Four Quick Tips to Make Your Mitochondrial DNA Results More Useful

Mitochondrial DNA is a special type of DNA passed from mothers to all of their children, but only females pass it on – unmixed with any DNA from the fathers. This means that mitochondrial DNA provides a laser line focus straight back in time on your mother’s matrilineal line. You can also test your father or his siblings, or grandma herself, to obtain your paternal grandmother’s lineage.


It’s a misperception that mitochondrial DNA is more difficult to use than autosomal DNA. Surnames do change with every generation in your mitochondrial lineage, but they change in autosomal for women too.

Mitochondrial DNA is the ONLY way to focus on just the tester’s matrilineal line and can be used in conjunction with autosomal DNA. Mitochondrial DNA also reaches further back in time, beyond that 5-6 generation approximate threshold for autosomal.

Because the surnames change, females lines are inherently more difficult to research, so it’s fortuitous that we have an extra genetic tool that we can utilize.

There are easy steps we can take to increase the productivity of mitochondrial research, beginning with making sure you have taken the full sequence test at Family Tree DNA. (Which just happens to be on sale right now for Mother’s Day – click here.)

The HVR1 and HVR2 “mtPlus” level is introductory. You’ll need the all 16,569 mitochondria locations tested with the mtFull full sequence test for high-resolution matching.

How can you make your mitochodrial DNA results more useful genealogically? Good question. Here are 4 quick tips to do exactly that!

Tip 1: Trees

The backbone of genealogy is trees.

Million Mito tree.png

  • Please be sure you have a tree uploaded and extended as far as possible on your matrilineal line by clicking on myTree at the top of your personal page and either uploading a GEDCOM file or creating your tree. Because surnames do change, a complete matrilineal tree is important for other people to find descendant surnames of your ancestor – and vice versa. That’s exactly how I connected my ancestor to her family.

Tip 2: Earliest Known Ancestor

Million Mito account settings.png

  • Complete your Earliest Known Direct Maternal (matrilineal) Ancestor field by clicking on the drop-down by your name, then on “Account Settings” at upper right, then on “Genealogy” and “Earliest Known Ancestors,” shown below with the red stars. Complete your information.

Million Mito ancestor.png

Note that “earliest known” means on your direct matrilineal line only – your mother’s mother’s mother’s line. It does NOT mean your “oldest” ancestor on your mother’s side of the tree. That’s a common misconception. They aren’t asking for that guy who lived to be 104.

Enter the name for the last known person in your mother’s mother’s mother’s direct line – which of course is a female.

When finished, be sure to click on Save, near the bottom.

Million MIto eka

Click to enlarge

Your Earliest Known Ancestor is the critically important information shown on the matches page, above. You want to see other people’s genealogy information, and they want to see yours.

Please feel free to contact people who don’t have any Earliest Known Ancestor showing and suggest that they complete this field. I’ve actually had very good luck emailing my matches who don’t provide that information and include “how-to” instructions. Feel free to send them a link to this article!

Tip 3: Matches Map

When surnames or an obvious connection are lacking, geography can be critically important. If all testers completed the location of their Earliest Known Ancestor on the Matches Map, everyone would benefit.

Million Mito matches maps.png

  • Select Matches Map, above, to update the geographic location of your earliest known ancestor.

Million Mito map.png

Matches Map information allows matches to see if their ancestors are located near to yours (and vice versa) and may unveil previously unknown information, such as a mysterious Scandinavian history for the person whose earliest known ancestor is the white pin found in Germany. Why are the majority of her full sequence matches found in Scandinavia?

Maybe a cluster of matches in a common geography will lead you to discover a new ancestor – or a previously veiled history. You don’t know what you don’t know, which is why we test.

Tip 4: Check Back

  • Check your matches from time to time to see if someone has updated their information or you’ve missed a critical new match.

I discovered a brick-wall-breaking match that I had been inadvertently ignoring for almost 6 years. (My bad!!!)

Check your own information occasionally to be sure you didn’t forget to update your contact information, ancestors or tree with new discoveries.

Get Results!

Concerned that you won’t understand your results? Here’s a step-by-step series about how to navigate and interpret the various tools and options on your personal mtDNA page.

If you haven’t yet tested your mitochondrial DNA, now is the perfect time. Many people are taking advantage of recent “enforced leisure” to focus on genealogy research. Click here to check your account, order or upgrade.



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28 thoughts on “Four Quick Tips to Make Your Mitochondrial DNA Results More Useful

  1. I have a problem that I can’t seem to find an answer to it. My father was born to an unwed mother and an unknown father. She never told him the man’s name. She became pregnant at age 17. My father was an only child and he had no sons. Is it possible, through my DNA to find that unknown grandfather of mine? I’ve taken the test at both FTDNA & just recently at My Heritage. All players in this were from Germany. I do have my father’s mother’s lineage down 6 or 7 generations on paper. But of course, nothing on his father, since he did not even know his name. The matches I do come up with seem to be from his mother’s families. Then there are others that I have no clue where they come from. My closest matches so far are 3-5th cousins. Without names to go by, I don’t know how to use them. Can you help me make sense of all this? I’m really at sea in this DNA matching thing.

    • My understanding is that If your Dad is deceased, and has no siblings, you don’t have a way to find his Y DNA from your test. (unless you have access to some sample of his hair, teeth, etc. to test — very difficult and expensive). Your X DNA is from your Dad’s mother and from your biological mother. You DO have the clue of any unusual autosomal ethnicity that does NOT match your mother or paternal grandmother. The 3rd to 5th cousin matches who don’t fit could be descendants of siblings of Granddad.
      The most reasonable path might be to do standard genealogical research based on Granddad’s approximate age and where he might have lived at the time Dad was conceived. Collect names of possible males and then investigate the unknown matches to see if any Surnames fit. If the area is small and constant in Grandma’s family history, the father might even be connected to some of her extended family.

      • I think you’re confusing mitochondrial DNA and X. Also, X is often not utilized for ethnicity.

      • Actually, a person’s father and his siblings are not the only possible source of his Y haplogroup. *Any* person in the same Y DNA line can reveal this information.

        For example, the son or son’s son of a brother *or* of his father’s brothers. Anyone descended from a Y chromosome ancestor by an all male line.

        So, for example, my 3rd great grandfather had two sons. Now, since I myself am descended from my 3rd great grandfather in a direct male line, that’s enough — just testing myself is sufficient.

        But even if I were female and had no brothers, I could still find my father’s Y DNA haplogroup by testing one of my father’s surviving brothers; or if none survived, by testing one of their sons. Or, if I had to, I could go back to my 3rd great grandfather’s other son — the brother of my 2nd great grandfather — and look to see if he has any living direct male line descendants.

        As it happens, my 2nd great grandfather left lots of direct male line descendants, but even if he hadn’t, his brother also left multiple direct male line descendants down to the present.

        So you might have to do some searching, but it’s possible.

  2. It is helpful to explain that the oldest mtDNA ancestor is the woman on the bottom line of the pedigree chart.

  3. I’ve hit a brick wall with my earliest matrilineal female ancestor (GGG grandmother) who lived near Kiev as did my maternal grandmother. My mtDNA traces back to the Jews in Spain. I’m curious about the route those ancestors took to reach Ukraine (called Russia back then).

    I have distant autosomal matches to Hispanic Americans and even some Native Americans, and stronger matches to people with Western and Central European ancestry. But autosomal matches come from all branches of my family tree.

    I made a curious discovery. I was looking at the Toledo, Ohio obituary records for my paternal grandmother’s family. I assumed she was Ashkenazi but my paternal great grandmother and my grandmother’s two older sisters were buried in a Sephardic Jewish cemetery. That was puzzling to me.

  4. My mtDna testing was in 2011, and it is certainly considerably less money today. Nothing has come of my testing although I sure have a huge number of Swedish mtDNA matches. Hopefully, something will be revealed someday because I have not found a Swedish line in my robust tree yet.

    Any serious genealogist needs to include some mtDna testing.

    I was able to get my long-deceased paternal grandmother’s partial Haplogroup from 23 and Me through my male 1C1R who did atDna testing there. He received it through his mother who received it through her mother, whose mother was my paternal grandmother.

    I just though it was neat to have her partial Haplogroup to attach to her profile and use down her matrilineal line.

    Thanks, Roberta, for this post.

  5. I don’t have a lot of close cousins, so most of my autosomal matches are distant endogamic mess with no way to sort out which segment comes from which common ancestor. So Mt-DNA turned out to be much easier to work with, even with the name changing every generation.

    Mt-DNA helped me to quickly validate my papertrail, for both my mt ancestress (Scottish, 8 generations away) and my paternal grand-mother’s (French Canadian, 12 generations away). Beyond that, matches which don’t connect to my ancestresses leave hope for finding a few more generations as new matches appear.

    • I have to add, I couldn’t get back to anymore generation as the trail to my first settler ancestresses were easy to follow, but some of my matches weren’t as lucky. Combining my knowledge of my ancestresses’ grand-daughters and the info of their last known ancestress, we manage to connect quite a few lines.

  6. I can’t get the map to work – i keep clicking the thing that says it will update Adobe Flash Player – and nothing happens. I would love love love to figure out who my mom’s mom’s mom’s mom (born 1826, Hanover, Virginia) was . . . i get a lot of matches (T1a1) – lots with most-distant-female-line-ancestresses with ‘-dotter’ or ‘-datter’ on the end of the name . . . and i am lacking in Scandinavian lines . . . . i am very curious about that line . . . – b

  7. All of your points are well taken, the problem is most of my matches don’t have trees, surname list, most distant ancestor information nor ancestor list and they won’t reply to emails.

    • I’ve actually been going through all the kits I manage making sure all if that info is complete. In some cases, I know people have passed away.

    • Even if they left nothing more than a name and a email, google it, it may lead you to a obituary naming the parents of your match. It doesn’t work every time, but sometimes you hit jackpot.

  8. I’ve done the Full MT-DNA test at FTDNA. All my matches are at Genetic Distance 3. Can I use these matches in any way ??

    • In part, this depends on why. If you have heteroplasmies, for example, then those matches may be closer in time. I would take a look at your results to see if there are any results like that.

      • I’m like that, too. I have two heteoplasmies, so my sister is one genetic distance from me, and others are 2 to 3 genetic distances from me. Interestingly, one of my 3rd cousins has the same mtdna haplogroup as I do (as expected because we have the same matrilineal ancestor), but he might be 4 genetic distances from me.

  9. I took a mtDNA test but I don’t know how to tell if it was a full sequence test. Any advise where to find the information or how I can tell? Thank you.

  10. I like to remind people that it isn’t only your own mtDNA line that can be valuable to you. Actually, it can be useful to know *any* ancestral mtDNA line. And while you can only directly uncover your own — and that only represents your all-female line — other relatives may have different all-female lines that nevertheless lead to your own ancestors.

    For example, I have two Native American ancestors that are of interest to me. Neither is on my mtDNA line, and in fact one is male. But he isn’t on my Y line either. However, he is on the Y line of some of my cousins, a number of whom have tested as Q-M242.

    I just missed being in the mtDNA of another Native American ancestor, the mother of Magdaleine Pany Baudreau. Magdaleine’s father migrated from Quebec to the southern coast of French Louisiana in about 1700. Her mother, however, was simply identified as “une Indienne”.

    At least one of my fellow descendants of Magdaleine appears to be in her mtDNA line, and it turns out that this cousin’s mtDNA is identified at 23andMe as C1b. I share two segments with this cousin — one on chromosome 15 and one on chromosome 18. And wouldn’t you know, I have a Native American segment in the same region as the match on chromosome 15, and another Native American segment in the same region as the match on chromosome 18.

    Does this prove these two segments came from Magdaleine? No, but it’s certainly possible that they could have.

  11. I was just wondering the reason why there is 5-6 generation approximate threshold for autosomal DNA? Is it lack of records, the higher chance of endogamy/multiple common ancestors, the tendency of shared autosomal DNA to decrease over time to below meaningful thresholds or some other reason? I’ve found meaningful matches several generations beyond this but am wondering if I’ve missed something and might have got something wrong!

    • That’s the threshold where ancestors DNA begins to wash out entirely. It’s an approximation and yes, we do find some further back.

  12. I recently took the Mtdna test at your recommendation. The very same morning my results came in I had an email from a close match asking if I had the following surnames in my tree… “Trainer, Adams, ESTES”. I don’t have Estes, that I’m aware of, but I did refer her to your wonderful blog!

  13. In entering my earliest known maternal ancestor, should the location be her place of birth or place of death?

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