Category Archives: 23andMe

DNA Testing Advice

A friend who is also a client was asked some questions about DNA by her friend. She referred that friend to me who didn’t have time for a telephone conversation for a brief consult as we had mutually conflicting schedules.  She asked for a simple email to help her make some decisions. Well, that’s not so easy when her motivations to test are unknown and there is simply so much to discuss! Which test; which company; what results can be expected. I had to approach my response blind. No problem! Below is the text of the note I sent her. It may contain a few errors here and there but I don’t believe there is any misinformation.

Any thoughts on what else I should have included?

Hello Elizabeth,

The first point I’d like to make is that in general, DNA testing does not replace basic genealogical research. Other than an adoptee tracing parents or the parents of an adopted ancestor, that rule would apply. The testing can prove or disprove your research but doesn’t generally do the research for you.

So the question I ask anyone contemplating a DNA test is the motive. In other words, what are you trying to find out? That will help determine which company and which test. What follows is a “brief” discussion that hopefully will help.

There are essentially 3 types of DNA tests:

  1. Autosomal or atDNA examines 22 of the 23 chromosomes in the nucleus. It is often referred to as “Cousin Finder” or “Family Finder.”  These are the pairs of chromosomes that form the familiar “double helix” which are comprised of approximately 50% from each of the parents. Because of this ratio and the fact that is never exactly 50%, any individual will have roughly 25% of each grandparent (4 individuals), 12.5% of each great-grandparent (8 individuals), 6.25% of each 2nd great grandparent (16 individuals), 3.13% of each 3rd great-grandparents (32 individuals) and so on, melting by half as you go back each generation. Because the percentages are never perfect and get quite small at the 6th or 7th generation and beyond, it is possible that an individual may have none of a 3rd or 4th great grandparent’s DNA and thus making a match difficult if not impossible the farther back you go. All the current DNA testing companies do this test with AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage doing atDNA exclusively.
  2. Y-DNA examines the 23rd chromosome in the nucleus. That chromosome can be a combination of the X from the mother (as females do not carry a Y, otherwise they’d be male) and an X from the father (X/X) or the X from the mother and a Y from the father (X/Y). If the 23rd chromosome is an X/X, the result is a female. If that chromosome is and X/Y, the result is a male. Since the Y comes exclusively from the father and mutates very slowly, it is the Y chromosome that can be very useful in tracing paternal lines. Barring an adoption or “non-paternal events,” it can be a matter of following a line by way of the surname.
  3. Mitochondrial or mtDNA is the found inside each cell but outside the nucleus. Rather than a linear double-helix configuration, mtDNA is circular. It is transferred exclusively by the female to all her children. Everyone has it but the way it is transmitted, mtDNA will follow the maternal line.

FamilyTreeDNA and LivingDNA currently do all types of testing. FamilyTreeDNA has been testing DNA for longer than the other services while LivingDNA is, perhaps, the latest to enter the market. FamilyTreeDNA has a wide variety of combinations of tests with a variety of prices. LivingDNA, a British company, does one level of test by testing all types of DNA. They call atDNA “Familyline,” Y-DNA “Fatherline,” and mtDNA “Motherline.”

Will the results of atDNA testing be the same at all companies? Not necessarily as they all have developed different their own unique databases but there is a great deal of overlap from one company to the other. Should you test at more than one company? That all depends on your motivation for testing.

Here are the websites and there are many sales running this holiday season between all these very competitive companies:

www.familytreedna.com

www.dna.ancestry.com

www.23andme.com

www.myheritage.com/dna

www.livingdna.com

Some companies accept the “raw data” from other companies. For example, you can upload a raw data file of your results from 23andMe to MyHeritage. The only 2 that I know of that do not accept an upload are AncestryDNA and LivingDNA. There are also websites where you can upload your raw data in order to broaden your ability to compare your results to the results of other testers. GedMatch is one such company. They can be found at www.gedmatch.com.

Blogs to which you can subscribe:

www.legalgenealogist.com by Judy G. Russell who blogs on DNA at least once a week.

www.dna-explained.com  by Roberta Estes. Roberta can get a bit overwhelming but still worth a look.

www.thegeneticgenealogist.com by Blaine Bettinger, a nationally renowned expert.

www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com by CeCe Moore who has done analyses for “Who Do You Think You Are” as well as other programs.

Facebook has dozens of pages where you can read the questions and answers that others have posted or join and post your own questions. If you go to Facebook (where there are more than 14,000 genealogically oriented pages), search for ISOGG, the International Society of Genetic Genealogists; DNA Detectives;  GEDmatch.com User Group: and many, many others.

The website www.familytreewebinars.com offers webinars on a weekly basis, often on DNA as a subject. Anyone can register for and view current programs. The site has a tab for “Upcoming Webinars” where you can keep an eye out for DNA related programs and register to view. These webinars are open to the public on the day of the broadcast and remain open for about a week or 10 days. Membership is very reasonable and allows full access to their entire 600+ webinars on a broad spectrum of subjects beyond DNA.

There is a great deal more to the subject such as the concept of “Haplogroups,” genetic distances, chromosome browsers and so on. But this should be enough to digest for now.

I hope this helps without confusing the issue.

DNA Testing – But Which Test and Which Company?

Many people ask me about DNA testing. My first response is to try to determine why they want to test. Looking for cousins? Looking for medical information? Looking for ancestral origins? There’s actually a test for each a fact that surprises some people and may complicate the decision making process. Taking the wrong test can be a waste of time and money.  Some companies offer a wide variety of choices and others have a very simple offering.

So, where to start. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy has posted a highly informative grid of the 4 major testing companies, what each offers and how much their services cost.

Here’s the link: https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart

The information you find there should help just about anyone who is considering testing. It’s very easy to order the wrong test and ultimately cause frustration. Decide what your goals are first and then select an appropriate test from an appropriate company.

Good luck! Feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like more details. Use dave@oldbones.info. to reach me directly.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the upcoming New England Regional Genealogical Conference taking place in Springfield, Massachusetts starting April 26th and running until April 29th, 2017. Over 70 highly respected genealogists delivering 135 presentations, workshops, Ancestor Road Show, and an Exhibit Hall with approximately 75 vendors. The public is free to explore the Exhibit Hall while attendance to any of the programs requires registration.  Click here for dates, times, featured speakers, luncheons, banquets, historical tour of Springfield founded in 1636, a tour of the Museum of Springfield  History and Archives and about 1,000 fellow genealogists to rub elbows with. Featured speakers include Warren Bittner, a nationally acclaimed genealogist specializing in German research; Thomas MacEntee, another highly respected expert in multiple genealogical pursuits; and Kenyatta D Berry, co-host of the PBS program “Genealogy Road Show.”

Strawberry DNA

Here’s a neat article I found in my Feedly posts today. Click “Imagination Station” for a simple explanation of the DNA extraction process. They’re using strawberries in the video, but, as you’ll see, you could try it on just about any living matter…including yourself.

The problem, of course, is other than having a dish of cloudy material as in the video, actually seeing the DNA you extract is a completely different story!

Have you done any DNA testing? Three major companies are in the DNA business: FamilyTreeDNA,  23andMe and AncestryDNA. Which test you take will be driven by the purpose of taking the test in the first place.  The short story is this: The most popular test today is the Autosomal DNA test or atDNA test. All three companies do this test. Keep in mind that there are 23 chromosomes in every nucleus of every cell in your body. One of those chromosomes is the sex chromosome which is either X-X or X-Y. This chromosome determines whether your are female (X-X) or males (X-Y).DNA_animationThat leaves 22 that are made up of a recombination of the DNA from your father (roughly 50%) and your mother (roughly 50%). It’s the recombination process that determines which of your father’s traits you will inherit and which of your mother’s. That’s also why siblings can either vary a great deal in their appearance or, if their appearances seem quite similar, one may have red hair and the other brown.

Logically, if you’ve got 50% of your mother’s atDNA and she received 50% from each of her parents, you can only have 25% from each of her parents. The same holds true with your father’s atDNA and that what makes up the 50% you inherited from him, 25% of which is from his father and 25% from his mother. The farther back you go up your family tree while applying the fact that the 50% gets halved at each generation. You’ll have 12.5% from each of your 8 great-grandparents, 6.75% from each of your 16 2nd great-grandparents.  Then take into account the billions of possible ways that each recombination can produce, it gets a little tricky to go very far beyond 5 or 6 generations. We refer to it as a “cousin finder.” Ethnicity can be inferred to some degree and in broad generalities: Northern European, Sub-Saharan African,  Ashkenazi Jew and so forth.

The second and third types of tests will take you deep into the genetic histories of your direct maternal or paternal lines. Only men have and thus can pass along Y-DNA. A man gets his from his father who got his from his father and so on. So to trace a paternal line, the Y test is quite useful for 2 reasons. It’s biologically impossible to get a Y chromosome from a male ancestor other than from your direct line. And it mutates at a very slow rate meaning that it stays relatively intact for thousands of years, unlike atDNA which “melts” in each generation.

The third test is for mitochondrial DNA, the mother’s unique contribution to the equation. Unlike the Y, mitochondrial or mtDNA is in everyone’s cells. For the lack of a more scientific answer, it is what powers the cells, allowing them to live, divide and recombine so that life can go on.  But, only the mother passes the mtDNA even though both she and the father have it.

Here’s the reason. Mom has her Mom’s mtDNA and Dad has his Mom’s mtDNA. At the point of conception, the ovum contains mom’s mtDNA as she supplied the ovum containing it. Dad supplied the sperm but the mtDNA is in the tail. Picture your science books where the sperm wiggles its way to its destination. At the moment of conception, the tail falls off and thus the mtDNA from the father is no longer a factor. It’s a lot like a space rocket. Once the rocket clears earth’s atmosphere, the boosters fall away. They’ve done their job!

The mtDNA will take you backwards to your mother, her  mother and her mother’s mother and so on.

Both Y and mtDNA can give you reasonably accurate description of your genetic background. But it is important to say that as far as family research is concerned, DNA tests do not replace standard research practices. It will only help to prove or disprove what you’ve discovered.

For a more detailed explanation of DNA and the various types and tests, there are some excellent bloggers whose backgrounds in the science is much deeper than my own:

That should be more than enough to get you started! Good luck!

Visit Old Bones Genealogy of New England at www.oldbones.info

AncestryDNA versus “AncestrybyDNA”

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hard to notice the difference in the name, isn’t it. Considering that one of the services is selling their test for $69, our eyes seem to glaze over when it comes to the name. AncestryDNA has certainly had its ups and downs, but for the last several months or even a couple of years, they’ve improved their testing techniques, modified the “algorithms” that produce the results and can now be highly recommended. And to be sure, I’m not talking about “AncestrybyDNA.” Be careful to notice the differences in the name!

As a matter of fact, AncestryDNA tests over 700,000 markers to arrive at their results. That fact, combined with the extraordinarily large database of family trees, they are able to make some dramatic “cousin matches.” They are not without their faults as none of the companies are. But their batting average has improved exponentially

AncestrybyDNA, on the other hand is a horse of a different color. In case you didn’t notice, the name is ANCESTRY BY DNA. Where did that “by” come from? It seems that AncestrybyDNA feels that the hidden “by” is enough to distinguish it from the vastly more effective tool for genealogists, AncestryDNA, the one with no “by” in their name.

Groupon is a company that sells products and services such as restaurant deals, clothing deals, vacation deals and lately, DNA testing deals. Keep you eye on the by!

AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe are the 3 companies that should be at the top of your list. Check them out. AncestryDNA tests ONLY autosomal DNA, often referred to as the “cousin finder.” FamilyTreeDNA offers a whole spectrum of tests with a variety of packages and prices. Very reputable. Then there’s 23andMe which has also had it’s ups and downs, but that’s another story. Let’s just say that there’s nothing to worry about with the legitimacy  or integrity of 23andMe or any of these three.

To read a bit more about this from someone who is vastly more experienced than I am, check out Judy G. Russell’s incredibly informative blog,  The Legal Genealogist. You may even consider following her. It’ll be worth it!

FamilyTreeDNA

FamilyTreeDNA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

DNA Testing – Sales From the “BIG 3”

DNA_animationWhen the subject of DNA comes up, I like to give people the simplest answers so that their eyes don’t glaze over: The three types (Y-DNA, mtDNA, and atDNA) what each can do and what each CANNOT do.  It’s important to have at least a basic understanding of your reasons to test so that you don’t waste your money or test with the wrong company.

Here are the “holiday sale” prices from the 3 companies that I generally recommend. Each name is hyperlinked to their website:

FamilyTreeDNA currently has an autosomal DNA (atDNA) test on sale for $89. That’s the DNA that comes to you from both parents. You have ABOUT 50% from Mom and ABOUT 50% from Dad. Having said that, each of your parents received ABOUT the same percentage from each of their parents. Thus, you have ABOUT 25% from each of your 4 grandparents, ABOUT 12.5% from each of your 8 great grandparents and so on until the percentage of the atDNA from a distant ancestor is too minimal to detect. These test are normally called “Cousin Finders” or “Family Finders.” Don’t expect to learn the ancient origins of your ancestors, it can’t be done with this test.

23andME has had its ups and downs but has come back strong after a few unfortunate “misunderstandings” with the FDA. They now advertise that they are the only testing company that meets FDA standards for being clinically and scientifically valid.  Truly a great opportunity to use the “cousin finder” aspect

My kids gave this to me about 25 years ago for Father's Day!

My kids gave this to me about 25 years ago for Father’s Day!

with atDNA, maternal and paternal ancestors with mtDNA and Y-DNA respectively, and, believe it or not, determine your possible ancient connection to Neanderthal, the proto-typical “caveman!” The “caveman” term is really quite misleading as we learn more about that branch of our collective tree. Currently, a single test is $199 if you order by December 13, 2015. Then if you order more tests for a family member by January 4, 2016, you’ll get a 10% discount on each.  This company will give you some very interesting health information. It’s best to check this page of the website to learn more.

Ancestry.com, the most promoted genealogical service, now has a division called AncestryDNA and their test is usually $99, it’s also on sale for $69 for Black Friday.  That’s a GREAT deal! Although they heavily promote their services, they are certainly not the “only game in town.” When they first began offering tests, Y-DNA, mtDNA and atDNA were all a part of their menu. Right from the start, they stumbled. Most of the ancestry reports they delivered showed nearly everyone with 98% Scandinavian DNA. Well, no. That was a little off. They then refined their testing algorithms, purchased other valid DNA databases and limited their services to atDNA. It makes sense since atDNA is the “cousin finder” and they have a phenomenally large collection of family trees which can theoretically be matched up with the atDNA results. First caveat is that of the millions of trees at Ancestry.com a relatively low percentage have been thoroughly researched; the data often lacks proper genealogical research meaning public records (sources) and other citations. Much of their data is from people harvesting undocumented data from other trees containing undocumented data. Their latest testing process is up to par and their matching strategies are reasonably accurate. But proceed with care!

Happy Thanksgiving and good luck in your DNA adventures!