Let’s talk 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. But’s it’s a LOT better for genealogists.
Four Kinds of DNA
There are 4 different kinds of DNA that genealogists can use to provide information about our ancestors.
1. Y DNA for males only – Family Tree DNA tests the Y chromosome which is passed from father to son, along, in most cases, with the surname. Only men can take this test, because only men have a Y chromosome.
Female genealogists need to ask their fathers, brothers, uncles and male cousins to test for the surnames in question. You can read the article, Concepts – Who to Test for Your Father’s DNA.
Family Tree DNA compares the results of the Y chromosome test between males to see if they match and are related in a genealogical timeframe.
Testers also obtain their haplogroup which is a genetic clan and tells your ancestral story of deep ancestry, such as European, African, Asian or Native American heritage.
Family Tree DNA sponsors free surname, haplogroup and other special interest projects, such as American Indian or regional projects. Projects are indispensable for both genealogy and genetic genealogy research and everyone can join.
Family Tree DNA is currently the only testing company that offers Y DNA testing providing matching, projects and other tools, including the advanced Big-Y test. Y DNA test levels include 37 and 111 markers in addition to the Big Y-700 test which provides a minimum of 700 markers and extremely granular advanced haplogroup testing.
Testing more markers is how one determines who they are related to most closely in time. The Big Y-700 is definitely the best test, but the 37 and 111 marker tests can be considered entry-level. The Y DNA test is great in combination with the Family Finder autosomal test, and advanced matching allows you to see who you match on both tests.
You can read more in my article, Working with Y DNA – Your Dad’s Story.
You can click here to order a Y DNA test.
2. Mitochondrial DNA for everyone – Mitochondrial DNA tracks your matrilineal line and is passed generationally from mother to mother to mother to both genders of her children, but only females pass it on.
Males carry their mother’s mitochondrial DNA but they don’t pass it to their children.
Like Y DNA, mutations are compared to see if testers share an ancestor in a genealogical timeframe, but because the surname changes in every generation, it’s more challenging genealogically to make the connections.
Mitochondrial DNA testing also provides a haplogroup which defines deep ancestry, such as European, African, Asian or Native American.
Family Tree DNA offers free haplogroup and other special interest projects such as the AcadianAmerindian Project.
Family Tree DNA is the only testing company that tests mitochondrial DNA and provides matching, projects, and tools.
You can read my 4 part series about mitochondrial DNA beginning with the first article:
Articles 2, 3 and 4 in the mitochondrial series are useful after you’ve received your test results.
You can click here to order a mitochondrial DNA test.
The paths of inheritance for both the paternal YDNA, blue, and the mitochondrial DNA, red, are shown below.
Autosomal DNA is inherited from all of your ancestors shown in the pedigree chart above, and further back in time as well. Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA are extremely important to inform us about the specific ancestry, both near and deep, of one line each, while autosomal DNA provides us with a different type of information about a wide range of ancestors.
In addition to Family Tree DNA who provides testing, mitoYDNA, a non-profit has begun accepting transfers for matching. Additionally, both WikiTree and Geni allow users to associate Y and mitochondrial DNA with specific ancestors.
3. Autosomal DNA for everyone – Autosomal DNA tests the DNA contributed by both parents on the 23 chromosomes, not just two direct lines as with Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA.
While Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA are never recombined with the DNA from the other parent, you do receive half of your autosomal DNA from each parent. Autosomal DNA is recombined in each generation, so each new generation inherits less DNA from previous generations.
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 also contribute the Y-line and mitochondrial, but those are separate and different tests providing different kinds of information.
Autosomal DNA tests are provided by:
You can order an autosomal DNA test by clicking on the vendors’ links, above.
These tests provide ethnicity estimates and a list of cousin matches from all of your ancestral lines, but it’s up to you to figure out how these cousins are related to you. Various testing companies provide different tools to help in this quest, each having their own strengths.
All four companies provide the ability to download your raw data results so that you can perform further analysis by using several online tools, the most popular being GedMatch, DNAPainter, Genetic Affairs and DNAGedcom.
Many articles on this blog are devoted to working with autosomal DNA and is entirely keyword searchable for your convenience.
4. The X Chromosome – The X chromosome is included as part of autosomal DNA testing. The X chromosome has special inheritance properties that allow people to use these results separately from the rest of the autosomal results.
The 23rd pair of chromosomes defines your biological sex. If a father contributes his Y chromosome, the child will be male. If a father contributes his X, the child will be female. Mothers always contribute an X, because they don’t have a Y chromosome.
The inheritance path of the X chromosome is 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. Therefore, an X match with another tester can eliminate several potential ancestors. For males, an X match must come from his mother’s side of his family.
You can read about X matching, along with a helpful X inheritance chart, in the article, Who Tests the X Chromosome?
You need to test before you can receive results to jump-start your genealogy.
I recommend that every genealogist do the following:
- Test your Y DNA or the Y DNA of your paternal lines by recruiting others
- Test your mitochondrial DNA
- Build a DNA Pedigree chart
- Test with or upload your autosomal DNA to all 4 vendors. Different people test at different locations. I have important matches at each vendor who have never tested elsewhere.
- Upload your autosomal DNA file to GedMatch for additional functionality. It’s free with Tier-1 advanced functionality requiring a subscription.
Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage accept uploads for free, with an unlock fee required for advanced tools. If you subscribe to MyHeritage, no unlock fee is required. You can begin a free trial subscription here.
Ancestry and 23andMe do not accept uploads, so you must test there directly. Ancestry requires an additional subscription for some functionality, such as seeing your matches trees and advanced features. Here are my 4 articles with instructions for how to download and upload your DNA file:
- Family Tree DNA Step-by-Step Guide: How to Upload-Download DNA Files
- MyHeritage Step-by-Step Guide: How to Upload-Download DNA Files
- Ancestry Step-by-Step Guide: How to Upload-Download DNA Files
- 23andMe Step-by-Step Guide: How to Upload-Download DNA Files
Have FUN! Your ancestors are waiting on you.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research
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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.
If you took the V3 or V4 test at 23andMe, they transfer, although V4 is only partially compatible. Ancestry transfers too, but the V2 test is only partially compatible. This article will help. https://dna-explained.com/2017/04/11/autosomal-dna-transfers-which-companies-accept-which-tests/
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.
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?
If you click on the Help tab on the blog, there are several items there that are relevant to your search.
I would suggest that you take a look at the Help tab on this blog. It includes quite a few Native American resources.
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.
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.
You should both take the Famiky Finder test at Family Tree DNA. The link is on the sidebar.
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.
Here an article with lots of Native Resources. But from what you say, if your grandfather was full Native and a chief, just call the tribe or begin with records like census or death. https://dna-explained.com/2017/11/01/native-american-dna-resources/
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.
That’s very high to simply be an estimation error. 52% is what I’d expect to see for one parent.
What is the difference in RM269-10 and RM269-164?
There isn’t a 10 and 164 notation scientifically. You must be referring to how someone is using this as a notation.
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.
Are you more interested in the ethnicity or the genealogy matching to cousins?
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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.
You can clearly determine if they are closely related by autosomal testing, yes. If you test at Family Tree DNA, you can also test the Y DNA if you need to. I would only order the autosomal first (Family Finder) and wait on the Y if needed. Here’s the link: http://www.kqzyfj.com/click-6754800-13710356
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.
Thank you. Will let you know how it goes
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.
live well testing (medical)
family tree DNA
american screening corp
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.
That is a clickbait site. Did you see my page about which test is best? It has a lot of comparisons. If also friends on your goals. https://dna-explained.com/which-dna-test-is-best/
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 $$$
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.
Living DNA (UK based – has extensive UK database)
Live Well Testing (+ medical)
Family Tree DNA
American Screening Corporation
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?
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.
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.
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?
You can’t discover how much of a specific ancestor’s DNA you inherited without comparing to other people, preferably close relatives, that have tested. If you are concerned about medical issues, you can upload your autosomal DNA results to Promethease or see a genetic counselor. I wrote about Promethease here: https://dna-explained.com/2017/10/08/promethease-2017/
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?
A Y DNA test will reflect your Wilkinson line. An autosomal DNA test, which is the Family Finder test, will reflect a relationship with cousins on many lines. They are different tests that goal different aspects of DNA and testing. Here’s the link if you decide to order either of those tests: http://www.kqzyfj.com/click-6754800-13710356
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?
No, you carry your mother’s mitochondrial DNA – so you can take that test with no issue.
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!
Ethnicity is just an estimate. Nothing more.
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.
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My mother was half Cherokee Indian, and my grandmother was full Cherokee Indian, how do i prove that and how much Cherokee Indian would that make me the daughter
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