4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the different “kinds” of DNA and how they can be used for genetic genealogy.

It used to be simple.  When this “industry” first started, in the year 2000, you could test two kinds of DNA and it was straightforward.  Now we’ve added more DNA, more tools and more testing companies and it’s not quite so straightforward anymore.

Here’s a basics primer.

1. Y-line DNA – tests the Y chromosome which is passed from father to son, along, in most cases, with the surname.  Only men can test for this, because only men have a Y chromosome, leaving female genealogists with Y chromosome envy, having to go and beg their fathers, brothers, uncles and male cousins to test for the surnames in question.  We compare the results of the Y chromosome test between males to see if they match and are related in a genealogical timeframe.  We also obtain the haplogroup which defines deep ancestry, such as European, African, Asian or Native American.  Surname, haplogroup and other interest projects (such as Acadian, American Indian, Cumberland Gap, etc.) exist for both Y-line and mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA.  These projects are indispensable for both genealogy and genetic genealogy research.  Family Tree DNA is currently the only testing company that offers this these tests.

2. Mitochondrial DNA – is passed from mothers to both genders of her children, but only passed on by females.  Males carry their mother’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) but they don’t pass it on.  We compare mutations to see of people share an ancestor in a genealogical timeframe, but because the surname changes in every generation, it’s more difficult genealogically to make the connections.  The lack of a central data base prevents people from being able to determine if others from the same genetic line have already tested.  For Y-line, surname projects and surname matches provide this function.  Mitochondrial DNA testing also provides a haplogroup which defines deep ancestry, such as European, African, Asian or Native American.  Family Tree DNA is the only commercial company to offer full sequence testing which is sometimes necessary to determine whether a match is really genealogically relevant.  When testing the HVR1 or HVR1 and HVR2 regions only, meaning the participant did not purchase the full sequence test, Family Tree DNA doesn’t just “estimate” haplogroups, but runs a panel of 22 SNPs to accurately assign a haplogroup for the participant.

The paths of inheritance for both the Y-line, blue, and the mitochondrial DNA, red, are shown below.  If you’d like more specific information about how this works, with some examples, you can download the paper, DNA Testing for Genealogy – the Basics, from my website, www.dnaexplain.com under the Publications tab.

3. Autosomal DNA – tests the rest of the DNA provided by both parents on the 23 chromosomes, not just two direct lines, as with Y-line and mitochondrial DNA.  Older tests of this type tested between 21 and about 300 markers, but current generation testing provided by Family Tree DNA (Family Finder test), 23andMe and AncestryDNA test use about 700,000 locations and are in an entirely different category in terms of their usefulness and accuracy to genealogists.  These tests provide a list of cousins from all of your lines, but it’s up to you to figure out how these cousins are related to you.  The testing companies provide different tools to help in this quest.  All three companies provide the ability to download your raw data results so that you can do further analysis personally and by using several online tools, the most popular being GedMatch.  AncestryDNA, the autosomal test through Ancestry.com, is deficient in  matching tools, providing no chromosome mapping or comparison capabilities, leaving customers significantly in the dark as compared to the tools at Family Tree DNA,  23andMe and GedMatch.  Autosomal tests also provide an estimate of percentages of ethnicity.  In 2015, 23andMe began a process of redesigning their website and products to go along with their new FDA compliance and focus on selling DNA to medical research partners, to the detriment of genetic genealogy.  Previously existing features are gone and the price has doubled, effectively removing 23andMe as a viable player in the genetic genealogy arena.

The inheritance paths for autosomal DNA are shown below.  You can see that this includes all of the various ancestral lines, including the lines that contribute the Y-line and mitochondrial, but those are separate and different tests providing different kinds of information.

4. The X Chromosome – has special inheritance properties that allow people to use these results separately from the rest of the autosomal results, although the X chromosome is a part of the 23 sets of chromosomes used for autosomal testing.  The inheritance paths are different for males and females, because males only inherit an X chromosome from their mother (and a Y from their father which makes them male), but women inherit an X from both of their parents.  I show these charts and discuss how to use the X Chromosome for genealogy, giving two examples, in my blog posting, X Marks the Spot.  The best way to functionally use the X information is to diagram your family lines that contributed to your X chromosome using your pedigree chart and Blaine Bettinger’s charts, found in my blog (and his previously) and upload your results to www.GedMatch.com.  GedMatch provides X chromosomal matching utilities along with lots of other DNA analysis and comparison tools.  GedMatch is free, but donations are encouraged and appreciated.


Standard Disclosure

This standard disclosure appears at the bottom of every article in compliance with the FTC Guidelines.

Hot links are provided to Family Tree DNA, where appropriate. If you wish to purchase one of their products, and you click through one of the links in an article to Family Tree DNA, or on the sidebar of this blog, I receive a small contribution if you make a purchase. Clicking through the link does not affect the price you pay. This affiliate relationship helps to keep this publication, with more than 900 articles about all aspects of genetic genealogy, free for everyone.

I do not accept sponsorship for this blog, nor do I write paid articles, nor do I accept contributions of any type from any vendor in order to review any product, etc. In fact, I pay a premium price to prevent ads from appearing on this blog.

When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received. In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

I will never link to a product about which I have reservations or qualms, either about the product or about the company offering the product. I only recommend products that I use myself and bring value to the genetic genealogy community. If you wonder why there aren’t more links, that’s why and that’s my commitment to you.

Thank you for your readership, your ongoing support and for purchasing through the affiliate link if you are interested in making a purchase at Family Tree DNA, or one of the affiliate links below:

Affiliate links are limited to:

211 thoughts on “4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy

  1. Pingback: Acadian AmerIndian Ancestry Project | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  2. Hello,

    My mother, brother, husband and I have tested on 23andme. My husnand and I have recently tested on Ancestry.com. Both tests reflect Native American back about 5 generations for my brother and I. My husband’s further back.

    Do We have to test on FTDNA also? Some surnames are Lucas-Locust, Roberts, Archer, Newsome, Bunch, etc. From Robeson, Wilson and Nash Counties. Some moved to OH and IN in the early 1800’s.

    Thank you so much.

    Gigi Best

  3. Nine years ago I did a basic Mitochondrial dna test for National Genographic project, and I did upload to Family Tree DNA. I am very much a lay person to all of this, so bear with me. My goal as a female is to find female relatives who have also tested, so what are my goals for testing further (What type of tests can I expect to order?) Also will the testing be done on my old sample if I order through FT DNA? This is all so fascinating, and I want to weigh smart financial investment with getting questions answered regarding genetic lineage.

    • My understanding is that if you tested through the earlier Geno project, you can update your results from that sample. If not, the worst that happens is that they send you a new kit. Some older samples aren’t viable anyway.

      You can do two three things. One is to update your mtDNA to full sequence. You may find other females relatives in a genealogy timeframe, or maybe not. It depends on who has tested. You can also take the Family Finder test which shows relatives on all sides. It’s up to you to pare them down to the matrilineal line. To help with that, if there is anyone in your family who also descends from the matrilineal line, test them as well. Any reasonable sized matches you have in common would (probably) come from that common ancestor, AND if you match a third person on that same segment, it’s then triangulated.

  4. Shalom , For several years I have been walking around the lake looking into the water wondering what it will feel like to jump into the deep. I never really like wading pools.. So when I go I like to go all the way. My father as much as we know is of Cherokee born 1920 south Texas and My mother aleut, unalaska alaska, I want to know for our sons and grandchildren who we are and where did they come from, not like myself a face without a past. Thank you for what you have provided. Will you offer some direction?

  5. I did my DNA about 15 years ago with you and now, you are doing it again. I am seeking my Mother’s fathers line which is Native Canadian. Will this be included in my DNA testing? Without a willing male relative, how can I access my Mom’s Dad’s line? I do have her hair…but again, would that show anything of her father?

    • “With me.” Nope, not with me. I’m not a testing company. Your mother’s father’s direct Y line is not reflected in her DNA. Your mother’s DNA does reflect some of her father’s heritage, just not his Y DNA. You carry some of your mother’s father’s DNA too – autosomal. You can take an autosomal test to see who you match and how much Native you carry. At Family Tree DNA, the name of the autosomal test is the Family Finder test and you can join the Native American project as you search.

  6. Im wondering what test I should take. I’m still a little confused. I want to find out if the woman I believe to be my sister is truly my sister. If we are we share the same father. Please advise.

  7. what is my best route to take my father was 3/4 native American and his father full blooded native American chief of a tribe and I’m a women. I took a dna test at ancestry but this test doesn’t tell me about my fathers side with the native American. Or does it and I’m not reading it right. Should I do testing somewhere else. What to do? Help!! Thanks.

  8. I have always been told that I was Scotch, Irish, Welsh and French. Ran my DNA with Ancestry and it came back with these 4 at 48%, and also came back with 52% European Jewish. Quite a shock. Even a different ethnicity. So am I Jewish? Could there be a mistake? I’ve always been interested in the Jewish people.

    • There isn’t a 10 and 164 notation scientifically. You must be referring to how someone is using this as a notation.

  9. Firstly, and most importantly, thank you Roberta for educating us all on such an important tool in a genealogists kit. You efforts are much appreciated by me and I would expect many others.

    As a beginner to this at age 77 and a n age pensioner, I have limited funds to spend so would like your recommendation as to where to start. I am married so do I do both at a lower level or one at a higher level? I have my daughter and son-in-law giving me the finances as birthday and Christmas presents (rather than socks 🙂 ).


    • That answer depends in your goals and where your ancestors are from. You’ll learn a lot about specific lines if you do the Y or MtDNA , but you’ll get lots of matches to work with if you do the autosomal. Some men do both the Y and autosomal. There are typically great deals everyplace in Black Friday.

      • My ancestors are all from GB as are my mother-in-law’s ancestors. However my father-in-law side is, on the male line, German. I have fairly strong lines in all areas except the German and pre-1800 Scottish and Irish. Both my wife and I have ancestors in South Australia going back to mid 1800’s.

  10. Pingback: Concepts – Paternal vs Patrilineal and Maternal vs Matrilineal | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  11. Hi Roberta
    Thanks for all the information here. I still can’t seem to find the proper test for this situation:
    Walter’s son had a son named Max. Walter also had a sister who had a son named John. Max and John are both alive and their DNA can be tested. Can an autosomal DNA Test prove that Walter is both Max’ grandfather and John’s uncle?


    • Do you mean that he is that exact relationship to them, or do you mean that there is not a NPE in the line?

      • Probably both… It is possible that Max’ grandfather was not Walter, but someone else (NPE). As there are no other sources at all I wondered if DNA testing could help to confirm that Max and John are related as described and therefore Walter is indeed Max’ grandfather.

  12. I have a friend (female) who was adopted thru a sealed Catholic service, which will not release any information. My friend is 75. For some reason she has been able to figure out who her mother was but not any idea on her father. I’d love to purchase her a DNA test but have no idea which would give her the most information. Your help would be appreciated.

    • My recommendation would be to purchase two. First, the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. They have advanced tools. Here’s the link for the Family Finder test and it’s still on sale now: https://bit.ly/2A3vnmf

      Then, purchase the Ancestry.com DNA test. They have the largest database, but not the advanced tools.

      Then, she can upload the test from Family Tree DNA to MyHeritage as those tests are completely compatible. She can upload either test to GedMatch and she will receive matches from all sources.

      I also recommend that you or she contact http://www.dnaadoption.com as they provide training (free or low cost) and search angels (free) to help her.

  13. I’m in the stages of trying to figure out which tests to take and what to do with the results. I’ve read and reread your blogs – very informative. But as expected, the number of DNA labs that test for genealogy purposes has proliferated. A very recent review (https://www.topconsumerreviews.com/dna-testing/detailed-reviews.php) shows several more options.
    my heritage
    living DNA
    live well testing (medical)
    family tree DNA
    american screening corp
    home DNA

    According to this very recent review 23andme comes out on top. Have they improved that much over the years? Do you have any comments on the pool of testing services? It would have been nice if the review had presented a table showing a comparison of prices and services in addition to the reviews.

      • Yes, I’ve read and reread your page with comparisons. Great information and reviews! But with several other “players” in the arena I wanted to know if you’ve had a chance to review/look at any of them and provide comments or feedback.

        • I would stay with the main players. The only one that has changed fundamentally since then is MyHeritage with new features. There are a lot trying to climb on the bandwagon for $$$

  14. Hi Roberta,
    Thank you for the in-depth reviews of the DNA testing services and options. Great information!
    DNA testing services have proliferated in recent years. Now there are several new players in the field of DNA testing. A very recent review of the subject (https://www.topconsumerreviews.com/dna-testing/detailed-reviews.php) reveals several additional testing services now. Here’s a list from that review.

    Ancestry DNA
    My Heritage
    Living DNA (UK based – has extensive UK database)
    Live Well Testing (+ medical)
    Family Tree DNA
    American Screening Corporation
    Home DNA

    It would have been really nice if the reviewer had compiled the prices and features into a table for easy comparison.

    Do you have any comments on these, or recommendations?

  15. If you only test on one site, you will miss some cousins. If you are serious about using DNA testing to find the most cousins, you must test on all sites (Big 5 for now) or upload your raw DNA if allowed and that is usually cheaper than taking their test. You must also upload to gedmatch.com.

  16. I forgot to also mention that you should get all your siblings (male and female) to also test on all the sites because sometimes 2 of my sisters, a brother, and 2 daughters match my shared matches and sometimes only one or two of them match other DNA matches but I’m not a match because we all inherit random DNA from our parents.

  17. Hello. I have a question and I am hoping that you can point me in the right direction. It’s been one that’s been bothering me for years now. My question is this, my grandmothers were sisters and my parents each born to one of them in which back in the day they married and bore me. What I would like to know is how much of my grandmothers dna do I now have since they were sisters and my parents were first cousins? How do I find that out? I ask this question because it seems that on my grandmothers side they carried many autoimmune diseases and other pregenetic ailments of which I am now predisposed to. Is there any way you can help with this?

  18. My mother and her brother were both born Estes. Her brother, who is my uncle, is going to take the Y-DNA test. My father, and hence my line is Wilkinson. Which test would I take to show a relationship to my uncle?

      • Since my mother has already passed, I assume taking the MT-DNA test would be futile unless I could find a good DNA sample from her (back of a stamp?). Am I correct in this assumption?

  19. Help! My father’s (Y-67) Y-DNA results from Family Tree DNA show that nearly 100% of his Y-DNA matches are in Ireland (and some Scottish), as well as the eastern US. This was an expected result since we have historical records showing his ancestor disembarking in the US from Ireland in the 1750’s. The results also showed he has DNA attributed to descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, proof that his family had lived in Ireland since the the 5th century.

    HOWEVER, Family Tree’s own Family Finder autosomal DNA results say that he has 0% British Isles ancestry. How can this be, based on the above Y-DNA results? Family Finder’s says that he is 89% West/Central European and 11% Scandinavian (the latter of which was also a shock, because I know it did not come from his mother’s side).

    Thank you for taking the time to at least guide me in the right direction to solve the “How can he be Irish but not?” mystery!

  20. Hi Roberta,

    I have read your treatises on ethnicity vis a vis the testing services. Thank you for all your effort with those. I get that it can be fool’s gold to hold ethnicity results as “The Truth”. But mine are so very different on Ancestry and FTDNA that I mistrust one or both.

    I discovered at age 70 that the man I thought was my father was not. Paternal matches on Ancestry are very (Volga) German. (My mother’s information was quite genealogically accurate, by the way.) But I’m struggling trying to wrap my head around the difference between my Ancestry.com and FTDNA.com autosomal results. Ancestry has, accurately I believe, given me 50% Eastern Europe (mother…Poland, Pomerania) and 31% Germanic Europe (also seems accurate for German surprise father). FTDNA has me at 51% East Europe (good match to Ancestry) and 40% British Isles (no known ancestors from the British Isles)!

    Since the difference is rather significant, I assume that one of the sites is seemingly quite wrong. I did take the Y-37 test that showed one -37 match who is German. (We spoke. I could find no genealogical link to him.)

    Help, please. What am I to make of this?


    • Remember that ethnicity is only accurate AT THE CONTINENTAL LEVEL. Europe is smaller than the US so please, please don’t obsess about this. It’s like trying to differentiate between people living in Illinois and Indiana.

  21. Pingback: Jane “Jenny” Dobkins (c1780-c1860), Roots 58 Years Deep – 52 Ancestors #232 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  22. Pingback: DNA Day Sale at Family Tree DNA | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  23. Pingback: Father’s Day DNA Sale + New Y DNA Series | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

Leave a Reply