I’m Adopted and I Don’t Know Where to Start

This is one of the two most common querys that I receive.

I’ve addressed some of the adoptee resources in a previous blog, but in this one, I’m going to be very specific about which tests do what, what to expect, how to use them, where to purchase the tests and how much they cost in general terms.  Remember when reading this, it’s meant as a guideline and you should always check current products and prices before purchasing.

We all begin with genetic genealogy to answer questions, but adoptees have a special circumstance wherein they generally know nothing at all about their birth parents.  Today’s query told me that her birth certificate doesn’t even include a race.

First, all adoptees need to read my post on Adoptee Resources.  I’m not an expert on how to deal with all of the bureaucratic and paperwork nightmares involved, which of course vary by state, but there are people who specialize in this and they have groups to help.  Take advantage of them.  Also, throughout the rest of this blog, be sure to click on the links.  I’m not restating things that I’ve already covered elsewhere.

Now, let’s look at the 3 kinds of DNA testing that can benefit adoptees and just how they might use the results.

There are three kinds of DNA testing that you can do.

  • Mitochondrial for your direct maternal line.
  • Y-line for your direct paternal line – if you are a male.  Sorry ladies.
  • Autosomal to test your ethnic mix and to find cousins related to you on any line.

On a pedigree chart, these genealogical lines look like this:

adopted pedigree

You can see the path that the Y chromosome takes down the paternal line to the brother and the path the mitochondrial DNA takes down the maternal line to both the brother and the sister.  Autosomal tests the DNA of all of the 16 ancestral lines shown here, but in a different sort of way.

Let’s look at each one separately.

Y-Line DNA – For Paternal Line Testing for Males

The Y-line testing tests the Y chromosome which is passed intact from father to son with no DNA from the mother.  This is the blue square on the pedigree chart.  In this way, it remains the same in each generation, allowing us to compare it to others with a similar surname to see if we are from the same “Smith” family, for example, or to others with different surnames, in the case of adoption.  Small mutations do take place and accumulate over time, and we depend on those so that we don’t all “look alike.”

The good news is that using comparison tools, we can determine a genetic surname in about one third of the cases.  That’s pretty good odds for someone who started with no information at all.

Looking at the Estes surname project as an example, you can see in this colorized version that there are mutations shown, in color, even within family groups.

You can test at 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111 marker “locations” on the Y chromosome.  In order to look for strong results you’re going to need to test at a minimum of 37 markers, preferably 67 or 111.  At www.familytreedna.com, which is where I recommend that you test, you can always upgrade later, but it’s less expensive in total to test more initially, plus you may well need the information to know who you match at the highest levels.  Right now, 37 markers cost $119 and 67 markers are $199, but a sale is currently underway.  You can also join the adoptee project to obtain the best pricing by joining a project.

After your results are returned, you can then upload or manually enter your results at www.ysearch.org (upload directly from your Family Tree DNA matches page), www.smgf.org and www.ancestry.com.  You can then check for matches at these sites as well.  Not all of these other sites test as many markers as Family Tree DNA, but the comparison is free and useful.

Family Tree DNA also provides significant tools for Y-line DNA as well as Mitochondrial DNA as well.  You can see both Family Tree and Ancestry results compared on this blog, which shows you how to use both companies’ tools.  At Family Tree DNA, for all their tests, you are provided with the e-mail addresses of your matches.  At Ancestry and 23andMe, you contact matches through thier internal message system.  My experience has been that direct e-mails have a better response rate.

You can also order a DNA Report from my company, DNAeXplain, or directly from your personal page at Family Tree DNA, if you need assistance understanding either Y-line or mitochondrial DNA results and wringing every possible tidbit from the available tools.

Obviously, the Y-line test is only for males.  Ladies, I feel your pain.  However, these next tests are for both sexes.

Mitochondrial DNA – For Direct Maternal Line Testing for Both Sexes

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by all children from their mother only, with no admixture from the father.  Women obtain their mitochondrial DNA from their mother, who got it from their mother, on up the line into infinity.  This is the red circle on the right hand side of the pedigree chart.  Like Y-line DNA, mitochondrial DNA is passed intact from one generation to the next, except for an occasional mutation that allows us to identify family members and family lines.

Unfortunately, it does not follow any surname.  In fact the surname changes with every generation when women marry.  This makes it more challenging to work with genealogically, but certainly not impossible. Because of the surname changes in every generation, there are no “surname” projects for mitochondrial DNA, but the Mothers of Acadia project is using mitochondrial DNA to reconstruct the Acadian families.

There are three levels of testing you can take for mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA, which is where I recommend that you test.  The mtDNA, the mtDNAPlus and the Full Sequence.  The mtDNA test is a starter test that will only leave adoptees needing more.  I strongly recommend the full sequence test, but if the budget just won’t allow that, then the mtDNAPlus will do until you can afford to upgrade.  Family Tree DNA is the only major lab that tests the full sequence region, plus, they have the largest matching data base in the industry.

To put this in perspective for you, the mtDNA and the mtDNAPlus tests both test about 10% of your mitochondrial DNA and the full sequence test tests all of your 16,569 mitochondrial locations.  You can then compare them with other people who have taken any of those 3 tests.  For adoptees, you’ll need the power of the full sequence test.  Pricing for the mtDNAPlus is currently $139 and the full sequence is $199.

After you receive your results, you can enter the mtDNA and mtDNAPlus portions into public data bases.  There are no public data bases for the full sequence segment because there may be medical implications in some of those mutations, so they are not displayed publicly although they are compared privately within the Family Tree DNA data base.  You will want to enter your data and check for matches at www.mitosearch.org (upload directly from your matches page at Family Tree DNA), www.smgf.org and www.ancestry.com, although beware of Ancestry’s accuracy issues.

If you match someone on either the Y-line or mitochondrial DNA, you may want to do some additional testing to see if you are closely related or if you are related back in time many generations.  The good news is that autosomal testing is what you need and there are three autosomal pools to swim in, increasing your chances of a “hit.”

Autosomal Testing – The Rest of the Story – For Both Sexes

If there was a DNA test created for adoptees, this is it.  This test can be used alone or in conjunction with the Y-line or mitochondrial DNA testing at Family Tree DNA.  They are the only lab to have this advanced matching capability.

Autosomal DNA testing tests all of your 23 pairs of chromosomes that you inherit from both of your parents.  You get half of each chromosome from each parent.  You can see this pattern on the pedigree chart, represented by all of the 16 genealogical lines.  Therefore, as you move up that tree, you should have inherited about 25% of your DNA from each grandparent, about 12.5% of your DNA from each great-grandparent, as have all of their other great-grandchildren.

So, if you were to take an autosomal test, and another one of your grandparents grandchildren tested, you would match them at some predictable percentage of your DNA.  You can see the “cheat-sheet” we use below, courtesy of the ISOGG wiki.

You can see that your grandparents other grandchildren are your first cousins, and you share approximately 12.5% of your autosomal DNA with them.  Therefore, if you match someone at 12.5%, you are either first cousins, great-grandchildren/great-grandparents or another relative with 12.5 in their “box” below, as compared to you.

adopted cheat chart

For an adoptee, this is the literal Holy Grail.  You can match someone at the 25% level, or even the 50% level.  Yes, siblings have found each other this way, although not to misset your expectations, it’s rare.  Much more common are matches at smaller percentages, but even so, if you match someone who is cooperative, it’s not too difficult to work with their pedigree chart to get some idea who your parents might be.  And even if you can’t figure that out, you know you are biologically related to them, something most adoptees have never experienced before aside from their own children.

The adoptee group and others are working on tools and standard procedures for adoptees, as there are ways to work with this information.  I have also blogged about the basics of what autosomal DNA gives you, and how to use it.

There are three testing companies that sell autosomal DNA testing.  I strongly suggest that you use all three of them, plus download your results to www.gedmatch.com and learn to use those tools, or work with someone on your behalf.

Family Tree DNA sells the Family Finder test.  Right now it is priced at $199 or bundled with attractive pricing with either the Y-line or mitochondrial DNA tests.  For adoptees, I often like to use this tool in conjunction with the Y-line and mitochondrial DNA tests to see, if you match someone closely, whether you are actually related to them in a recent timeframe or if it is further back.  Autosomal testing will pick up relationships reliably back to about the 6th or 7th generations, and sporadically beyond that.  In addition to a list of matches, you will receive your breakdown of ethnicity, by percent.  The admixture portions are improving, but just use them as a guideline, especially for percentages below 10%, and that goes for all three companies, in general.

Another company that sells autosomal testing is www.23andme.com.  In addition to a list of cousins, you also receive admixture percentages, and their specialty, health traits.  For adoptees, this may be particularly important as well.  Be aware that while people who test at Family Tree DNA are interested in genealogy, the typical person at 23andMe tested for the health portion, not the genealogy portion, and may not answer contact requests or may know very little about their family history.  However, that doesn’t negate the possibility that you may find a very close match and you’ll never know if you don’t test.  Right now, their test is $99, and you can download your results and upload them to Family Tree DNA for an additional $89, making the total price similar to the Family Tree DNA test.  However, you need to be somewhat technically savvy to complete the download/upload process.

The third company is www.ancestry.com.  Compared to either Family Tree DNA or 23andMe, their tools are sorely lacking, but they too offer a list of matches and ethnicity.  I suggest that you simply ignore their ethnicity calculations at this point in time as they are quite misleading.  The good news about Ancestry subscribers, which is who you’ll be matching, is that they too are quite interested in genealogy.  Unfortunately, you don’t have the data tools you’ll need to see how you match.  Again, that does not negate the importance of a close match, so I recommend fishing in this pool even though it certainly doesn’t stand up to either of the other two companies.  Their price fluctuates but is floating someplace around $129.  Also be aware to access the full feature set of matches including trees, you will need to subscribe to Ancestry as well in some capacity, so the test price is not the only cost involved.  Be sure to read their fine print first.

After you obtain your results from either Family Tree DNA or 23andMe, you’ll want to download your raw data results and then upload the file to www.gedmatch.com.  This is “donation” site, meaning there is no subscription or fee to use the tools, but they do appreciate donations.  Ancestry does not provide your raw data, but has stated that they will sometime in 2013.

While this suite of tools does not replace that missing information locked away in a file someplace, or worse, it does provide adoptees with hope where none may have existed before.  Various kinds of DNA testing can provide answers, and relatives, both close and distant.  You can also work with these tools with other adoptees and those who specialize in genetic genealogy to unlock those doors.

Remember, the longest journey begins with a single step.  Bon Voyage!

53 thoughts on “I’m Adopted and I Don’t Know Where to Start

  1. How many people are in each of the data banks: FTDNA, 23 and Me, Gedmatch. As always, thank you for your very valuable info.

  2. Roberta

    Thanks very much for the blueprint for adoptees. Your frank discussion concerning the three different testing groups is right on target. Fortunately I was well advised when I started with Ancestry.com for on-line searching and with FTDNA for my DNA testing. I continually meet others who have not be so well advised but now I am able to refer newbes to your discussions. Thanks very much for all that you do and share.

  3. Hi Roberta,
    I’ve seen the chart with the percentages before, but how do those values relate to the “Shared cM” and “Longest Block” values we see in our FTDNA matches? For instance, my half sister and I share 1691.2 cM and longest block is 107.09. I believe this should be around 25%, but what is it in reality? What would 100% be? Thanks

    • Lynne,
      Divide the total number of cM by 68 and you will get the approximate percentage. 1691/68 = 24.87%. That is about what you would expect for half-siblings (~25%). 100% would be about 6761 cM.
      CeCe

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  6. Thanks for posting this. I literally just purchased 3 kits from 23andme about a half hour ago…one for me, one for my hubby, and one for my stepfather who’s adopted. I figured at the price, why not get started. I will be advising my stepfather to get the maternal line test, then maybe the y-dna later on. I remembered from your APG webinars that you said the 23andme results could be imported into FTDNA and that’s what we plan to do. I also went with 23andme because I am curious about the healt aspect for me personally. I have a slightly rare condition (among several auto-immune conditions) and some of the people in my support group forum have been doing the 23andme tests…I don’t know much more than that or if thete is some sort of study or group, but I will be looking into it. Thanks again for your plain-English post and the APG webinars. Very much appreciated and I feel I have a much better understanding to make an informed descision when it comes to testing. Now reviewing and understanding the results…that’s go to be the next challenge :)

    • Hi Julie,
      H Julie, Not to butt in, but I just wanted to say as a co-admin of the Adopted Project at FTDNA that we always recommend a Y-DNA test for a male before the mtDNA test. There is a fairly good chance of identifying his genetic surname that way – about 30% according to Max Blankfeld from FTDNA. When you order the a test for him at FTDNA, please make sure to join the Adopted Project and let us know if we can be of assistance.

  7. Hi Roberta, enjoy your easy way of explaining things. Hope you can help me. I’ve had tests done by Genebase which resulted in YDNA D(M174) and MtDNA H2a2. The YDNA Hpg D is (almost) exclusively Japanese but this doesn’t make sense. I was born in Australia just after WW2 to an Australian mother and have no Asian features at all. I have no idea who my father was or anything about him, but Japanese simply does not fit. Accepted, the Hpg D may go way back, but I’d like to find out what more recent ancestral Hpg could have been. Is that possible?

    • You’re probably not going to like my answer, but the best place to test for Yline haplogroup is the Nat Geo project right now. It will give you the best resolution available in the world. Then you can transfer your results to Family Tree DNA, for free, and you can then join haplogroup projects and see who else matches you and where in the world theirm ancestors might have lived. Nat Geo will also give percentages of ethnicity. If you’re interested, you can order at http://www.genographic.com. I’d be quite interested in your outcome. It’s a very interesting puzzle indeed.

  8. Hi Roberta, Thank you for all the great information! I just used your formula from above to determine that I have a 15.18% match with a 1st cousin which is a little higher than is should be. The program has 1/2 sibling in the relationship range, with a suggested relationship of 1st cousin. I entered this maternal male 1st cousin in FTDNA with me because there was a question that we might possibly share the same father also. If we shared the same father, we would be 1/2 siblings AND 1st cousins, so I would think our match would be more than 15.18%, but I just can’t put my mind to rest on the subject. Can you tell me anything more to help set this aside once and for all?

    • Kim,

      If you were to be both half siblings and first cousins, you would share 25% of your DNA through your half-siblingship, and 12.5 through your first cousinship, for a total of 37.5. So your shared DNA would be more than 25% and probably somewhat less than 37.5%. You’re not in this range, so I would say that you are not half siblings, for sure. If you would like a second opinion, I would suggest you contact CeCe Moore or Tim Janzen. Both of them deal with these types of things on a regular basis as well.

      Roberta

  9. Hi,
    I am so glad to have found your blog; I am definitely a newb to all of this. I recently got DNA results back from Ancestry.com (waste of time/money IMO) and have my health profile back from 23andme, but awaiting Relative Finder and ancestry results.

    I plan to also submit DNA to Family Tree DNA (thanks to you and this blog), but wasn’t sure if I should purchase the Family Finder Testing package or the Full mT DNA Testing package.

    I am a female adoptee that was found on the streets of Yeongdeungpo, South Korea in October 1973. I have pursued many avenues in my search such as utilizing social networking and online media (blog, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc.), been in newspapers as well as on radio and TV and I’ve compared DNA with two individuals who came forward (but there was no match). You can read about my search at: http://redpantsnoshoes.com

    Thank you in advance for your guidance!

    Sincerely,
    Yung Hee KIM

    • Purchase the full mtdna testing package. You don’t need the Family Finder package because the 23andMe or Ancestry transfer will take care of that. You only need to transfer one of them and they are equivalent in terms of what FTDNA needs.

      • Do you know which labs/companies do DNA testing for separated families/adoption in South Korea?

        Thanks,
        YM

      • Hi Roberta,
        Thank you for your quick reply and direction. I have gone ahead and ordered the full mtDNA kit from FamilyTree :)

        Also, I’m in a Korean adoptee group on Facebook specifically for sharing/discussing DNA testing and have been spreading the word about this blog.

        Really appreciate that you are making this kind of information accessible for us.

        Warm regards,
        Yung Hee

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  12. My wife was adopted, she died at age 46. Our two children believe that their grandma(wife’s mother) younger sister is really their mothers mom. How do we find out. Where do we start

    • Is the younger sister still alive and will she DNA test? If not, does she have children that will? If so, your children need to test and either the sister or her children and if you are related at the correct level, then the theory is true. You will need the autosomal test and I suggest the one at http://www.familytreedna.com. Your children and her children can also take the mitochondrial DNA test to see if they match too.

  13. Hello Miss Roberta, my name is Claudia Cardenas from Houston, Tx and according to my fake birth certificate I am 29 yrs. old. I was brought to the USA from Guerrero, Mexico at a very young age. The date on the visa says at age 5 and been here since. I am very coccasian looking always have been mistaken for a white girl but all my family is short and dark skinned. I always knew I was not blood related to any of them, the difference is clear. I have asked over and over about my biological parents but never get a clear answer. This is killing me, I need peace of mind. Where do I start?

    • Begin with both a mitochondrial DNA test and an autosomal test. You can take both at Family Tree DNA. You can then also test autosomally at two other labs to see who you match in their pools. 23andMe and Ancestry.com. Best of luck. If your mother will test, it will be immediately evident if she is your parent. If she won’t test, then I’d say you have your answer, at least about that part of the question.

    • Even before you test your DNA, any adoptee search angel will recommend you put together all the information you have, amended birth certificate, any non-identifying information, stories you’ve been told. Anything that can give clues to your ancestry. A traditional adoptee search should be approached first. If nothing comes from that, then DNA is an avenue you can take. But I have to disagree on spending money on an mtDNA test. In all the years I have helped adoptees, there was only one search I know of where mtDNA came into play and it was only because of an unusual specific ethnicity involved. mtDNA is usually too ancient to find recent connections in one’s genealogical history. The autosomal test at 23andMe would be the first test I would recommend (it will also give you your mtDNA haplogroup), and then a transfer of the DNA raw data to FTDNA Family Finder. You might also consider doing your atDNA at AncestryDNA. Fishing in multiple ponds can be well worth it. See http://www.dnaadoption.com for more information.

      Karin Corbeil
      Project Admin – FTDNA Global Adoptee Genealogical Project

      • Hi Karin,

        Her mtdna and that of her mother can be tested for $49 each at Family Tree DNA which will answer her question immediately. Also, it will give her an ethnicity which, given that she was born out side the US, is an important key.

        Roberta

  14. True, but why pay for 2 tests when she will get her mtDNA haplogroup at 23andMe? She won’t get mtDNA matching at 23andMe, but her haplogroup will tell if it might be worthwhile (due to ethnic considerations, etc…) to take a HVR1/HVR2 or FMS mtDNA matching test at FTDNA. No need to go out and buy the cow initially when the hamburger might satisfy your needs. I’ve seen too many adoptees spend literally $1,000s on unnecessary DNA tests. Take it one step at a time and certainly do additional testing if necessary.

    Karin Corbeil

    • Well, my thought was that if she matches her “mother” that she wouldn’t need any other tests at all and she has a positive answer for $100 total. To test her and her mother autosomally is a minimum of $200 regardless of where they test.

    • Wow! that is a lot of information. I left out a very important info. both my parents who raised me are deceased. I’ve been told stories that my birth mother could possibly be in California. My question is, if I go with the autosomal dna test and my birth mother is in fact in the US and has born children here, is it possible to tract any of them and will I have access to that information?

      • Who has tested and who you match has a lot to do with how successful you will be in tracking down your parents. Is it possible? Yes. Is it a sure thing? Absolutely not. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it worthwhile? You’ll have to decide for yourself. But you’ll never know if you don’t test.

  15. Afternoon.

    I am a male adoptee, who is simply looking for any information about my biological parent. And, of course, information about health and ethnicity would be welcomed. I am interested in trying out the tests on http://www.familytreedna.com, but frankly the list of possible tests is long and I am a graduate student with limited funds. The ‘family finder’ test seems to be the recommend option in this case, but the Y-DNA was also recommended above.

    If someone could just offer a recommendation and a hint at what kind of information I might get back, I wold be very appreciative.

    Also I am unclear about what is involved in the adoption project at http://www.familytreedna.com.

    I think because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I am just having a hard time following the discussions here.

    Much obliged.
    -scott.

    • Your Y chromosome tracks your father’s line directly. About 30% of the time, with enough markers, meaning generally 37 or 67, we can tell the biological surname. That’s the Yline test.

      The autosomal Family Finder test shows you cousins across all of your lines. Sometimes you get luck and you find a sibling or half sibling.

      You can also test at 23andMe and then transfer your autosomal results to FTDNA for $69 and that way you stand twice the chance by fishing in two pools of finding a close relative.

      The adoption group at ftdna was set up initially because adopted couldn’t be in surname groups and there was special group pricing.

      The adoption resources listed in the blog will help you through the process. Join the message groups and track along for awhile if you want to. There are many “search angels” who help people and have a lot of experience doing so, both with the genetic aspect and the paperwork and law aspect as well.

      Best of luck to you.

  16. One more question that is stopping me from purchasing one of these kits. I am curious what kind of privacy I can expect when dealing with these companies? It seems that most of them have some rights to your DNA, and while I see no imminent threat the future looks to be a scary place.

    Thanks.
    -scott,

  17. Very interesting article I am seriously considering saving up for the full mtDNA test. I was an abandoned baby one of the many that were left in public places in the hope that they would be taken in, in Hong Kong during the late fifties, early sixties a terrible time socially and economically for the indigneous people of Hong Kong plus the many refugees from Mainland China. at least when I have had this test done I might know more about where I originate from

  18. I’m very surprised to read all the referrals to familytreedna. I had my son tested at 23andme and familytreedna. I got over 700 hits at 23andme and 49 hits at familytreedna. My son is half Asian. I’m still waiting for that first Asian hit at familytreedna. I have a couple hundred Asian hits at 23andme.

    • How many of those 700 hits have accepted communication with you and are sharing their DNA? In my case, after sending invitation messages to all of my matches, about 10% actually reply and share.

  19. I am an adopted male and knows nothing about my birth parents. I am not interested in knowing them or any relatives. I would like to know a medical history and ethnic background. What route should I take?

  20. Can someone tell me. If you get a DNA test, can they break it down if you’re Asian? I’ve gotten results that I’m East Asian but I want to know more specifics (ie. am I Chinese, Japanese, Korean?) Has anyone had experience with this?

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  22. There was really no issues that I had with the information presented except when you stated that people claim to be American Indian in favor of claiming to be African American. That statement sounds derogatory and racist. Implying that people of color should be ashamed of themselves and their heritage. History has proven that Caucasian men slept with every race of people and created mixed breeds. Other races procreate with each other as well so please be careful making those types of statements.

    • Hi, I just wanted to say that I am sure that Roberta didn’t mean to imply that people of color should be ashamed of their ancestral heritage. In fact, she is an expert in researching Native American ancestry and if you read more of her blog posts, you will see that she cherishes her own minority admixture from Native Americans AND Sub Saharan Africans.

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