: her story is my story. But because I have her DNA in me, I am able to take that idea one step further. Because she lives on in me, my story is her story. So I better make it a good one.

getting started dna guide dna for genealogyI can help you get started in DNA for genealogy with my Getting Started: Genetics for the Genealogist quick reference guide. This guide:

  • helps you select the DNA test (and testing company) that’s right for you
  • explains what DNA can and can’t do for your research;
  • identifies who in your family should be tested;
  • explains privacy measures; and
  • tells you how to take a test.

If you’re ready to take on DNA, consider my entire value-priced bundle of DNA guides–for all the different types of testing and testing companies you may be considering. And you can always come to me for further consultation at my website.

When to Do an mtDNA Test for Genealogy

mtdna when to testShould you be doing an mtDNA test for genealogy? Should you have a female relative tested? Here are 3 scenarios in which you should.

DNA testing is becoming more and more integrated into our traditional genealogical research. Over 1.5 million people have completed some form of autosomal DNA test, testifying that the idea has finally taken root and now is almost a commonplace notion.

However, with widespread success of autosomal DNA testing at companies like Ancestry DNA (click and use code for free shipping through March 31, 2016: FREESHIPDNA) and 23andMe, the two other kinds of DNA tests are often overlooked. The Y chromosome DNA test, or yDNA, traces a direct paternal line. The mitochondrial DNA test, or mtDNA, traces a direct maternal line. Both are offered by Family Tree DNA. Is there a place for these tests among your genealogical research?

I say yes! One of the biggest limitations of autosomal DNA testing is that it cannot reliably reach back past the fourth or fifth generation in your pedigree. But both yDNA and mtDNA can.

Let’s focus on mtDNA. Remember, mtDNA is directly maternally inherited, meaning that you have the same mtDNA as your mother and all of your siblings. It is the same mtDNA as your maternal grandmother, and her mother, and so on, for ten generations or more.

When and how would you use mtDNA testing?

1. You need to grab your mtDNA before it’s gone

You have an ailing great aunt, or you yourself are one of the last remaining carriers of your mother’s mtDNA.

Having your mtDNA tested first and foremost creates a record of your direct maternal line. Just as you would obtain a birth certificate or marriage license for your ancestor to see what other important genealogical information it might contain, having a record of your mtDNA is an important part of documenting your maternal line.

2. Unknown ethnicity

You have a female ancestor whose ethnicity is unknown. Perhaps you think she is Native American or African American.

Along with your mtDNA profile, which helps you make connections with others, taking an mtDNA test gives you a haplogroup, or a deep ancestral group. There are different haplogroups for different world regions and populations. Sometimes knowing your haplogroup can help either confirm or dispel a family rumor about the heritage of a particular ancestor. Though for most it will just verify what you already know, like confirming that your maternal line is from western Europe.

3. Unknown origins

In 1873, aliens must have deposited your female ancestor in Virginia.

If you have tried every other avenue to discover your ancestor’s origins, and currently your best theory of her origins revolves around extraterrestrial beings, you can try mtDNA testing.

The results of the testing will provide you with a list of individuals who may share direct maternal line ancestry with you, and therefore might be related to this mystery ancestor. However, that shared ancestor could be as recent as 1873, or as distant as dates that require the post nominal “BC.” So, it is more or less a shot in the dark. But hey, if you don’t shoot, you will definitely miss!

In general, mtDNA testing should not be the first test you turn to when seeking out your ancestors. But it does have its place in your genealogical toolbox, so don’t be afraid to pull it out once in a while.

Genealogy DNA Quick Reference Guides Cheat Sheets To get started, I recommend my Mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA for Genealogists quick guide. It covers the basics of mtDNA testing and more on how to use it in your family history research. If you’re looking for more help with using DNA in genealogy, consider my entire series of DNA quick reference guides or come find me at YourDNAGuide.com.

In Defense of DNA for Family History

dna for family history genealogyIn defense of DNA for family history, Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard takes on an NPR writer who says that “family is relationship, not DNA.”

Recently National Public Radio (U.S.) published an article by Alva Noë entitled “DNA, Genealogy, and the Search For Who We Are.” This sounds like exactly the kind of article that I would want to read, considering that I am, after all, Your DNA Guide.

However, after only the first two sentences of this article, I stopped reading. I could already tell this was one of those articles, you know, the kind meant to sensationalize and not to communicate accurate information. I closed the browser page. I just don’t have time to read information that is meant to incite, and not to inform.

But then I read some comments from some friends that had read it, and then Lisa Louise Cooke asked me to review it for you, so I read it in its entirety. It was difficult to get through, even though it wasn’t very long. There are just so many things that are wrong with the presentation of this material.

Let’s take three big ones.

First of all, the “facts” are taken out of context. Yes, it is true, your genetic pedigree is not the same as your genealogical pedigree. Your genetic pedigree can only contain a finite amount of information, while your paper pedigree can contain limitless amounts. In general, our personal set of genetics will only connect us to half of our fourth cousins, and it is true that if we go back far enough we will have zero DNA from some of our ancestors.

The author implies that this kind of incomplete information is unacceptable and should be discarded. What he is missing is that by genetically connecting me to my fourth cousin, that fourth cousin is genetically connected to another fourth cousin, who I might not share DNA with, but through the testing and the genealogical research, I can confidently identify as kin. One of the powers of DNA is that it allows you to create networks with living people who can work together to verify and expand our knowledge of our ancestors.

“DNA deserves a spot in your family history research.” Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide

Secondly, this author claims that DNA testing and traditional research are mutually exclusive. He claims, “…family and family history are one thing, and DNA-based ancestry is another.” I don’t think I even need to comment on that. That is just wrong. Genetic genealogy is just one more tool in our toolbox to help us answer family history questions.

Before I go on, I think we do need a little perspective about where this author is coming from. In the U.S., many of us have enjoyed the rapid growth and general acceptance of the genetic genealogy industry. The author of this article gained much of his content from sources in the U.K. Unfortunately, the U.K. has seen a stream of less-than-reputable companies hawking genetic genealogy-like products that are frankly a scam. So, from that perspective, caution when entering a genetic genealogy experience should be exercised.

That background knowledge, provided by my colleague Debbie Kennett in the U.K. made me feel a little sheepish about my initial hostile reaction to the article. But then I read again where the author states, “It is family that matters — and family is relationship, not DNA,” and I am back on my soapbox. Perhaps this author did not pay attention in 7th grade biology. DNA is family. That’s how this works.

I have heard so many stories from so many of you reporting how it was this very DNA stuff that led you to a discovery about your family. Just yesterday I received an email from a woman who recently reconnected with a relative she found through DNA testing. She said, “Spent a week with Carolyn and her husband out in Colorado this fall and the time spent together is beyond words. It is as if we had known each other our whole lives. But then again on a different level, I am sure we have known each other.”

To me, that is a story worth telling, a story that is every bit as real as one that is discovered using only paper research methods. DNA deserves a spot in your family history research. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

DNA quick guides super bundle of 7Are you still a beginner when it comes to using DNA for family history? The free video below can get you started. So can my series of DNA quick guides: one on getting started; guides for yDNA, mtDNA and autosomal testing, and guides to help you navigate 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA. (Buy the whole bundle for the best deal.)

More DNA for Family History Gems

“Results May Vary:” One Family’s DNA Ethnicity Percentages

Get the Most Out of Testing with 23andMe with a New DNA Guide

“We’re Cousins?” DNA for Genealogy Reveals Surprising Relationship

“Results May Vary:” One Family’s DNA Ethnicity Percentages

DNA ethnicity results may varyFour members of a family–mom, dad, daughter and son–tested with AncestryDNA. Their DNA ethnicity percentages vary. Why?

We talked recently about the limitations of the ethnicity results delivered by the DNA testing companies. We concluded that for the most part, these admixture results are like that short film before the actual feature presentation. That feature presentation in this case is your genealogical match list.

But, the short film is entertaining, and certainly keeps your attention for a while. It can be especially interesting when you have several members of the same family tested so you can compare their ethnicity results. Let’s consider the real AncestryDNA test results of a family we’ll call the “Reese family:”

DNA ethnicity results Reese

The Reese family has something to their great advantage: their family history indicates that they are mostly from Western Europe. This is a big advantage in the climate of today’s ethnicity results as all of the testing companies have far more data in their reference populations pouring out of western Europe than from anywhere else. That means that in general, they are going to be better at telling you about your heritage from Ireland or England than they are at discovering that you are from China or India.

Looking at the ethnicity results for the Reese family, we are tempted to start applying our knowledge of DNA inheritance to the numbers we see. We know that each child should get half of their DNA from their mom, and half from their dad. So our initial reaction might be to look at the dad’s 40% Scandinavian and mom’s 39% Scandinavian and assume that the child would also be about 40% (20% form dad, 20% from mom). You can see that the daughter did in fact measure up to that expectation with 37% Scandinavian. But the son, with only 25%, seems to have fallen short. The temptation to consider the daughter as the far better example of familial inheritance is strong (especially for us daughters, who are so often exceeding expectations!), but of course inaccurate. It is actually very difficult to look at the parent’s numbers alone and estimate the percentages that a child will receive.

Remember that these numbers are tied to actual small pieces of DNA we call SNPs (snips). Of the near 800,000 SNPs evaluated by your testing company, less than half of them are considered valuable for determining your ethnicity. The majority of the SNPs tested are working to estimate how closely you are related to your genealogical cousin. A good SNP for ethnicity purposes has to be ubiquitous enough to show up in many individuals from a given population, but unique enough to only show up in that population, but not any others. It is a difficult balance to strike.

But even when good SNPs are used, it is still difficult for the computer at your testing company to make accurate determinations about your ancestry. Take the Great Britain line in the Reese family data, for example. The dad has 21%, the mom 7%, so it would follow that the largest amount any child could have would be 28%.  We see the daughter (of course!) falling well within that range at 10%, but the son is seven points above at 35%. How does THAT happen?!

Let’s go back to some basic biology. Remember that you have two copies of each chromosome, one from mom and one from dad. These chromosomes are made up of strings of letters denoting the DNA code. That means that at each SNP location you report two letters- one from mom and one from dad. As the testing company is lining these letters up for comparison, they have to decide which letters go together- which are from the same chromosome- which set came from one single source. To illustrate how this works, let’s say we are trying to write two sentences: “The brown dog ate the bone” and “A black cat scared a mouse” where each word in each sentence represents a SNP. However, all the computer sees are two words, it doesn’t know which word goes in which sentence. You can see in this example that it would be fairly easy to get it wrong. Mixing up a couple of the words creates entirely new sentences with very different meanings. The process of determining which set of values goes on which line is called phasing. Often the inconsistencies you see in your DNA test results, weather it be in the matching or in the ethnicity, are because of problems the company has with this very difficult process:

Phasing correct:

DNA phasing correct

Phasing incorrect:

DNA phasing incorrect

While it is not valuable genealogically (for research purposes) to have children tested when both parents are tested, it is fun to compare notes to see who got what. And it can be an excellent way to involve members of the family who are curious about his genetics but not interested in genealogy, per se (like the “Reese” family’s son). We can also very tangibly see the fleeting nature of this DNA stuff. We can see that in one single generation this family has lost all traces of ancestry to several world regions. This really highlights the value of having the oldest generation of family members tested, to try to capture all that they have to offer in their DNA code.

DNA quick guides super bundle of 7Get more genetic genealogy help from one or more of my DNA Quick Guides. Try the “Getting Started” guide or the AncestryDNA guide (for autosomal tests like the Reese’s). Or save a bundle on the bundle pack: all 10 guides!

Come visit me at YourDNAGuide.com if you’re ready for a one-on-one consultation: consider me your travel guide for your DNA journey.