We are all curious about where we came from in the world. Or, at least I hope you are since you are reading a genealogy blog! DNA testing seems to many to be the ultimate “who am I really?” testing option. Over the next seven weeks, I am going to introduce you to five tests currently on the market and give you an introduction (and behind the curtain peek for those who have not tested) on each one. I’ve personally taken all five tests, and will be sharing my personal experiences, including images of my results. The tests we’ll be covering are:
For a variety of reasons, people turn to DNA testing hoping it will answer all their genealogical questions. Sometimes you do find the answers in the DNA. Often, you end up with more questions that you started asking! However, you will find out precisely what you inherited from your ancestors (which may be different from your siblings and cousins).
Getting a DNA Test: A Word of Caution
Don’t test unless you want to know. DNA testing can uncover deeply buried family secrets, and some of these secrets can be humiliating, shameful or painful to older members of the family. Also, realize that not everyone in your family may be as curious as you. You will need to respect the privacy concerns of other members of your family is you uncover something surprising.
One way that DNA can be helpful is if you think of it as a tool. Use it as you would a document to aid in your search for your family history. While DNA can help, it can also confuse, just like a census record that makes no sense. When used in conjunction with paper genealogy DNA can open doors to relatives you did not know existed.
Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) is the longest running direct-to-consumer DNA testing company. It was founded in 2000 by Bennett Greenspan, Max Blankfeld, and Jim Warren as a way for genealogists to prove their family connections through genetics. It is the only company currently selling tests for all types of DNA testing (autosomal, Y-chromosome, and mitochondrial). FTDNA has come a long way in nearly two decades on the market.
One benefit to FTDNA is once you submit your DNA to the company they hold the sample for you. This means if you want to take a new test or an upgraded one, they will run the sample they have kept for you. The only reason you would need to submit a new sample is if the original became contaminated or they required more DNA for the test. If you are the administrator, and beneficiary, of a person’s DNA test at FTDNA, this is an excellent point to keep in mind. This is especially helpful if the tester dies before you can complete all the tests you want them to take. As long as you are the beneficiary on the account, you can order more tests and continue to see the information.
Types of test
The Y-Chromosome DNA test was FTDNA’s first test on the market. Designed to trace a man’s direct paternal line (father to father to father), it came on the market as a 12-marker test. Today men can take tests from 37-markers all the way up to the Big Y. The Big Y is an extensive test which gives you not only an enormous amount of data for chromosomal markers, but also deep ethnic ancestry. Best of all, if you start small and decide you want to learn more, just order an upgrade.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), a test which can be taken by anyone, is the other specialty test FTDNA offers. This test traces your direct maternal line (mother to mother to mother). Just as with the Y-DNA test, the mtDNA varies from a small portion to a full mtDNA test. Most people choose to test their mtDNA out of curiosity. However, it can be beneficial if you have a specific maternal line question in mind you are researching.
The atDNA chromosome browser
One of the big reasons researchers went to FTDNA to test, besides offering more than one test, was for the autosomal DNA (atDNA) chromosome browser. This tool allows you to see how you match another person. For a visual learner like myself, seeing these matches made the difference in my early research. Sure, other companies told me I shared DNA with another person. But unless I downloaded the raw results and graphed it myself, I couldn’t see how. Today there are several other companies which offer similar features.
Other features of FTDNA on the autosomal DNA (called Family Finder) test allow for excellent analysis. The “In Common With” (ICW) tool helps filter your matches showing other matches who share DNA segments with you and a specific person. If you are not sure how you and someone on your list could be related, this can be a great way to narrow down potential relationships. For instance, you run the ICW tool on an unknown match and review the list of persons who the two of you share DNA with. You can then identify known relatives to narrow down the part of your family tree in which the relationship is located.
FTDNA has a large variety of tools for a user. You can test there, or you can look into uploading your raw DNA data to the site. Always check the current policies on uploading since prices and plans could change without notice.
Thanks to Ancestry’s fantastic marketing campaign they currently hold the largest number of tests in the direct to consumer DNA testing market, AncestryDNA. That fact alone makes them a company you need to test at if you are looking for relatives to connect. However, there are a few draw backs to be the biggest.
The most crucial bit of information you need to know is that you will only see results for your autosomal DNA (atDNA) at Ancestry. They used to test Y-Chromosome DNA and Mitochondrial DNA but discontinued it several years ago.
Even though you will only see one test at Ancestry, they do have a few features which are very useful and unique. One I particularly like to point out is the “Migrations” which are part of the “Ethnicity Estimate” section. I love looking at history, and my favorite type social history, when researching my family. These migrations are a great way to educate yourself, and others, about the journey your family took as they traveled around the world. As a nation of immigrants, this is particularly important for Americans to look at. I have used it to give me clues about the migration patterns my family may have participated.
“Now you can easily sort, group, and view your DNA Matches any way you’d like,” states the company’s press release. “We’re redesigning the DNA Matches experience to help you make more discoveries, faster. Now use color coding, custom labeling, and other innovative new tools to see your AncestryDNA® connections in the clearest light possible.”
The updated Match List is a good example of the streamlined, updated experience you’ll have, and the ways you can sort and classify your matches. You can now filter your matches in new ways, such as by close or distant matches; those you haven’t viewed; the tree status of matches; and your communications with them.
Summary written by Sunny Jane Morton
Another new tool at AncestryDNA takes your research to another whole level. ThruLines is like an advanced hinting system that looks at your genetic relationships and relevant trees, and then constructs plausible family relationships between you and your matches. Sound exciting? It is.
The goal, says an Ancestry press release, is to save customers hours of time researching how they are related to their matches. “ThruLines aims to make this effort more efficient, enabling our members to spend more time making meaningful discoveries.”
In addition to common ancestors, ThruLines will also show you potential common ancestors, who appear in a box with a dashed (rather than solid) line around their names. “These are people who are not in your family tree, but appear in the public family trees of other Ancestry members who may share a common ancestor with you.”
Summary written by Sunny Jane Morton
No chromosome browser? No problem
Many users complain that there is not a chromosome browser through AncestryDNA. To be honest, with the tools you have access to on the site you can make do without using. For many of you, it might take a little more thought to do it (or drawing of multi-colored diagrams on paper), but you can do it. If it is a real issue, keep in mind you can upload your raw results from Ancestry to Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) or to GEDMatch to access a chromosome browser that way.
Many consider MyHeritage the new kid on the block in the US testing market. They began their DNA testing in November 2016, much more recent than the other U.S. centric testing companies. Many people started their MyHeritage DNA journey by uploading raw results from other companies before they offered their saliva test. Whichever way you tested, there are some features that MyHeritage has making it different from the others.
They began offering a chromosome browser as an analysis tool in the spring of 2018. For those of you who like those visual clues to relatedness, this should make you very happy. It is a bit clunky, but it gets the job done. However, when you click on a match, the page that comes up makes up for the clunky bits. The site automatically shows the showed matches between you and that person. Even better, it gives you an icon when they have determined the matching segment, you both share. It has been an excellent tool for me recently when learning how a group of people is related to each other.
To be honest, having all of the data for you and your match on one page is one of my favorite features from MyHeritage. I do not have to waste time bouncing back and forth between several pages to perform an analysis. It is all right in front of you!
I like that they give users both percentages and cM results for shared DNA between a person and their match. Each person is different; some like percentages and some like cM numbers. Having the calculations already done can make it a lot easier for people to understand how they are related to another person.
Part of the MyHeritage experience is being invited to take surveys on a variety of topics. Entirely optional, and completely private, MyHeritage surveys are a way for them to collect data on users and make their analysis better. Each one takes about 10-15 minutes if you choose to participate. There is an excellent Frequently Asked Questions section about the surveys I encourage you to read if you are curious about what they are.
Most people know about DNA testing from 23andMe due to their advertising campaign covering genetic traits. Which, to be honest, is why most people who are not genealogists test there. Heck, I have seen kits sold at pharmacies in my area! No matter your reason for thinking about taking a test at 23andMe, there are a few exciting analysis features on the site.
What DNA is included
While this company primarily looks at Autosomal DNA (atDNA), 23andMe will give the tester results about their paternal and maternal line haplogroups. If you are a woman, a male relative must test and then be connected to you on the website to see results about the Y-Chromosome. The information is interesting, shows migration patterns, and explains the inheritance of the DNA, but the company does not match you with potential relatives using only these two types of DNA. Currently, only Family Tree DNA does that.
What people love
One feature people have told me they like the way the site is full of large colorful graphics and explanations. For anyone who is not comfortable with genetic genealogy these sections help them grasp the concepts easier, and quicker. I am just a big fine of graphical explanations as a visual learner.
Of course, we want to know about finding living descendants of our ancestors. Your matches are under “DNA Relatives.” At 23andMe all information you would like to know about a match is located on one page. This makes analysis a bit easier since you do not have to flip back and forth between pages and have to scroll up and down. You can even send a message to your match without leaving the page!
The site does have a chromosome browser which you can use to compare multiple matches at one time. You also see the DNA segments between you and one person when you click on their name and pull up their match page. If your parents have both tested (or if you, your spouse, and your child/ren) you can also see which ethnic markers came from which parent. It is a pretty fascinating image, and if you do not know a lot about your ethnic heritage, this is one more way to break it down.
Keeping you safe
23andMe cares about your privacy, which can frustrate many users. I know that sounds odd, but bear with me. While you can see information about your matches under DNA Relatives to connect and get the more detailed information you must send a request to matches to share ancestry information. Then you wait. I admit I am bad about regularly going through my messages and accepting the share requests. Be patient with users is my only advice.
When Living DNA kits started selling a few years ago, I was intrigued. They advertise that their results were “twice the detail of other ancestry tests.” I thought, wow that is quite impressive. Plus, they give you details on your direct maternal line and if you are male your direct paternal line. This company does not currently offer user matches for finding relatives, but announced earlier this year that they plan to launch matching as part of their Family Networks service this Fall. Family Networks will build our customers’ family trees based only on their DNA, age and gender. You can read much more in the Living DNA blog.
Depending on what you would like to do with your results not having a match list may not be a big deal. One unique feature exclusive to Living DNA is a book. You can purchase a book of all your results, with detailed explanations of the autosomal, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosome DNA results. I am a book person, and I can only take so much screen time. The book was a bit of a splurge but well worth it in my opinion. I have loaned to it family and brought it to show people what my results said. No need to rely on a WIFI connection to get on a website!
To give the best details on autosomal DNA ethnicity results Living DNA states they use a process of analysis using linked DNA which is unique to their site. I was impressed with a large number of geographic-specific locations they could drill down. One thing to keep in mind. This is a UK based company. As such, they drill deep into the different parts of the British Isles. Outside of the UK, and indeed Europe, the ethnic analysis is on a large scale.
The history geek in me appreciated the amount of information provided about the migration patterns of our ancestors. I think that type of information can lead us to clues about our family just as quickly as the DNA segments we share with someone. Similar to the Ancestry Genetic Communities feature, Living DNA also gives you information about significant migrations patterns. The big exception is their migration timeline goes back thousands of years.
Hopefully, you can agree with me when I say each one is unique, and why answering the questions “which one is best” can be so tricky. Honestly, it depends on what you want to get out of the test. Just keep a few of the following points in mind.
Have fun with it
Taking a DNA test is for you and your family. Make the journey fun, educational, and relax!
Read what you can online or in books so that you can understand the benefits of DNA testing. Never forget, new tools and techniques are being developed. Just like genealogy research, DNA research is not a stagnant field.
Big revelations can happen
That being said, only test if you really, really want to find out what your DNA will tell you. Remember you might find long-hidden secrets. Think about how you might react if you discovered a new sibling, cousin, aunt, or uncle.
Not everyone will reply
Lastly, while it may be frustrating when a match does not write you back, they could be utterly overwhelmed and frustrated. Someone who has no science background can be very flummoxed by this whole process. Often, they need time to understand before reaching out to a match. Can you relate to that? Just reach out to them, and hopefully, someone will reach back. I waited seven years for a response!
A few final words
I do hope you take a DNA test if you have not already. Even if it is for yourself, you can learn a lot about your family through that simple saliva test. Of course, once you do it, more members of your family may want you to show them the results. Which is a great time to get them to take that test too! Alright, maybe I am secretly hoping one of you reading this can help me break down a family brick wall. But DNA testing is an excellent tool to have in your genealogist toolkit.