2018 – The Year of the Segment

Looking in the rear view mirror, what a year! Some days it’s been hard to catch your breath things have been moving so fast.

What were the major happenings, how did they affect genetic genealogy and what’s coming in 2019?

The SNiPPY Award

First of all, I’m giving an award this year. The SNiPPY.

Yea, I know it’s kinda hokey, but it’s my way of saying a huge thank you to someone in this field who has made a remarkable contribution and that deserves special recognition.

Who will it be this year?

Drum roll…….

The 2018 SNiPPY goes to…

DNAPainter – The 2018 SNiPPY award goes to DNAPainter, without question. Applause, everyone, applause! And congratulations to Jonny Perl, pictured below at Rootstech!

Jonny Perl created this wonderful, visual tool that allows you to paint your matches with people on your chromosomes, assigning the match to specific ancestors.

I’ve written about how to use the tool  with different vendors results and have discovered many different ways to utilize the painted segments. The DNA Painter User Group is here on Facebook. I use DNAPainter EVERY SINGLE DAY to solve a wide variety of challenges.

What else has happened this year? A lot!

Ancient DNA – Academic research seldom reports on Y and mitochondrial DNA today and is firmly focused on sequencing ancient DNA. Ancient genome sequencing has only recently been developed to a state where at least some remains can be successfully sequenced, but it’s going great guns now. Take a look at Jennifer Raff’s article in Forbes that discusses ancient DNA findings in the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia and perhaps most surprising, a first generation descendant of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan.

From Early human dispersals within the Americas by Moreno-Mayer et al, Science 07 Dec 2018

Inroads were made into deeper understanding of human migration in the Americas as well in the paper Early human dispersals within the Americas by Moreno-Mayer et al.

I look for 2019 and on into the future to hold many more revelations thanks to ancient DNA sequencing as well as using those sequences to assist in understanding the migration patterns of ancient people that eventually became us.

Barbara Rae-Venter and the Golden State Killer Case

Using techniques that adoptees use to identify their close relatives and eventually, their parents, Barbara Rae-Venter assisted law enforcement with identifying the man, Joseph DeAngelo, accused (not yet convicted) of being the Golden State Killer (GSK).

A very large congratulations to Barbara, a retired patent attorney who is also a genealogist. Nature recognized Ms. Rae-Venter as one of 2018’s 10 People Who Mattered in Science.

DNA in the News

DNA is also represented on the 2018 Nature list by Viviane Slon, a palaeogeneticist who discovered an ancient half Neanderthal, half Denisovan individual and sequenced their DNA and He JianKui, a Chinese scientist who claims to have created a gene-edited baby which has sparked widespread controversy. As of the end of the year, He Jiankui’s research activities have been suspended and he is reportedly sequestered in his apartment, under guard, although the details are far from clear.

In 2013, 23andMe patented the technology for designer babies and I removed my kit from their research program. I was concerned at the time that this technology knife could cut two ways, both for good, eliminating fatal disease-causing mutations and also for ethically questionable practices, such as eugenics. I was told at the time that my fears were unfounded, because that “couldn’t be done.” Well, 5 years later, here we are. I expect the debate about the ethics and eventual regulation of gene-editing will rage globally for years to come.

Elizabeth Warren’s DNA was also in the news when she took a DNA test in response to political challenges. I wrote about what those results meant scientifically, here. This topic became highly volatile and politicized, with everyone seeming to have a very strongly held opinion. Regardless of where you fall on that opinion spectrum (and no, please do not post political comments as they will not be approved), the topic is likely to surface again in 2019 due to the fact that Elizabeth Warren has just today announced her intention to run for President. The good news is that DNA testing will likely be discussed, sparking curiosity in some people, perhaps encouraging them to test. The bad news is that some of the discussion may be unpleasant at best, and incorrect click-bait at worst. We’ve already had a rather unpleasant sampling of this.

Law Enforcement and Genetic Genealogy

The Golden State Killer case sparked widespread controversy about using GedMatch and potentially other genetic genealogy data bases to assist in catching people who have committed violent crimes, such as rape and murder.

GedMatch, the database used for the GSK case has made it very clear in their terms and conditions that DNA matches may be used for both adoptees seeking their families and for other uses, such as law enforcement seeking matches to DNA sequenced during a criminal investigation. Since April 2018, more than 15 cold case investigations have been solved using the same technique and results at GedMatch. Initially some people removed their DNA from GedMatch, but it appears that the overwhelming sentiment, based on uploads, is that people either aren’t concerned or welcome the opportunity for their DNA matches to assist apprehending criminals.

Parabon Nanolabs in May established a genetic genealogy division headed by CeCe Moore who has worked in the adoptee community for the past several years. The division specializes in DNA testing forensic samples and then assisting law enforcement with the associated genetic genealogy.

Currently, GedMatch is the only vendor supporting the use of forensic sample matching. Neither 23anMe nor Ancestry allow uploaded data, and MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA’s terms of service currently preclude this type of use.

MyHeritage

Wow talk about coming onto the DNA world stage with a boom.

MyHeritage went from a somewhat wobbly DNA start about 2 years ago to rolling out a chromosome browser at the end of January and adding important features such as SmartMatching which matches your DNA and your family trees. Add triangulation to this mixture, along with record matching, and you’re got a #1 winning combination.

It was Gilad Japhet, the MyHeritage CEO who at Rootstech who christened 2018 “The Year of the Segment,” and I do believe he was right. Additionally, he announced that MyHeritage partnered with the adoption community by offering 15,000 free kits to adoptees.

In November, MyHeritage hosted MyHeritage LIVE, their first user conference in Oslo, Norway which focused on both their genealogical records offerings as well as DNA. This was a resounding success and I hope MyHeritage will continue to sponsor conferences and invest in DNA. You can test your DNA at MyHeritage or upload your results from other vendors (instructions here). You can follow my journey and the conference in Olso here, here, here, here and here.

GDPR

GDPR caused a lot of misery, and I’m glad the implementation is behind us, but the the ripples will be affecting everyone for years to come.

GDPR, the European Data Protection Regulation which went into effect on May 25,  2018 has been a mixed and confusing bag for genetic genealogy. I think the concept of users being in charge and understanding what is happened with their data, and in this case, their data plus their DNA, is absolutely sound. The requirements however, were created without any consideration to this industry – which is small by comparison to the Googles and Facebooks of the world. However, the Googles and Facebooks of the world along with many larger vendors seem to have skated, at least somewhat.

Other companies shut their doors or restricted their offerings in other ways, such as World Families Network and Oxford Ancestors. Vendors such as Ancestry and Family Tree DNA had to make unpopular changes in how their users interface with their software – in essence making genetic genealogy more difficult without any corresponding positive return. The potential fines, 20 million plus Euro for any company holding data for EU residents made it unwise to ignore the mandates.

In the genetic genealogy space, the shuttering of both YSearch and MitoSearch was heartbreaking, because that was the only location where you could actually compare Y STR and mitochondrial HVR1/2 results. Not everyone uploaded their results, and the sites had not been updated in a number of years, but the closure due to GDPR was still a community loss.

Today, mitoydna.org, a nonprofit comprised of genetic genealogists, is making strides in replacing that lost functionality, plus, hopefully more.

On to more positive events.

Family Tree DNA

In April, Family Tree DNA announced a new version of the Big Y test, the Big Y-500 in which at least 389 additional STR markers are included with the Big Y test, for free. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive between 389 and 439 new markers, depending on how many STR markers above 111 have quality reads. All customers are guaranteed a minimum of 500 STR markers in total. Matching was implemented in December.

These additional STR markers allow genealogists to assemble additional line marker mutations to more granularly identify specific male lineages. In other words, maybe I can finally figure out a line marker mutation that will differentiate my ancestor’s line from other sons of my founding ancestor😊

In June, Family Tree DNA announced that they had named more than 100,000 SNPs which means many haplogroup additions to the Y tree. Then, in September, Family Tree DNA published their Y haplotree, with locations, publicly for all to reference.

I was very pleased to see this development, because Family Tree DNA clearly has the largest Y database in the industry, by far, and now everyone can reap the benefits.

In October, Family Tree DNA published their mitochondrial tree publicly as well, with corresponding haplogroup locations. It’s nice that Family Tree DNA continues to be the science company.

You can test your Y DNA, mitochondrial or autosomal (Family Finder) at Family Tree DNA. They are the only vendor offering full Y and mitochondrial services complete with matching.

2018 Conferences

Of course, there are always the national conferences we’re familiar with, but more and more, online conferences are becoming available, as well as some sessions from the more traditional conferences.

I attended Rootstech in Salt Lake City in February (brrrr), which was lots of fun because I got to meet and visit with so many people including Mags Gaulden, above, who is a WikiTree volunteer and writes at Grandma’s Genes, but as a relatively expensive conference to attend, Rootstech was pretty miserable. Rootstech has reportedly made changes and I hope it’s much better for attendees in 2019. My attendance is very doubtful, although I vacillate back and forth.

On the other hand, the MyHeritage LIVE conference was amazing with both livestreamed and recorded sessions which are now available free here along with many others at Legacy Family Tree Webinars.

Family Tree University held a Virtual DNA Conference in June and those sessions, along with others, are available for subscribers to view.

The Virtual Genealogical Association was formed for those who find it difficult or impossible to participate in local associations. They too are focused on education via webinars.

Genetic Genealogy Ireland continues to provide their yearly conference sessions both livestreamed and recorded for free. These aren’t just for people with Irish genealogy. Everyone can benefit and I enjoy them immensely.

Bottom line, you can sit at home and educate yourself now. Technology is wonderful!

2019 Conferences

In 2019, I’ll be speaking at the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference, Journey of Discovery, in St. Charles, providing the Special Thursday Session titled “DNA: King Arthur’s Mighty Genetic Lightsaber” about how to use DNA to break through brick walls. I’ll also see attendees at Saturday lunch when I’ll be providing a fun session titled “Twists and Turns in the Genetic Road.” This is going to be a great conference with a wonderful lineup of speakers. Hope to see you there.

There may be more speaking engagements at conferences on my 2019 schedule, so stay tuned!

The Leeds Method

In September, Dana Leeds publicized The Leeds Method, another way of grouping your matches that clusters matches in a way that indicates your four grandparents.

I combine the Leeds method with DNAPainter. Great job Dana!

Genetic Affairs

In December, Genetic Affairs introduced an inexpensive subscription reporting and visual clustering methodology, but you can try it for free.

I love this grouping tool. I have already found connections I didn’t know existed previously. I suggest joining the Genetic Affairs User Group on Facebook.

DNAGedcom.com

I wrote an article in January about how to use the DNAGedcom.com client to download the trees of all of your matches and sort to find specific surnames or locations of their ancestors.

However, in December, DNAGedcom.com added another feature with their new DNAGedcom client just released that downloads your match information from all vendors, compiles it and then forms clusters. They have worked with Dana Leeds on this, so it’s a combination of the various methodologies discussed above. I have not worked with the new tool yet, as it has just been released, but Kitty Cooper has and writes about it here.  If you are interested in this approach, I would suggest joining the Facebook DNAGedcom User Group.

Rootsfinder

I have not had a chance to work with Rootsfinder beyond the very basics, but Rootsfinder provides genetic network displays for people that you match, as well as triangulated views. Genetic networks visualizations are great ways to discern patterns. The tool creates match or triangulation groups automatically for you.

Training videos are available at the website and you can join the Rootsfinder DNA Tools group at Facebook.

Chips and Imputation

Illumina, the chip maker that provides the DNA chips that most vendors use to test changed from the OmniExpress to the GSA chip during the past year. Older chips have been available, but won’t be forever.

The newer GSA chip is only partially compatible with the OmniExpress chip, providing limited overlap between the older and the new results. This has forced the vendors to use imputation to equalize the playing field between the chips, so to speak.

This has also caused a significant hardship for GedMatch who is now in the position of trying to match reasonably between many different chips that sometimes overlap minimally. GedMatch introduced Genesis as a sandbox beta version previously, but are now in the process of combining regular GedMatch and Genesis into one. Yes, there are problems and matching challenges. Patience is the key word as the various vendors and GedMatch adapt and improve their required migration to imputation.

DNA Central

In June Blaine Bettinger announced DNACentral, an online monthly or yearly subscription site as well as a monthly newsletter that covers news in the genetic genealogy industry.

Many educators in the industry have created seminars for DNACentral. I just finished recording “Getting the Most out of Y DNA” for Blaine.

Even though I work in this industry, I still subscribed – initially to show support for Blaine, thinking I might not get much out of the newsletter. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. I enjoy the newsletter and will be watching sessions in the Course Library and the Monthly Webinars soon.

If you or someone you know is looking for “how to” videos for each vendor, DNACentral offers “Now What” courses for Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA in addition to topic specific sessions like the X chromosome, for example.

Social Media

2018 has seen a huge jump in social media usage which is both bad and good. The good news is that many new people are engaged. The bad news is that people often given faulty advice and for new people, it’s very difficult (nigh on impossible) to tell who is credible and who isn’t. I created a Help page for just this reason.

You can help with this issue by recommending subscribing to these three blogs, not just reading an article, to newbies or people seeking answers.

Always feel free to post links to my articles on any social media platform. Share, retweet, whatever it takes to get the words out!

The general genetic genealogy social media group I would recommend if I were to select only one would be Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques. It’s quite large but well-managed and remains positive.

I’m a member of many additional groups, several of which are vendor or interest specific.

Genetic Snakeoil

Now the bad news. Everyone had noticed the popularity of DNA testing – including shady characters.

Be careful, very VERY careful who you purchase products from and where you upload your DNA data.

If something is free, and you’re not within a well-known community, then YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it sounds shady or questionable, it’s probably that and more, or less.

If reputable people and vendors tell you that no, they really can’t determine your Native American tribe, for example, no other vendor can either. Just yesterday, a cousin sent me a link to a “tribe” in Canada that will, “for $50, we find one of your aboriginal ancestors and the nation stamps it.” On their list of aboriginal people we find one of my ancestors who, based on mitochondrial DNA tests, is clearly NOT aboriginal. Snake oil comes in lots of flavors with snake oil salesmen looking to prey on other people’s desires.

When considering DNA testing or transfers, make sure you fully understand the terms and conditions, where your DNA is going, who is doing what with it, and your recourse. Yes, read every single word of those terms and conditions. For more about legalities, check out Judy Russell’s blog.

Recommended Vendors

All those DNA tests look yummy-good, but in terms of vendors, I heartily recommend staying within the known credible vendors, as follows (in alphabetical order).

For genetic genealogy for ethnicity AND matching:

  • 23andMe
  • Ancestry
  • Family Tree DNA
  • GedMatch (not a vendor because they don’t test DNA, but a reputable third party)
  • MyHeritage

You can read about Which DNA Test is Best here although I need to update this article to reflect the 2018 additions by MyHeritage.

Understand that both 23andMe and Ancestry will sell your DNA if you consent and if you consent, you will not know who is using your DNA, where, or for what purposes. Neither Family Tree DNA, GedMatch, MyHeritage, Genographic Project, Insitome, Promethease nor LivingDNA sell your DNA.

The next group of vendors offers ethnicity without matching:

  • Genographic Project by National Geographic Society
  • Insitome
  • LivingDNA (currently working on matching, but not released yet)

Health (as a consumer, meaning you receive the results)

Medical (as a contributor, meaning you are contributing your DNA for research)

  • 23andMe
  • Ancestry
  • DNA.Land (not a testing vendor, doesn’t test DNA)

There are a few other niche vendors known for specific things within the genetic genealogy community, many of whom are mentioned in this article, but other than known vendors, buyer beware. If you don’t see them listed or discussed on my blog, there’s probably a reason.

What’s Coming in 2019

Just like we couldn’t have foreseen much of what happened in 2018, we don’t have access to a 2019 crystal ball, but it looks like 2019 is taking off like a rocket. We do know about a few things to look for:

  • MyHeritage is waiting to see if envelope and stamp DNA extractions are successful so that they can be added to their database.
  • www.totheletterDNA.com is extracting (attempting to) and processing DNA from stamps and envelopes for several people in the community. Hopefully they will be successful.
  • LivingDNA has been working on matching since before I met with their representative in October of 2017 in Dublin. They are now in Beta testing for a few individuals, but they have also just changed their DNA processing chip – so how that will affect things and how soon they will have matching ready to roll out the door is unknown.
  • Ancestry did a 2018 ethnicity update, integrating ethnicity more tightly with Genetic Communities, offered genetic traits and made some minor improvements this year, along with adding one questionable feature – showing your matches the location where you live as recorded in your profile. (23andMe subsequently added the same feature.) Ancestry recently said that they are promising exciting new tools for 2019, but somehow I doubt that the chromosome browser that’s been on my Christmas list for years will be forthcoming. Fingers crossed for something new and really useful. In the mean time, we can download our DNA results and upload to MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch for segment matching, as well as utilize Ancestry’s internal matching tools. DNA+tree matching, those green leaf shared ancestor hints, is still their strongest feature.
  • The Family Tree DNA Conference for Project Administrators will be held March 22-24 in Houston this year, and I’m hopeful that they will have new tools and announcements at that event. I’m looking forward to seeing many old friends in Houston in March.

Here’s what I know for sure about 2019 – it’s going to be an amazing year. We as a community and also as individual genealogists will be making incredible discoveries and moving the ball forward. I can hardly wait to see what quandaries I’ve solved a year from now.

What mysteries do you want to unravel?

I’d like to offer a big thank you to everyone who made 2018 wonderful and a big toast to finding lots of new ancestors and breaking down those brick walls in 2019.

Happy New Year!!!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on the link to one of the vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay, but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

The Golden State Killer and DNA

Joseph DeAngelo, 2018 mugshot, alleged Golden State Killer

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you already know that the Golden State Killer has, it appears, been apprehended by:

  1. Sequencing DNA from the original crime scene
  2. Uploading those results to a genealogy data base to utilize techniques currently used for unknown parent searches to suggest or identify the killer
  3. Then, to confirm that they had identified the right person, discarded DNA from the suspect was sequenced which apparently matched the original DNA from the crime scene

I say “it appears” because remember, until he’s convicted, Joseph DeAngelo is still a suspect.

I have received more messages, texts and e-mails about this one topic than any other, ever. My phone has been buzzing like an angry bee with too much caffeine for days.

Unfortunately, in many news articles, the topic suffers from dramatic over-simplification at best and significant errors at worst. This combined with lots of fear stirs a toxic brew.

In almost all cases, the author writing the article clearly didn’t understand the subject matter at hand. Many leaders in the genetic genealogy community have been asked for comment. Having had more than one situation in which I was misquoted or my quote was taken out of context, I am discussing the issue in this article, where my comments aren’t boiled down to a one sentence sound bite. I don’t want anyone making a knee-jerk reaction with partial information. This topic deserves, and must receive much more discussion in a calm, informed manner.

There is a great deal of concern, curiosity, misinformation and incorrect assumptions in the genetic genealogy community as well as the media, along with emotions running at high tide.

I think it’s important to do three things:

  1. Discuss what actually happened.
  2. Discuss how genealogy versus both unknown parent and forensic searching differs from genealogy searching.
  3. Discuss associated concerns.

The Case

The Golden State Killer has been accused of at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and many burglaries primarily from June 1975 through May 1986. DNA evidence was collected, but DNA testing at that time had not progressed to the point where the culprit was able to be identified by utilizing his DNA.

A lot has changed, both in terms of DNA technology and other resources available since that time.

Last week, on April 25th, Joseph DeAngelo, now in his 70s, was arrested after DNA matching implicated him as the Golden State Killer. The news is ripe with stories, but this NPR article is a good summary as are the references at that bottom of the wiki article linked above.

Initial Concerns

Initially, two questions were being asked.

  • Which genetic genealogy company “cooperated” with law enforcement?
  • Did law enforcement have a search warrant?

As it turns out, the answer is that no testing companies “cooperated” and that no  search warrant was needed.

The next question was, “How safe is my DNA?”

Let’s talk about what happened, how it was done and how it affects each of us.

Disclosure

I was not involved with this or any similar case in any capacity, although I have been working the past few days to ferret out what actually happened, including discussing this privately and in public forums.

However, I am familiar with the techniques used as a result of my involvement with archaeological digs and ancient DNA, and I’d like to discuss what actually happened, as best we can unravel to date.

DNA Collection

At the time of the rapes and murders committed by the Golden State Killer, one police officer froze extra samples of the evidence, just in case, for the future. That future has arrived.

In the past few years, whole genome sequencing of ancient DNA and degraded samples has become possible. Probably the most notable are the Neanderthal and Denisovan genome reconstructions, beginning in 2010, but sequencing of forensic samples has become commonplace in the past few years.

From those ancient sequences, as long ago as September 2014, whole genome sequences were being reduced to just the DNA locations supported by GedMatch and the resulting compatible files uploaded there for comparison to other testers. This was possible because the raw data files are made available to testers by testing companies, so testers can modify the files in any way they see fit without the cooperation or involvement of any lab or company.

More ancient samples were added to GedMatch in the following months, and the ancient DNA comparison feature continues to be quite popular. No one ever thought much about it, but there is absolutely no reason that same technique couldn’t be used for other samples, and indeed, now it has.

Just 13 days before the arrest of DeAngelo, another homicide was solved by DNA sequencing. A murder victim, known as Buckskin Girl, found in 1981 was identified as Marcia Lenore King.

According to the non-profit Doe project, whole genome sequencing was performed, the file reduced to a format needed for GedMatch, and the file uploaded.

Again, there was no public outcry – possibly because a victim had been identified and not a criminal suspect, and because the event was not as widely publicized. However, it’s also possible that if the Buckskin Girl’s murderer left DNA evidence on the body, that sequencing could have identified both the victim and the murderer.

The identification of Buckskin Girl, however, did spur non-public debate within the leadership of the genetic genealogy field. Little did we know that the next case would follow dramatically in just two weeks.

GedMatch Matching

GedMatch is an open data base created in 2011 by two individuals in order to facilitate open sharing of autosomal matching between people, even if they tested at different companies.

Of the DNA testing companies, at that time, only 23andMe and Family Tree DNA provided centiMorgan information, recently joined by MyHeritage. Ancestry does not provide this information to their clients, so if an Ancestry client wants to see how they match other individuals in terms of actual chromosome locations and centiMorgans, they must transfer to either Family Tree DNA, GedMatch or now, MyHeritage.

Because GedMatch, with few exceptions during periods of change, matches customers from every vendor against customers from every other vendor, at least partially, they have become the clearing house for many people, especially Ancestry customers who don’t have the chromosome comparison option natively at Ancestry.

I want to be VERY clear about what you can and cannot see and do at GedMatch.

You can see your matches by the name they have entered, which can be an alias, along with their e-mail and how you match them. You CANNOT see the information of anyone you don’t match, unless you utilize another person’s kit number to see who they match. This has always been how GedMatch functions.

GedMatch users do NOT have access to your actual DNA file – ever. They can see who they match, and if they have your kit number, they can see who you match as well. Here’s an example of my own match screen.

Note – typically when showing GedMatch screen shots, I would blur the kit numbers and names in keeping with good privacy practices. However, since the point is to show you what one can actually see, I haven’t, because the top two matches are my own kits from Ancestry and 23andMe, and the third kit is that of my deceased mother whose kit I now manage. I also want to demonstrate that truly, there is nothing frightening or threatening about the information your matches see about you.

Best Matches

From a genealogist’s perspective, your “best matches” are to known close relatives, because when you match that relative and another person, especially on the same DNA segment, it’s a good indication that you share a common ancestor further back in time.

Genealogists build “clusters” of those types of matches in order to prove a relationship to a common ancestor. This is the heart and soul of DNA matching for genealogy.

For example, someone who matches you and your first cousin, both, on the same rather large segment assuredly shares a common ancestor with you and your cousin someplace in the past. The genealogical goal, of course, is to identify that long-deceased ancestor.

For example, if you match a first cousin, you know that your most recent common ancestor is one of your two sets of grandparents. Most genealogy matches are further back in time than either first or second cousins, making the identification of the common ancestor more challenging. Discovering that common ancestor is the goal of the game – because these matches to people with the same ancestor in their tree (generally) confirm that your ancestor is accurately identified. Some matches solve long-time family mysteries and break down brick walls.

However, not all brick walls are in the past.

Adoptee and Parental Search Matching

A few years ago, genealogists attempting to find unknown parents for adoptees and people with unknown fathers noticed that there were matching patterns to be followed successfully.

With millions of people having tested today, it’s much easier than it was a few years ago to find that key match (or matches) that reveals or confirms the identity of either an ancestor or an unknown parent.

While both genealogists and unknown parent searches look for close matches, the techniques diverge at that point.

Genealogists use a first or second cousin match to move backwards in time, looking for common distant ancestors.

In unknown parent searches, the same genealogical technique is used, EXCEPT, the person doing the searching could care less about older ancestors, such as great-grandparents. They are looking for their immediate ancestors – their parents.

Therefore, when an adoptee finds that critical first cousin match, they aren’t interested in figuring out a common ancestor for genealogy, meaning going backward in time. They covet that first cousin match for the purpose of coming forward in time, meaning towards the present in order to identify parents.

If you match to someone as a first cousin, you share a common set of grandparents. You can’t tell, without additional information, which set of grandparents, but given that you do match as a first cousin, there are only two positions the match can have in your family – either the pink or blue person above. This means that either your father or mother was a sibling to your first cousin’s parent.

You either share your father’s parents with your first cousin, or your mother’s parents, but you don’t know which – at least not yet.

With that much information, it’s fairly easy to uncover the rest. After all, you only have two sets of grandparents and anyone who is your first cousin will point to one of those two sets of grandparents.

You need to figure out who else matches you AND your first cousin, and then look at the genealogy of everyone who matches in that group until you discover the name of common family members/ancestors that you recognize, meaning an ancestor on either your maternal or paternal side to confirm that your first cousin matches you on that line.

Of course, for people who know their parents, figuring out first cousins is easy and takes about 2 seconds – but not so much for adoptees. Adoptees look to see how people who match them also match each other. For example, does the same couple or ancestor appear in the trees of multiple matches? In the example below, if the tester matches all three blue people as first cousins, the name of the blue cousins’ grandparents would be the same, suggesting that the tester’s grandparents were that same couple.

Next, it’s necessary to figure out which people who descend from the common set of grandparents might be candidates to be the parent the tester is seeking. In the example below, we’ve expanded the side of the three blue first cousin matches, adding their parents’ siblings as parent candidates for our tester. Factors such as age and location at the time of conception are taken into consideration when focusing on parent candidates.

If the tester doesn’t know who their parents are, they would be VERY interested in determining ALL of the children of the grandparents of their first cousin. Because one of the children of their first cousin’s grandparents IS THEIR PARENT.

In our example above, let’s just look at one of the grandparent pairs of the blue first cousins. The first cousins know who their grandparents are. The tester does not. In this case either the father or mother of the tester is the child of the first cousin’s grandfather and grandmother. Meaning that the red mother is the female child of the grandparents, or the green father is the male child of the grandparents.

We know that the grey parents of the first cousin matches can be eliminated as the tester’s parent. If the first cousin’s parent was also the parent of the tester, then the first cousin wouldn’t be a first cousin, but would be a full or half sibling.

However, the matching first cousins’ parents have three siblings who have not DNA tested, nor have their children, shown in pink and green. One of those three siblings IS either the father or mother of the tester. Of course, if the grandparents didn’t have any female children, then the tester’s father is one of the green male children of the grandparents, and vice versa.

In the example shown below, the tester’s mother IS the female child of the grandfather/grandmother pair and has been moved into place. This would be determined either by direct testing of the pink or green people, or their descendants, or by process of elimination through DNA tests of the other siblings or utilizing other pieces of information such as age and proximity.

Some adoptees are lucky enough to test and discover that a parent has tested and is waiting for them. Sometimes an unsuspected half sibling appears. Sometimes, there is no close match and the adoptee has to do more research work, including tracking people through social media and other means to find candidate family members to DNA test or to see if they know who might have been the much-sought-after parent.

Search Techniques

This type of research work has been taking place for years, individually, through groups like DNAadoption and DNADetectives who utilize volunteer search angels, as well as by several researchers who make a living doing this type of personal search. My focus is not on adoption search cases.

No one has seemed to consider this unethical, even though some of this work, especially when a parent isn’t immediately evident, involves utilizing the DNA of the tester’s matches and their matches’ relatives, connecting the family dots through social media, specifically Facebook pages, to discover the identify of someone who may not welcome that discovery. However, like GedMatch, Facebook, while not intended for this purpose is public and is heavily utilized by adoption searchers.

Some adoption search cases end very well – with heartfelt beautiful reunions welcomed by all parties. Others not so much, potentially upending the life of the biological parent that was established after the adoption took place which leads to a rejection that devastates the adoptee. Much of the damage can be done by the search process itself, meaning that the biological parent is “outed” by the process of people working through relatives who have tested and match in various ways. Of course, they ask questions to identify the biological parent – meaning that by the time the parent is identified they have no say about their own privacy.

Once DNA is uploaded to a data base, the search techniques for biological parent searches and to identify Buckskin Girl and DeAngelo, are exactly the same.

These searches all utilize matches to others, and the matches’ trees, to move forward in time to current to search for contemporary people, not ancestors further back in time.

Back to the Golden State Killer

Ok, back to the Golden State Killer.

We have the killer’s DNA sequence from the original crime scene and the file reduced to the number of DNA locations utilized by GedMatch.

Someone, presumably one of the investigators working on the case, uploaded that file to GedMatch, which appears to be entirely permissible because the police have legal custody of that DNA sample.

Let’s say the investigator, just like a genealogist, found a first cousin match, or even more distant (read difficult) matches further back – and they did exactly what people searching for unknown parents do. The investigator eventually worked through all of the possibilities based on common matches – then looked at age, location, opportunity and factors that might exclude some candidates. In this case, because it’s a rape case with the criminal obviously a male, females would be excluded, for example.

Evidence from DNA matches to the biological sample of the Golden State Killer caused the police to focus on DeAngelo.

After DeAngelo was identified through matches as a suspect, the police obtained his discarded DNA. Discarded DNA could be anything from a coffee cup thrown away to a cigarette butt or something from the trash.

That discarded DNA was sequenced, and a few days before his arrest, uploaded to GedMatch as well. The discarded DNA apparently matched the earlier sample from the killer as “himself” and the other people that the killer matched in the same way – establishing the fact that the Golden State Killer and DeAngelo were one and the same person.

You can see that I match my own 23andme and Ancestry kits as my closest matches in the GedMatch example I showed.

In essence, what the DNA of “the killer” obtained from the crime scene did was to generate leads through matching that allowed the police to identify DeAngelo and obtain a sample of his discarded DNA in order to verify that DeAngelo was the same person as the killer. Of course, he’s still a suspect today, not yet convicted.

Cooperation or Search Warrant

The police, in this case, didn’t need to ask for anyone’s cooperation. They already had the sample from the killer, they did what hundreds of thousands of others have done and simply uploaded the file to GedMatch.

The investigators didn’t need a search warrant because they weren’t asking for anything from GedMatch not already freely given, meaning matches to anyone who has already uploaded their information.

The investigators only used that matching information to generate tips for further investigation. They repeated the entire process with the discarded DNA sample to verify the earlier results obtained with DNA from the crime scene.

It bears noting here that if DeAngelo’s DNA had NOT matched that of the killer and the other people in the same way the killer’s DNA had matched them, then the discarded DNA would have eliminated DeAngelo as a suspect.

So, no genealogy testing company had to cooperate with anyone, nor was a search warrant necessary.

What’s the Rub?

We now have a monster about to be brought to justice. Two weeks earlier, Buckskin Girl, a murder victim, was identified and the family will finally have closure, 37 years later. Both of these are unquestionably wonderful outcomes.

So why are some people upset?

In some cases, people are simply confused about the process involved, and they will be relieved when they understand what actually happened – that their DNA was not “handed over” to anyone.

Some people have broader reaching concerns about privacy.

It appears that the word “police” combined with the word “criminal” caused a great deal of fear and trepidation, especially since a suspect was identified this time, not a victim and not someone’s biological parents.

Some people don’t want their DNA utilized to identify a family member, no matter what that person has done. And yes, that’s very nearly an exact quote from an e-mail I received.

Others are simply uncomfortable with their DNA being used in any kind of a potential criminal setting – even to identify a victim like Buckskin Girl.

One person says that it just makes her feel “creepy.” Oddly enough, that’s how I feel about Facebook now.

If you think it’s fine for adoptees to identify parents using these techniques, but you don’t think it’s alright for victims or criminals to be identified, I’d like to ask you to consider the following scenario.

A underage female is raped and becomes pregnant. She reports the rape to police at the time. She opts to have the child instead of having an abortion, and the child is placed for adoption. The rapist is never caught, and the young woman goes on to establish a new life and marry, not telling her husband or children born to the marriage about the rape, or the child placed for adoption. The expectation of the mother at that time was certainly that “no one would ever know,” whether those words were ever in an adoption contract or not. The fact that adoptions were (and still remain in many places) closed speaks to the expectations set for the mother.

Years pass, and today the adopted child, now an adult, tests. Both of the adoptee’s biological parents are identified through matches to relatives of the adoptee’s parents who have tested, such as first cousins in our earlier example. The adoptees parents themselves did not test.

Results were:

  • The life of the mother, a victim who did nothing wrong or illegal, and who chose to give the child life, is upended through the process of being identified.
  • The father who is a rapist, a criminal, is also identified.
  • The adoptee is subsequently very unhappy with both results for different reasons, but cannot press “undo.”

I’m NOT inferring that these data bases shouldn’t be used for identifying parents. I AM saying that we need to consider that the techniques for identifying parents, victims and criminals are the same. The outcomes are not always positive in parent searches AND these areas are or can be incredibly intertwined. Unraveling or prohibiting one effectively prohibits others. How do we treat everyone fairly and how are those rules, whatever they might be, enforced, and by whom?

In other words, how do we “do no harm”? After all, this started out to be genealogy, a fun hobby, and has now progressed gradually through a slow crawl to something else. Here we sit today.

Consent

In the example rape case above, neither the biological mother nor the father had tested, but their family members had – just like in the Buckskin Girl and the Golden State Killer cases.

Today, relative to the Golden State Killer, people are upset because the database, GedMatch, into which they uploaded their DNA file for genealogy was used for other purposes – specifically to apprehend the Golden State Killer. They feel that isn’t the purpose for which they uploaded their DNA.

Any one of us could have been one of the matches to the Golden State Killer and some people obviously were. It bears repeating here that no one’s DNA or results were “handed over,” and the only people affected in any way was someone that matched DeAngelo, and probably then only the closest matches. Many time people’s trees are utilized and their cousins never contact them, so it’s certainly possible that people who match DeAngelo have no idea still to this day.

The usage evolution for GedMatch from genealogy to other functions has been a slippery slope, although clearly no one realized at the time, when several years ago uploads began with modified ancient sample kits. Later, people began to use the GedMatch database (among others) to identify biological parents, then victims and now criminals.

Other people feel that searching for parents is genealogy, but identifying criminals is not – even though the search techniques are exactly the same. In our rape example, the mother who was a victim was identified and the criminal rapist father was identified as well by the same DNA test. The tester’s intent was only to reveal their biological parents – hoping for a loving, tear-filled reunion. That’s not what happened. The process of finding their parents also revealed the associated circumstances.

You can’t separate these usages into separate “boxes” anymore, because they overlap in unexpected says. That rape case wasn’t hypothetical.

I have absolutely no sympathy for the rapist, in fact, quite the opposite – but I feel incredibly bad for the young mother who has now been twice victimized. First by the rapist and second by the process used to track her, through relatives who began asking lots of difficult questions.

Last fall, in a Facebook group I follow, I was utterly horrified to see someone post that in the adoption cases she works, she encourages the adoptee, when they feel they are “close” to identifying a parent, to send registered letters to all of the family members, asking them to test, hoping that those who aren’t the parent quickly test to absolve themselves and as a way to flush the parent out.

It’s Not Just Your DNA

In either case, the DNA of the RELATIVES of the person being sought, be it a parent, a victim or a criminal, is what is used to find or identify the desired person. People who have uploaded to GedMatch are now concerned that they might be that relative whose DNA is used in a way they did not originally anticipate. They are right, and not just about this particular criminal case – but about the many types of usages other than strictly genealogical that looks backwards in time.

Perhaps the people who uploaded never thought about the fact that their DNA is/was being used for adoption or missing parent searches – or perhaps they are supportive of that activity. Maybe they thought that identifying victims, such as Buckskin Girl was a great use of the data base by investigators. Maybe they never thought about the fact that searching for criminals who leave DNA specimens behind uses exactly the same research and matching techniques as adoptees’ parent searched.  Perhaps no one stopped to think  that the same search can identify both parents, a victim and a criminal at the same time.

Maybe they were naïve and never thought about it at all or didn’t read the GedMatch statement that said (and says):

In today’s world, there are real dangers of identity theft, credit fraud, etc. We try to strike a balance between these conflicting realities and the need to share information with other users. In the end, if you require absolute privacy and security, we must ask that you do not upload your data to GEDmatch. If you already have it here, please delete it.

I can’t tell you how many of the posts and e-mails I’ve seen about this topic include the word “assume,” and we all know about assume, right?

Maybe, like me, some people have thought about that potential situation and want criminals, regardless of whether they are relatives or not off the streets. If they are relatives, so much the better, keeping my own family safer.

Some people may have been uploading their relatives’ DNA samples to GedMatch or any other site other than where the relative originally tested without the relative’s permission. If that’s the case, the person either needs to obtain permission, pronto, or delete the person’s DNA they uploaded without permission.

GedMatch’s Statement

GedMatch has posted the following statement.

Testing in the Future

Another concern voiced this week is that people, especially relatives that we want to test, will be much more reticent to test in the future if they think the police can “take” or “access” their DNA. That’s probably true, so we need to be prepared to explain what actually happened, and how, to eliminate misconceptions

However, it is true that DNA in these databases has been and is being used for things other than genealogy. This is also the purpose of informed consent – with an emphasis on informed. Bottom line – the cat’s out of the bag now. Perhaps these incidents together, meaning parent searches, the identification of Buckskin Girl and the arrest of the Golden State Killer, will bring home the warning that was previously noted on GedMatch.

If you’re not comfortable – don’t upload. This also means that people MUST STOP simply telling other people to upload to GedMatch as a cure-all for everything that ails genealogists. If you are making the recommendation, you also bear the responsibility for full disclosure or at least a caveat statement.

“GedMatch is great for genealogy matching to each other across vendor platforms <or words of your choosing>. It’s also used for adoptees searching for their parents, was used to identify Buckskin Girl and played an important role in the apprehension of the Golden State Killer.”

As a result, GedMatch now provides a way to remove your entire account, if you so wish. GedMatch needed to do that for GDPR anyway. As long as we are on the topic, GDPR, which goes into effect on May 25th tightens privacy significantly for any vendor or company that includes records of any UK/EU resident. You can read about that in my articles here and here.

Every (major) testing company, along with GedMatch provides the option of removing your DNA results if you are so inclined.

As for people being hesitant to test, certainly some already were and some will be. But there will also be others that only first heard about genetic genealogy this past week and this notoriety won’t deter them one bit. Some people will actively choose to participate, knowing that they can later change their mind if they so choose. I notice the GedMatch site has been busier than ever.

In summary, the police did not “take” or even ask for anyone’s DNA. They simply uploaded the DNA results of a criminal, taken from the crime scene, and looked at the matches generated in order to make an ID, at which time they obtained the DNA of the suspect which matched the DNA from the crime scene.

Just like genetic genealogy, DNA without supporting evidence won’t be much good, but now they have someone identified to work with, collecting other evidence. Where was he? Does the DNA at multiple scenes match his? I would think in terms of a prosecution that these matches and arrest is only the beginning, not the end of the process.

Given that none of the major genealogy companies cooperate with law enforcement without a search warrant, it’s a WHOLE LOT easier to obtain your discarded DNA than to obtain a search warrant. Furthermore, there is no chain of custody with DNA from a genealogy data base, but there certainly is from a rape and from a discarded cup. If the DNA of the criminal from the scene, and the suspect’s DNA from a discarded item match as the same person, that’s pretty conclusive and damning evidence.

Of course, fear begets fear and the old questions of government access and other issues bubble up again.

Another question I’ve received is about whether the usage of GedMatch for the Golden State Killer case opens the door for DNA to be obtained by insurance companies. First, you’d have to test and upload something. There is nothing to “get” if you don’t – and the insurance company would need a search warrant (and probable cause of a crime) to retrieve your DNA from any testing company.

GINA legislation protects American’s today from discrimination when obtaining health insurance, but it doesn’t extend to life and other types of insurance. However, when I applied for life insurance some years ago, they took a blood sample and if I wanted life insurance, I had to authorize whatever it was they wanted to test in that sample. I’d wager that today, they would run a DNA test in addition to checking for other health indicators. No GedMatch or testing company is needed or desired – in fact – an insurance company requires chain of custody which is why they send someone to your house to draw your blood.

What To Do?

What you do with your DNA sample is entirely up to you. Everyone will make their own decision based on their own circumstances and preferences.

Some people have removed their DNA from the various databases and in essence, have stopped participating in genetic genealogy.

Some have made their kits at GedMatch either research or private. Research means that you can run the kit and see matches, but others can’t see you. That certainly defeats the spirit of collaborative genealogy.

Some people have evaluated the evidence at hand and have made the decision to continue as normal – just more aware of other uses that can, have and may occur.

This story and others similar will continue to arise and unravel, and many questions will likely be asked and hotly debated over the next many months and years, both within and outside of this community. I would not be surprised to see legislation of some type follow – which has been one of the biggest fears within the genetic genealogy community for years. Legislation by people unfamiliar with the topic at hand will likely be overreaching and extremely restrictive. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Like many others, I’m concerned that the genetic genealogy field will become a victim of its own success. I hope that doesn’t happen, but at this point, the cow has left the barn and that door really can’t be effectively shut. All we can do is to be transparent, make informed choices, assure that we have the consent of anyone whose kit we manage and to advocate for sanity.

My Decision

I’ve made my personal decision and my thought process worked like this:

  1. I haven’t done anything that I need to worry about.
  2. If a family member does something they need to be arrested for, I hope my DNA helps.
  3. If I were the family of the victims, I would want them identified AND their murderer/rapist put away forever. (Disclosure, I have had a family member raped and a different family member murdered.)
  4. As a citizen, I want criminals such as rapists and murderers identified and removed from society through any legal means possible.
  5. DNA testing also exonerates people who were wrongfully convicted through advocacy groups like the Innocence Project.
  6. DNA eliminates potential criminal candidates as well as pointing the finger directly at others.
  7. Using the techniques utilized for unknown parent searches, an identification is seldom made as a result of ONE match only, unless it’s immediate family. Therefore, if you remove your own DNA from the data base(s) for matching, your cousin and their cousins are still there – so your criminal family member’s goose is still cooked. It might just take a little longer in the stew pot.

My DNA stays online and I continue to support all of the major DNA testing companies that provide matching and accept transfers, including GedMatch.