DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

If you’re involved in genetic genealogy, you’ve probably noticed the recent announcements by both 23andMe and Ancestry relative to workforce layoffs as a result of declining sales.

Layoffs

In January, 23andMe announced that it was laying off 100 people which equated to 14% of its staff.

Following suit, Ancestry this week announced that they are laying off 100 people, 6% of their work force. They discuss their way forward, here.

One shift of this type can be a blip, but two tends to attract attention because it *could* indicate a trend. Accordingly, several articles have been written about possible reasons why this might be occurring. You can read what TechCrunch says here, Business Insider here, and The Verge, here.

Depending on who you talk to and that person’s perspective, the downturn is being attributed to:

  • Market Saturation
  • No Repeat Sales
  • Privacy Concerns
  • FAD Over

Ok, So What’s Happening?

Between Ancestry and 23andMe alone, more than 26 million DNA tests have been sold, without counting the original DNA testing company, FamilyTreeDNA along with MyHeritage who probably have another 4 or 5 million between them.

Let’s say that’s a total of 30 million people in DNA databases that offer matching. The total population of the US is estimated to be about 329 million, including children, which means that one person in 10 or 11 people in the US has now tested. Of course, DNA testing reaches worldwide, but it’s an interesting comparison indicating how widespread DNA testing has become overall.

This slowing of new sales shouldn’t really surprise anyone. In July 2019, Illumina, the chip maker who supplies equipment and supplies to the majority of the consumer DNA testing industry said that the market was softening after a drop in their 2019 second quarter revenue.

Also last year, Ancestry and MyHeritage both announced health products, a move which would potentially generate a repeat sale from someone who has already tested their DNA for genealogy purposes. I suspected at the time this might be either a pre-emptive strike, or in response to slowed sales.

In November 2019, Family Tree DNA announced an extensive high-end health test through Tovana which tests the entire Exome, the portion of our DNA useful for medical and health analysis.

In a sense, this health focus too is trendy, but moves away from genealogy into an untapped area.

23andMe who, according to their website, has obtained $791 million in venture capital or equity funding has always been focused on medical research. In July of 2018 GlaxoSmithKline infused $300 million into 23andMe in exchange for access to DNA results of their 5 million customers who have opted-in to medical research, according to Genengnews. If you divide the 300 million investment by 5 million opted-in customers, 23andMe received $60 per DNA kit.

That 5 million number is low though, based on other statements by 23andMe which suggests they have 10 million total customers, 80% of which opt-in for medical research. That would be a total of 8 million DNA results available to investors.

Divide $791 million by 8 million kits and 23andMe, over the years, has received roughly $99 for each customer who has opted in to research.

We know who Ancestry has partnered with for research, but not how much Ancestry has received.

There’s very big money, huge money, in collaborating with Big Pharma and others. Given the revenue potential, it’s amazing that the other two vendors, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, haven’t followed suit, but they haven’t.

Additionally, in January, 23andMe sold the rights to a new drug it developed in-house as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases for a reported (but unconfirmed by 23andMe) $5 million.

It’s ironic that two companies who just announced layoffs are the two who have partnered to sell access to their opted-in customers’ DNA results.

My Thoughts

I’ve been asked several times about my thoughts on this shift within the industry. I have refrained from saying much, because I think there has been way too much “hair on fire” clickbait reporting that is fanning the flames of fear, not only in the customer base, but in general.

I am sharing my thoughts, and while they are not entirely positive, in that there is clearly room for improvement, I want to emphasize that I am very upbeat about this industry as a whole, and this article ends very positively with suggestions for exactly that – so please read through.

Regardless of why, fewer new people are testing which of course results in fewer sales, and fewer new matches for us.

My suspicion is that each of the 4 reasons given above is accurate to some extent, and the cumulative effect plus a couple of other factors is the reason we’re seeing the downturn.

Let’s take a look at each one.

Market Saturation

Indeed, we’ve come a very long way from the time when DNA was a verboten topic on the old RootsWeb mailing lists and boards.

Early DNA adopters back then were accused of “cheating,” and worse. Our posts were deleted immediately. How times have changed!

As the technology matured, 23andMe began offering autosomal testing accompanied by cousin matching.

Ancestry initially stepped into the market with Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, but ultimately destroyed that database which included Y and mitochondrial DNA results from Relative Genetics, a company they had previously acquired. People in those databases, as well as who had irreplaceable samples in Sorenson, which Ancestry also purchased and subsequently took offline permanently have never forgotten.

Those genealogists have probably since tested at Ancestry, but they may be more inclined to test the rest of their family at places like Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage who have chromosome browsers and tools that support more serious researchers.

I think a contributing factor is that fewer “serious genealogists” are coming up in the ranks. The perception that all you need to do is enter a couple of generations and click on a few leaves, and you’re “done” misleads people as to the complexity and work involved in genealogical research. Not to mention how many of those hints are inaccurate and require analysis.

Having said that, I view each one of these people who are encouraged for the first time by an ad, even if it is misleading in its simplicity, as a potential candidate. We were all baby genealogists once, and some of us stayed for reasons known only to us. Maybe we have the genealogy gene😊

But yes, I would agree that the majority, by far, of serious genealogists have already tested someplace. What they have not done universally is transferred from 23andMe and Ancestry to the other companies that can help them, such as MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. If they had, the customer numbers at those companies would be higher. We all need to fish in every pond.

Advertising and Ethnicity

The DNA ads over the last few years have focused almost exclusively on ethnicity – the least reliable aspect of genetic genealogy – but also the “easiest” to understand if a customer takes their ethnicity percentages at face value. And of course, every consumer that purchases a test as a result of one of these ads does exactly that – spits or swabs, mails and opens their results to see what they “are” – full of excited anticipation.

Many people have absolutely no idea there’s more, like cousin matching – and many probably wouldn’t care.

The buying public who purchases due to these ads are clearly not early adopters, and most likely are not genealogists. One can hope that at least a few of them get hooked as a result, or at least enter a minimal tree.

Unfortunately, of the two companies experiencing layoffs, only Ancestry supports trees. Genealogy revolves around trees, pure and simple.

23andMe has literally had years to do so and has refused to natively support trees. Their FamilySearch link is not the same as supporting trees and tree matching. Their attempt at creating a genetic tree is laudable and has potential, but it’s not something that can be translated into a genealogical benefit for most people. I’m guessing that there aren’t any genealogists working for 23andMe, or they aren’t “heard” amid the vervre surrounding medical research.

All told, I’m not surprised that the two companies who are experiencing the layoffs are the two companies whose ads we saw most often focused on ethnicity, especially Ancestry. Who can forget the infamous kilt/leiderhosen ad that Ancestry ran? I still cringe.

Many people who test for ethnicity never sign on again – especially if they are unhappy with the results.

Ancestry and 23andMe spent a lot on ad campaigns, ramped up for the resulting sales, but now the ads are less effective, so not being run as much or at all. Sales are down. Who’s to say which came first, the chicken (fewer ads) or the egg (lower sales.)

This leads us to the next topic, add on sales.

No Repeat Sales

DNA testing, unless you have something else to offer customers is being positioned as a “one and done” sale, meaning that it’s a single purchase with no potential for additional revenue. While that’s offered as a reason for the downturn, it’s not exactly true for DNA test sales.

Ancestry clearly encourages customers to subscribe to their records database by withholding access to some DNA features without a subscription. For Ancestry, DNA is the bait for a yearly repeat sale of a subscription. Genealogists subscribe, of course, but people who aren’t genealogists don’t see the benefit.

Ancestry does not allow transfers into their database, which would provide for additional revenue opportunity. I suspect the reason is twofold. First, they want the direct testing revenue, but perhaps more importantly, in order to sell their customer’s DNA who have agreed to participate in research, or partner with research firms, those customers need to have tested on Ancestry’s custom chip. This holds true for 23andMe as well.

Through the 23andMe financial information in the earlier section, it’s clear that while the consumer only pays a one time fee to test, multiple research companies will pay over and over for access to that compiled consumer information.

Ancestry and 23andMe have the product, your opted-in DNA test that you paid for, and they can sell it over and over again. Hopefully, this revenue stream helps to fund development of genetic genealogical tools.

MyHeritage also provides access to advanced DNA tools by selling a subscription to their records database after a free trial. MyHeritage has integrated their DNA testing with genealogical records to provide their advanced Theories of Family Relativity tool, a huge boon to genealogists.

While Family Tree DNA doesn’t have a genealogical records database like Ancestry and MyHeritage, they provide Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, in addition to the autosomal Family Finder test. If more people tested Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, more genealogical walls would fall due to the unique inheritance path and the fact that neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA is admixed with DNA from the other parent.

Generally, only genealogists know about and are going to order Y DNA and mtDNA tests, or sponsor others to take them to learn more about their ancestral lines. These tests don’t provide yearly revenue like an ongoing subscription, but at least the fact that Family Tree DNA offers three different tests does provide the potential for at least some additional sales.

Both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA encourage uploads, and neither sell, lease or share your DNA for medical testing. You can find upload instructions, here.

In summary of this section, all of the DNA testing companies do have some sort of additional (potential) revenue stream from DNA testing, so it’s not exactly “one and done.”

Health Testing Products

As for health testing, 23andMe has always offered some level of health information for their customers. Health and research has always been their primary focus. Health and genealogy was originally bundled into one test. Today, DNA ancestry tests with the health option at 23andMe cost more than a genealogy-only test and are two separate products.

MyHeritage also offers a genealogy only DNA test and a genealogy plus health DNA test.

In 2019, both Ancestry and MyHeritage added health testing to their menu as upgrades for existing customers.

In November 2019, FamilyTreeDNA announced an alliance with Tovana for their customers to order a full exome grade medical test and accompanying report. I recently received mine and am still reviewing the results – they are extensive.

It’s clear that all four companies see at least some level of consumer interest in health and traits as a lucrative next step.

Medical Research and DNA Sales

Both Ancestry and 23andMe are pursuing and have invested in relationships with research institutions or Big Pharma. I have concerns with how this is handled. You may not.

I’m supportive of medical research, but I’m concerned that most people have no idea of the magnitude and scope of the contracts between Ancestry and 23andMe with Big Pharma and others, in part, because the details are not public. Customers may also not be aware of exactly what they are opting in to, what it means or where their DNA/DNA results are going.

As a consumer, I want to know where my DNA is, who is using it, and for what purpose. I don’t want my DNA to wind up being used for a nefarious purpose or something I don’t approve of. Think Uighurs in China by way of example. BGI Genetics, headquartered in China but with an Americas division and facilities in Silicon Valley has been a major research institute for years. I want to know what my DNA is being used for, and by whom. The fact that the companies won’t provide their customers with that information makes me makes me immediately wonder why not.

I would like to be able to opt-in for specific studies, not blindly for every use that is profitable to the company involved, all without my knowledge. No blank checks. For example, I opted out of 23andMe research when they patented the technology for designer babies.

Furthermore, I feel that if someone is going to profit from my DNA, it should be me since I paid for the sequencing. At minimum, a person whose DNA is used in these studies should receive some guarantee that they will be provided with any drug in which their DNA is used for development, in particular if their insurance doesn’t pay and they cannot afford the drug.

Drug prices have risen exponentially in the US recently, with many people no longer able to afford their medications. For example, the price of insulin has tripled over the last decade, causing people to ration or cut back on their insulin, if not go without altogether. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very people whose DNA was sold and used to create a drug had no access to it.

Of course, Ancestry and 23andMe are not required to inform consumers of which studies their DNA or DNA results are used for, so we don’t know. Always read all of the terms and conditions, and all links when authorizing anything.

Both companies indicate that your DNA results are anonymized before being shared, but we now know that’s not really possible anymore, because it’s relatively easy to re-identify someone. This is exactly how adoptees identify their biological parents through genetic matches. Dr. Yaniv Erlich reported in the journal Science November 2018 that more than 60% of Europeans could be reidentified through a genealogy database of only 1.28 million individuals.

I think greater transparency and a change in policy favoring the consumer would go a long way to instilling more confidence in the outside research relationships that both Ancestry and 23andMe pursue and maintain. It would probably increase their participation level as well if people could select the research initiatives to which they want to contribute their DNA.

Privacy Concerns

The news has been full of articles about genetic privacy, especially in the months since the Golden State Killer case was solved. That was only April 2018, but it seems like eons ago.

Unfortunately, much of what has been widely reported is inaccurate. For example, no company has ever thrown the data base open for the FBI or anyone to rummage through like a closet full of clothes. However, headlines and commentary like that attract outrage and hundreds of thousands of clicks. In the news and media industry, “it’s all about eyeballs.”

In one case, an article I interviewed for extensively in an educational capacity was written accurately, but the headline was awful. The journalist in question replied that the editors write the headlines, not the reporters.

One instance of this type of issue would be pretty insignificant, but the news in this vein hasn’t abated, always simmering just below the surface waiting for something to fan the flames. Outrage sells.

For the most part, those within the genealogy community at least attempt to sort out what is accurate reporting and what is not, but those people are the ones who have already tested.

People outside the genealogy community just know that they’ve now seen repeated headlines reporting that their genetic privacy either has been, could be or might be breached, and they are suspicious and leery. I would be too. They have no idea what that actually means, what is actually occurring, where, or that they are probably far more at risk on social media sites.

These people are not genealogists, and now they look at ads and think to themselves, “yes, I’d like to do that, but…”

And they never go any further.

People are frightened and simply disconnect from the topic – without testing.

If, as a consumer, you see several articles or posts saying that <fill in car model> is really bad, when you consider a purchase, even if you initially like that model, you’ll remember all of those negative messages. You may never realize that the source was the competition which would cause you to interpret those negative comments in a completely different light.

I think that some of the well-intentioned statements made by companies to reassure their existing and potential customers have actually done more harm than good by reinforcing that there’s a widespread issue. “You’re safe with us” can easily be interpreted as, “there’s something to be afraid of.”

Added to that is the sensitive topic of adoptee and unknown parent searches.

Reunion stories are wonderfully touching, and we all love them, but you seldom see the other side of the coin. Not every story has a happy ending, and many don’t. Not every parent wants to be found for a variety of reasons. If you’re the child and don’t want to find your parents, don’t test, but it doesn’t work the other way around. A parent can often be identified by their relatives’ DNA matches to their child.

While most news coverage reflects positive adoptee reunion outcomes, that’s not universal, and almost every family has a few lurking skeletons. People know that. Some people are fearful of what they might discover about themselves or family members and are correspondingly resistant to DNA testing. Realizing you might discover that your father isn’t your biological father if you DNA test gives people pause. It’s a devastating discovery and some folks decide they’d rather not take that chance, even though they believe it’s not possible.

The genealogical search techniques for identifying unknown parents or close relatives and the technique used by law enforcement to identify unknown people, either bodies or perpetrators is exactly the same. If you are in one of the databases, who you match can provide a very big hint to someone hunting for the identify of an unknown person.

People who are not genealogists, adoptees or parents seeking to find children placed for adoption may be becoming less comfortable with this idea in general.

Of course, the ability for law enforcement to upload kits to GedMatch/Verogen and Family Tree DNA, under specific controlled conditions, has itself been an explosive and divisive topic within and outside of the genealogy community since April 2018.

These law enforcement kits are either cold case remains of victims, known as “Does,” or body fluids from the scenes of violent crimes, such as rape, murder and potentially child abduction and aggravated assault. To date, since the Golden State Killer identification, numerous cases have produced a “solve.” ISOGG, a volunteer organization, maintains a page of known cases solved, here.

GEDmatch encourages people to opt-in for law-enforcement matching, meaning that their kit can be seen as a match to kits uploaded by law enforcement agencies or companies working on behalf of law enforcement agencies. If a customer doesn’t opt-in, their kit can’t be seen as a match to a law enforcement kit.

Family Tree DNA initially opted-out all EU kits from law enforcement matching, due to GDPR, and provides the option for their customers to opt-out of law-enforcement matching.

Neither MyHeritage, Ancestry nor 23andMe cooperate with law enforcment under any circumstances and have stated that they will actively resist all subpoenaes in court.

ISOGG provides a FAQ on Investigative Genetic Genealogy, here.

The two sides of the argument have rather publicly waged war on each other in an ongoing battle to convince people of the merits of their side of the equation, including working with news organizations.

Unfortunately, this topic is akin to arguing over politics. No one changes their mind, and everyone winds up mad.

Notice I’m not linking any articles here, not even my own. I do not want to fan these flames, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the topic of law enforcement usage itself, the on-going public genetic genealogy community war and resulting media coverage together have very probably contributed to the lagging sales. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that while a great division of opinion exists, and many people are opposed, there are also many people who are extremely supportive.

All of this, combined, intentionally or not, has introduced FUD, fear, uncertainty and doubt – a very old disinformation “sales technique.”

In a sense, for consumers, this has been like watching pigs mud-wrestle.

As my dad used to say, “Never mud-wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, you get muddy and the spectators can’t tell the difference.” The spectators in this case vote with their lack of spending and no one is a winner.

DNA Testing Was A FAD

Another theory is that genealogy DNA testing was just a FAD whose time has come and gone. I think the FAD was ethnicity testing, and that chicken has come home to roost.

Both 23andMe and Ancestry clearly geared up for testers attracted by their very successful ads. I was just recently on a cruise, and multiple times I heard people at another table discussing their ethnicity results from some unnamed company. They introduced the topic by saying, “I did my DNA.”

The discussion was almost always the same. Someone said that they thought their ethnicity was pretty accurate, someone else said theirs was awful, and the discussion went from there. Not one time did anyone ever mention a company name, DNA matching or any other functionality. I’m not even sure they understood there are different DNA testing companies.

If I was a novice listening-in, based on that discussion, I would have learned to doubt the accuracy of “doing my DNA.”

If most of the people who purchased ethnicity tests understood in advance that ethnicity testing truly is “just an estimate,” they probably wouldn’t have purchased in the first place. If they understood the limitations and had properly set expectations, perhaps they would not have been as unhappy and disenchanted with their results. I realize that’s not very good marketing, but I think that chicken coming home to roost is a very big part of what we’re seeing now.

The media has played this up too, with stories about how the ethnicity of identical twins doesn’t match. If people bother to read more than the headline, and IF it’s a reasonably accurate article, they’ll come to understand why and how that might occur. If not, what they’ll take away is that DNA testing is wrong and unreliable. So don’t bother.

Furthermore, most people don’t understand that ethnicity testing and cousin matching are two entirely different aspects of a DNA test. The “accuracy” of ethnicity is not related to the accuracy of cousin matching, but once someone questions the credibility of DNA testing – their lack of confidence is universal.

I would agree, the FAD is over – meaning lots of people testing primarily for ethnicity. I think the marketing challenge going forward is to show people that DNA testing can be useful for other things – and to make that easy.

Ethnicity was the low hanging fruit and it’s been picked.

Slowed Growth – Not Dead in the Water

The rate of growth has slowed. This does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that genetic genealogy or DNA testing is dead in the water. DNA fishes for us 365x24x7.

For example, just today, I received a message from 23andMe that 75 new relatives have joined 23andMe. I also received match notifications from Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.  Hey – calorie-free treats!!!

These new matches are nothing to sneeze at. I remember when I was thrilled over ONE new match.

I have well over 100,000 matches if you combine my matches at the four vendors.

Without advanced tools like triangulation, Phased Family Matching, Theories of Family Relativity, ThruLines, DNAPainter, DNAgedcom and Genetic Affairs, I’d have absolutely no prayer of grouping and processing this number of matches for genealogy.

Even if I received no new matches for the next year, I’d still not be finished analyzing the autosomal matches I already have.

This Too Shall Pass

At least I hope it will.

I think people will still test, but the market has corrected. This level of testing is probably the “new normal.”

Neither Ancestry or 23andMe are spending the big ad dollars – or at least not as big.

In order for DNA testing companies to entice customers into purchasing subscriptions or add-on products, tools need to be developed or enhanced that encourage customers to return to the site over and over. This could come in the form of additional results or functionality calculated on their behalf.

That “on their behalf” point is important. Vendors need to focus on making DNA fun, and productive, not work. New tools, especially in the last year or two, have taken a big step in that direction. Make the customer wonder every day what gift is waiting for him or her that wasn’t there yesterday. Make DNA useful and fun!

I would call this “DNA crack.” 😊

Cooking Up DNA Crack!

In order to assist the vendors, I’ve compiled one general suggestion plus what I would consider to be the “Big 3 Wish List” for each of their DNA products in term of features or improvements that would encourage customers to either use or return to their sites. (You’re welcome.)

I don’t want this to appear negative, so I’ve also included the things I like most about each vendor.

If you have something to add, please feel free to comment in a positive fashion.

Family Tree DNA

I Love: Y and Mitochondrial DNA, Phased Family Matching, and DNA projects

General Suggestion – Fix chronic site loading issues which discourage customers

  • Tree Matching – fix the current issues with trees and implement tree matching for DNA matches
  • Triangulation – including by match group and segment
  • Clustering – some form of genetic networks

MyHeritage

I Love: Theories of Family Relativity, triangulation, wide variety of filters, SmartMatches and Record Matches

General – Clarify confusing subscription options in comparative grid format

  • Triangulation by group and segment
  • View DNA matches by ancestor
  • Improved Ethnicity

Ancestry

I Love: Database size, ThruLines, record and DNA hints (green leaves)

General – Focus on the customers’ needs and repeated requests

  • Accept uploads
  • Chromosome Browser (yes, I know this is a dead horse, but that doesn’t change the need)
  • Triangulation (dead horse’s brother)

23andMe

I Love: Triangulation, Ethnicity quality, ethnicity segments identified, painted and available for download

General – Focus on genealogy tools if you’re going to sell a genealogy test

  • Implement individual customer trees – not Family Search
  • Remove 2000 match limit (which is functionally less after 23andMe hides the people not opted into matching)
  • DNA + Tree Matching

Summary

In summary, we, as consumers need to maintain our composure, assuring others that no one’s hair is on fire and the sky really is not falling. We need to calmly educate as opposed to frighten.

Just the facts.

Other approaches don’t serve us in the end. Frightening people away may “win” the argumentative battle of the day, but we all lose the war if people are no longer willing to test.

This is much like a lifeboat – we all succeed together, or we all lose.

Everybody row!

As genealogists, we need to:

  • Focus on verifying ancestors and solving genealogy challenges
  • Sharing those victories with others, including family members
  • Encourage our relatives to test, and transfer so that their testing investment provides as much benefit as possible
  • Offer to help relatives with the various options on each vendor’s platform
  • Share the joy

People share exciting good news with others, especially on Facebook and social media platforms, and feel personally invested when you share new results with them. Collaboration bonds people.

A positive attitude, balanced perspective and excitement about common ancestors goes a very, very long was in terms of encouraging others.

We have more matches now than ever before, along with more and better tools. Matches are still rolling in, every single day.

New announcements are expected at Rootstech in a couple short weeks.

There’s so much opportunity and work to do.

The sky is not falling. It rained a bit.

The seas may have been stormy, but as a genealogist, the sun is out and a rising tide lifts us all.

Rising tide

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DNAPainter: Painting “Bucketed” Family Tree DNA Maternal and Paternal Family Finder Matches in One Fell Swoop

DNAPainter has done it again, providing genealogists with a wonderful tool that facilitates separating your matches into maternal and paternal categories so that they can be painted on the proper chromosome – in one fell swoop no less.

Of course, the entire purpose of painting your chromosomes is to identify segments that descend from specific ancestors in order to push those lines back further in time genealogically. Identifying segments, confirming and breaking down brick walls is the name of the game.

DNA Painter New Import Tool

The new DNAPainter tool relies on Family Tree DNA’s Phased Family Matching which assigns your matches to maternal and paternal buckets. On your match list, at the top, you’ll see the following which indicates how many matches you have in total and how many people are assigned to each bucket.

DNAPainter FF import.png

Note that these are individual matches, not total matching segments – that number would be higher.

In order for Family Tree DNA to create bucketed matches for you, you’ll need to:

  • Either create a tree or upload a GEDCOM file
  • Attach your DNA kit to “you” in your tree
  • Attach all 4th cousins and closer with whom you match to their proper location on your tree

Yes, it appears that Family Tree DNA is now using 4th cousins, not just third cousins and closer, which provides for additional bucketed matches.

How reliable is bucketing?

Quite. Occasionally one of two issues arise which becomes evident if you actually compare the matches’ segments to the parent with whom they are bucketed:

  • One or more of your matches’ segments do match you and your parent, but additionally, one or more segments match you, but not your parent
  • The X chromosome is particularly susceptible to this issue, especially with lower cM matches
  • Occasionally, a match that is large enough to be bucketed isn’t, likely because no known, linked cousin shares that segment

Getting Started

Get started by creating or uploading your tree at Family Tree DNA.

DNAPainter mytree.png

After uploading your GEDCOM file or creating your tree at Family Tree DNA, click on the “matches” icon at the top of the tree to link yourself and your relatives to their proper places on your tree. Your matches will show in the box below the helix icon.

DNAPainter FF matches.png

I created an example “twin” for myself to use for teaching purposes by uploading a file from Ancestry, so I’m going to attach that person to my tree as my “Evil Twin.” (Under normal circumstances, I do not recommend uploading duplicate files of anyone.)

DNAPainter FF matches link.png

Just drag and drop the person on your match list on top of their place on the tree.

DNAPainter Ff sister.png

Here I am as my sister, Example Adoptee.

I’ve wished for a very, very long time that there was a way to obtain a list of segment matches sorted by maternal and paternal bucket without having to perform spreadsheet gymnastics, and now there is, at DNAPainter.

DNAPainter does the heavy-lifting so you don’t have to.

What Does DNAPainter Do with Bucketed Matches?

When you are finished uploading two files at DNAPainter, you’ll have:

  • Maternal groups of triangulated matches
  • Paternal groups of triangulated matches
  • Matches that could not be assigned based on the bucketing. Some (but not all) of these matches will be identical by chance – typically roughly 15-20% of your match list. You can read about identical by chance, here.

I’ll walk you through the painting process step by step.

First, you need to be sure your relatives are connected to your tree at Family Tree DNA so that you have matches assigned to your maternal and paternal buckets. The more relatives you connect, per the instructions in the previous section, the more matching people will be able to be placed into maternal or paternal buckets.

Painting Bucketed Matches at DNAPainter

I wrote basic articles about how to use DNAPainter here. If you’re unfamiliar with how to use DNAPainter or it’s new to you, now would be a good time to read those articles. This next section assumes that you’re using DNAPainter. If not, go ahead, register, and set up a profile. One profile is free for everyone, but multiple profiles require a subscription.

First, make a duplicate of the profile that you’re working with. This DNAPainter upload tool is in beta.

DNAPainter duplicate profile.png

Since I’m teaching and experimenting, I am using a fresh, new profile for this experiment. If it works successfully, I’ll duplicate my working profile, just in case something goes wrong or doesn’t generate the results I expect, and repeat these steps there.

Second, at Family Tree DNA, Download a fresh copy of your complete matching segment file. This “Download Segments” link is found at the top right of the chromosome browser page.

DNAPainter ff download segments.png

Third, download your matches at the bottom left of the actual matches page. This file hold information about your matches, such as which ones are bucketed, but no segment information. That’s in the other file.

DNAPainter csv.png

Name both of these files something you can easily identify and that tells them apart. I called the first one “Segments” in front of the file name and the second one “Matches” in front of the file name.

Fourth, at DNAPainter, you’ll need to import your entire downloaded segment file that you just downloaded from Family Tree DNA. I exclude segments under 7cM because they are about 50% identical by chance.

DNAPainter import instructions

click to enlarge

Select the segment file you just named and click on import.

DNAPainter both.png

At this point, your chromosomes at DNAPainter will look like this, assuming you’re using a new profile with nothing else painted.

Let’s expand chromosome 1 and see what it looks like.

DNAPainter chr 1 both.png

Note that all segments are painted over both chromosomes, meaning both the maternal and paternal copies of chromosome 1, partially shown above, because at this point, DNAPainter can’t tell which people match on the maternal and which people match on the paternal sides. The second “matches” file from Family Tree DNA has not yet been imported into DNAPainter, which tells DNAPainter which matches are on the maternal and which are on the paternal chromosomes.

If you’re not workign with a new profile, then you’ll also see the segments you’ve already painted. DNAPainter attempts to NOT paint segments that appear to have previously been painted.

Fifth, at DNAPainter, click on the “Import mat/pat info from ftDNA” link on the left which will provide you with a page to import the matches file information. This is the file that has maternal and paternal sides specified for bucketed matches. DNAPainter needs both the segment file, which you already imported, and the matches file.

DNAPainter import bucket

click to enlarge

After the second import, the “matches” file, my matches are magically redistributed onto their appropriate chromosomes based on the maternal and paternal bucketing information.

I love this tool!

At this point, you will have three groups of matches, assuming you have people assigned to your maternal and paternal buckets.

  • A “Shared” group for people who are related to both of your parents, or who aren’t designated as a bucketed match to either parent
  • Maternal group (pink chromosome)
  • Paternal group (blue chromosome)

It’s Soup!!!

I’m so excited. Now my matches are divided into maternal and paternal chromosome groups.

DNAPainter import complete.png

Just so you know, I changed the colors of my legend at DNAPainter using “edit group,” because all three groups were shades of pink after the import and I wanted to be able to see the difference clearly.

DNAPainter legend.png

Your Painted Chromosomes

Let’s take a look at what we have.

DNAPainter both, mat, pat.png

There’s still pink showing, meaning undetermined, which gets painted over both the maternal and paternal chromosomes, but there’s also a lot of magenta (maternal) and blue (paternal) showing now too as a result of bucketing.

Let’s look at chromosome 1.

DNAPainter chr 1 all.png

This detail, which is actually a summary, shows that the bucketed maternal (magenta) and paternal (blue) matches have actually covered most of the chromosome. There are still a few areas without coverage, but not many.

For a genealogist, this is beautiful!!!

How many matches were painted?

DNAPainter paternal total.png

DNAPainter maternal total.png

Expanding chromosome 1, and scrolling to the maternal portion, I can now see that I have several painted maternal segments, and almost the entire chromosome is covered.

Here’s the exciting part!

DNAPainter ch1 1 mat expanded.png

I stared the relatives I know, on the painting, above and on the pedigree chart, below. The green group descends through Hiram Ferverda and Eva Miller, the yellow group through Antoine Lore and Rachel Hill. The blue group is Acadian, upstream of Antoine Lore.

DNAPainter maternal pedigree.png

Those ancestors are shown by star color on my pedigree chart.

I can now focus on the genealogies of the other unstarred people to see if their genealogy can push those segments back further in time to older ancestors.

On my Dad’s side, the first part of chromosome 1 is equally as exciting.

DNAPainter chr 1 pat expanded.png

The yellow star only pushed this triangulated group back only to my grandparents, but the green star is from a cousin descended from my great-grandparents. The red star matches are even more exciting, because my common ancestor with Lawson is my brick wall – Marcus Younger and his wife, Susanna, surname unknown, parents of Mary Younger.

DNAPainter paternal pedigree.png

I need to really focus hard on this cluster of 12 people because THEIR common ancestors in their trees may well provide the key I need to push back another generation – through the brick wall. That is, after all, the goal of genetic genealogy.

Woohoooo!

Manual Spreadsheet Compare

Because I decided to torture myself one mid-winter day, and night, I wanted to see how much difference there is between the bucketed matches that I just painted and actual matches that I’ve identified by downloading my parents’ segment match files and mine and comparing them manually against each other. I removed any matches in my file that were not matches to my parent, in addition to me, then painted the rest.

I’ll import the resulting manual spreadsheet into the same experimental DNAPainter profile so we can view matches that were NOT painted previously. DNAPainter does not paint matches previously painted, if it can tell the difference. Since both of these files are from downloads, without the name of the matches being in any way modified, DNAPainter should be able to recognize everyone and only paint new segment matches.

Please note here that the PERSON unquestionably belongs bucketed to the parental side in question, but not all SEGMENTS necessarily match you and your parent. Some will not, and those are the segments that I removed from my spreadsheet.

DNAPainter manual spreadsheet example.png

Here’s a made-up example where I’ve combined my matches and my mother’s matches in one spreadsheet in order to facilitate this comparison. I colored my Mom’s matches green so they are easy to see when comparing to my own, then sorting by the match name.

Person 1 matches me and Mom both, at 10 cM on chromosome 1. Person 1 is assigned to my maternal side due to the matches above 9 cM, the lowest threshold at Family Tree DNA for bucketing.

In this example, we can see that Person 1 matches me and Mom (colored green), both, on the segment on chromosome 1. That match, bracketed by red, is a valid, phased, match and should be painted.

However, Person 1 also matches me, but NOT Mom on chromosome 2. Because Person 1 is bucketed to mother, this segment on chromosome 2 will also be painted to my maternal chromosome 2 using the DNAPainter import. The only way to sort this out is to do the comparison manually.

The same holds true for the X match shown. The two segments shown in red should NOT be painted, but they will be unless you are willing to compare you and your parents’ matches manually, you will just have to evaluate segments individually when you see that you’re working in a cluster where matches have been assigned through the mass import tool.

If you choose to compare the spreadsheets manually to assure that you’re not painting segments like the red ones above, DNAPainter provides instructions for you to create your own mass upload template, which is what I did after removing any segment matches of people that were not “in common” between me and mother on the same chromosomal segment, like the red ones, above.

Please note that if you delete the erroneous segments and later reimport your bucketed matches, they will appear again. I’m more inclined to leave them, making a note.

I did not do a manual comparison of my father’s side of the tree after discovering just how little difference was found on my mother’s side, and how much effort was involved in the manual comparison.

Creating a Mass Upload Template and File

DNAPainter custom mass upload.png

The instructions for creating your own mass upload file are provided by DNAPainter – please follow them exactly.

In my case, after doing the manual spreadsheet compare with my mother, only a total of 18 new segments were imported that were not previously identified by bucketing.

Three of those segments were over 15cM, but the rest were smaller. I expected there would be more. Family Tree DNA is clearly doing a great job with maternal and paternal bucketing assignments, but they can’t do it without known relatives that have also tested and are linked to your tree. The very small discrepancy is likely due to matches with cousins that I have not been able to link on my tree.

The great news is that because DNAPainter recognizes already-painted segments, I can repeat this anytime and just paint the new segments, without worrying about duplicates.

  • The information above pertains to segments that should have been painted, but weren’t.
  • The information below pertains to segments that were painted, but should not have been.

I did not keep track of how many segments I deleted that would have erroneously been painted. There were certainly more than 18, but not an overwhelming number. Enough though to let me know to be careful and confirm the segment match individually before using any of the mass uploaded matches for hypothesis or conclusions.

Given that this experiment went well, I created a copy of my “real” profile in order to do the same import and see what discoveries are waiting!

Before and After

Before I did the imports into my “real” file (after making a copy, of course,) I had painted 82% of my DNA using 1700 segments. Of course, each one of those segments in my original profile is identified with an ancestor, even if they aren’t very far back in time.

Although I didn’t paint matches in common with my mother before this mass import, each of my matches in common with my mother are in common with one or the other of my maternal grandparents – and by using other known matches I can likely push the identity of those segments further back in time.

Status Percent Segments Painted
Before mass Phased Family Match bucketed import 82 1700
After mass Phased Family Match bucketed import 88 7123
After additional manual matches with my mother added 88 7141

While I did receive 18 additional matching segments by utilizing the manually intensive spreadsheet matching and removal process, I did not receive enough more matches to justify the hours and hours of work. I won’t be doing that anymore with Family Tree DNA files since they have so graciously provided bucketing and DNAPainter can leverage that functionality.

Those hours will be much better spent focusing on unraveling the ancestors whose stories are told in clusters of triangulated matches.

I Love The Import Tool, But It’s Not Perfect

Keep in mind that the X chromosome needs a match of approximately twice the size of a regular chromosome to be as reliable. In other words, a 14 cM threshold for the X chromosome is roughly equivalent to a 7 cM match for any other chromosome. Said another way, a 7 cM match on the X is about equal to a 3.5 cM match on any other chromosome.

X matches are not created equal.

The SNP density on the X chromosome is about half that of the other chromosomes, making it virtually impossible to use the same matching criteria. I don’t encourage using matches of less than 500 SNPs unless you know you’re in a triangulated group and WITH at least a few larger, proven matches on that segment of the X chromosome.

Having said that, X matches, due to their unique inheritance path can persist for many generations and be extremely useful. You can read about working with the X chromosome here and here.

I noticed when I was comparing segments in the manual spreadsheet that I had to remove many X matches with people who had identical matches on other chromosomes with me and my mother. In other words, just because they matched my mother and me exactly on one chromosome, that phasing did not, by default, extend to matching on other segments.

I checked my manually curated file and discovered that I had a total of seven X matches that should have been, and were, painted because they matched me and Mom both.

DNAPainter X spreadsheet example.png

However, there were many that didn’t match me and Mom both, matching only me, that were painted because that person was bucketed (assigned) to my maternal side because a different segment phased to mother correctly.

On the X chromosome, here’s what happened.

DNAPainter maternal X.png

You can see that a lot more than 7 bright red matches were painted – 26 more to be exact. That’s because if an individual is bucketed on your maternal or paternal side, it’s presumed that all of the matching segments come from the same ancestor and are legitimate, meaning identical by descent and not by chance. They aren’t. Every single segment has an inheritance path and story of its own – and just because one segment triangulates does NOT mean that other segments that match that person will triangulate as well.

The X chromosome is the worst case scenario of course, because these 7 cM segments are actually as reliable as roughly 3.5 cM segments on any other chromosome, which is to say that more than 50% of them will be incorrect. However, some will be accurate and those will match me and mother both. 21% of the X matches to people who phased and triangulated on other chromosomes were accurate – 79% were not. Thankfully, we have phasing, bucketing and tools like this to be able to tell the difference so we can utilize the 21% that are accurate. No one wants to throw the baby out with the bath water, nor do we want to chase after phantoms.

Keep in mind that Phased Family Matching, like any other tool, is just that, a tool and needs some level of critical analysis.

Every Segment Has Its Own Story

We know that every single DNA segment has an independent inheritance path and story of its own. (Yes, I’ve said that several time now because it’s critically important so that you don’t wind up barking up the wrong tree, literally, pardon the pun.)

In the graphic above of my painted X chromosome matches, only the six matches with green stars are on the hand-curated match list. One had already been painted previously. The balance of the bright red matches were a part of the mass import and need to be deleted. Additionally, one of the accurate matches did not upload for some reason, so I’ll add that one manually.

I suggest that you go ahead and paint your bucketed segments, but understand that you may have a red herring or two in your crop of painted segment matches.

As you begin to work with these clusters of matches, check your matching segments with your parents (or other family members who were used in bucketing) and make sure that all the segments that have been painted by bulk upload actually match on all of the same segments.

If you have a parent that tested, there is no need to see if you and your match match other relatives on that same side. If your match does not match you and your parent on some significant overlapping portion of that same segment, the match is invalid. DNA does not “skip generations.”

If you don’t have a parent that has tested, your known relatives are your salvation, and the key to bucketed matches.

The great news is that you can easily see that a bulk match was painted from the coloring of the batch import. As you discover the relevant genealogy and confirm that all segments actually match your parent (or another family member, if you don’t have parents to test,) move the matching person to the appropriately colored ancestral group.

I further recommend that you hand curate the X chromosome using a spreadsheet. The nature of the X makes depending on phased matching too risky, especially with a tool like DNAPainter that can’t differentiate between a legitimate and non-legitimate match. The X chromosome matches are extraordinarily valuable because they can be useful in ways that other chromosomes can’t be due to the X’s unique inheritance path.

What About You?

If you don’t have your DNA at Family Tree DNA and you have tested elsewhere, you can transfer your DNA file for free, allowing you to see your matches and use many of the Family Tree DNA tools. However, to access the chromosome browser, which you’ll need for DNA painting, you’ll need to purchase the unlock for $19, but that’s still a lot less than retesting.

Here are transfer instructions for transferring your DNA file from 23andMe, Ancestry or MyHeritage.

If you have not purchased a Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA and don’t have a DNA file to transfer, you can order a test here.

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Thank you so much.

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Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?

When I first started this blog, my goal was to provide explanations and examples of genetic genealogy topics so that there would be fewer questions and easier answers.

That sounded like a great idea, but the reality of the situation is that the consumer market for autosomal DNA testing has exploded – meaning more and more consumers with more and more questions.  Compounding that situation, the consumers who purchase these tests today, especially on impulse, and mostly I’m referring to Ancestry.com here, often have absolutely no idea what to expect or even what they want except that Ancestry will find their ancestors for them.  That’s because that’s what Ancestry tells them in their advertising.

So, in the big picture, the questions and inquiries that experienced people are currently receiving are becoming less specific and more general and often exhibit a lack of understanding of what DNA testing can do.  It’s frustrating to parties on both sides of the fence, but I’m glad people are asking because it means they are interested and willing to learn.

Rather than approach this topic from a technical perspective of how to work with autosomal DNA, I’d like to talk about what can be done with autosomal DNA testing from a newbie perspective.  The person who just got their results back and are saying to themselves, “OK, now what can I do with this?”

However, there is lots “how to” information in this article for everyone if you click on the links.  If nothing else, this gives you a tool to send to those overly excited newbies who are starry eyed but have no clue how to proceed.  Remember, you were once new too!

This is part 1 of a two part series.  The second part will focus on how to make contact with your matches successfully.  But now, let’s pretend it’s day 1 and you just got your autosomal test results back.

Why Did You Test?

The first question to ask yourself is why did you test in the first place?  If your answer is “because Ancestry had a sale,” that’s fine, but then you’ll need to read all four options to know what you can do with autosomal DNA.

1.  I want to meet other people I’m related to.

Ok, but the first thing here you’re going to have to define is the word “related.”  You are likely related to everyone on your match list.  I said likely, because there may be some people there whose DNA simply matches yours by chance.  For the most part, and especially for those people who are your closest matches, you’re related somehow. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how – meaning through which ancestor.  This is the genealogy jigsaw puzzle of you!

All three of the major vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe show you your closest matches first on your match list.

autosomal 101 FTDNA

Do you want to meet your DNA cousins only if you can identify a common ancestor?  Do you want to work with them on genealogy? The answers to these questions will help sort through the rest of what to do and how.

If your goal is to contact your matches, then Family Tree DNA is the easiest, as they provide you with the e-mail addresses of your matches by clicking on the little envelope for each match on your match page, shown above.

Ancestry is second easiest, but forces you to use their internal message system which often doesn’t deliver the messages.  (Do not send more than 30 in one day or Ancestry will blacklist your messages and block your communications, thinking you are a spammer.)

23andMe is the most difficult as you have to request permission to communicate with each match and also to share DNA and if your match authorizes communication, then you can communicate through 23andMe’s message system.  Sound cumbersome?  It is and the response rate is low.

Confirming Genealogy

Let’s look at another reason for testing.

2.  I want to confirm my genealogy is correct – meaning that my great-grandfather really is my great-grandfather and so forth on up the line.

Well, you’re in luck, especially if some of your cousins, known or otherwise, have tested.  Confirming your genealogy is easier done in closer generations than more distant ones and the more cousins from various lines that have tested, the better.  That’s because you will share more of your DNA with relatives when you have a close common ancestor.

Autosomal DNA is divided approximately in half in each generation, when the child receives half of their DNA from each parent – so the closer your cousin, the more likely you are to share more DNA with them.  The more DNA you share, the more likely you are to be able to identify which ancestor it comes from.  And if a match matches you and your proven cousin both on the same segment, that identifies positively which line that match comes from.  That three way matching is called triangulation.

Let’s talk about the word “confirm.”  Herein lies a challenge, because DNA does have the absolute ability to confirm ancestors, as noted above.  DNA also has the ability to give you hints that go towards a “preponderance of evidence.”  DNA, can also lead you astray if you draw erroneous conclusions – and one vendor provides a tool (or tools) that encourages overstepping conclusions.  Let’s look at each circumstance.

Proof Positive through Triangulation

Just what it says – absolutely unquestionable proof that a particular ancestor is your ancestor.  If you match two other people who also descend from your common ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, on the same segment of DNA, that is confirmation that you share that ancestor and that segment of your DNA is considered proven to that ancestral line.  This requires two things.  First, that your DNA matches on the same segment AND that you have identified the same ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, genealogically in your trees.

Now, you probably can’t tell which side of the couple, Jane or Joe, the DNA is from unless you also match two people on just Jane’s side of the family or just Joe’s on that same segment.

One caveat here – counting you and your parent as two of the three people doesn’t work because you and your parents are too close in the tree.  By three people, that would preferably be three people who descend from that couple through three different children.

Here’s an example.

JohnDoe

It would also ideally be more than three people, but three is the minimum to form a triangulation group.  In the real world, these matches might not start and end of the same segments as in the example above, but the overlapping portion should be significant

The example above is proof positive, because the three people descend from the same ancestor, through different children, and match on the same chromosome in the same locations.

This technique is called triangulation.

Now for the bad news – you can’t do this at Ancestry.com, because they don’t provide you with any of the segment information in the last 5 columns.  Ancestry has no chromosome browser, which is the tool that shows you where on your DNA you match your cousins.

Family Tree DNA’s chromosome display tool that is part of their chromosome browser is shown below.

Two cousins browser

On the example above, you can see that Barbara Jean Long, the black background person on the chromosome graphic, is being compared to her two first cousins, the blue and orange on the chromosome graphic.

You can download the information from Family Tree DNA or 23andMe in spreadsheet format, or you can display the information graphically, like in the example above.  You can see the “stacked” locations where both the cousins match the black background person they are being compared to.  You can also see that there are some locations where only one of the cousins matches the background person, like on chromosome 20.  And of course, some locations where neither cousin matches the background person, like on chromosome 21.

If you download that data, the information gives you the locations where the people being compared match the person they are being compared against.

Two cousins combined

The chart above is the download of part of chromosome 1 for Barbara, Cheryl and Donald, siblings who are Barbara’s first cousins.

The areas where the 3 people overlap, or triangulate, are colored in green on the spreadsheet, while the rows entirely in pink or blue do not triangulate – meaning Barbara matches either one cousin or the other, but not both.  Keep in mind that this example only proves their common ancestral couple, which in this case are common grandparents – but the technique is the same no matter which common ancestor you are trying to prove.

This bring us to our next topic, that of close relatives.

Close Relative Matches

I previously said that you can’t use you and a close relative to prove a distant ancestor.  But that’s not necessarily true when the relationship you are trying to prove is closer in time.  The chart below shows the relationships of the example above.

Miller Ferverda chart

In the case shown above, two first cousins who are siblings, Cheryl and Don, are being compared to their common first cousin, Barbara.  Their fathers were siblings and their common ancestors were their grandparents.  This is not 6 generations up a tree where matching is iffy.  You can be expected to match closely with your first cousins where you may not match with more distant cousins, because you simply didn’t inherit any of the same DNA from your distant common ancestor.  You should be sharing about 12.5% of your DNA with first cousins, and if you have first cousins that you’re not matching, that might signal that an undocumented adoption has occurred in one line or the other.

In a case like this, if you and a first cousin match, that suffices to prove a close connection.  If you don’t match, it suffices to raise questions.  A lot of questions.  Big ugly questions.  The next thing to do is to see if any other known cousins have tested and who they match – or don’t match.

For example, if Barbara Ferverda was not the child of John Ferverda, she would not match either Cheryl nor Don, and we’d know there was a problem.  If Cheryl and Don match other Ferverda or Miller relatives and Barbara didn’t, then we’d know the genetic break in the line was on Barbara’s side and not on Cheryl/Don’s side.

This same technique is also how we know which “side” matches are on.  If an unknown match matches both Barbara and Cheryl, for example, it’s a good bet that their common ancestor is someplace in the Miller/Ferverda line.  If they also match another Miller on the same segment, then the common ancestor has been narrowed to the Miller side of the Miller/Ferverda couple.

Unfortunately, not all DNA results are as definitive or easy to prove as these.  Let’s look at some of the more “squishy” results.

Preponderance of Evidence through Aggregated Data

In regular genealogy, there are a range of proofs.  There is direct evidence that someone is the child of an ancestor.  That would be a will, for example, that names a daughter and her husband and maybe even tells where they moved to.  This would be your lucky day!

Think of that will as equivalent to triangulated proof of a common ancestor.  There is just no arguing with the evidence.

If you’re not that lucky, you have to piece the shreds of indirect evidence together to make a story.  In the genealogy world, this is called preponderance of evidence, and I am always, always much less comfortable with this type of evidence than I am with solid proof.

There are various flavors of pieces of evidence in the DNA world. Sometimes we have hints of relationships without proof.

The most common is when you have matches with a group of people who share the same surname, but you can’t get back far enough to find a common ancestor.  Is this a probable match?  Yes?  Guaranteed?  No.  Have I seen them fall apart and the actual match be on another entirely unrelated line?  Yes.  See why I call these squishy?

Ancestry takes this one step further with their DNA Circles.  For a DNA Circle to be created, you must match DNA with someone in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must match DNA with someone else in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must have a common ancestor in their tree.  Circles begin with a minimum of three people.  Generally, the more people who match AND have the same ancestor, the stronger the likelihood that you would be able to confirmation the common ancestor of the group as your ancestor too – if you had a chromosome browser type of tool.  Still, Circles alone are not and never will be, proof.  Circles are great hints and along with other research, can confirm genealogical research.  For example, my paper genealogy says I descend from Henry Bolton, and I find myself in Henry Bolton’s tree, matching several other Bolton descendants through Henry’s other children.  Those multiple connections pretty well confirms the paper trail is accurate and no undocumented adoptions have occurred in my line.

Now, the bad news….Circles is predicated upon matching of trees.  If there is a common misconception out there that is replicated in these trees, then people who match will be shown in a Circle predicated on bad information.  And, there is no way to know.  However, people interpret the existence of a DNA Circle as proof positive and that it confirms the tree.  Membership in a DNA Circle is absolutely NOT proof of any kind, let alone proof positive – except that your DNA matches the people who you are connected to by lines and their DNA matches the people they are connected to by lines.  You can see my connections in orange below, and the background connections in light grey.

circle henry bolton matches2

This is an example of my Henry Bolton Circle.  I match 5 different people’s DNA (the orange lines) who also show Henry Bolton as their ancestor.  This does NOT mean the match is on the same segment, so it is NOT triangulated.  This is a grouping of data where multiple people match each other, not a genetic triangulation group where everyone matches on the same segment.  In fact there are cases that I have found where the person I match in a circle is through a different line entirely, so in that case, the presumption of which common ancestor our common DNA is from is incorrect.

I want to be very clear, there is nothing wrong with DNA Circles, so far as they go.  The consumer needs to understand what Circles are really saying – and what they can’t and don’t say.  DNA Circles are another important tool in our arsenal.  We just have to be careful not to assume, or presume, more than is there.  Presuming that we match someone in the Circle because we share Henry Bolton’s DNA may in fact be inaccurate.  We may match on a completely unrelated line – but because we do match and share a common ancestor in our tree – we both find ourselves in the Henry Bolton Circle.

Are you reading those squishy words?  Presume – it’s related to the word assume…right???  And keep in mind that Circles are created based in part on those wonderfully accurate Ancestry trees.  Are you feeling good about this preponderance of evidence yet?

However, in my case, I’ve done due diligence with the genealogy and I have all of my proof ducks in a row.  The fact that I do match so many Bolton descendants confirms my work, along with the fact that at the other vendors and at GedMatch, I  have triangulated my matches and proven the Bolton DNA.  So, this circle is valid but the only proof I have is not found at Ancestry or because I’m a Circle member, but by triangulation and aggregated data using other vendor’s tools.

This next screen shot is of an exact triangulated match using GedMatch’s triangulation tool.  Each line shows me matching two cousins, along with the start and stop segments.  This just happens to be the Ferverda example.  So, I match six people, all on the same segment, all with a known common ancestor.  This is proof positive.  Not all “matching” is nearly so definitive.

Gedmatch triangulation

Sometimes the matches aren’t so neat and tidy. That’s when we move to using aggregated data.

Aggregated Data – What’s That?

Aggregated data is a term I’ve come up with because there isn’t any term to fit in today’s genetic genealogy vocabulary.  In essence, aggregated data is when a group of people (who may or may not know who their common ancestor is) match on common segments of data, but not necessarily on the same segments, or not all of the same segments.  When you have an entire group of these people, they form a stair step “right shift” kind of graph.

The interesting part of this is that by utilizing aggregated data and looking not only at who we match, but who our matches match that share a common ancestor, we can gain insight and hints.  Finding a common ancestor is of course a huge benefit in this type of situation because then you’ve identified at least a DNA “line” for the entire group.

If we were to utilize the triangulation tools at Gedmatch and look at my closest triangulated matches, they would look something like this, where the segments that I match with each person (or in this case, two people) shift some to the right.  What you are seeing is the start and stop match locations, with graphing.  Therefore, I match all of these people that have a common ancestor.

Each match overlaps the one above and below to come extent – and often by a lot.  These are known as triangulation groups (TG).

However, the top match and the bottom match do not overlap, so they don’t triangulate with each other.  They are still valid triangulated matches to me and you can expect to see this kind of matching when using aggregated data.

Understand that when you see your triangulation groups at GedMatch, your mother’s side and your father’s side will be intermixed. In this case, I know the common ancestor and I know many of these testers, so I’m positive that this is a valid grouping (plus, they all match my Mom too – the best test of all.)

gedmatch triang group

Here’s another example only showing three matches.  All three are triangulated to me through the same ancestor, but the locations of the top and bottom matches don’t overlap with each other.  Both overlap the one in the middle in part.

gedmatch overlap

New Ancestor Discoveries – Not Evidence at All

Let’s look at the third reason for DNA testing.

3.  I want to find new ancestors.

Discovering brand new ancestors is a bit tougher.

There are two ways to discover new ancestors.  The first is through triangulation combined with traditional genealogy.  I have done this, but in these cases, I did have a clue as to what I was looking for.  In other words, the new ancestor I discovered was actually confirming a wife’s surname or identifying the parents of an ancestor from several potential candidate couples.

The second way to potentially discover a new ancestor is Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries, NADs, which is really a somewhat misleading name.  What Ancestry has determined is that you match a group of people who share a common ancestor – and Ancestry’s leap of faith is that you share that ancestor do too.  While that may not be correct, what IS very relevant is that you do match this group of people who DO share a common lineage and there is an important hint there for you someplace!  But don’t just accept Ancestry’s discovery as your new ancestor – because there is a good chance it isn’t.  Let’s take a look.

Ancestral Lines Through Triangulation

Let’s go back to the John Doe example.

JohnDoe

Let’s take the worst case scenario.  You’re an adopted and have no information.  But you match an entire group of people in a triangulated group who DO know the identity of their common ancestor.

Does this mean that John Doe is your ancestor?  No.  John Doe could be your ancestor, or he could be the brother of your ancestor, or the uncle of your ancestor.  What this does tell you is that either John Doe is your ancestor, some of John Doe’s ancestors are your ancestors, or you are extremely unlucky and you are matching this entire group by chance.  The larger the segment, the less likely your match will be by chance.  Over 10 cM you’re pretty safe on an individual match and I think you’re safe with triangulated groups well below 10 cM.

Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries

You can make this same type of discovery at Ancestry, but it’s not nearly as easy as Ancestry implies in their ads and you have no segment data to work with, just their match, shown below.

Larimer NAD

“Just take the test and we’ll find your ancestors,” the ad says.  Well, yes and no and “it depends.”

Ancestry went out on a limb a few months ago, right about April Fools Day, and frankly, they fell off the end of the branch by claiming that New Ancestor Discoveries are your missing ancestors found.  While that is clearly an overly optimistic marketing statement, the concept of matching you with people you match who all share a common ancestor is sound – it was the implementation and hyper-marketing that was flawed.

The premise here is that if you match people in a Circle that have a common ancestor, that you too might, please note the word might, share that ancestor – even if that person is not in your tree.  In other words, even if you don’t know who they are.  Just like the John Doe triangulation example above.

Here is my connection to the Larimer DNA Circle, even though I don’t know of a Larimer ancestor.

Larimer NAD circle

Now, the problem is that you might be related to an ancestor on one side upstream several generations, but it’s manifesting itself as a match to that particular couple because several people of that couple’s descendants have tested.  I’ve shown an example of how this might work below.

common unknown ancestor

In this example, you can see that your true common ancestor is unknown to both groups of people, but it’s not Mary Johnson and John Jones, or in my case, not John and Jane Larimer.

However, three descendants of Mary Johnson and John Jones tested, and you match all three.  If you also showed Mary Johnson and John Jones in your tree, then you’d be in a Circle with them at Ancestry.  However, since Mary Johnson and John Jones are NOT your ancestors, they are not in your tree.  Since you match three of their descendants, Ancestry concludes that indeed, Mary Johnson and John Jones must also be your ancestors.

While NADs are inaccurate about half the time, the fact that you do share DNA with the people in this group is important, because someplace, upstream, it’s likely that you share a common ancestor.  It’s also possible that you match these three people through unconnected ancestors upstream and it’s a fluke that they all three also descend from this couple.  And yes, that does happen, especially when all of the people involved have ancestors from the same region.

The first day that Ancestry rolled the New Ancestor Discoveries, I was assigned a couple that could not possibly be my ancestors.  I called them Bad NADs.

In my experience, there are more erroneous NADs out there than good ones.  I knew my original one was bad, as I had proof positive because I have triangulated my other lines.  Then, one day, my bad NAD was gone and now, a few weeks later, I have another assigned NAD couple that I have not been able to prove or disprove – the Larimers.  Truthfully, after the bad NAD fiasco, I haven’t spent a lot of time or effort because without tools, there is no place to go with this unless the people I match will download their results to GedMatch.  I’m hoping that a new tool to be released soon will help.

Here’s how NADs could be useful.  Let’s say that my Larimer matches download to GedMatch and I discover that they also match a triangulated group from my McDowell line.  Well, guess what – my Michael’s McDowell’s wife is unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  Michael’s mother is also unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  It gives me a line and a place to begin to work, especially if they share any common geography with my ancestors.

Even if the NADs aren’t my direct ancestors, this is still useful information, because somehow, I probably do connect to these people, even though my hands are somewhat tied.  However, labeling them New Ancestor Discoveries encourages people to jump to highly incorrect conclusions.  This isn’t even in the preponderance of evidence category, let alone proof.  It’s information that you can potentially use with other DNA tools (at GedMatch) and old fashioned genealogy to work on proving a connection to this line.  Nothing more.

So what is the net-net of this? Circles can count in the preponderance of evidence, especially in conjunction with other evidence, but NADs don’t.  Neither are proof.  If we were able to work with the segment data and compare it, we might very well be able to determine more, but Ancestry does not provide a chromosome browser, so we can’t.

Ancestor Chromosome Mapping

4.  I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors so that I know which of my DNA I inherited from each ancestor.

If this is your DNA testing goal, you certainly did not start by testing with Ancestry.com, because they don’t have any tools to help you do this.  This tends to be a goal that people develop after they really understand what autosomal DNA testing can do for them.  In order to map your genome, you have to have access to segment information and you have to triangulate, or prove, the segments to each ancestor.  So count Ancestry out unless you can talk your matches into downloading their raw data files to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  You’ll be testing with both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe and downloading your match information to a spreadsheet and utilizing the tools at www.gedmatch.com and www.dnagedcom.com.

Just so you get an idea of how much fun this can be, here’s my genome mapped to ancestors a few months ago.  I have more mapped now, but haven’t redone my map utilizing Kitty Cooper’s Tools.

Roberta's ancestor map2

Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what you can do – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

So join me in a few days for part two of Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.

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