DNA Inherited from Grandparents and Great-Grandparents

Philip Gammon, our statistician friend has been working with crossover simulations again in order to tell us what we might expect relative to how much DNA we actually inherit from grandparents and great-grandparents.

We know that on average, we’re going to inherit 25% of our DNA from each grandparent – but we also know in reality that’s not what happens. We get more or less than exactly 25% from each person in a grandparent pair. It’s the total of the DNA of both grandparents that adds up to 50% for the couple.

How does this work, and does it make a difference whether we inherit our grandparent’s DNA through males or females?

Philip has answers for us as a result of his simulations.

DNA Inheritance from Grandparents

Philip Gammon:

When we consider the DNA that we inherit from our ancestors the only quantity that we can be certain of is that we receive half of our autosomal DNA from each parent. This is delivered to us in the form of the 22 segments (i.e. chromosomes) provided by our mothers in the ova and the 22 segments/chromosomes provided by our fathers in the sperm cell. Beyond parent-child relationships we tend to talk about averages. For instance, we receive an average of one quarter of our DNA from each of our four grandparents and an average of one-eighth of our DNA from each of our eight great-grandparents etc.

These figures vary because our parents didn’t necessarily pass on to us equal portions of the DNA that they received from their parents. The level of variation is driven by the number (and location) of crossover events that occur when the ova and the sperm cells are created.

The statistics relevant to the recombination process were discussed in detail in a previous article (Crossovers: Frequency and Inheritance Statistics – Male Versus Female Matters). With the availability these days of abundant real data from direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies (such as the 23andMe data utilised by Campbell et. al. in their paper titled “Escape from crossover interference increases with maternal age”) we can use this information as a basis for simulations that accurately mimic the crossover process. From these simulations we can measure the amount of variation that is expected to be observed in the proportions of DNA inherited from our ancestors. This is precisely what I have done in simulations run on my GAT-C model.

Before looking at the simulation results let’s anticipate what we expect to see. The previous article on crossover statistics revealed that there are an average of about 42 crossovers in female meiosis and about 27 in male meiosis. So, on the set of 22 chromosomes received from our mothers there will have been an average of 42 crossover locations where there was a switch between DNA she inherited from one parent to the other. That means that the DNA we inherit from our maternal grandparents typically comes in about 64 segments, but it won’t necessarily be 32 segments from each maternal grandparent. Chromosomes that experienced an odd number of crossovers contain an even number of segments (half originating from the grandmother, the other half from the grandfather) but chromosomes with an even number of crossovers (or zero!) have an odd number of segments so on these chromosomes you must receive one more segment from one grandparent than the other. And of course not all segments are the same size either. A single crossover occurring close to one end of the chromosome results in a small segment from one grandparent and a large segment from the other. All up there are quite a few sources of variation that can affect the amount of DNA inherited from grandparents. The only certainty here is that the amount inherited from the two maternal grandparents must add to 50%. If you inherit more than the average of 25% from one maternal grandparent that must be offset by inheriting less than 25% from the other maternal grandparent.

Gammon grandparents maternal percent.png

The above chart shows the results of 100,000 simulation runs. Excluding the bottom and top 1% of results, 98% of people will receive between 18.7% and 31.3% of their DNA from a maternal grandparent. The more darkly shaded region in the centre shows the people who receive a fairly even split of between 24% and 26% from the maternal grandparents. Only 28.8% of people are in this region and the remainder receive a less even contribution.

On the set of 22 chromosomes received from fathers there will have been an average of around 27 crossovers so the DNA received from the paternal grandparents has only been split into around 49 segments. It’s the same amount of DNA as received from mothers but just in larger chunks of the grandparent’s DNA. This creates greater opportunity for the father to pass on unequal amounts of DNA from the two grandparents so it would be expected that results from paternal inheritance will show more variation than from maternal inheritance.

Gammon grandparents paternal percent.png

The above chart shows the results of 100,000 simulated paternal inheritance events. They are more spread out than the maternal events with the middle 98% of people receiving between 16.7% and 33.3% of their DNA from a paternal grandparent. Only 21.9% of people receive a fairly even split of between 24% and 26% from each paternal grandparent as shown by the more darkly shaded region in the centre.

Gammon grandparents percent cM.png

To help with the comparison between maternal and paternal inheritance from grandparents the two distributions have been overlayed on the same scale in the chart above. And what are the chances of receiving a fairly even split of grandparents DNA from both your mother and your father? Only 6.3% of people can be expected to inherit an amount of between 24% and 26% of their DNA from all four grandparents.

Now I’ll extend the simulations out to the next generation and examine the variation in proportions of DNA inherited from the eight great-grandparents. There are effectively four groups of great-grandparents:

  • Mother’s maternal grandparents
  • Mother’s paternal grandparents
  • Father’s maternal grandparents
  • Father’s paternal grandparents

The DNA from group 1 has passed to you via two maternal recombination events, from your mother’s mother to your mother, then from your mother to you. On average there would have been 42 crossovers in each of these recombination events. Group 4 comprised two paternal recombination events averaging only 27 crossovers in each. The average amount of DNA received along each path is the same but along the group 1 path it would comprise of more numerous smaller segments than the group 4 path. Groups 2 and 3 would be somewhere between, both consisting of one maternal and one paternal recombination event.

Gammon greatgrandparents percent cM.png

The above chart shows the variation in the amount of DNA received from members of the four groups of great-grandparents. 25,000 simulations were performed. The average amount from any great-grandparent is 12.5% but there can be considerably more variation in the amount received from the father’s paternal grandparents than from the mother’s maternal grandparents. Groups 2 and 3 are between these two extremes and are equivalent. It doesn’t matter whether a paternal recombination follows a maternal one or vice versa – the end result is that both paths consist of the same average number of crossovers.

The table below shows the range in the amount of DNA that people receive from their great-grandparents. The bottom and top 1% of outcomes have been excluded. Note that these are based on a total of 3,418 cM for the 22 autosomes which is the length observed in the Campbell et. al. study. The average of 12.5% of total DNA is 854.5 cM:

Group 1st percentile 99th percentile
Mother’s maternal grandparents 522 cM 1219 cM
Mother’s paternal grandparents 475 cM 1282 cM
Father’s maternal grandparents 475 cM 1281 cM
Father’s paternal grandparents 426 cM 1349 cM

As a matter of interest, in each of the 25,000 simulations the amount of DNA received from the eight great-grandparents were sorted into order from the highest cM to the lowest cM. The averages of each of these eight amounts were then calculated and the results are below:

Gammon greatgrandparents average cM.png

On average, a person receives 1,129 cM from the great-grandparent that they inherited the most of their DNA from and only 600 cM from the great-grandparent that they received the least of their DNA from. But none of us are the result of 25,000 trials – we are each the product of recombination events that occurred once only. The above chart shows the average or typical variation in the amount of DNA received from the eight great-grandparents. Half of people will have experienced more variation than shown above and half of people will have experienced less variation.

Could you have received the same amount of DNA from all eight grandparents? Of course, it is possible, but it turns out that it is extremely unlikely. The average is 12.5% (854.5 cM) so anything between 12% (820.4 cM) and 13% (888.7 cM) could be considered as being close to this figure. The results reveal that this did not occur in any of the 25,000 simulations. Not one person received amounts between 12% and 13% from all eight great-grandparents.

Widening the criteria, I observe that there were 13 instances in the 25,000 simulations where people received between 11.5% and 13.5% of their DNA from all eight great-grandparents. That is still an extremely rare occurrence. Expanding the range further to between 11% and 14% saw a total of 126 instances, but this still only represents about half a percent of all observations. I think that we just have to face the fact that unless we are an extremely rare individual then we will not have inherited close to equal amounts of DNA from our eight great-grandparents.

Now, back to Roberta.

Thanks Philip.

Now we see why we might not inherit the same amount of DNA from our grandparents and great-grandparents.

We Don’t Have Equal Numbers of Matches on Tree Branches

This also might explain, at least in part, why people don’t have the same number of DNA matches on each branch of their tree.

Of course, other reasons include:

  • Uneven family sizes
  • Fewer or more cousins testing on different branches
  • Recent immigration meaning there are few people available to test
  • Family from a region where DNA testing and/or genealogy is not popular
  • Endogamy which dramatically increases the number of people you will match

Real Life Example

In our real-life example, two grandchildren are fortunate to have three grandparents and one great-grandparent available for matching.

For comparison purposes, let’s take a look at how many matches each grandchild has in common with their grandparents and great-grandparent.

The line of descent is as follows:

Gammon line of descent.png

Both end of line testers are female children.

The transmission path from their great-grandmother is:

  • Female to their paternal grandmother
  • Female to their father
  • Male to female tester

The transmission path from their maternal grandfather is:

  • Male to their mother
  • Female to female tester

The transmission path from their maternal grandmother is:

  • Female to their mother
  • Female to female tester

This first chart shows the number of common matches.

Matches Grand 1 Grand 2 GGF GGM Grand 3 Grand 4
Female 1 absent 1061 absent 238 529 1306
Female 2 absent 1225 absent 431 700 1064

It’s interesting that the matches in just 3 generations to the great-grandmother vary by 55%. The second tester has almost twice as many matches in common with her great-great-grandmother as she does the first tester. There a difference in the earlier generation, meaning matches to Grand 2, but only about 23%. That difference increased significantly in one generation.

The second chart shows the total number of matching cM with the matching family member.

Total cM Grand 1 Grand 2 GGF GGM Grand 3 Grand 4
Female 1 absent 1688 absent 713 1601 1818
Female 2 absent 1750 absent 852 1901 1511

We can see that the amount of DNA inherited from a grandparent does correlate with the number of matches to that grandparents. The more DNA shared, of course the better the chances of sharing that DNA with another person. However, multiple factors may be involved with why some people have more or fewer matches.



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19 thoughts on “DNA Inherited from Grandparents and Great-Grandparents

  1. Thank you for posting this. Without following every step in the calculations, I appreciate the reasons for the uneven spread in my DNA matches in different lines.

  2. Great article. This helps explain why I have some 5-7th maternal cousins matches on FTDNA FamilyFinder (FF), but don’t match a known 4th cousin.

  3. I enjoy from ALL your posts, and learn from all of them. I am an only child, and my parents and grandparents are long dead. I am working to trangulate my 3rd, 4th, and even 5th cousins. The Shared cM chart helps, but as you mentioned, the dearth of records (in the south), the endogomy that the isolation of the westward movement forced, as well as my lack of living relatives makes the job difficult!

    Again, thanks!

  4. I was also wondering about this. I have apparently inherited almost 25% of my Dad’s paternal grandma’s DNA. I actually share the same amount of her DNA with a couple of my Dad’s first cousins that are closer in age with me. They were also surprised by it. The rest of my DNA tests (I tested with several companies) support this also. My brothers haven’t tested yet.

  5. With endogamy, I guess it would be possible for the amount of shared DNA from either the two paternal grandparents or the two maternal grandparents to add up to more than 50% if a set of grandparents came from the same community?

  6. Thank you for this information. I understood we all do not receive equal portions from each grandparent, or great grandparent, but this puts it into statistical form what to expect or what is likely. I have been disappointed that my predicted ethnicity included so little German, but my strong German ancestry is on my father’s paternal grandparents!

    • I also expected a lot more German than I got (I have German on both sides), but some it is apparently in the Iberian percentage – with movement of our ancestors.

  7. Of course everything is different when the parents are first cousins, or there are other links between family lines.

  8. The total cMs in each generation never changes – it always has to add up to 100%. But the number of segments is skewed for female vs male transmissions. There is a maximum disparity from our parents, but with each succeeding generation going back, the differences tend to even out. We’ll usually see the differences in our grandparent segments, and often in great grandparent segments, but I don’t think we’ll see much difference in the 6C to 8C levels, where we have most of our Matches in a genealogical timeframe. Again, the total cMs in any generation will be the same, while the number of segments increases (by about 69 additional segments in each generation). At some point the segments are so small that we won’t see shared DNA segments with Matches, and cannot identify those segments easily.

  9. Absolutely fascinating! This could partly explain why I have so few Smith matches, though I have a Smith grandfather.

  10. Turns out, this concept is more than fascinating – it’s helping greatly in my research. I did more digging after reading this post the first time. Though I knew what meiosis was, I watched a couple of videos that helped me better get my hands around it.

    I’ve been looking more closely at matches I have added to DNA Painter, and have been able to identify crossovers in mine and my mom’s DNA. This has helped me better qualify which common ancestor a given segment likely comes from, and allows me to better focus research on those lines.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  11. Hello Roberta,I have quite a high DNA match with 2 different people one proved to be a half second cousin with whom I share a great grandfather,the other with slightly higher DNA has caused me a problem because although there is one common surname,that is found in only one greatgreatgreat grandmother and there is no proof that proves a relationship because the name is common in the area.Nothing else no common surnames back to at least 6 generation s back.This is very frustrating for both of us.
    Assuming our tree information is correct and there is no good reason to doubt this,what reason could you suggest for this mystery?
    Peter Radford
    United Kingdom

  12. Hello. Thank you for this. I only have one question – no need to know percentages. My grandfather was German(long deceased). His mother was German(long deceased) Do i have German DNA and if I do …is that from my grandfather’s side because his mom was German? I find this confusing. Many thanks,

    • Yes, if I understand the question correctly. From your description, your grandfather was half German. And if his other parent was from a border country, it may be impossible to tell the difference. Country boundaries are political, not genetic.

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