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 http://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.


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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 850 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.

174 thoughts on “4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy

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  7. this article was written in 2012, but I just completed my test with AncestryDNA (2015) and the raw chromosome results I received (after downloading to FtDNA and GEDmatch) includes X chromosome segment matches. Can I assume that this means that AncestryDNA now includes this in their tests? The most interesting thing about my results in general is that there are a dozen or so names in there of Russian origin although I had no DNA identified as coming from that region, I have matches, including the X chromosome, with several that appear to have both Russian and Finnish ancestry (a regional grouping on AncestryDNA).

      • I, too, noticed that my AncestryDNA test (taken this year) included 25 chromosome segment matches, which I presume must include my X (chr. 24) and Y (chr. 25) chromosomes. (The segments included for chromosomes 24 and 25 number only in the hundreds, compared to the other segments which number thousands per chromosome)
        Can these Y chromosome segment matches from AncestryDNA be mapped to FTDNA’s Y-DNA test, and/or into GEDMatch.com for Y-DNA testing? All that Ancestry provides is an RS number and length for each segment, they don’t identify them using the DYS coding.

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  9. I want to find if I have cherokee in my lineage, I have been told that I do on both my mother and father. Is there a dna test that can shoe me this?

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  13. I have tested with Ancestry.com and received the results. Amazing discoveries about Native American heritage, Irish, European West, etc. As a result, I am hooked and now trying to learn more about DNA and genealogy in general. I most recently tested with National Geographic and am awaiting those results. Question: Is the Family Tree DNA test the same or different than Nat Geo’s?

  14. I am related to a woman through two lines, 3rd cousins on one and 5th cousins on the other. I show a dna match to her but I do not show a dna match to either of this woman’s daughters or her daughters’ children. Is this possible?

  15. Hi

    Can you give me some help on the best way my Grandmother can find out who her father wae. She is 87 years old and her mother (my Great Grandmother) never told her who her real father was (my Great Grandfather). She basically told her it wasn’t her place to know and took this info to her grave! My Grandmother has always wanted to know who he was and of course if she has any other family connected to her but without any info at all, the only chance she has is potentially through DNA. My Grandmother is still alive and I have spent months trailing through forums and help articles and cannot seem to get the answer I am looking for. All I need to know is if my Grandmother provided a saliva/blood sample, is there even a slight chance that we could find out who he was? I appreciate he will be dead however maybe if he had a family, could DNA link us to them? I am desperate to find this out as my family tree will never be completed until I know this and just want to at least try and find out. I know its a very long shot but as a desperate 35 year old I would love to give my Grandmother this before she is taken from us. Any help or guidance would be very very very much appreciated as I am so confused as to where to start.

    Thank you

  16. I have a problem similar to Wendy’s. I’ve been tested at both FTDNA (Y-67 and mtDNA). I had my mother (who is 96) take the Autosomal test at Ancestry, and I likewise had an Autosomal test at Ancestry. The results are confusing, leading me to believe that my “German” great, great grandfather on the maternal side either wasn’t German (or who he said he was) or, more likely, he wasn’t the father of my maternal grandmother, my mother’s mother. Which of the FTDNA tests should I have my mother take so that we could try to solve this mystery? Roberta, your site and blog are hugely educational and entertaining – thank you for your commitment to this work!

    • I hope you’re not using ethnicity results to reach that conclusion. If you want some professional help with this, I can do a referral. The mystery will be solved by who you match that is descended from that great-great-grandfather. If you haven’t had the Family Finder test done on your mother at FTDNA, order that too. You want her autosomal results to be in both data bases.

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  18. My son took both the Y-DNA (67 plus special markers) and the full mt-DNA test at Family Tree DNA. He did not take the Family Finder test. It is the mt-DNA test that concerns this email. I understand the difference between mt-DNA and the x chromosome and how each are transferred to descendants. What I really want to know is how Family Tree DNA is giving my son exact mt-DNA matches from people who only took the Family Finder test?

      • I was blind. The people who match took both the mt-DNA and Family Finder tests.
        My aunt’s and my Family Finder tests came back. What a mess! My genealogy research is most likely correct that my mother’s and father’s families shares two or three ancestors in Colonial Virginia. The trick is trying to prove these particular lines coincide. I would have thought these lines too old to be picked up by the Family Finder tests, so there might be a match somewhere else I have not been able to find in genealogy research. My aunt on my mother’s side has matches with my cousin on my father’s side, but not huge matches. I am trying triangulation with matches, and matches of known family members who have tested. This is giving me a headache, and is beyond hair pulling!
        My aunt and I do have matches with people who claim in their trees to have Dodson relatives. The match may not be Dodson.

        I have a couple of genetically related questions.

        I thought I would have a decent match with anyone in USA with my father’s distinctive surname. I do have a match with an unknown person with this surname, but the match is small at 5cM. I moved to the 1cM marker, and there were many, many small matches all over the chart. Since this family came early to Colonial Virginia, do these many small matches mean our lines diverged a long time ago, and the DNA has been lost over the generations? Or, does this mean something else? And, no, I am not going to pay for testing my male cousin’s Y-DNA, as that is beyond my means.

        The ethnic grouping of my test changed a bit from my sons. His had said 7% North African and Middle Eastern. Mine says 1% eastern African and 6% Turkey. This is most likely coming in through Native American lines. I discovered people who are/were Native American share the mt-DNA of my son and I. This mt-DNA is of European origin. My son’s Y-DNA is European in the R1b1 WAMH group. We also have Family Finder matches. According to what I have read, Native American people have a distinctive haplotype, yet we have people who look Native American and claim this ethnic group, who have European DNA. My son and I easily tan as dark as the Native Americans if we are out in the sun in the summer, but our tan fades in the winter. My daughter is a very fair blond, and we all have the blue eyes. We seem to have a mix. We do not have known African or Middle Eastern ancestors, but we do have suspected Native American ancestors I realize there is a lot of DNA we inherit that is not mt-DNA or Y-DNA, but I would like you to clarify this results. I am starting to realize my mt-DNA runs through Oklahoma, and Native American tribes. Not having the distinctive Native American haplotype is unfair to people who have considered themselves Native Americans all their lives.

      • At 1 cM, most of the matches are going to be noise and there is really no way to tell the difference, unfortunately. There are only 3 ways to identify a Native ancestor or line. The first two are Y and mtDNA, the third is to find a segment that you match a group of people who have a confirmed proven Native ancestor on, and you match them on that same segment. That still doesn’t mean your ancestor comes from that tribe, but it does mean that it’s probably Native. At that point, I would check the chromosome painting for that segment at GedMatch to be sure, because it’s possible that you are matching those Native people on a segment from common European ancestors, not Native ancestors.

      • “. There are only 3 ways to identify a Native ancestor or line. The first two are Y and mtDNA, the third is to find a segment that you match a group of people who have a confirmed proven Native ancestor on,”

        I do not necessarily care if I have one or more Native American ancestors. I have been around many Native Americans in my life, and they are just people. My cousins may want to pursue this line of DNA research. I am more concerned about finding out if this is where some of my brick walls in genealogical research originate. I may eventually get around to doing as you suggest, but I may need help from my cousins as I do not have the funds to pay for much more testing, nor do I have the energy to sort through the results. I have one more Family Finder kit I bought to test one of my husband’s siblings. We will see if that person also matches my aunt, with not a huge match, as I predict will happen. I am trying to confirm my genealogy research with DNA results. It is going well, but confusing and a bit upsetting.

        Thank you for your help. Keep writing!

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  20. Do The Genographic Project – Geno 2.0 NG and an FTDNA – Family Finder – MyOrigins Autosomal DNA Ethnic Group use a same resolutions level? My Cousin’s Geno 2.0 NG Autosomal DNA Results (56% Southeast Asian and Oceanian + 44% Eastern Asian) were exacly same with His FTDNA FF MyOrigins (transferred from Geno 2.0 NG): 56% Southeast Asian + 44% Northeast Asian. It’s enough for me to take an FTDNA FF MyOrigins to compare my Ethnic Groups Percentage with My Cousin’s Geno 2.0 NG + FTDNA FF? From FF, they found a relationships about my Cousin’s and I (Half Siblings, 1st Cousins, Nephew and Niece).

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  27. If I don’t know my father or anything about him – where he migrated from, his native country or name (my mother could not pronounce it) and I want to learn about my geneology & family lineage, what specific DNA tests should I have done?

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  30. I am a 67 year old female, and would a DNA test tell me where my father’s family came from? I was told English Irish. Is it possible to find out and is it expensive? I am on limited SS.

    • The Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA is $79. It will give you an ethnicity estimate. However, all of the companies, FTDNA includes, have difficulty sorting one part of Europe from another. After all, people from continental Europe moved from place to place and settled the British Isles. You might do better to work the genealogy aspect of your genealogy. However, if you do the $79 Family Finder test, you also get cousin matches which can help you with the genealogy as well.

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      • I also took BigY from FTDNA. But, my results weren’t unique at all. From BigY version, my Y DNA were belong to Haplogroup O-CTS11856, or Y DNA Hg O-CTS5492 from my Geno 2,0 version. Maybe my Mother’s Father / My Maternal Grandfather’s Y DNA Hg O-CTS4960 were more usefull then my Y DNA O-CTS5492.

  33. I want to trace my father’s line. I have no male relatives to test. Does this mean I’ll never be able to trace my paternal side?

  34. I have a half cousin that we believe is really a full cousin. With this test tell us if we have the same grandfather?

    • There are two tests that have that potential, depending on how you are related. The Y test if you are both males and descend from a common surname male, assuming the question is on the paternal side. Otherwise, the Family Finder test, but you’ll need to know how to compare the results for that information. I also do Quick Consults to help.

  35. I have explored my paternal grandmother’s maternal side and supposedly that side is supposed to have native american but cannot find any records to support this. Now I am looking on my grandmother’s maternal paternal side and i believe that it is there….what kind of test can i have my Dad’s sister take to even prove this route i want to explore?

  36. I received recently mi DNA results from ancestry and are very interesting. What s your opinión about National Geographic dna test?.Thanks for your publication,quite important.

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  39. I do not know who my biological father was. My mother knew his name only and was able to tell me that he had dark hair, dark eyes and looked to be Polynesian or part Asian or islander in some way.
    I was told that I have his features. I have dark hair and eyes, tan easily, and my baby/childhood pictures look strongly of an Asian baby/child. I took the anstry DNA test in hopes of finding his ethnicity or a relative that was related to him. I’ve had no luck. My results showed trace other regions, and mostly European ethnicity. But nothing giving me a real clue to my father’s ethnicity. Could it be that his ethnicity came solely from his father’s bloodline? Or am I understanding it wrong?

    • Your father’s Y DNA came from his father’s line. His mtDNA came from his mother’s line. But the commercial ethnicity tests test not those 2 types of DNA, but autosomal, which comes from all of the ancestral lines.

  40. Does an Autosomal DNA Testing like The Geno 2.0, Geno 2.0 NG – Geno 2.0 NG Helix, an FTDNA – MyOrigins 2.0, MyHeritage, Ancestry.com, 23andme,…..etc were more represant to these physical appearance to their participants? The people around me always make me annoy including some of my families and even my Cousin’s from my Mother’s side. Miss Roberta, maybe do you can give me a suggest to handle those ignorant peoples around me?

    • All of the different kinds of DNA combined are involved with appearance. Different trait are from a combination of genes. None of the companies show traits like that. The best I could suggest would be to upload raw data to Promethease which is a health side and gives you some physical information like an estimated eye color.

      As for ignorant people, ignore them. That’s the Mom in me talking. There will always be ignorant people in this world and you just be your wonderful self, in spite of them. Smile at them, it confuses them and makes them really curious what you know:)

  41. This was a great article. I think I learned something about DNA testing in general. Although the author appears to lean a little bit to Family Tree DNA, but I think that it is based on facts, as demonstrated. I’ve never done any DNA tests and I am ready to do it. I am leaning to Family Tree DNA because they do not sell your information. But then again I will only have a one sided version of my DNA test results. C’est la vie.
    At any rate, I want to do my test in one big bang. Looks like Family Tree DNA, for $556.00 offers what they called

    “Comprehensive Genome
    Family Finder, plus a male specific Y-chromosome test and a Full Mitochondrial Sequence”

    I just want to make sure that I do not miss anything else. I don’t want to have to come back for more tests. BTW, I am male, in case that this matter.
    I am basically seeking the favor of your opinion about this. Would I need any other test?

    I am also worried about how the vendor determines ancestry and family lineage. I am Latin from the Caribbean, living in the USA. A large number of Latin people are very well mixed, ethnically speaking. I don’t know how accurate the information provided will be. This is one reason why I have not done this yet. I have been thinking that these tests are more relevant to group of people with little “mix”, such as African American, Caucasian, Jewish, Orientals and others. What’s your opinion about this?

    Thank you


    • The Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA lineages are straightforward to determine. The ethnicity is more difficult. If you want to do the whole shot at once, order the Y 111, the full sequence mtDNA and Family Finder. After the results are back, if you wish, you can then order the Big Y for Y DNA, but you need to have results first.

  42. What effect, if any, does blood transfusions have on ones DNA test? I presume it depends on the time between the transfusion and the DNA testing.

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  46. Several years ago I took the National Geographic DNA test. When I received the results I somehow linked to another website that showed I had the same haplogroup as a small percentage of Ashkenazi Jews. Is there a genetic test I can take to give me more information about my possible Jewish roots? I am a female. My mother’s parents were Lithuanian. Thank you.

    • You can take the autosomal test that provides you with an estimate of your ethnicity that includes Jewish heritage. At Family Tree DNA, that test is Family Finder and it’s on sale now. The link is on the sidebar.

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