Mitochondrial – the Maligned DNA

The good news is that the current mitochondrial DNA sale at Family Tree DNA has generated quite a bit of stir and discussion in the genetic genealogy community. The bad news is that some of it hasn’t been terribly positive.

Some people equate this to the glass half empty – glass half full type of perspective, and to some extent, this is true. What I’d like to do here is talk about why you might want to test your mitochondrial DNA, in spite of the fact that it’s more difficult to work with than Y DNA.

Let’s talk about that first, in fact. Here’s the problem in a nutshell – surnames for women in Europe and the US change in every generation. Because of that, when you do have a match, you can’t just look at the name and see that it’s the same as your surname. In fact, if you match with someone who also shares your ancestor, and the match is back more than a couple of generations, you’re very likely NOT going to recognize the surname.  So yes, there is some elbow grease involved.

The descendant fan chart below is only 3 generations in depth. I couldn’t utilize the fourth and fifth generations, because I wasn’t absolutely positive that everyone was deceased. However, each family seemed to introduce about 3 new surnames, on average, in each generation. That means, of course, females marrying. On the chart below, that means that only descendants from lines with red arrows qualify – if they continue to descend through all females.

Mito descendant fan

In just these generations, you have 6 surnames and that’s before the female children married.

However, all is not lost. People do upload their GEDCOM files and they do answer e-mails asking about their oldest linear ancestors. Granted, not everyone does but that’s not at all exclusive to mitochondrial DNA.

Yes, you have to do a little digging, but one good “hit” makes it all worthwhile.

Here’s the bottom line…

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Let me say that again…

you don't know

Now let me ask a question – aside from a pure financial aspect – why would you NOT open that door? Ancestral information is inside. It’s a package wrapped in a neat bow with your name on it. It’s a gift from your ancestors. Why would you decide not to open it?

gift bag

Let’s talk about what you might discover.

The Story of Anne-Marie

The Story of Anne-Marie is particularly close to my heart. After using this story as a mtDNA success story in presentations for some time, I too discovered Anne-Marie in my Acadian tree.  I imagine my surprise!

In Marie Rundquist’s words, when she received her mitochondrial DNA results “I nearly fell out of my chair.” Why? Because Anne Marie was a Native American woman, not French.

Marie had no idea what was in her mitochondrial DNA gift box from her ancestor. She didn’t know what she didn’t know.

And, had Marie not tested, and shared, I would never know either.  Thank you, cousin, Marie!

Native or English

Recently, one of my clients for whom I as writing a DNA Report asked if her ancestor was Native American or English. She was confident that she was one or the other.

Her haplogroup showed unquestionably that her ancestor was not Native American, at least not originally.  She could, of course, have been adopted into a tribe. As to where her ancestors were from in the UK, her matches map at the full sequence level showed the following cluster.

cluster map

Where do you think her ancestors were probably from? England? Scotland? Ireland?

The great thing about haplogroups, mapping and clusters is that you don’t need to know your ancestor’s name for this information. It’s from your ancestral DNA – not your genealogy.

And while this might seem like trivial information, it’s certainly not. It may well provide you with an idea of what population to focus on. In early Pennsylvania and Virginia, for example, the Scots-Irish and the Germans inhabited some of the same areas. If you didn’t know your ancestor’s surname, and she was from this area, where would you focus your research efforts after seeing this map?

Who’s the Mother?

My ancestor, William Crumley, who I’ll refer to here as William Jr., was born between 1785 and 1790 in Frederick Co., VA and died between 1852 and 1860 in Appanoose County, Iowa and was at least twice married. His first wife was Lydia Brown and his second wife, whom he married much later, was Pequa.

Furthermore, he had the same name as his father, William Crumley, referred to here as William Sr., who was born in 1767/1768, also in Frederick County, VA and died 1837/1840 in Lee County, Virginia where both Williams lived for many years after initially settling in Greene County, TN. One of these William Crumley’s had the bad judgement to remarry in October 1817 to an Elizabeth Johnson – not leaving us any concrete information as to which William was marrying.

Of course, as luck would have it, my ancestor, Phoebe, was born to William Jr. on March 24, 1818, 5 months after the marriage. Yes, she could have been the reason that William Crumley married Elizabeth Johnson, but was she?

We know who her father was, but who was her mother? I know, this is the opposite of what genealogists normally face.

We mitochondrial DNA tested one of Phoebe’s descendants.  Why, because we had the opportunity and, well, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Our family does carry oral history of Native in that line.

Then we waited. And we waited. And waited.

Eventually, a full sequence match arrived.  Phoebe’s descendant matched another person who descended from one of Phoebe’s older sisters. Therefore, we know that Phoebe IS the daughter of Lydia Brown, not Elizabeth Johnson, AND we now also know that it was William Sr. who married Elizabeth Johnson in October of 1817, not William Crumley Jr.

Two mysteries solved with just one DNA match!  Not bad!

So, tell me again, why wouldn’t you open that gift box???

You don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll never find out if you don’t test.



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18 thoughts on “Mitochondrial – the Maligned DNA

  1. I agree Roberta! I have had luck using mitochondrial DNA testing to sort out the mothers of families with multiple marriages also. As I have Native American in my DNA on both sides I would love to have mitochondrial testing for all of my lines to see where it came from. 🙂

    • mtDNA is my go-to test for solving maternal Native American origin stories/myths. If great-grandma was supposed to be Native American, find the right cousin(s), have them tested, and see if the story is true. If not in that generation, it might belong to a previous one (but in another maternal line).

  2. Roberta. The mtDNA I took some time ago has led me back 11 differant Surnames to a common ancestor Jeanne Pettit from Franca. She was one of the following. The filles du roi, or King’s Daughters, were some 770 women who arrived in the colony of New France (Canada) between 1663 and 1673. Three others have also done the test and are a genetic distance of 0. Our pedigree searches show we all go back to three sisters and daughters of Jeanne Pettit. Another person is genetic distance of 3 . The mtDNA test is well worth the money as I believe it is most meaningful. My son is going to do it as his mothers mother was Irish. Also, thanks for you blogs.

  3. I wish I had that much details with my MtDNA results, I was told that I have some missed mutations and some extras – looks like lots of them! – and no really clear answer… :/

    Thank you for your posts.

  4. Hi Roberta – another well written & interesting article, thanks.

    Personally I wish FTDNA would better promote & advertise Family Finder & autosomal DNA. I would say more than 80 per cent of my matches don’t understand their autosomal results or how to utilise the tools to draw any meaningful conclusions. They don’t see the worth or point in doing more than a skeleton tree & then wonder why they can’t hit the jackpot with hundreds of obvious matches.

    If I am honest, despite being a hard worker prepared to spend the time, I have got zero satisfaction from MtDNA results. I have a very low response rare here to email contact – 5-10 per cent. Whilst it’s interesting to see all my German & Swiss lines these are just perplexing as I have documented maternal lines in areas close to those you have been blogging about in the 1700-1800s. These make little sense and I hope one day to make progress but it’s unlikely I will.

    Autosomal results yield more potential Eureka moments & I think money better spent in me testing wider family autosomal DNA & speculatively.

    I have been saddened lately by those matches I spend time on looking for chromosomal overlaps & feeding trees to – created myself – for likely shared common ancestors. They often get cross & don’t understand the work involved or what this indicates – despite me explaining.

    Simply put I doubt most matches can understand or will take the time to understand their MtDNA data. Human nature looks for the easy wins.

  5. I have to say that for me personally, i have five times more full sequence hits with MTDNA than i do with YDNA and i have countless hits on HRV1 & HRV2, the hard part is of course linking the Sir Names.

  6. I know I’m at risk of flogging a dead horse on Roberta’s mitochondrial posts, but I hope that everyone who is planning to order mitochondrial testing knows a bit more about it than I did when I sent for mine.

    If you’ve decided to do mitochondrial testing, more power to you. The whole community of genealogists will benefit as database grows. But be aware of the limitations of mitochondrial DNA and adjust your expectations accordingly.

    If you scour the internet looking for mitochondrial DNA success stories, you probably will have a bit of difficulty. Why?

    Here’s why: In contrast to autosomal DNA and higher level YDNA testing, mitochondrial DNA testing tells you very little about your ancestral connections within the genealogical time frame (≈ 500 years). According to Family Tree DNA, full sequence mitochondrial matches reach a 95% confidence interval only when you go back 22 generations. Going back 5 generations, the confidence interval is only 50%:

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t put mitochondrial DNA to good use, but it does mean that you will not be able to use it the way you use Y DNA or autosomal DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is generally not a good test to confirm connections or to find matches who are related through a common ancestor within the past 5 or 10 generations.

    The primary genealogical value of your mitochondrial testing results is in excluding people from your direct maternal line. In other words, if you need to rule out a specific hypothesis relating to your direct maternal line, mitochondrial testing might be just what you need.

    On the other hand, don’t forget that you can learn quite a bit about your direct maternal line (and all other lines) with autosomal testing. In my case, I’ve learned much more about my direct maternal ancestry from autosomal testing than I ever expect to learn from mitochondrial results.

    As for me and my family, we’ll earmark our DNA testing funds for autosomal testing (and maybe some targeted Y DNA testing) until we run out of people to test. After that, maybe we’ll give mitochondrial DNA another look.

    • This seems more true to me. I’m not a full time user of any dna companies, but I have my autosomal test results at Ancestry, FTDNA, 23 & Me, and My Heritage. Most of my success has been with all but FTDNA. I’ve bought the y test for my cousin to take and have been considering mtDNA for myself. I already know my Haplogroup and have been wondering about the true value of the mtDNA. Still on the fence.

  7. So far my closest mtDNA matches are a genetic distance of 1, and I have not pursued those lines since those individuals do not match in Family Finder. But I do have a couple of mysteries that I’d like to solve on my direct maternal line, so I hope that someday the right person(s) will test. Meanwhile I have lots to work on with autosomal and Y. Currently waiting on Big Y results.

  8. mtDNA is extremely useful in answering specific questions – I ordered a test during the sale to use to try to establish that my 2nd great grandmother either was or was not the mother of all children of my second great grandfather. I have found the names for direct line descendants – now I just have to make contact with these stranger cousins and find one willing to test.

    My closest matches on full sequence were a genetic distance of 3. I am hoping that more people will test during these sales – that is how we find people as we are reliant on the size of the database. Most of my matches are on my father’s side as he was Ashkenazi and there is a lot of intermarriage and interest in testing. I have very little to show on my mother’s line even on the FF test. That leads me to believe that many of the families may have never left Germany. Remember, we are always looking at a very small database given the population.

    My brother’s Y-DNA 67 marker was unable to predict a haplogroup – FTDNA is now working on free SNP tests for me which they do when this occurs.

  9. I just received my results on my full sequence DNA testing. I have four matches at “0” distance. I’ve read all that I can find on Family Tree and as far as I can tell, these four people are “perfect matches.” Does that mean that we have a 50% chance of sharing a female relative in the last 500 years? I am thinking that a Zero distance is a good thing. Can anyone shed any light on this and tell me if I understand this correctly or if I am out in left field? How closely am I or could I be related to these four people? Many thanks!

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