Mitochondrial DNA: Part 2 – What Do Those Numbers Mean?

This is the second part in a series about mitochondrial DNA. The first article can be found here:

When people receive their results, generally the first thing they look at is matches, and the second thing is the actual results, found under the Mutations tab.

Mitochondrial personal page mutations.png

We’re going to leave working with matches until after we discuss what the numbers on the Mutations page actually mean.

Fair warning – if you’re not interested in the “science stuff,” then this article probably isn’t for you. We’re going to talk about the different kinds of mutations and how they affect your results and matching. I promise to make the science fun and understandable.

However, it’s only fair to tell you that you don’t need to understand the nitty-gritty to make use of your results in some capacity. We will be covering how to use every tab on your mitochondrial DNA page, above, in future articles – but you may want to arm yourself with this information so you understand why tools, and matching, work the way they do. All matches and mismatches are not created equal!

The next article in the series will be “Mitochondrial DNA: Part 3 – Haplogroups Unraveled” in which we’ll discuss how haplogroups are assigned, the differences between vendors, and how haplogroup results can be utilized for genealogy.

If you have your full sequence mitochondrial results from Family Tree DNA, it would be a good idea to sign on now, or to print out your results page so you can refer to your results while reading this article.

Results

I’m using my own results in these examples.

When you click on the “Results” icon on your personal page, above, this is what you’ll see.

Mitochondrial mutations

You can click to enlarge this image.

After you read the information about your haplogroup origin, your eyes will drift down to the numbers below, where they will stop, panic spreading throughout your body.

Never fear – your decoder ring is right here.

Where Did Those Numbers Come From?

The numbers you are seeing are the locations in your mitochondrial DNA where a mutation has occurred. Mutations, in this sense, are not bad things, so don’t let that word frighten you. In fact, mutations are what enables genetic genealogy to work.

Most of the 16,569 locations never change. Only the locations that have experienced a mutation are shown. Locations not listed have not experienced a mutation.

The number shown is the location, or address, in the mitochondrial DNA where a mutation has occurred.

However, there is more than one way to view your results.

Two Tabs – rCRS and RSRS

Mitochondrial RSRS

Click to enlarge this image.

You’ll notice that there are two tabs at the top of the page. RSRS values are showing initially.

rCRS and RSRS are abbreviations for “revised Cambridge Reference Sequence” and “Reconstructed Sapiens Reference Sequence.”

The CRS, Cambridge Reference Sequence was the reference model invented in 1981, at Cambridge University, when the first full sequencing of mitochondrial DNA was completed. Everyone has been compared to that anonymous individual ever since.

The problem is that the reference individual was a member of haplogroup H, not a haplogroup further back in time, closer to Mitochondrial Eve. Mitochondrial Eve was not the first woman to live, but the first woman to have a line of continuous descendants to present. You can read more about the concept of Mitochondrial Eve, here and about rCRS/RSRS here.

Using a haplogroup H person for a reference is kind of like comparing everyone to the middle of a book – the part that came later is no problem, but how do you correctly classify the changes that preceded the mutations that produced haplogroup H?

Think of mitochondrial DNA as a kind of biological timeline.

Mitochondrial Eve to rCRS.png

In this concept example, you can see that Mitochondrial Eve lived long ago and mutations, Xs, that formed haplogroups accrued until haplogroup H was born, and additional mutations continued to accrue over thousands of years.

Mitochondrial Eve to H and J.png

Haplogroup J, a different haplogroup, was born from one of mitochondrial Eve’s descendants with a string of their own mutations.

The exact same process occurred with every other haplogroup.

You can see a bare-bones tree in the image below, with H and J under different branches of R, at the bottom.

Mitochondrial bare bones tree.png

Using the rCRS model, the descendants of haplogroup J born today are being compared to the rCRS reference person who is a descendant of haplogroup H.

In reality, everyone should be being compared directly to Mitochondrial Eve, or at least someone much closer to the root of the mitochondrial phylotree than haplogroup H. However, when the CRS and then the revised CRS (rCRS) was created, scientists didn’t know as much as they do today.

In 2012, Dr. Doron Behar et al rewrote the mitochondrial DNA phylotree in the paper A “Copernican” Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root by discerning what mitochondrial Eve’s DNA looked like by tracking the mutations backwards in time.

Then, the scientists redrew the tree and compared everyone to Mitochondrial Eve at the base of the tree. The RSRS view shows those mutations, which is why I have more mutations in the RSRS model than in the rCRS model where I’m compared with the haplogroup H person who is closer in time than Mitochondrial Eve. In other words, mutations that were considered “normal” for haplogroup J because haplogroup H carried them, are not considered mutations by both haplogroup J and H because they are both being compared to Mitochondrial Eve.

Today, some papers and individuals utilize the CRS version, and others utilize the RSRS version. People don’t adapt very well or quickly to change. Complicating this further, the older papers, published before 2012, would continue to reference rCRS values, so maintaining the rCRS in addition to the RSRS seemed prudent.

You can see the actual mtDNA haplotree here and I wrote about how to use it here.

Let’s look at the differences in the displays and why each is useful.

The Cambridge Reference Sequence

My rCRS results look a little different than the RSRS results.

Mitochondrial RSRS

Click to enlarge this image.

I have more mutations showing on the RSRS page, above, than in the rCRS page below, including only the information above the second row of black headers.

Mitochondrial rCRS page

Click to enlarge.

That’s because my RSRS results are being compared to Mitochondrial Eve, much further back in time. Compared to Mitochondrial Eve, I have a lot more mutations than I have being compared to a haplogroup H individual.

Let’s look at the most common example. Do you see my mutation at location 16519C?

Mitochondrial 16519.png

In essence, the rCRS person carried this mutation, which meant that it became “normal” and anyone who didn’t have the mutation shows with a mutation at this location.

Therefore, today, you’re very likely to have a mutation at location 16519C in the rCRS model.

In the RSRS results below, you can see that 16519C is missing from the HVR1 differences.

Mitochondrial DNA RSRS mutations.png

You can see that the other two mutations at locations 16069 and 16126 are still present, but so are several others not present in the rCRS model. This means that the mutations at locations 16129, 16187, 16189, 16223, 16230, 16278 and 16311 are all present in the rCRS model as “normal” so they weren’t reported in my results as mutations.

However, when compared to Mitochondrial Eve, the CRS individual AND me would both be reported with these mutations, because we are both being compared to Mitochondrial Eve.

Another difference is that at the bottom of the rCRS page you can see a list of mutations and their normal CRS value, along with your result.

Mitochondrial HVR1 rCRS mutations.png

For location 16069, the normal CRS value is C and your value is T.

Why don’t we have this handy chart for the RSRS?

We don’t need it, because the value of 16069C in the RSRS model is written with the normal letter preceding the location, and the mutated value after.

Mitochondrial nucleotides.png

You might have noticed that you see 4 different letters scattered through your results. Why is that?

Letters

The letters stand for the nucleotide bases that comprise DNA, as follows:

  • T – Thymine
  • A – Adenine
  • C – Cytosine
  • G – Guanine

Looking at location 16069, above, we see that C is the normal value and T is the mutated value.

Let’s look at different kinds of mutations.

Transitions, Transversions and Reversions

DNA is normally paired in a particular way, Ts with As and Cs with Gs. You can read more about how that works here.

Sometimes the T-As and C-Gs flip positions, so T-C, for example. These are known as transitions. A mutation with a capital letter at the end of the location is a transition.

For example, C14352T indicates that the normal value in this location is C, but it has mutated to T. This is a transition and T will be capitalized. The first letter is always capitalized.

If you notice that one of your trailing letters in your RSRS results is a small letter instead of a capital, that means the mutation is a transversion instead of a transition. For example, C14352a.

Mitochondrial DNA transitions and transversions.png

You can read more about transitions and transversions here and here.

When looking at your RSRS results, your letter before the allele number is the normal state and the trailing noncapital letter is the transversion. With C14352a, C is the normal state, but the mutation caused the change to a, which is a small letter to indicate that it is a transversion.

Original Value

Typical Transition Pairing (large trailing letter)

Unusual Transversion Pairing (small trailing letter)

T

C a or g

A

G

c or t

C

T

a or g

G A

c or t

An exclamation mark (!) at the end of a labeled position denotes a reversion to the ancestral or original state. This means that the location used to have a mutation, but it has reverted back to the “normal” state. Why does this matter? Because DNA is a timeline and you need to know the mutation history to fully understand the timeline.

The number of exclamation marks stands for the number of sequential reversions in the given position from the RSRS (e.g., C152T, T152C!, and C152T!!).

Mitochondrial DNA reversions.png

This means that the original nucleotide at that location was C, it changed to T, then back to C, then back to T again, indicated by the double reversion-!!. Yes, a double reversion is very, very rare.

Insertions

Mitochondrial DNA insertions.png

Many people have mutations that appear with a decimal point. I have an insertion at location 315. The decimal point indicates that an insertion has occurred, and in this case, an extra nucleotide, a C, was inserted. Think of this as DNA cutting in line between two people with assigned parking spaces – locations 315 and 316. There’s no room for the cutter, so it’s labeled 315.1 plus the letter for the nucleotide that was inserted.

Sometimes you will see another insertion at the same location which would be noted at 315.2C or 315.2A if a different nucleotide was inserted.

Complex insertions are shown as 315.XC which means that there was an insertion of multiple nucleotides, C, in this case, of unknown length. So the number of Cs would be more than 1, but the number was not measurable so the unknown “X” was used.

Some locations, such as 309 and 315 are so unstable, mutating so often, that they are not included in matching.

Deletions

Deletions occur when a piece of DNA is forever removed. Once deleted, DNA cannot regenerate at that position.

A deletion is indicated by either a “d” or a “-“ such as 522d or 522-.

Deletions at locations 522 and 523 are so common that they aren’t utilized in matching either.

Extra and Missing Mutations

On the RSRS tab, you’ll notice extra and missing mutations. These are mutations that vary from those normally found in people who carry your haplogroup. Missing and extra mutations are your own personal DNA filter that allow you to have genealogically meaningful matches.

Mitochondrial DNA extra and missing mutations.png

Extra mutations are mutations that you have, but most people in your haplogroup don’t.

Missing mutations are mutations that most people have, and you don’t.

Heteroplasmies

A heteroplasmy is quite interesting because it’s really a mutation in progress.

What this means is that you have two versions of the DNA sequence showing in your mitochondrial DNA at that location. At a specific location, you show both of two separate nucleotides. Amounts detected of a second nucleotide over 20% are considered a heteroplasmy. Amounts below 20% are ignored. Generally, within a few generations, the mutation will resolve in one direction or the other – although I have seen some heteroplasmies that seem to be persistent for several generations.

Heteroplasmies are indicated in your results by a different letter at the end of the location, so for example, C16069Y where the Y would indicate that a heteroplasmy had been detected.

The letter after the location has a specific meaning; in this case, Y means that both a C and a T were found, per the chart below.

Mitochondrial DNA heteroplasmy.png

Heteroplasmy Matching

Technically, using the example of C16069Y, where Y tells us that both C and T was found, this location should match against anyone carrying the following values:

  • C (original value)
  • T (mutated value)
  • Y (letter indicating a heteroplasmy)

However, currently at Family Tree DNA, the heteroplasmy only counts as a match to the Y (specific heteroplasmy indicator) and the CRS value or C, but not the mutated value of T.

Genetic Distance

The difference in matching locations is called the genetic distance. I wrote about genetic distance in the article, Concepts – Genetic Distance which has lots of examples.

When you have unusual results, they can produce unexpected consequences. For example, if a heteroplasmy is found in the HVR 1 or 2 region, and a woman’s child doesn’t have a heteroplasmy, but does have the mutated value – the two individuals, mother and child, won’t be shown as a match at the HVR1/2 level because only exact matches are shown as matches at that level.

That can be pretty disconcerting.

If you notice something unusual in your results, and you match someone exactly, you know that they have the same anomaly. If you don’t match the person exactly, you might want to ask them if they have the same unusual result.

If you expect to match someone, and don’t, it doesn’t hurt to begin discussions by asking about their haplogroup. While they might be hesitant to share their exact results values with you, sharing their haplogroup shouldn’t be problematic. If you don’t share at least the same base haplogroup, you don’t need to talk further. You’re not related in a genealogically relevant timeframe on your matrilineal line.

If you do share the same haplogroup, then additional discussion is probably warranted about your differences in results. I generally ask about the unusual “extra and missing” mutations, beginning with “how many do you have?” and discussing from there.

Summary

I know there’s a lot to grasp here. Many people don’t really want to learn the details any more than I want to change my car’s oil.

I understand that completely which is why I provide both Quick Consults and Personalized DNA Reports for those who want information either quickly or as a report for either Y or mitochondrial DNA. Quick Consults allow up to an hour to answer a specific question, and Personalized DNA Reports provide you with a written document of 70-100 pages that explains your results and what they mean to you.

You can also call, e-mail or e-chat with the support department at Family Tree DNA which is free.

Next Article – Haplogroups

Your haplogroup, which we’ll discuss in the next article, can eliminate people as being related to you in the past hundreds to thousands of years, but you need the information held in all of your 16,569 locations to perform granular genealogical matching and to obtain all of the available information. In order to obtain all 16,569 locations, you need to order the mtFull Sequence test at Family Tree DNA.

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Thank you so much.

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33 thoughts on “Mitochondrial DNA: Part 2 – What Do Those Numbers Mean?

  1. Hi Roberta,
    You’re the greatest!! I have a question.
    My MtDNA Haplogroup when I tested at 23&me is N1b2. I read what the haplogroup referred to historically and was very pleased with my results!

    I just got my results from FtDNA and my MtDNA Haplogroup is N1b1b1, which if I read correctly is different from N1b2. I like the explanation for N1b2 better, can I stick with 23andme?!

    I will finish reading all your installments before asking a real question.

    Thank for all you do, to explain all this “stuff” to us!

    Regards,
    Arthur Sissman

      • I found this on Jason’s Genealogy Journey, “My mtDNA haplogroup was N1b2 when I first received my results, but it later changed to N1b1b1, reflecting an adjustment in nomenclature.” I have not been able to confirm this…………
        Regards,
        Arthur

  2. Another succinctly informative post! I don’t know how you do it. Always find your writing as if you know exactly how to explain the way I prefer to learn!
    But I do want more of this content, I’m with you on not changing the oil!

  3. How do insertions at 309 & 315 and deletions at 522 & 523 impact genetic distance? If they are not used for matching then they wouldn’t be used to calculate GD, right?

    Mark

  4. Roberta,
    “WOW” is the only word I can think of to describe this article. Definitely some of it flys right over the top of my head…lol, but it is very interesting to know. This will help me my alot in my Paternal Grandmother’s line for sure. Generally speaking I am still learning alot more on DNA Genealogy and never realized how little I do know. I definitely love this article and will use it on my Aunt to learn more on my Paternal Grandmother’s line to aid in my paper trail for sure….WOW….thanks. I do love that you interjected the other articles that you written before into this article…especially on the genetic distance…definitely will be using this on my Brother test to find out more on my Father’s biological past to get closer to finding out more and who my biological Grandfather was.
    Thanks again and WOW! 😉

    Regards,

    Cindy Carrasco

  5. I noticed that at the bottom of my Results page there is an option to download a FASTA file. What is a FASTA file? Will you be talking about that as part of your mtDNA series?

  6. I’m not aware of a better explanation for Mt results than this excellent post. Thank you DNA Explained!

  7. Roberta
    Very timely as I just had the mtFull Sequence done (I used your link). My haplogroup is T2b2b. Several questions:
    1. The defining variant is C16304T!. I would expect to see that location in My Results as one of the differences from the baseline. But I don’t. Can you explain?
    2. There are 50 other testers with a genetic distance of zero. Does that take into account the Extra and Missing Mutations?
    3. Is there a 3rd party site you recommend uploading the mtDNA results to as a contribution to further refinement of the tree?

  8. Thank you so much for explaining this! I could never figure it all out and what it means, despite my many internet searches. I love your blog and look forward to it showing up in my inbox every week.

  9. What happented to Part 3 ?
    You wrote
    “he next article in the series will be “Mitochondrial DNA: Part 3 – Haplogroups Decoded” in which we’ll discuss how haplogroups are assigned, the differences between vendors, and how haplogroup results can be utilized for genealogy.

  10. great article series. you made it really easy to understand the results. i have done the MtDNA full sequence and only have one match at the GD1 level. the rest are 2’s & 3’s. now i know how to understand my results a little better. can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  11. Thanks for the explanation.
    A family member tested the full mtDNA. Her result was H36 and she has 9 – distance 1 matches for 1,2, and coding regions, but absolutely no one at hvr1 or 1&2. I expected to find some more distant matches there.

    When I looked up H36 on the Phylotree, I found it attached to H5’36.
    Is there a relationship between the odd place for H36 and the lack of hvr1 and 2 matches?

    Now I have to explain this to the other relatives 🙂

      • Thanks, Roberta. My own w1e1 just got upgraded to a back mutation, so I guess we can hope. This is a side where we get few matches that we can identify as such.

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