Comparing the 5 Major DNA Tests: Family Tree DNA

Comparing the 5 Major DNA Tests: Family Tree DNA

If you're having trouble deciding what DNA test is right for you, we've got you covered! In our new seven-part series, genealogist and DNA expert Shannon Combs-Bennett will be giving an in-depth look at 5 of the major DNA tests on the market. This article will cover her experience with Family Tree DNA.

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In our seven-part series on DNA tests, Shannon Combs-Bennett is giving an in-depth look at 5 of the major DNA tests on the market. In Part 1, Shannon provided an introduction and shared the benefits of testing, as well as some precautions you should consider. This week, we’re discussing testing with Family Tree DNA.

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.

Sample storage

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.

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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.

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Further tools

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.

Want to learn all about Family Tree DNA? Sign up for the live webinar, August 15th with Roberta Estes!

Learn all about Family Tree DNA testing

Next up, I’m sharing my experience with AncestryDNA.


Ready to become a DNA expert? Our DNA Crash Course Value Pack is filled with an eBook, cheat sheet, and video downloads to help you discover what genetic testing for ancestry can do for you and how it can be combined with your existing genealogy research. Now is the time to dive into your DNA to discover your ancestry!

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