Chromosome Browser War

There has been a lot of discussion lately, and I mean REALLY a lot, about chromosome browsers, the need or lack thereof, why, and what the information really means.

For the old timers in the field, we know the story, the reasons, and the backstory, but a lot of people don’t.  Not only are they only getting pieces of the puzzle, they’re confused about why there even is a puzzle.  I’ve been receiving very basic questions about this topic, so I thought I’d write an article about chromosome browsers, what they do for us, why we need them, how we use them and the three vendors, 23andMe, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA, who offer autosomal DNA products that provide a participant matching data base.

The Autosomal Goal

Autosomal DNA, which tests the part of your DNA that recombines between parents every generation, is utilized in genetic genealogy to do a couple of things.

  1. To confirm your connection to a specific ancestor through matches to other descendants.
  2. To break down genealogy brick walls.
  3. Determine ethnicity percentages which is not the topic of this article.

The same methodology is used for items 1 and 2.

In essence, to confirm that you share a common ancestor with someone, you need to either:

  1. Be a close relative – meaning you tested your mother and/or father and you match as expected. Or, you tested another known relative, like a first cousin, for example, and you also match as expected. These known relationships and matches become important in confirming or eliminating other matches and in mapping your own chromosomes to specific ancestors.
  2. A triangulated match to at least two others who share the same distant ancestor. This happens when you match other people whose tree indicates that you share a common ancestor, but they are not previously known to you as family.

Triangulation is the only way you can prove that you do indeed share a common ancestor with someone not previously identified as family.

In essence, triangulation is the process by which you match people who match you genetically with common ancestors through their pedigree charts.  I wrote about the process in this article “Triangulation for Autosomal DNA.”

To prove that you share a common ancestor with another individual, the DNA of  three proven descendants of that common ancestor must match at the same location.  I should add a little * to this and the small print would say, “ on relatively large segments.”  That little * is rather controversial, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit.  This leads us to the next step, which is if you’re a fourth person, and you match all three of those other people on that same segment, then you too share that common ancestor.  This is the process by which adoptees and those who are searching for the identity of a parent work through their matches to work forward in time from common ancestors to, hopefully, identify candidates for individuals who could be their parents.

Why do we need to do this?  Isn’t just matching our DNA and seeing a common ancestor in a pedigree chart with one person enough?  No, it isn’t.  I recently wrote about a situation where I had a match with someone and discovered that even though we didn’t know it, and still don’t know exactly how, we unquestionably share two different ancestral lines.

When you look at someone’s pedigree chart, you may see immediately that you share more than one ancestral line.  Your shared DNA could come from either line, both lines, or neither line – meaning from an unidentified common ancestor.  In genealogy parlance, those are known as brick walls!

Blaine Bettinger wrote about this scenario in his now classic article, “Everyone Has Two Family Trees – A Genealogical Tree and a Genetic Tree.”

Proving a Match

The only way to prove that you actually do share a genealogy relative with someone that is not a known family member is to triangulate.  This means searching other matches with the same ancestral surname, preferably finding someone with the same proven ancestral tree, and confirming that the three of you not only share matching DNA, but all three share the same matching DNA segments.  This means that you share the same ancestor.

Triangulation itself is a two-step process followed by a third step of mapping your own DNA so that you know where various segments came from.  The first two triangulation steps are discovering that you match other people on a common segment(s) and then determining if the matches also match each other on those same segments.

Both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, as vendors have provided ways to do most of this. and both augment the vendor offerings.  Ancestry provides no tools of this type – which is, of course, what has precipitated the chromosome browser war.

Let’s look at how the vendors products work in actual practice.

Family Tree DNA

1. Chromosome browser – do they match you?

Family Tree DNA makes it easy to see who you match in common with someone else in their matching tool, by utilizing the ICW crossed X icon.

chromosome browser war13

In the above example, I am seeing who I match in common with my mother.  Sure enough, our three known cousins are the closest matches, shown below.

chromosome browser war14

You can then push up to 5 individuals through to the chromosome browser to see where they match the participant.

The following chromosome browser is an example of a 4 person match showing up on the Family Tree DNA chromosome browser.

This example shows known cousins matching.  But this is exactly the same scenario you’re looking for when you are matching previously unknown cousins – the exact same technique.

In this example, I am the participant, so these matches are matches to me and my chromosome is the background chromosome displayed.  I have switched from my mother’s side to known cousins on my father’s side.

chromosome browser war1

The chromosome browser shows that these three cousins all match the person whose chromosomes are being shown (me, in this case), but it doesn’t tell you if they also match each other.  With known cousins, it’s very unlikely (in my case) that someone would match me from my mother’s side, and someone from my father’s side, but when you’re working with unknown cousins, it’s certainly possible.  If your parents are from the same core population, like Germans or an endogamous population, you may well have people who match you on both sides of your family.  Simply put, you can’t assume they don’t.

It’s also possible that the match is a genuine genealogical match, but you don’t happen to match on the exact same segments, so the ancestor can’t yet be confirmed until more cousins sharing that same ancestral line are found who do match, and it’s possible that some segments could be IBS, identical by state, meaning matches by chance, especially small segments, below the match threshold.

2. Matrix – do they match each other?

Family Tree DNA also provides a tool called the Matrix where you can see if all of the people who match on the same segment, also match each other at some place on their DNA.

chromosome browser war2

The Matrix tool measures the same level of DNA as the default chromosome browser, so in the situation I’m using for an example, there is no issue.  However, if you drop the threshold of the match level, you may well, and in this case, you will, find matches well below the match threshold.  They are shown as matches because they have at least one segment above the match threshold.  If you don’t have at least one segment above the threshold, you’ll never see these smaller matches.  Just to show you what I mean, this is the same four people, above, with the threshold lowered to 1cM.  All those little confetti pieces of color are smaller matches.

chromosome browser war3

At Family Tree DNA, the match threshold is about 7cM.  Each of the vendors has a different threshold and a different way of calculating that threshold.

The only reason I mention this is because if you DON’T match with someone on the matrix, but you also show matches at smaller segments, understand that matrix is not reporting on those, so matrix matches are not negative proof, only positive indications – when you do match, both on the chromosome browser and utilizing the matrix tool.

What you do know at this point is that these individuals all match you on the same segments, and that they match each other someplace on their chromosomes, but what you don’t know is if they match each other on the same locations where they match you.

If you are lucky and your matches are cousins or experienced genetic genealogists and are willing to take a look at their accounts, they can tell you if they match the other people on the same segments where they match you – but that’s the only way to know unless they are willing to download their raw data file to GedMatch.  At GedMatch, you can adjust the match thresholds to any level you wish and you can compare one-to-one kits to see where any two kits who have provided you with their kit number match each other.

3. Downloading data – mapping your chromosome.

The “download to Excel” function at Family Tree DNA, located just above the chromosome browser graphic, on the left, provides you with the matching data of the individuals shown on the chromosome browser with their actual segment data shown. (The download button on the right downloads all of your matches, not just the ones shown in the browser comparison.)

The spreadsheet below shows the downloaded data for these four individuals.  You can see on chromosome 15 (yellow) there are three distinct segments that match (pink, yellow and blue,) which is exactly what is reflected on the graphic browser as well.

chromosome browser war4

On the spreadsheet below, I’ve highlighted, in red, the segments which appeared on the original chromosome browser – so these are only the matches at or over the match threshold.

chromosome browser war5

As you can see, there are 13 in total.

Smaller Segments

Up to this point, the process I’ve shared is widely accepted as the gold standard.

In the genetic genealogy community, there are very divergent opinions on how to treat segments below the match threshold, or below even 10cM.  Some people “throw them away,” in essence, disregard them entirely.  Before we look at a real life example, let’s talk about the challenges with small segments.

When smaller segments match, along with larger segments, I don’t delete them, throw them away, or disregard them.  I believe that they are tools and each one carries a message for us.  Those messages can be one of four things.

  1. This is a valid IBD, meaning identical by descent, match where the segment has been passed from one specific ancestor to all of the people who match and can be utilized as such.
  2. This is an IBS match, meaning identical by state, and is called that because we can’t yet identify the common ancestor, but there is one. So this is actually IBD but we can’t yet identify it as such. With more matches, we may well be able to identify it as IBD, but if we throw it away, we never get that chance. As larger data bases and more sophisticated software become available, these matches will fall into place.
  3. This is an IBS match that is a false match, meaning the DNA segments that we receive from our father and mother just happen to align in a way that matches another person. Generally these are relatively easy to determine because the people you match won’t match each other. You also won’t tend to match other people with the same ancestral line, so they will tend to look like lone outliers on your match spreadsheets, but not always.
  4. This is an IBS match that is population based. These are much more difficult to determine, because this is a segment that is found widely in a population. The key to determining these pileup areas, as discussed in the Ancestry article about their new phasing technique, if that you will find this same segment matching different proven lineages. This is the reason that Ancestry has implemented phasing – to identify and remove these match regions from your matches. Ancestry provided a graphic of my pileup areas, although they did not identify for me where on my chromosomes these pileup regions occurred. I do have some idea however, because I’ve found a couple of areas where I have matches from my mother’s side of the family from different ancestors – so these areas must be IBS on a population level. That does not, however, make them completely irrelevant.

genome pileups

The challenge, and problem, is where to make the cutoff when you’re eliminating match areas based on phased data.  For example, I lost all of my Acadian matches at Ancestry.  Of course, you would expect an endogamous population to share lots of the same DNA – and there are a huge number of Acadian descendants today – they are in fact a “population,” but those matches are (were) still useful to me.

I utilize Acadian matches from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe to label that part of my chromosome “Acadian” even if I can’t track it to a specific Acadian ancestor, yet.  I do know from which of my mother’s ancestors it originated, her great-grandfather, who is her Acadian ancestor.  Knowing that much is useful as well.

The same challenge exists for other endogamous groups – people with Jewish, Mennonite/Brethren/Amish, Native American and African American heritage searching for their mixed race roots arising from slavery.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this problem exists for anyone looking for ancestors beyond the 5th or 6th generation, because segments inherited from those ancestors, if there are any, will probably be small and fall below the generally accepted match thresholds.  The only way you will be able to find them, today, is the unlikely event that there is one larger segments, and it leads you on a search, like the case with Sarah Hickerson.

I want to be very clear – if you’re looking for only “sure thing” segments – then the larger the matching segment, the better the odds that it’s a sure thing, a positive, indisputable, noncontroversial match.  However, if you’re looking for ancestors in the distant past, in the 5th or 6th generation or further, you’re not likely to find sure thing matches and you’ll have to work with smaller segments. It’s certainly preferable and easier to work with large matches, but it’s not always possible.

In the Ralph and Coop paper, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry Across Europe, they indicated that people who matched on segments of 10cM or larger were more likely to have a common ancestor with in the past 500 years.  Blocks of 4cM or larger were estimated to be from populations from 500-1500 years ago.  However, we also know that there are indeed sticky segments that get passed intact from generation to generation, and also that some segments don’t get divided in a generation, they simply disappear and aren’t passed on at all.  I wrote about this in my article titled, Generational Inheritance.

Another paper by Durand et al, Reducing pervasive false positive identical-by-descent segments detected by large-scale pedigree analysis, showed that 67% of the 2-4cM segments were false positives.  Conversely, that also means that 33% of the 2-4cM segments were legitimate IBD segments.

Part of the disagreement within the genetic genealogy community is based on a difference in goals.  People who are looking for the parents of adoptees are looking first and primarily as “sure thing” matches and the bigger the match segment, of course, the better because that means the people are related more closely in time.  For them, smaller segments really are useless.  However, for people who know their recent genealogy and are looking for those brick wall ancestors, several generations back in time, their only hope is utilizing those smaller segments.  This not black and white but shades of grey.  One size does not fit all.  Nor is what we know today the end of the line.  We learn every single day and many of our learning experiences are by working through our own unique genealogical situations – and sharing our discoveries.

On this next spreadsheet, you can see the smaller segments surrounding the larger segments – in other words, in the same match cluster – highlighted in green.  These are the segments that would be discarded as invalid if you were drawing the line at the match threshold.  Some people draw it even higher, at 10 cM.  I’m not being critical of their methodology or saying they are wrong.  It may well work best for them, but discarding small segments is not the only approach and other approaches do work, depending on the goals of the researcher.  I want my 33% IBD segments, thank you very much.

All of the segments highlighted in purple match between at least three cousins.  By checking the other cousins accounts, I can validate that they do all match each other as well, even though I can’t tell this through the Family Tree DNA matrix below the matching threshold.  So, I’ve proven these are valid.  We all received them from our common ancestor.

What about the white rows?  Are those valid matches, from a common ancestor?  We don’t have enough information to make that determination today.

chromosome browser war6

Downloading my data, and confirming segments to this common ancestor allows me to map my own chromosomes.  Now, I know that if someone matches me and any of these three cousins on chromosome 15, for example, between 33,335,760 and 58,455,135 – they are, whether they know it or not, descended from our common ancestral line.

In my opinion, I would think it a shame to discount or throw away all of these matches below 7cM, because you would be discounting 39 of your 52 total matches, or 75% of them.  I would be more conservative in assigning my segments with only one cousin match to any ancestor, but I would certainly note the match and hope that if I added other cousins, that segment would be eventually proven as IBD.

I used positively known cousins in this example because there is no disputing the validity of these matches.  They were known as cousins long before DNA testing.

Breaking Down Brick Walls

This is the same technique utilized to break down brick walls – and the more cousins you have tested, so that you can identify the maximum number of chromosome pieces of a particular ancestor – the better.

I used this same technique to identify Sarah Hickerson in my Thanksgiving Day article, utilizing these same cousins, plus several more.

Hey, just for fun, want to see what chromosome 15 looks like in this much larger sample???

In this case, we were trying to break down a brick wall.  We needed to determine if Sarah Hickerson was the mother of Elijah Vannoy.  All of the individuals in the left “Name” column are proven Vannoy cousins from Elijah, or in one case, William, from another child of Sarah Hickerson.  The individuals in the right “Match” column are everyone in the cousin match group plus the people in green who are Hickerson/Higginson descendants.  William, in green, is proven to descend from Sarah Hickerson and her husband, Daniel Vannoy.

chromosome browser war7

The first part of chromosome 15 doesn’t overlap with the rest.  Buster, David and I share another ancestral line as well, so the match in the non-red section of chromosome 15 may well be from that ancestral line.  It becomes an obvious possibility, because none of the people who share the Vannoy/Hickerson/Higginson DNA are in that small match group.

All of the red colored cells do overlap with at least one other individual in that group and together they form a cluster.  The yellow highlighted cells are the ones over the match threshold.  The 6 Hickerson/Higginson descendants are scattered throughout this match group.

And yes, for those who are going to ask, there are many more Vannoy/Hickerson triangulated groups.  This is just one of over 60 matching groups in total, some with matches well above the match threshold. But back to the chromosome browser wars!


This example from 23andMe shows why it’s so very important to verify that your matches also match each other.

chromosome browser war8

Blue and purple match segments are to two of the same cousins that I used in the comparison at Family Tree DNA, who are from my father’s side.  Green is my first cousin from my mother’s side.   Note that on chromosome 11, they both match me on a common segment.  I know by working with them that they don’t match each other on that segment, so while they are both related to me, on chromosome 11, it’s not through the same ancestor.  One is from my father’s side and one is from my mother’s side.  If I hadn’t already known that, determining if they matched each other would be the acid test and would separate them into 2 groups.

23andMe provides you with a tool to see who your matches match that you match too.  That’s a tongue twister.

In essence, you can select any individual, meaning you or anyone that you match, on the left hand side of this tool, and compare them to any 5 other people that you match.  In my case above, I compared myself to my cousins, but if I want to know if my cousin on my mother’s side matches my two cousins on my father’s side, I simply select her name on the left and theirs on the right by using the drop down arrows.

chromosome browser war9

I would show you the results, but it’s in essence a blank chromosome browser screen, because she doesn’t match either of them, anyplace, which tells me, if I didn’t already know, that these two matches are from different sides of my family.

However, in other situations, where I match my cousin Daryl, for example, as well as several other people on the same segment, I want to know how many of these people Daryl matches as well.  I can enter Daryl’s name, with my name and their names in the group of 5, and compare.  23andMe facilitates the viewing or download of the results in a matrix as well, along with the segment data.  You can also download your entire list of matches by requesting aggregated data through the link at the bottom of the screen above or the bottom of the chromosome display.

I find it cumbersome to enter each matches name in the search tool and then enter all of the other matches names as well.  By utilizing the tools at, you can determine who your matches match as well, in common with you, in one spreadsheet.  Here’s an example.  Daryl in the chart below is my match, and this tool shows you who else she matches that I match as well, and the matching segments.  This allows me to correlate my match with Gwen for example, to Daryl’s match to Gwen to see if they are on the same segments.

chromosome browser war10

As you can see, Daryl and I both match Gwen on a common segment.  On my own chromosome mapping spreadsheet, I match several other people as well at that location, at other vendors, but so far, we haven’t been able to find any common genealogy.

At, I have exactly the opposite problem.  I have lots of people I DNA match, and some with common genealogy, but no tools to prove the DNA match is to the common ancestor.

Hence, this is the crux of the chromosome browser wars.  I’ve just showed you how and why we use chromosome browsers and tools to show if our matches match each other in addition to us and on which segments.  I’ve also illustrated why.  Neither 23andMe nor Family Tree DNA provides perfect tools, which is why we utilize both GedMatch and DNAGedcom, but they do provide tools.  Ancestry provides no tools of this type.

At Ancestry, you have two kinds of genetic matches – ones without tree matches and ones with tree matches.  Pedigree matching is a service that Ancestry provides that the other vendors don’t.  Unfortunately, it also leads people to believe that because they match these people genetically and share a tree, that the tree shown is THE genetic match and it’s to the ancestor shown in the tree.  In fact, if the tree is wrong, either your tree or their tree, and you match them genetically, you will show up as a pedigree match as well.  Even if both pedigrees are right, that still doesn’t mean that your genetic match is through that ancestor.

How many bad trees are at Ancestry percentagewise?  I don’t know, but it’s a constant complaint and there is absolutely nothing Ancestry can do about it.  All they can do is utilize what they have, which is what their customers provide.  And I’m glad they do.  It does make the process of working through your matches much easier. It’s a starting point.  DNA matches with trees that also match your pedigree are shown with Ancestry’s infamous shakey leaf.

In fact, in my Sarah Hickerson article, it was a shakey leaf match that initially clued me that there was something afoot – maybe. I had to shift to another platform (Family Tree DNA) to prove the match however, where I had tools and lots of known cousins.

At Ancestry, I now have about 3000 matches in total, and of those, I have 33 shakey leaves – or people with whom I also share an ancestor in our pedigree charts.  A few of those are the same old known cousins, just as genealogy crazy as me, and they’ve tested at all 3 companies.

The fly in the ointment, right off the bat, is that I noticed in several of these matches that I ALSO share another ancestral line.

Now, the great news is that Ancestry shows you your surnames in common, and you can click on the surname and see the common individuals in both trees.

The bad news is that you have to notice and click to see that information, found in the lower left hand corner of this screen.

chromosome browser war11

In this case, Cook is an entirely different line, not connected to the McKee line shown.

However, in this next case, we have the same individual entered in our software, but differently.  It wasn’t close enough to connect as an ancestor, but close enough to note.  It turns out that Sarah Cook is the mother of Fairwick Claxton, but her middle name was not Helloms, nor was her maiden name, although that is a long-standing misconception that was proven incorrect with her husband’s War of 1812 documents many years ago. Unfortunately, this misinformation is very widespread in trees on the internet.

chromosome browser war12

Out of curiosity, and now I’m sorry I did this because it’s very disheartening – I looked to see what James Lee Claxton/Clarkson’s wife’s name was shown to be on the first page of Ancestry’s advanced search matches.

Despite extensive genealogical and DNA research, we don’t know who James Lee Claxton/Clarkson’s parents are, although we’ve disproven several possibilities, including the most popular candidate pre-DNA testing.  However, James’ wife was positively Sarah Cook, as given by her, along with her father’s name, and by witnesses to their marriage provided when she applied for a War of 1812 pension and bounty land.  I have the papers from the National Archives.

James Lee Claxton’s wife, Sara Cook is identified as follows in the first 50 Ancestry search entries.

Sarah Cook – 4

Incorrect entries:

  • Sarah Cook but with James’ parents listed – 3
  • Sarah Helloms Cook – 2, one with James’ parents
  • Sarah Hillhorns – 15
  • Sarah Cook Hitson – 13, some with various parents for James
  • No wife, but various parents listed for James – 12
  • No wife, no parents – 1

I’d much rather see no wife and no parents than incorrect information.

Judy Russell has expressed her concern about the effects of incorrect trees and DNA as well and we shared this concern with Ancestry during our meeting.

Ancestry themselves in their paper titled “Identifying groups of descendants using pedigrees and genetically inferred relationships in a large database” says, “”As with all analyses relating to DNA Circles™, tree quality is also an important caveat and limitation.”  So Ancestry is aware, but they are trying to leverage and utilize one of their biggest assets, their trees.

This brings us to DNA Circles.  I reviewed Ancestry’s new product release extensively in my Ancestry’s Better Mousetrap article.  To recap briefly, Ancestry gathers your DNA matches together, and then looks for common ancestors in trees that are public using an intelligent ranking algorithm that takes into account:

  1. The confidence that the match is due to recent genealogical history (versus a match due to older genealogical history or a false match entirely).
  2. The confidence that the identified common recent ancestor represents the same person in both online pedigrees.
  3. The confidence that the individuals have a match due to the shared ancestor in question as opposed to from another ancestor or from more distant genealogical history.

The key here is that Ancestry is looking for what they term “recent genealogical history.”  In their paper they define this as 10 generations, but the beta version of DNA Circles only looks back 7 generations today.  This was also reflected in their phasing paper, “Discovering IBD matches across a large, growing database.”

However, the unfortunate effect has been in many cases to eliminate matches, especially from endogamous groups.  By way of example, I lost my Acadian matches in the Ancestry new product release.  They would have been more than 7 generations back, and because they were endogamous, they may have “looked like” IBS segments, if IBS is defined at Ancestry as more than 7 or 10 generations back.  Hopefully Ancestry will tweek this algorithm in future releases.

Ancestry, according to their paper, “Identifying groups of descendants using pedigrees and genetically inferred relationships in a large database,” then clusters these remaining matching individuals together in Circles based on their pedigree charts.  You will match some of these people genetically, and some of them will not match you but will match each other.  Again, according to the paper, “these confidence levels are calculated by the direct-line pedigree size, the number of shared ancestral couples and the generational depth of the shared MRCA couple.”

Ancestry notes that, “using the concordance of two independent pieces of information, meaning pedigree relationships and patterns of match sharing among a set of individuals, DNA Circles can serve as supporting evidence for documented pedigree lines.”  Notice, Ancestry did NOT SAY proof.  Nothing that Ancestry provides in their DNA product constitutes proof.

Ancestry continues by saying that Circles “opens the possibility for people to identify distant relatives with whom they do not share DNA directly but with whom they still have genetic evidence supporting the relationship.”

In other words, Ancestry is being very clear in this paper, which is provided on the DNA Circles page for anyone with Circles, that they are giving you a tool, not “the answer,” but one more piece of information that you can consider as evidence.

joel vannoy circleJoel Vannoy circle2

You can see in my Joel Vannoy circle that I match both of these people both genetically and on their tree.

We, in the genetic genealogy community, need proof.  It certainly could be available, technically – because it is with other vendors and third party sites.

We need to be able to prove that our matches also match each other, and utilizing Ancestry’s tools, we can’t.  We also can’t do this at Ancestry by utilizing third party tools, so we’re in essence, stuck.

We can either choose to believe, without substantiation, that we indeed share a common ancestor because we share DNA segments with them plus a pedigree chart from that common ancestor, or we can initiate a conversation with our match that leads to either or both of the following questions:

  1. Have you or would you upload your raw data to GedMatch?
  2. Have you or would you upload your raw data file to Family Tree DNA?

Let the begging begin!!!

The Problem

In a nutshell, the problem is that even if your Ancestry matches do reply and do upload their file to either Family Tree DNA or GedMatch or both, you are losing most of the potential information available, or that would be available, if Ancestry provided a chromosome browser and matrix type tool.

In other words, you’d have to convince all of your matches and then they would have to convince all of the matches in the circle that they match and you don’t to upload their files.

Given that, of the 44 private tree shakey leaf matches that I sent messages to about 2 weeks ago, asking only for them to tell me the identity of our common pedigree ancestor, so far 2 only of them have replied, the odds of getting an entire group of people to upload files is infinitesimal.  You’d stand a better chance of winning the lottery.

One of the things Ancestry excels at is marketing.

ancestry ad1

If you’ve seen any of their ads, and they are everyplace, they focus on the “feel good” and they are certainly maximizing the warm fuzzy feelings at the holidays and missing those generations that have gone before us.

ancestry ad2

This is by no means a criticism, but it is why so many people do take the Ancestry DNA test. It’s advertised as easy and you’ll learn more about your family.  And you do, no question – you learn about your ethnicity and you get a list of DNA matches, pedigree matches when possible and DNA Circles.

The list of what you don’t get is every bit as important, a chromosome browser and tools to see whether your matches also match each other.  However, most of their customers will never know that.

Judging by the high percentage of inaccurate trees I found at Ancestry in my little experiment relative to the known and documented wife’s name of James Lee Claxton, which was 96%, based on just the first page of 50 search matches, it would appear that about 96% of Ancestry’s clientele are willing to believe something that someone else tells them without verification.  I doubt that it matters whether that information is a tree or a DNA test where they are shown  matches with common pedigree charts and circles.  I don’t mean this to be critical of those people.  We all began as novices and we need new people to become interested in both genealogy and DNA testing.

I suspect that most of Ancestry’s clients, especially new ones, simply don’t have a clue that there is a problem, let alone the magnitude and scope.  How would they?  They are just happy to find information about their ancestor.  And as someone said to me once – “but there are so many of those trees (with a wrong wife’s name), how can they all be wrong?”  Plus, the ads, at least some of them, certainly suggest that the DNA test grows your family tree for you.

ancestry ad3 signoff

The good news in all of this is that Ancestry’s widespread advertising has made DNA testing just part of the normal things that genealogists do.  Their marketing expertise along with recent television programs have served to bring DNA testing into the limelight. The bad news is that if people test at Ancestry instead of at a vendor who provides tools, we, and they, lose the opportunity to utilize those results to their fullest potential.  We, and they, lose any hope of proving an ancestor utilizing DNA.  And let’s face it, DNA testing and genealogy is about collaboration.  Having a DNA test that you don’t compare against others is pointless for genealogy purposes.

When a small group of bloggers and educators visited Ancestry in October, 2014, for what came to be called DNA Day, we discussed the chromosome browser and Ancestry’s plans for their new DNA Circles product, although it had not yet been named at that time.  I wrote about that meeting, including the fact that we discussed the need for a chromosome browser ad nauseum.  Needless to say, there was no agreement between the genetic genealogy community and the Ancestry folks.

When we discussed the situation with Ancestry they talked about privacy and those types of issues, which you can read about in detail in that article, but I suspect, strongly, that the real reason they aren’t keen on developing a chromosome browser lies in different areas.

  1. Ancestry truly believes that people cannot understand and utilize a chromosome browser and the information it provides. They believe that people who do have access to chromosome browsers are interpreting the results incorrectly today.
  2. They do not want to implement a complex feature for a small percentage of their users…the number bantered around informally was 5%…and I don’t know if that was an off-the-cuff number or based on market research. However, if you compare that number with the number of accurate versus inaccurate pedigree charts in my “James Claxton’s wife’s name” experiment, it’s very close…so I would say that the 5% number is probably close to accurate.
  3. They do not want to increase their support burden trying to explain the results of a chromosome browser to the other 95%. Keep in mind the number of users you’re discussing. They said in their paper they had 500,000 DNA participants. I think it’s well over 700,000 today, and they clearly expect to hit 1 million in 2015. So if you utilize a range – 5% of their users are 25,000-50,000 and 95% of their users are 475,000-950,000.
  4. Their clients have already paid their money for the test, as it is, and there is no financial incentive for Ancestry to invest in an add-on tool from which they generate no incremental revenue and do generate increased development and support costs. The only benefit to them is that we shut up!

So, the bottom line is that most of Ancestry’s clients don’t know or care about a chromosome browser.  There are, however, a very noisy group of us who do.

Many of Ancestry’s clients who purchase the DNA test do so as an impulse purchase with very little, if any, understanding of what they are purchasing, what it can or will do for them, at Ancestry or anyplace else, for that matter.

Any serious genealogist who researched the autosomal testing products would not make Ancestry their only purchase, especially if they could only purchase one test.  Many, if not most, serious genealogists have tested at all three companies in order to fish in different ponds and maximize their reach.  I suspect that most of Ancestry’s customers are looking for simple and immediate answers, not tools and additional work.

The flip side of that, however, if that we are very aware of what we, the genetic genealogy industry needs, and why, and how frustratingly lacking Ancestry’s product is.

Company Focus

It’s easy for us as extremely passionate and focused consumers to forget that all three companies are for-profit corporations.  Let’s take a brief look at their corporate focus, history and goals, because that tells a very big portion of the story.  Every company is responsible first and foremost to their shareholders and owners to be profitable, as profitable as possible which means striking the perfect balance of investment and expenditure with frugality.  In corporate America, everything has to be justified by ROI, or return on investment.

Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA was the first one of the companies to offer DNA testing and was formed in 1999 by Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, both still principles who run Family Tree DNA, now part of Gene by Gene, on a daily basis.  Family Tree DNA’s focus is only on genetic genealogy and they have a wide variety of products that produce a spectrum of information including various Y DNA tests, mitochondrial, autosomal, and genetic traits.  They are now the only commercial company to offer the Y STR and mitochondrial DNA tests, both very important tools for genetic genealogists, with a great deal of information to offer about our ancestors.

In April 2005, National Geographic’s Genographic project was announced in partnership with Family Tree DNA and IBM.  The Genographic project, was scheduled to last for 5 years, but is now in its 9th year.  Family Tree DNA and National Geographic announced Geno 2.0 in July of 2012 with a newly designed chip that would test more than 12,000 locations on the Y chromosome, in addition to providing other information to participants.

The Genographic project provided a huge boost to genetic genealogy because it provided assurance of legitimacy and brought DNA testing into the living room of every family who subscribed to National Geographic magazine.  Family Tree DNA’s partnership with National Geographic led to the tipping point where consumer DNA testing became mainstream.

In 2011 the founders expanded the company to include clinical genetics and a research arm by forming Gene by Gene.  This allowed them, among other things, to bring their testing in house by expanding their laboratory facilities.  They have continued to increase their product offerings to include sophisticated high end tests like the Big Y, introduced in 2013.


23andMe is also privately held and began offering testing for medical and health information in November 2007, initially offering “estimates of predisposition for more than 90 traits ranging from baldness to blindness.”  Their corporate focus has always been in the medical field, with aggregated customer data being studied by 23andMe and other researchers for various purposes.

In 2009, 23andMe began to offer the autosomal test for genealogists, the first company to provide this service.  Even though, by today’s standards, it was very expensive, genetic genealogists flocked to take this test.

In 2013, after several years of back and forth with 23andMe ultimately failing to reply to the FDA, the FDA forced 23andMe to stop providing the medical results.  Clients purchasing the 23andMe autosomal product since November of 2013 receive only ethnicity results and the genealogical matching services.

In 2014, 23andMe has been plagued by public relations issues and has not upgraded significantly nor provided additional tools for the genetic genealogy community, although they recently formed a liaison with My Heritage.

23andMe is clearly focused on genetics, but not primarily genetic genealogy, and their corporate focus during this last year in particular has been, I suspect, on how to survive, given the FDA action.  If they steer clear of that landmine, I expect that we may see great things in the realm of personalized medicine from them in the future.

Genetic genealogy remains a way for them to attract people to increase their data base size for research purposes.  Right now, until they can again begin providing health information, genetic genealogists are the only people purchasing the test, although 23andMe may have other revenue sources from the research end of the business is a privately held company.  They were founded in the 1990s and have been through several ownership and organizational iterations, which you can read about in the wiki article about Ancestry.

During the last several years, Ancestry has purchased several other genealogy companies and is now the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world.  That’s either wonderful or terrible, depending on your experiences and perspective.

Ancestry has had an on-again-off-again relationship with DNA testing since 2002, with more than one foray into DNA testing and subsequent withdrawal from DNA testing.  If you are interested in the specifics, you can read about them in this article.

Ancestry’s goal, as it is with all companies, is profitability.  However, they have given themselves a very large black eye in the genetic genealogy community by doing things that we consider to be civically irresponsible, like destroying the Y and mitochondrial DNA data bases.  This still makes no sense, because while Ancestry spends money on one hand to acquire data bases and digitize existing records, on the other hand, they wiped out a data base containing tens of thousands of irreplaceable DNA records, which are genealogy records of a different type.  This was discussed at DNA Day and the genetic genealogy community retains hope that Ancestry is reconsidering their decision.

Ancestry has been plagued by a history of missteps and mediocrity in their DNA products, beginning with their Y and mitochondrial DNA products and continuing with their autosomal product.  Their first autosomal release included ethnicity results that gave many people very high percentages of Scandinavian heritage.  Ancestry never acknowledged a problem and defended their product to the end…until the day when they announced an update titled….a whole new you.  They are marketing geniuses.  While many people found their updated product much more realistic, not everyone was happy.  Judy Russell wrote a great summary of the situation.

It’s difficult, once a company has lost their credibility, for them to regain it.

I think Ancestry does a bang up job of what their primary corporate goal is….genealogy records and subscriptions for people to access those records. I’m a daily user.  Today, with their acquisitions, it would be very difficult to be a serious genealogist without an Ancestry subscription….which is of course what their corporate goal has been.

Ancestry does an outstanding job of making everything look and appear easy.  Their customer interface is intuitive and straightforward, for the most part. In fact, maybe they have made both genealogy and genetic genealogy look a little too easy.  I say this tongue in cheek, full well knowing that the ease of use is how they attract so many people, and those are the same people who ultimately purchase the DNA tests – but the expectation of swabbing and the answer appearing is becoming a problem.  I’m glad that Ancestry has brought DNA testing to so many people but this success makes tools like the chromosome browser/matrix that much more important – because there is so much genealogy information there just waiting to be revealed.  I also feel that their level of success and visibility also visits upon them the responsibility for transparency and accuracy in setting expectations properly – from the beginning – with the ads. DNA testing does not “grow your tree” while you’re away.

I’m guessing Ancestry entered the DNA market again because they saw a way to sell an additional product, autosomal DNA testing, that would tie people’s trees together and provide customers with an additional tool, at an additional price, and give them yet another reason to remain subscribed every year.  Nothing wrong with that either.  For the owners, a very reasonable tactic to harness a captive data base whose ear you already have.

But Ancestry’s focus or priority is not now, and never has been, quality, nor genetic genealogy.  Autosomal DNA testing is a tool for their clients, a revenue generation source for them, and that’s it.  Again, not a criticism.  Just the way it is.

In Summary

As I look at the corporate focus of the three players in this space, I see three companies who are indeed following their corporate focus and vision.  That’s not a bad thing, unless the genetic genealogy community focus finds itself in conflict with the results of their corporate focus.

It’s no wonder that Family Tree DNA sponsors events like the International DNA Conference and works hand in hand with genealogists and project administrators.  Their focus is and always has been genetic genealogy.

People do become very frustrated with Family Tree DNA from time to time, but just try to voice those frustrations to upper management at either 23andMe or Ancestry and see how far you get.  My last helpdesk query to 23andMe submitted on October 24th has yet to receive any reply.  At Family Tree DNA, I e-mailed the project administrator liaison today, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, hoping for a response on Monday – but I received one just a couple hours later – on a holiday weekend.

In terms of the chromosome browser war – and that war is between the genetic genealogy community and, I completely understand both positions.

The genetic genealogy community has been persistent, noisy, and united.  Petitions have been created and signed and sent to Ancestry upper management.  To my knowledge, confirmation of any communications surrounding this topic with the exception of Ancestry reaching out to the blogging and education community, has never been received.

This lack of acknowledgement and/or action on the issues at hand frustrates the community terribly and causes reams of rather pointed and very direct replies to Anna Swayne and other Ancestry employees who are charged with interfacing with the public.  I actually feel sorry for Anna.  She is a very nice person.  If I were in her position, I’d certainly be looking for another job and letting someone else take the brunt of the dissatisfaction.  You can read her articles here.

I also understand why Ancestry is doing what they are doing – meaning their decision to not create a chromosome browser/match matrix tool.  It makes sense if you sit in their seat and now have to look at dealing with almost a million people who will wonder why they have to use a chromosome browser and or other tools when they expected their tree to grow while they were away.

I don’t like Ancestry’s position, even though I understand it, and I hope that we, as a community, can help justify the investment to Ancestry in some manner, because I fully believe that’s the only way we’ll ever get a chromosome browser/match matrix type tool.  There has to be a financial benefit to Ancestry to invest the dollars and time into that development, as opposed to something else.  It’s not like Ancestry has additional DNA products to sell to these people.  The consumers have already spent their money on the only DNA product Ancestry offers, so there is no incentive there.

As long as Ancestry’s typical customer doesn’t know or care, I doubt that development of a chromosome browser will happen unless we, as a community, can, respectfully, be loud enough, long enough, like an irritating burr in their underwear that just won’t go away.


The Future

What we “know” and can do today with our genomes far surpasses what we could do or even dreamed we could do 10 years ago or even 5 or 2 years ago.  We learn everyday.

Yes, there are a few warts and issues to iron out.  I always hesitate to use words like “can’t,” “never” and “always” or to use other very strongly opinionated or inflexible words, because those words may well need to be eaten shortly.

There is so much more yet to be done, discovered and learned.  We need to keep open minds and be willing to “unlearn” what we think we knew when new and better information comes along.  That’s how scientific discovery works.  We are on the frontier, the leading edge and yes, sometimes the bleeding edge.  But what a wonderful place to be, to be able to contribute to discovery on a new frontier, our own genes and the keys to our ancestors held in our DNA.



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94 thoughts on “Chromosome Browser War

  1. I have lots matches on FTDNA Family Finder, including an Estes I think.  Some folks go through the effort to ask me to confirm our predicted relationship.  With about 4 exceptions they have NOBODY listed to give me an idea of what surnames they have or what their tree may look like.  In fact, their tree usually has only one person on it, the requestor,  and that person has no details, like what part of the country they live in, their favorite color, etc.   On my y matches, I have lots of folks that do not bother to put their oldest direct ancestor on the record, so while they can take advantage of those of us that do so, but we learn nothing from them.  I have 10 Livingston matches without one ancestor listed amongst them.  Six McDonalds, no ancestors.  13 McRae, 9 Randolphs, a bunch of Millers with an accumulated total of zero ancestors listed.  I supposed it is possible these folks all know each other within their surnames and that they have different reasons for testing, but it is sure frustrating! Steve Mitchell

  2. I’m curious as to why it is so important for Ancestry to have a DNA browser when you have tools like GEDmatch available. Isn’t that exactly the same thing? The more I learn, the more I’m confused.

    • Genetic genealogy requires heavy collaboration in large groups. That kind of collaboration isn’t going to happen if AncestryDNA’s customers have to transfer their results to a third party website. It’s a needless obstacle.

      Go to GEDmatch and find your matches who tested at Ancestry. Their kit numbers start with the letter “A”. Then try to find those matches back at Ancestry. This process is exceedingly difficult and it is a needless obstacle for those AncestryDNA customers who want to pursue AncestryDNA’s stated goal of getting “the best and most accurate information possible for their genealogical research.”

  3. This is a magnificent piece of work!! You have addressed every aspect, and for novice me, who is striving to learn all I can about this complex subject, you have answered SO many questions. I will actually *print* and keep this.. And I will be passing this outstanding information to others.

    Sharon Crowley Connor San Diego

  4. AncestryDNA is on track to have tested 1,000,000 customers some time in the early part of the new year. If only 5% of these customers are interested in a chromosome browser, that’s 50,000 people. If Ancestry provided a chromosome browser, the percentage would certainly grow. Demand will also grow if we continue to beat the drum and educate AncestryDNA customers on the serious limitations Ancestry’s current DNA products.

    I see no reason to think the number chromosome browser users wouldn’t rival the number of people who fully utilize other resources at Ancestry, such as original census documents. And let’s not forget that the rest of Ancestry’s customers benefit and build upon the deeper research that the “power users” do.

    In their recent white paper, Ancestry said, “Our goal is to give AncestryDNA™ customers the best and most accurate information possible to help them in their genealogical research.” I believe that statement. You make profits by providing value for the customer and by maintaining a good reputation. In the long run, will it be good for Ancestry’s reputation when more and more customers come to realize that AncestryDNA’s “hints” and DNA Circles provide information for which there is no verification at

    If AncestryDNA customers are going to get the BEST and most accurate information possible for their genealogical research, they need a chromosome browser and/or matching segment information. Now.

    I discussed some possibilities for making chromosome browsing more useful, more powerful and more accessible. I’m sure other people could come up with numerous innovations to make the most of the unrealized potential:

  5. Roberta,

    I just want to take a moment to THANK YOU for a really, REALLY, exceptional post and to let you know that it is very much appreciated. I have been involved with genetic genealogy using FTDNA for well over ten years now and after finding your blog site I have enjoyed and made use of the information you have posted from time to time and always found it valuable. But this — this post– is really a step above and beyond, and I can’t let it go without thanking you for it. The detail and scope of your presentation and associated links makes it a very superior discussion of this topic. I consider myself to be an “old timer” now and have spent considerable time answering queries and doing research for the members of my Brewer surname project — enough to understand the effort required to explain things clearly and at an appropriate depth for the subject and therefore have an even greater appreciation for your pulling all this together. WELL DONE!

    Thanks again, A doting fan,

    Richard Brewer Brewer Surname Project administrator

  6. The bloggers who are apologists for AncestryDNA and their lack of a chromosome browser are doing a great disservice to the genetic genealogy community. They should be shouting from the rooftops, “If you test with AncestryDNA, DO NOT TRUST the hints and circles because they are most likely garbage. You MUST also transfer your data to Gedmatch or FTDNA to get the full picture.”

    Remember when AncestryDNA initially refused to give us the raw data but relented when “influential bloggers” insisted?

    If all the major DNA bloggers demanded a chromosome browser and clearly stated that they do not recommend testing at ancestryDNA, we might get somewhere.

    Furthermore, all serious genetic genealogy conferences should refuse to allow ancestryDNA from participating. We don’t need another marketing pitch telling us how great AncestryDNA is when we know that it isn’t.

    We are counting on the leaders of genetic genealogy to speak for us.
    Please don’t let us down.

    • I agree. Ancestry is quickly becoming the leader in Autosomal DNA. Ancestry’s policies will have outsize influence on perceptions and expectations. If Ancestry continues to withhold matching segment information, many people won’t even know what they’re missing. They’ll simply assume autosomal DNA is inherently lousy.

      “You MUST also transfer your data to Gedmatch or FTDNA to get the full picture.”

      Yes. But it’s even worse than that, really. You can go to GEDmatch or FTDNA, but the overwhelming majority of your matches won’t come with you.

  7. Roberta,

    As someone who has become inundated with genetic genealogy in the past year, and has used your blog as my primary learning source, I find this post to be phenomenally above even your best, which is saying a lot.

    Let’s just say that I’m glad blogs are free. 😉


  8. Dear Roberta,

    this is one of the best posts I’ve read from you, if not the best! It provides an excellent overview of how atDNA matches should be handled, gives a walkthrough of all three big companies and shows in a very objective way why we need (as in serious genealogists and DNA genealogists) need a chromosome browser at Ancestry.

    As someone living for a couple of years in Asia where negative feedback and strong opinions are being given in a very subtle way I do like how well you brought your points across. Be it the large number of wrong family trees, the misconception many people have (to quote some responses I got: “I looked at your names in the family tree and don’t see a fit, so we’re not related” – this on a proven large triangulated group member) or falling into some of the so easy to fall into traps like not checking if all people share on the same location.

    Still, your message comes over loud and clear and I do believe that it’s indeed better to focus on FTDNA and 23andme instead of Ancestry even though I might be missing a couple of new relatives from their large pool and maybe even some proven and well researched family trees but in general I avoid adding so much frustrations with Ancestry not providing us the tools.

    I, for one, spend my money rather on 23andme and FTDNA (when it comes to DNA tests). I hope a lot of other people do so as well and we continue to inform those people interesting in DNA testing about the pros and cons of each companies offers (offers in tools besides the offers in products).

    Your excellent article is a great start and I will use it to point people to it in the future. Can’t be explained better!

  9. THANK YOU for an excellent article that covers so many aspects of genetic genealogy, but best of all, the insane Browser Wars. I think you nailed it when you said Ancestry already has our money. They have no reason to provide anything other than a sub-standard product. People are buying it so why would they care?

    I have to say that “Our goal is to give AncestryDNA™ customers the best and most accurate information possible to help them in their genealogical research.” is one of the most disingenuous statements I have read in a very long time. Their goal is to sell the cheapest product at as high a price as the market will bear. Accurate information doesn’t enter into the calculation anywhere that I have found.

    I will continue to tell anyone who asks, any time I speak, or any client I work with, NOT to bother with Ancestry DNA. The only possible exception would be adoptees and I tell them to view the results very sceptically and then verify using GedMatch or FTDNA.

    • Yes, AncestryDNA already has our money…….but if they want anymore of it they should give us what they promised us.
      AncestryDNA promised us a better mousetrap in lieu of a chromosome browser.

      Well does anyone think that this Circles feature (with a $49/year upcharge) is in any way approximate to or better than a chromosome browser?

      • Unfortunately the Circles don’t appear to be any more accurate than the shaky leaves.

        I have 3 circles, two are man and wife. As luck would have it, I have triangulated both of them using GedMatch and FTDNA and Ancestry cousins who uploaded their data. I know this comes as a surprise, but only one of the Circles was accurate. The second (to the wife) triangulates on a totally different chromosome string and the individuals who match are not listed. The individuals on the first circle whose data I can check do NOT share any DNA with me on the second string, although they are listed as matches on the wife’s Circle. Circles are NOT a substitute for a Chromosome Browser – not even close.

  10. You have wonderful articles! Thank you for the passion and depth of research that you use to thoroughly explain your posts.
    For two years, I sent survey after survey to asking them for a chromosome browser, along with other tools that would help triangulate and make a person’s matches more useful. At the time, I did not know the other services provided these tools already! I was actually thankful that I had thousands more matches with which is why we had our family test through this service. However, had we known that their only real updates were to reduce matches and provide “social media” type novelties, I would have recommended the other testing sites.
    No genealogist wants irrelevant matches, but as you noted, there were removed matches that had already been proven. It is this loss of matches, in particular, that makes me question why we should believe that NOW has gotten it right. I have lost critical Acadian, African and other ethnic matches which in some cases are already under-served. I can applaud any company that tries to make improvements, but to call these changes “great” would clearly be a matter of perspective. I hope that they will consider adding useful genealogical tools to work with their extensive records and trees. I agree with you that they lack real financial incentive to make some of our requested changes which is unfortunate. I also believe that they could learn from this and get out in front of things a little better in the future, as their handling of this does cause them to lose a bit of credibility in my eyes.
    23andme seems to have the best combination of tools. However, their tree functionality leaves much to be desired, and there are tons of anonymous matches. Our family may transition to this service over time.
    I did enjoy your details regarding the Estes line, too. I have numerous matches with that family (although I am not sure of my connection yet-especially with no chromosome browser), and I saw many of the incorrect details within trees (i.e. Barbara Brock). It is a reminder to all of us that you should never accept that a tree is accurate simply because there are so many trees with the same information.

      • Ah, I should have guessed! Seems like there are hundreds of those trees. I never really assumed that any of the trees were completely factual. It’s just that short of other evidence (chromosome browser, documents, etc.), people often have little else to go on without being able to perform the type of in-depth research you do. Before I share my tree, I always warn that it is speculative in many ways and that if there is no supporting documentation attached to a person they should proceed with extreme caution. It often is a way to work collaboratively to prove some of the ancestral lines. Keep up the great work!

  11. Thanks for the well thought out article, Roberta, I have something to add from the folks at DNAadoption. Adoptees are not just interested in the large segments, the small segments also build the proof of the numerous lines involved. In addition, the accumulation of surnames from all the matches provides a way to evaluate new lines that join into the tree. After a large number of matches at FTDNA and AncestryDNA, when a new surname is added in on a new marriage to the tree we evaluate its likelihood by its occurrence in the large ancestors of matches lists. We lost part of this wealth of information with the pruning of our trees.
    Also, you neglected to mention the rather crucial fact that adoptees, who typically do not have a family tree, really have nothing to evaluate against the tree matching that occurs in Ancestry behind the scenes. We have to count on the matches that we can convince to upload to Gedmatch or FTDNA to both form the “bones” on which to build the branches of a tree and then to eventually try to flesh out a speculative tree on our own.
    The whole DNA circles and the way it is implemented is ill-advised. On the DNA home page of the adoptees I work with, there was a personalized message from Ancestry, urging that private trees be made public to use for their DNA circles. I am sure that the community would not benefit from a bunch of highly speculative trees being made public. We urge our students to make those trees private and non-searchable so as not to provide what may be false leads to others.
    We try to vocalize these needs at every opportunity to AncestryDNA who turns a deaf ear to the pleas.
    Having worked in high tech businesses for many years, I feel that the real reason for not providing a chromosome browser, is based on a behind the scenes business decision that is a secret to the public. I have seen this happen many times over the years, where certain very key players in the high tech industry have declined to honor even very large customers’ requests for changes and implementations because the company had something far different in mind in their long range business plans. Until we can appeal to them with a business case, they are going to continue to ignore us.
    Please do all you can do to help with this cause. We are happy to supply any additional ammunition you might need.

    Diane Harman-Hoog (on behalf of the 6 million adoptees in this country, many of who are looking for information on medical records and family heritage).

    • Thanks for your comment, Diane. I am an adoptee who discovered a second cousin match on Ancestry and was able to determine “within a reasonable degree of certainty” my birth grandmother. As you note, I too have refused to place what I have determined on a public family tree on Ancestry until such time as I have sufficient proof that indeed the people I have found are my birth family. When I receive requests for this information, I reply with the above explanation and it seems to satisfy those DNA matches who see me on their cousin matching list without a published tree. And as Roberta point out, this search for family is extremely frustrating given the 95% (maybe it’s a little less) incorrect information I have found included in others’ trees.

  12. Roberta, I was directed to your blog only a few weeks ago as a place to learn more about DNA genealogy. I’ve read many of the articles you have written and very much appreciate your willingness to share what you have learned with others. This article is certainly the best yet. I’m slowly beginning to understand more about the science of DNA as it relates to genealogy. While I am fairly new to DNA, I am not new to either genealogy or to technology. I’ve been doing family research since I was a teenager (45 years). If you’ve never had to write a letter to an unknown clerk in some Podunk county asking for vital records and then wait six weeks for incorrect information, you haven’t really fully experienced the joys of genealogy! The advent of the internet and services like have revolutionized the field of genealogical research and have made it possible for the average person with few resources to find family history and make connections to other family members in a way that was unimaginable just 25 years ago. Some people who have commented to your post are either too young to know about those days or they have very short memories.
    I took the Ancestry DNA test three years ago. My mother and two sisters have also been tested. The results of these tests have completely changed my life in ways that are too great to comment here. Suffice it to say that as flawed as Ancestry may be, the results have been life changing.
    I appreciate the FAIR way you have presented all of the facts, pointing out the shortcomings of Ancestry and yet not completely disparaging them. Rather than be angry as some have obviously chosen to be, I consider the service they offer as a first step into DNA genealogy. I never expected any one source or service to give me ALL of the answers at one time. I get it… If I want to do more… I have to go test with other services. At this point, I honestly still haven’t decided if it will be worth the effort or the cost. I guess I’ve just been doing this too long. Now if I could just get some of my close matches to share their family trees or respond to my emails….

  13. “The consumers have already spent their money on the only DNA product Ancestry offers, so there is no incentive there… As long as Ancestry’s typical customer doesn’t know or care, I doubt that development of a chromosome browser will happen…”

    AncestryDNA’s success in selling kits is based on a false message — the message in the ad highlighted above: “Looking for your ancestors? Just say ‘ahh'”

    Finding ancestors with DNA is obviously not so easy. And it’s impossible with the tools Ancestry currently provides.

    That’s why genetic genealogists have to hammer away at AncestryDNA’s shortcomings. Potential customers need to understand that what Ancestry delivers is not nearly as magical as what they advertise. If that distinction becomes clear enough to cause some pain or embarrassment for Ancestry, we might see some progress. If not, it’s business as usual.

    I hope ancestry has great success in getting as many people tested as possible, but we can’t be afraid to make Ancestry squirm. If we don’t apply enough pressure, enormous possibilities will go to waste.

  14. Excellent presentation of the issues and even handed analysis of the pros and cons associated with making enhanced DNA tools available, Roberta, good job.
    I think as more of us get more and more time and money invested in this research, there will be a growing desire to raise the confidence in the validity of what we think we have.
    It is a nagging doubt in the minds of many of us for instance, that that huge body of royal ancestors really does depend on whether grandpa Ezekial married Maud Matilda, or that prized Mayflower discovery hinges on a similar validation.
    ..and yup, there are 2 trails. The paper trail and the genetic one, and only one of them discounts human nature to reveal true human behaviour. And we do seek truth.
    Ancestry has collaborated with another vendor to bring the Family Tree Maker product to its subscribers.
    The close co-ordination, and automatic mutual updating of online Ancestry and FTM is a prized tool in my efforts.
    I wonder if Ancestry might try a similar co-operative effort to have another entity develop the chromosome browser, at their expense, and co-market that product separately, like FTM, making it available to those users who wish to avail themselves of the additional capability.
    It would be a tool that would have access to the autosomal data that folks have already paid for at Ancestry, and would no doubt bring in many more potential DNA users who would have a research tool linked to their Ancestry body of work.

  15. Superlative! Clearly, one of the best articles I’ve read. So — your chart showing your cousins’ matches, the one on chromosome 15, if I match with you and have a significant overlap with your father’s relations on that segment, 25046620 to 26761172, 5.7 cMs, is that a false match, IBS or IBD? Or a possible IBD that we can’t pinpoint just yet, as I suspect? I feel like I’m trying to match numbers on a massive lottery that the entire world has participated in and my ticket is pages long.

  16. hi

    Very very good document.

    I have but 2 issues, some say, that the ftdna matrix matches must include yourself so it a match and some say it does not , which is correct.?

    And I find it confusing when one does chromosome browing on ftdna when one get 2 or 3 people who align with each other on the same chromosome bar and then show up as a bolded ancestral surname, when yourself does not have that surname in one’s tree.
    I initially entered only 8 surnames, but now have 11 pages of surnames added automatically by Ftdna because of my family tree ( over 900 people). Is this bolded ancestral surname the same person who is one the chromosome bar?

    kind regards

    • If you are comparing people in the matrix that you already know are a match to you because they showed up matching you on the same segment in the browser, then you don’t need to include yourself in the matrix. What you are trying to determine is whether the other people match each other. You already know they match you.

      Family Tree DNA matches your surnames with their surnames so you’ll know what the common possibilities are. After that, it’s up to you to look further for a common ancestor by any of those surnames.

  17. Roberta,

    I guess what I don’t understand is why Ancestry provides a way to download the raw data from an AncestryDNA kit, but doesn’t offer a way to download the segment data. Their arguments for not wanting to provide support for complex things apparently don’t apply to providing the raw data as a file – why should providing a file with segments in it be any different? Of course, I would like to also be able to get ICW information – but 23andMe doesn’t provide that (directly) either. It seems to me we should stop begging for a chromosome browser UI and just ask for the match data as files.


  18. Roberta, once again a truly great blog. In addressing the issue of bad data on Ancestry, I don’t know what others have found; but I find that folks who have done detailed research on their ancestors hide the data or protect it from the “masses,” kind of like the librarians who disliked people touching the books. Sharing of discovered knowledge would go a long way towards cleaning up the database.

  19. Great article.

    They could have a chromosome browser for us that have a subscription to ancestry. For those that don’t they could include it along with what they are charging for DNA circles ($49) (which they have over priced).

  20. Roberta, Great article, to save it on my PC, I used “DNA Chromosome Browser War by Roberta Estes, 30 Nov 2014”. I suggest a similar title for your articles about DNA.

  21. Regarding the small segments, the 67% false positive result in Durand refers to results that have been put through a statistical phasing routine. As ordinary consumers, we are limited to unphased data, so the false positive rate would be much higher for us. Likewise, the segment sizes in Ralph & Coop’s paper appear to refer to phased data.

    Since I have tested a father/mother/child trio, I can phase some data. When I looked at some small segments, they broke up into multiple very small fragments, so I remain quite skeptical about the utility of such segments, which I called pseudo-segments in my JoGG column “Identity Crisis..” (see URL below)

  22. Actually I think AncestryDNA’s stubbornness and irresponsibility is a blessing in disguise.

    With their financial pockets and marketing domination, they would easily crush FTDNA if they presented a viable, responsible approach. Why would anybody test at FTDNA if AncestryDNA actually included useful tools such as a chromosome browser or a matrix or sorts and filters? Certainly not for the few trees at FTDNA that are basically unreadable with their tree software (I guess that’s another story or gripe).

    For a long time, many of us advocated FTDNA mainly because FTDNA has the largest database. Well that hasn’t been true for quite awhile on the autosomal front. After Autosomalgeddon, I still have 4 times the matches at AncestryDNA, which is probably reasonable based on their database size.

    Another point, is that if wasn’t for AncestryDNA, we would probably still be paying about $299 for an autosomal test at FTDNA or 23andMe.

    At one time, I thought 23andMe was the gorilla that was going to stomp on FTDNA with their introduction of the $99 tests but 23andMe self destructed last year and I would say has become almost a non-factor. (I do have some good matches at 23andMe so still glad to have it).

    So while I chafe at some of the Family Finder limitations, I do worry about their long term health as a company. I am sure Max and Bennett are quietly pleased that AncestryDNA has steadfastly championed a marginal product and will rue the day if AncestryDNA decides that maybe they should offer their customers anything that resembles a solid analytical product.

    (btw, I do appreciate your very detailed articles)

  23. Great article! You reminded me of the matrix again! I just confirmed 3 Irish matches, all matching with 10cm or more! Now I have to find the common ancestor…

  24. As usual, you make this sound so easy but since it isn’t, I have to print your educational articles in hopes of learning more. Any chance of seeing your articles in PDF format? Sometimes I feel like I’m printing a book.

  25. Blaine Bettinger also has a post on small segments at
    Cece Moore also has a post on small segments at
    Things are really starting to get interesting. The big bloggers are starting to really dig deep on what a lot of us really need to know. I have always wanted to see if John Walden’s stats hold water when families with robust trees have multiple generations of family tested and compared and results made available for the public.

  26. Roberta, I have two questions to get me started in the matrix and chromosome browser search.
    1. How is the cM from a matching “Cousin” get extracted from the Chromosome segment numbers?
    ” ‘C’ matches you on chromosome 7 from position 84806918 to 105528436 for a total of 20.08 cM”
    – I have 26 Family Finder matches unique to the same segment on this chromosome in Chrom Browser. Can I assume the match is to my mother’s side of the family if none of these matches have my father’s tested male relatives and descendants (from another mother) in common with them?
    2. Are Chromosomes “divided” into segments which designate a male or female ancestor? I’ve never seen about this but have wondered.
    Sometimes explainations of how all these charts work don’t appear obvious to me so maybe I’m missing something 🙂 – I’ll be reading and catching up via online lessons about DNA asap.

    • Hi Sherry. I’m not sure I understand your questions, but I’ll try to answer what I think you’re asking.

      When you match someone at either FTDNA or 23andMe, you can compare your results in their chromosome browser. Then you can download in a file the results. Those results will show the matches to the people displayed in the chromosome browser. So if you are comparing your DNA to that of your cousin, the resulting table will show the chromosomes and segments where you match.

      You can’t assume much in genetic genealogy. If all of those people match on the same segment to you and to each other, then they would be from the same side of your family, unless your family in endogamous.

      I only wish chromosomes were divided. The best you can do is to test parents and grandparents and that will in effect divide yours for you.

  27. Yes, I wasn’t very clear. In the “position 84806918 to 105528436” example from FF Chrom Browser, where does the 20.08 cM mentioned come from – I can’t extract it thru subtraction of any part of the positions, so do I have to take their word for it as one of the mysteries of DNA results? 🙂
    Also, none of my 26 matches who fall onto that position (almost identically) on Chrom 7 are known cousins. A few have family trees but I’m having trouble finding a common ancestor which will be no surprise I’m sure.

  28. Thanks for this in-depth article. I too have read and learned from many of your articles and really appreciate your work. You are correct, AncestryDNA is great at marketing. I think they want to keep their customers in the dark. I also think they and 23andMe promote the idea that the DNA results shown in a chromosome browser is a breech of privacy and that someone else can glean their private information from this data (I don’t see it that way). I don’t think they say this, but it’s implied by how they do business. My mother was adopted, so I have tested with all three companies and while none have a perfect combination, I will still do my testing to determine my relationships through FTDNA. I’m hoping more people will do the research to realize that the information that AncestryDNA is providing is lacking a big component. Even though AncestryDNA gives you a ballpark guess at what your relationship may be, I want to be able to determine that for myself and have the ability to compare the results. Thanks again!

  29. I found this very interesting, and have shared with others. I often share your posts with folks who have been matched to me, and who are newer to this. I greatly appreciate all of your time and effort in giving us interesting posts in ways that are easier to understand than many. The science is still beyond me at times, but I’m getting better, with your frequent useful pointers to help me (and so many others.) Again, many, many thanks!

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  38. Hi,
    Just an FYI that something has changed at GedMatch. You can no longer see segments smaller than 6.5cM even if you search for them specifically. That change was made this week apparently. I had used segments 5 cM and up to identify links between matches.

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  40. Roberta, I hope this finds it’s way to you. Thank you for your wisdom, and when do you sleep? I have trouble keeping up with e-mail, work, studying DNA and researching, plus an occational “field trip”. You’re amazing. I need your opinion. I downloaded both FTDNA and AncestryDNA as a combined file to gedmatch. In your response of 12/1 it says I need to get permission (?) from the Ancestry matches to get their raw data. I think I misunderstood. Gedmatch gives me where I match, Chrom, Start/Stop, Cm etc. from Ancestry, plus the contact information. Do I need to contact all of the matches to get permission to use their raw data? The only thing I need to work on is how to get the Gedmatch information into Excel. After that, I need to understand what all the raw data means.
    Don Sheaffer

    • I’m surmising from this. I think what was meant is that when you match someone at Ancestry, you have to ask them to download their data to GedMatch. You can’t do it for them.

      • I have a known cousin who did AncestryDNA, which I downloaded to Gedmatch and it shows our start and stop for Chromosome 1, all of our match data, but I didn’t ask her permission, and she didn’t down load her info to gedmatch. I just want to make sure I didn’t violate any privacy protocols. Don

        • If she has given you permission to control her kit, which she apparently has, that’s between you and her to work out privately. What I meant was that if you match someone who you don’t know at Ancestry, that you cannot download their results to GedMatch. The person who controls the kit on the Ancestry account has to do it.

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