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:
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 Family Tree DNA, 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.
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.
Update: Please note that as of 2019, Family Tree DNA is the only company providing mitochondrial DNA testing and matching. The rest are now obsolete.
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.
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!
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