Which DNA Test is Best?

If you’re reading this article, congratulations. You’re a savvy shopper and you’re doing some research before purchasing a DNA test. You’ve come to the right place.

The most common question I receive is asking which test is best to purchase. There is no one single best answer for everyone – it depends on your testing goals and your pocketbook.

Testing Goals

People who want to have their DNA tested have a goal in mind and seek results to utilize for their particular purpose. Today, in the Direct to Consumer (DTC) DNA market space, people have varied interests that fall into the general categories of genealogy and medical/health.

I’ve approached the question of “which test is best” by providing information grouped into testing goal categories.  I’ve compared the different vendors and tests from the perspective of someone who is looking to test for those purposes – and I’ve created separate sections of this article for each interest..

We will be discussing testing for:

  • Ethnicity – Who Am I? – Breakdown by Various World Regions
  • Adoption – Finding Missing Parents or Close Family
  • Genealogy – Cousin Matching and Ancestor Search/Verification
  • Medical/Health

We will be reviewing the following test types:

  • Autosomal
  • Y DNA (males only)
  • Mitochondrial DNA

I have included summary charts for each section, plus an additional chart for:

  • Additional Vendor Considerations

If you are looking to select one test, or have limited funds, or are looking to prioritize certain types of tests, you’ll want to read about each vendor, each type of test, and each testing goal category.

Each category reports information about the vendors and their products from a different perspective – and only you can decide which of these perspectives and features are most important to you.

You might want to read this short article for a quick overview of the 4 kinds of DNA used for genetic genealogy and DTC testing and how they differ.

The Big 3

Today, there are three major players in the DNA testing market, not in any particular order:

Each of these companies offers autosomal tests, but each vendor offers features that are unique. Family Tree DNA and 23andMe offer additional tests as well.

In addition to the Big 3, there are a couple of new kids on the block that I will mention where appropriate. There are also niche players for the more advanced genetic genealogist or serious researcher, and this article does not address advanced research.

In a nutshell, if you are serious genealogist, you will want to take all of the following tests to maximize your tools for solving genealogical puzzles. There is no one single test that does everything.

  • Full mitochondrial sequence that informs you about your matrilineal line (only) at Family Tree DNA.
  • Y DNA test (for males only) that informs you about your direct paternal (surname) line (only) at Family Tree DNA.
  • Family Finder, an autosomal test that provides ethnicity estimates and cousin matching at Family Tree DNA.
  • AncestryDNA, an autosomal test at Ancestry.com that provides ethnicity estimates and cousin matching. (Do not confuse this test with Ancestry by DNA, which is not the same test and does not provide the same features.)
  • 23andMe Ancestry Service test, an autosomal test that provides ethnicity estimates and cousin matching.

A Word About Third Party Tools

A number of third party tools exist, such as GedMatch and DNAGedcom.com, and while these tools are quite useful after testing, these vendors don’t provide tests. In order to use these sites, you must first take an autosomal DNA test from a testing vendor. This article focuses on selecting your DNA testing vendor based on your testing goals.

Let’s get started!

Ethnicity

Many people are drawn to DNA testing through commercials that promise to ‘tell you who you are.” While the allure is exciting, the reality is somewhat different.

Each of the major three vendors provide an ethnicity estimate based on your autosomal DNA test, and each of the three vendors will provide you with a different result.

Yep, same person, different ethnicity breakdowns.

Hopefully, the outcomes will be very similar, but that’s certainly not always the case. However, many people take one test and believe those results wholeheartedly. Please don’t. You may want to read Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages to see how varied my own ethnicity reports are at various vendors as compared to my known genealogy.

The technology for understanding “ethnicity” from a genetic perspective is still very new. Your ethnicity estimate is based on reference populations from around the world – today. People and populations move, and have moved, for hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of years. Written history only reaches back a fraction of that time, so the estimates provided to people today are not exact.

That isn’t to criticize any individual vendor. View each vendor’s results not as gospel, but as their opinion based on their reference populations and their internal proprietary algorithm of utilizing those reference populations to produce your ethnicity results.

To read more about how ethnicity testing works, and why your results may vary between vendors or not be what you expected, click here.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from testing, only to be sure consumers understand the context of what they will be receiving. Generally speaking, these results are accurate at the continental level, and less accurate within continents, such as European regional breakdowns.

All three testing companies provide additional features or tools, in addition to your ethnicity estimates, that are relevant to ethnicity or population groups.

Let’s look at each company separately.

Ethnicity – Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA’s ethnicity tool is called myOrigins and provides three features or tools in addition to the actual ethnicity estimate and associated ethnicity map.

Please note that throughout this article you can click on any image to enlarge.

On the myOrigins ethnicity map page, above, your ethnicity percentages and map are shown, along with two additional features.

The Shared Origins box to the left shows the matching ethnic components of people on your DNA match list. This is particularly useful if you are trying to discover, for example, where a particular minority admixture comes from in your lineage. You can select different match types, for example, immediate relatives or X chromosome matches, which have special inheritance qualities.

Clicking on the apricot (mitochondrial DNA) and green (Y DNA) pins in the lower right corner drops the pins in the locations on your map of the most distant ancestral Y and mitochondrial DNA locations of the individuals in the group you have selected in the Shared Origins match box. You may or may not match these individuals on the Y or mtDNA lines, but families tend to migrate in groups, so match hints of any kind are important.

A third unique feature provided by Family Tree DNA is Ancient Origins, a tool released with little fanfare in November 2016.

Ancient Origins shows the ancient source of your European DNA, based on genome sequencing of ancient DNA from the locations shown on the map.

Additionally, Family Tree DNA hosts an Ancient DNA project where they have facilitated the upload of the ancient genomes so that customers today can determine if they match these ancient individuals.

Kits included in the Ancient DNA project are shown in the chart below, along with their age and burial location. Some have matches today, and some of these samples are included on the Ancient Origins map.

Individual Approx. Age Burial Location Matches Ancient Origins Map
Clovis Anzick 12,500 Montana (US) Yes No
Linearbandkeramik 7,500 Stuttgart, Germany Yes Yes
Loschbour 8,000 Luxembourg Yes Yes
Palaeo-Eskimo 4,000 Greenland No No
Altai Neanderthal 50,000 Altai No No
Denisova 30,000 Siberia No No
Hinxton-4 2,000 Cambridgeshire, UK No No
BR2 3,200 Hungary Yes Yes
Ust’-Ishim 45,000 Siberia Yes No
NE1 7,500 Hungary Yes Yes

Ethnicity – Ancestry

In addition to your ethnicity estimate, Ancestry also provides a feature called Genetic Communities.

Your ethnicity estimate provides percentages of DNA found in regions shown on the map by fully colored shapes – green in Europe in the example above. Genetic Communities show how your DNA clusters with other people in specific regions of the world – shown with dotted clusters in the US in this example.

In my case, my ethnicity at Ancestry shows my European roots, illustrated by the green highlighted areas, and my two Genetic Communities are shown by yellow and red dotted regions in the United States.

My assigned Genetic Communities indicate that my DNA clusters with other people whose ancestors lived in two regions; The Lower Midwest and Virginia as well as the Alleghenies and Northeast Indiana.

Testers can then view their DNA matches within that community, as well as a group of surnames common within that community.

The Genetic Communities provided for me are accurate, but don’t expect all of your genealogical regions to be represented in Genetic Communities. For example, my DNA is 25% German, and I don’t have any German communities today, although ancestry will be adding new Genetic Communities as new clusters are formed.

You can read more about Genetic Communities here and here.

Ethnicity – 23andMe

In addition to ethnicity percentage estimates, called Ancestry Composition, 23andMe offers the ability to compare your Ancestry Composition against that of your parent to see which portions of your ethnicity you inherited from each parent, although there are problems with this tool incorrectly assigning parental segments.

Additionally, 23andMe paints your chromosome segments with your ethnic heritage, as shown below.

You can see that my yellow Native American segments appear on chromosomes 1 and 2.

In January 2017, 23andMe introduced their Ancestry Timeline, which I find to be extremely misleading and inaccurate. On my timeline, shown below, they estimate that my most recent British and Irish ancestor was found in my tree between 1900 and 1930 while in reality my most recent British/Irish individual found in my tree was born in England in 1759.

I do not view 23andMe’s Ancestry Timeline as a benefit to the genealogist, having found that it causes people to draw very misleading conclusions, even to the point of questioning their parentage based on the results. I wrote about their Ancestry Timeline here.

Ethnicity Summary

All three vendors provide both ethnicity percentage estimates and maps. All three vendors provide additional tools and features relevant to ethnicity. Vendors also provide matching to other people which may or may not be of interest to people who test only for ethnicity. “Who you are” only begins with ethnicity estimates.

DNA test costs are similar, although the Family Tree DNA test is less at $79. All three vendors have sales from time to time.

Ethnicity Vendor Summary Chart

Ethnicity testing is an autosomal DNA test and is available for both males and females.

Family Tree DNA Ancestry 23andMe
Ethnicity Test Included with $79 Family Finder test Included with $99 Ancestry DNA test Included with $99 Ancestry Service
Percentages and Maps Yes Yes Yes
Shared Ethnicity with Matches Yes No Yes
Additional Feature Y and mtDNA mapping of ethnicity matches Genetic Communities Ethnicity phasing against parent (has issues)
Additional Feature Ancient Origins Ethnicity mapping by chromosome
Additional Feature Ancient DNA Project Ancestry Timeline

 

Adoption and Parental Identity

DNA testing is extremely popular among adoptees and others in search of missing parents and grandparents.

The techniques used for adoption and parental search are somewhat different than those used for more traditional genealogy, although non-adoptees may wish to continue to read this section because many of the features that are important to adoptees are important to other testers as well.

Adoptees often utilize autosomal DNA somewhat differently than traditional genealogists by using a technique called mirror trees. In essence, the adoptee utilizes the trees posted online of their closest DNA matches to search for common family lines within those trees. The common family lines will eventually lead to the individuals within those common trees that are candidates to be the parents of the searcher.

Here’s a simplified hypothetical example of my tree and a first cousin adoptee match.

The adoptee matches me at a first cousin level, meaning that we share at least one common grandparent – but which one? Looking at other people the adoptee matches, or the adoptee and I both match, we find Edith Lore (or her ancestors) in the tree of multiple matches. Since Edith Lore is my grandmother, the adoptee is predicted to be my first cousin, and Edith Lore’s ancestors appear in the trees of our common matches – that tells us that Edith Lore is also the (probable) grandmother of the adoptee.

Looking at the possibilities for how Edith Lore can fit into the tree of me and the adoptee, as first cousins, we fine the following scenario.

Testing the known child of daughter Ferverda will then provide confirmation of this relationship if the known child proves to be a half sibling to the adoptee.

Therefore, close matches, the ability to contact matches and trees are very important to adoptees. I recommend that adoptees make contact with www.dnaadoption.com. The volunteers there specialize in adoptions and adoptees, provide search angels to help people and classes to teach adoptees how to utilize the techniques unique to adoption search such as building mirror trees.

For adoptees, the first rule is to test with all 3 major vendors plus MyHeritage. Family Tree DNA allows you to test with both 23andMe and Ancestry and subsequently transfer your results to Family Tree DNA, but I would strongly suggest adoptees test on the Family Tree DNA platform instead. Your match results from transferring to Family Tree DNA from other companies, except for MyHeritage, will be fewer and less reliable because both 23andMe and Ancestry utilize different chip technology.

For most genealogists, MyHeritage is not a player, as they have only recently entered the testing arena, have a very small data base, no tools and are having matching issues. I recently wrote about MyHeritage here. However, adoptees may want to test with MyHeritage, or upload your results to MyHeritage if you tested with Family Tree DNA, because your important puzzle-solving match just might have tested there and no place else. You can read about transfer kit compatibility and who accepts which vendors’ tests here.

Adoptees can benefit from ethnicity estimates at the continental level, meaning that regional (within continent) or minority ethnicity should be taken with a very large grain of salt. However, knowing that you have 25% Jewish heritage, for example, can be a very big clue to an adoptee’s search.

Another aspect of the adoptees search that can be relevant is the number of foreign testers. For many years, neither 23andMe, nor Ancestry tested substantially (or at all) outside the US. Family Tree DNA has always tested internationally and has a very strong Jewish data base component.

Not all vendors report X chromosome matches. The X chromosome is important to genetic genealogy, because it has a unique inheritance path. Men don’t inherit an X chromosome from their fathers. Therefore, if you match someone on the X chromosome, you know the relationship, for a male, must be from their mother’s side. For a female, the relationship must be from the mother or the father’s mother’s side. You can read more about X chromosome matching here.

Neither Ancestry nor MyHeritage have chromosome browsers which allow you to view the segments of DNA on which you match other individuals, which includes the X chromosome.

Adoptee Y and Mitochondrial Testing

In addition to autosomal DNA testing, adoptees will want to test their Y DNA (males only) and mitochondrial DNA.

These tests are different from autosomal DNA which tests the DNA you receive from all of your ancestors. Y and mitochondrial DNA focus on only one specific line, respectively. Y DNA is inherited by men from their fathers and the Y chromosome is passed from father to son from time immemorial. Therefore, testing the Y chromosome provides us with the ability to match to current people as well as to use the Y chromosome as a tool to look far back in time. Adoptees tend to be most interested in matching current people, at least initially.

Working with male adoptees, I have a found that about 30% of the time a male will match strongly to a particular surname, especially at higher marker levels. That isn’t always true, but adoptees will never know if they don’t test. An adoptee’s match list is shown at 111 markers, below.

Furthermore, utilizing the Y and mitochondrial DNA test in conjunction with autosomal DNA matching at Family Tree DNA helps narrows possible relatives. The Advanced Matching feature allows you to see who you match on both the Y (or mitochondrial) DNA lines AND the autosomal test, in combination.

Mitochondrial DNA tests the matrilineal line only, as women pass their mitochondrial DNA to all of their children, but only females pass it on. Family Tree DNA provides matching and advanced combination matching/searching for mitochondrial DNA as well as Y DNA. Both genders of children carry their mother’s mitochondrial DNA. Unfortunately, mitochondrial DNA is more difficult to work with because of the surname changes in each generation, but you cannot be descended from a woman, or her direct matrilineal ancestors if you don’t substantially match her mitochondrial DNA.

Some vendors state that you receive mitochondrial DNA with your autosomal results, which is only partly accurate. At 23andMe, you receive a haplogroup but no detailed results and no matching. 23andMe does not test the entire mitochondria and therefore cannot provide either advanced haplogroup placement nor Y or mitochondrial DNA matching between testers.

For additional details on the Y and Mitochondrial DNA tests themselves and what you receive, please see the Genealogy – Y and Mitochondrial DNA section.

Adoption Summary

Adoptees should test with all 4 vendors plus Y and mitochondrial DNA testing.

  • Ancestry – due to their extensive data base size and trees
  • Family Tree DNA – due to their advanced tools, chromosome browser, Y and mitochondrial DNA tests (Ancestry and 23andMe participants can transfer autosomal raw data files and see matches for free, but advanced tools require either an unlock fee or a test on the Family Tree DNA platform)
  • 23andMe – no trees and many people don’t participate in sharing genetic information
  • MyHeritage – new kid on the block, working through what is hoped are startup issues
  • All adoptees should take the full mitochondrial sequence test.
  • Male adoptees should take the 111 marker Y DNA test, although you can start with 37 or 67 markers and upgrade later.
  • Y and mitochondrial tests are only available at Family Tree DNA.

Adoptee Vendor Feature Summary Chart

Family Tree DNA Ancestry 23andMe MyHeritage
Autosomal DNA – Males and Females
Matching Yes Yes Yes Yes – problems
Relationship Estimates* Yes – May be too close Yes – May be too distant Yes – Matches may not be sharing Yes –  problematic
International Reach Very strong Not strong but growing Not strong Small but subscriber base is European focused
Trees Yes Yes No Yes
Tree Quantity 54% have trees, 46% no tree (of my first 100 matches) 56% have trees, 44% no tree or private (of my first 100 matches) No trees ~50% don’t have trees or are private (cannot discern private tree without clicking on every tree)
Data Base Size Large Largest Large – but not all opt in to matching Very small
My # of Matches on 4-23-2017 2,421 23,750 1,809 but only 1,114 are sharing 75
Subscription Required No No for partial, Yes for full functionality including access to matches’ trees, minimal subscription for $59 by calling Ancestry No No for partial, Yes for full functionality
Other Relevant Tools New Ancestor Discoveries
Autosomal DNA Issues Many testers don’t have trees Many testers don’t have trees Matching opt-in is problematic, no trees at all Matching issues, small data base size is problematic, many testers don’t have trees
Contact Methodology E-mail address provided to matches Internal message system – known delivery issues Internal message system Internal message system
X Chromosome Matching Yes No Yes No
Y-DNA – Males Only
Y DNA STR Test Yes- 37, 67, and 111 markers No No No
Y Haplogroup Yes as part of STR test plus additional testing available No Yes, basic level but no additional testing available, outdated haplogroups No
Y Matching Yes No No No
Advanced Matching Between Y and Autosomal Yes No No No
Mitochondrial DNA- Males and Females
Test Yes, partial and full sequence No No No
Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup Yes, included in test No Yes, basic but full haplogroup not available, haplogroup several versions behind No
Advanced Matching Between Mitochondrial and Autosomal Yes No No No

Genealogy – Cousin Matching and Ancestor Search/Verification

People who want to take a DNA test to find cousins, to learn more about their genealogy, to verify their genealogy research or to search for unknown ancestors and break down brick walls will be interested in various types of testing

Test Type Who Can Test
Y DNA – direct paternal line Males only
Mitochondrial DNA – direct matrilineal line Males and Females
Autosomal – all lines Males and Females

Let’s begin with autosomal DNA testing for genealogy which tests your DNA inherited from all ancestral lines.

Aside from ethnicity, autosomal DNA testing provides matches to other people who have tested. A combination of trees, meaning their genealogy, and their chromosome segments are used to identify (through trees) and verify (through DNA segments) common ancestor(s) and then to assign a particular DNA segment(s) to that ancestor or ancestral couple. This process, called triangulation, then allows you to assign specific segments to particular ancestors, through segment matching among multiple people. You then know that when another individual matches you and those other people on the same segment, that the DNA comes from that same lineage. Triangulation is the only autosomal methodology to confirm ancestors who are not close relatives, beyond the past 2-3 generations or so.

All three vendors provide matching, but the tools they include and their user interfaces are quite different. 

Genealogy – Autosomal –  Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA entered DNA testing years before any of the others, initially with Y and mitochondrial DNA testing.

Because of the diversity of their products, their website is somewhat busier, but they do a good job of providing areas on the tester’s personal landing page for each of the products and within each product, a link for each feature or function.

For example, the Family Finder test is Family Tree DNA’s autosomal test. Within that product, tools provided are:

  • Matching
  • Chromosome Browser
  • Linked Relationships
  • myOrigins
  • Ancient Origins
  • Matrix
  • Advanced Matching

Unique autosomal tools provided by Family Tree DNA are:

  • Linked Relationships that allows you to connect individuals that you match to their location in your tree, indicating the proper relationship. Phased Family Matching uses these relationships within your tree to indicate which side of your tree other matches originate from.
  • Phased Family Matching shows which side of your tree, maternal, paternal or both, someone descends from, based on phased DNA matching between you and linked relationship matches as distant as third cousins. This allows Family Tree DNA to tell you whether matches are paternal (blue icon), maternal (red icon) or both (purple icon) without a parent’s DNA. This is one of the best autosomal tools at Family Tree DNA, shown below.

  • In Common With and Not In Common With features allow you to sort your matches in common with another individual a number of ways, or matches not in common with that individual.
  • Filtered downloads provide the downloading of chromosome data for your filtered match list.
  • Stackable filters and searches – for example, you can select paternal matches and then search for a particular surname or ancestral surname within the paternal matches.
  • Common ethnicity matching through myOrigins allows you to see selected groups of individuals who match you and share common ethnicities.
  • Y and mtDNA locations of autosomal matches are provided on your ethnicity map through myOrigins.
  • Advanced matching tool includes Y, mtDNA and autosomal in various combinations. Also includes matches within projects where the tester is a member as well as by partial surname.
  • The matrix tool allows the tester to enter multiple people that they match in order to see if those individuals also match each other. The matrix tool is, in combination with the in-common-with tool and the chromosome browser is a form of pseudo triangulation, but does not indicate that the individuals match on the same segment.

  • Chromosome browser with the ability to select different segment match thresholds to display when comparing 5 or fewer individuals to your results.
  • Projects to join which provide group interaction and allow individuals to match only within the project, if desired.

To read more about how to utilize the various autosomal tools at Family Tree DNA, with examples, click here.

Genealogy – Autosomal – Ancestry

Ancestry only offers autosomal DNA testing to their customers, so their page is simple and straightforward.

Ancestry is the only testing vendor (other than MyHeritage who is not included in this section) to require a subscription for full functionality, although if you call the Ancestry support line, a minimal subscription is available for $59. You can see your matches without a subscription, but you cannot see your matches trees or utilize other functions, so you will not be able to tell how you connect to your matches. Many genealogists have Ancestry subscriptions, so this is minimally problematic for most people.

However, if you don’t realize you need a subscription initially, the required annual subscription raises the effective cost of the test quite substantially. If you let your subscription lapse, you no longer have access to all DNA features. The cost of testing with Ancestry is the cost of the test plus the cost of a subscription if you aren’t already a subscriber.

This chart, from the Ancestry support center, provides details on which features are included for free and which are only available with a subscription.

Unique tools provided by Ancestry include:

  • Shared Ancestor Hints (green leaves) which indicate a match with whom you share a common ancestor in your tree connected to your DNA, allowing you to display the path of you and your match to the common ancestor. In order to take advantage of this feature, testers must link their tree to their DNA test. Otherwise, Ancestry can’t do tree matching.  As far as I’m concerned, this is the single most useful DNA tool at Ancestry. Subscription required.

  • DNA Circles, example below, are created when several people whose DNA matches also share a common ancestor. Subscription required.

  • New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs), which are similar to Circles, but are formed when you match people descended from a common ancestor, but don’t have that ancestor in your tree. The majority of the time, these NADs are incorrect and are, when dissected and the source can be determined, found to be something like the spouse of a sibling of your ancestor. I do not view NADs as a benefit, more like a wild goose chase, but for some people these could be useful so long as the individual understands that these are NOT definitely ancestors and only hints for research. Subscription required.
  • Ancestry uses a proprietary algorithm called Timber to strip DNA from you and your matches that they consider to be “too matchy,” with the idea that those segments are identical by population, meaning likely to be found in large numbers within a population group – making them meaningless for genealogy. The problem is that Timber results in the removal of valid segments, especially in endogamous groups like Acadian families. This function is unique to Ancestry, but many genealogists (me included) don’t consider Timber a benefit.
  • Genetic Communities shows you groups of individuals with whom your DNA clusters. The trees of cluster members are then examined by Ancestry to determine connections from which Genetic Communities are formed. You can filter your DNA match results by Genetic Community.

Genealogy – Autosomal – 23and Me

Unfortunately, the 23andMe website is not straightforward or intuitive. They have spent the majority of the past two years transitioning to a “New Experience” which has resulted in additional confusion and complications when matching between people on multiple different platforms. You can take a spin through the New Experience by clicking here.

23andMe requires people to opt-in to sharing, even after they have selected to participate in Ancestry Services (genealogy) testing, have opted-in previously and chosen to view their DNA Relatives. Users on the “New Experience” can then either share chromosome data and results with each other individually, meaning on a one by one basis, or globally by a one-time opt-in to “open sharing” with matches. If a user does not opt-in to both DNA Relatives and open sharing, sharing requests must be made individually to each match, and they must opt-in to share with each individual user. This complexity and confusion results in an approximate sharing rate of between 50 and 60%. One individual who religiously works their matches by requesting sharing now has a share rate of about 80% of their matches in the data base who HAVE initially selected to participate in DNA Relatives. You can read more about the 23andMe experience at this link.

Various genetic genealogy reports and tools are scattered between the Reports and Tools tabs, and within those, buried in non-intuitive locations. If you are going to utilize 23andMe for matching and genealogy, in addition to the above link, I recommend Kitty Cooper’s blogs about the new DNA Relatives here and on triangulation here. Print the articles, and use them as a guide while navigating the 23andMe site.

Note that some screens (the Tools, DNA Relatives, then DNA tab) on the site do not display/work correctly utilizing Internet Explorer, but do with Edge or other browsers.

The one genealogy feature unique to 23andMe is:

  • Triangulation at 23andMe allows you to select a specific match to compare your DNA against. Several pieces of information will be displayed, the last of which, scrolling to the bottom, is a list of your common relatives with the person you selected.

In the example below, I’ve selected to see the matches I match in common with known family member, Stacy Den (surnames have been obscured for privacy reasons.)  Please note that the Roberta V4 Estes kit is a second test that I took for comparison purposes when the new V4 version of 23andMe was released.  Just ignore that match, because, of course I match myself as a twin.

If an individual does not match both you and your selected match, they will not appear on this list.

In the “relatives in common” section, each person is listed with a “shared DNA” column. For a person to be shown on this “in common” list, you obviously do share DNA with these individuals and they also share with your match, but the “shared DNA” column goes one step further. This column indicates whether or not you and your match both share a common DNA segment with the “in common” person.

I know this is confusing, so I’ve created this chart to illustrate what will appear in the “Shared DNA” column of the individuals showing on the list of matches, above, shared between me and Stacy Den.

Clicking on “Share to see” sends Sarah a sharing request for her to allow you to see her segment matches.

Let’s look at an example with “yes” in the Shared DNA column.

Clicking on the “Yes” in the Shared DNA column of Debbie takes us to the chromosome browser which shows both your selected match, Stacy in my case, and Debbie, the person whose “yes” you clicked.

All three people, meaning me, Stacy and Debbie share a common DNA segment, shown below on chromosome 17.

What 23andMe does NOT say is that these people. Stacy and Debbie, also match each other, in addition to matching me, which means all three of us triangulate.

Because I manage Stacy’s kit at 23andMe, I can check to see if Debbie is on Stacy’s match list, and indeed, Debbie is on Stacy’s match list and Stacy does match both Debbie and me on chromosome 17 in exactly the same location shown above, proving unquestionably that the three of us all match each other and therefore triangulate on this segment. In our case, it’s easy to identify our common relative whose DNA all 3 of us share.

Genealogy – Autosomal Summary

While all 3 vendors offer matching, their interfaces and tools vary widely.

I would suggest that Ancestry is the least sophisticated and has worked hard to make their tools easy for the novice working with genetic genealogy. Their green leaf DNA+Tree Matching is their best feature, easy to use and important for the novice and experienced genealogist alike.  Now, if they just had that chromosome browser so we could see how we match those people.

Ancestry’s Circles, while a nice feature, encourage testers to believe that their DNA or relationship is confirmed by finding themselves in a Circle, which is not the case.

Circles can be formed as the result of misinformation in numerous trees. For example, if I were to inaccurately list Smith as the surname for one of my ancestor’s wives, I would find myself in a Circle for Barbara Smith, when in fact, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that her surname is Smith. Yet, people think that Barbara Smith is confirmed due to a Circle having been formed and finding themselves in Barbara Smith’s Circle. Copying incorrect trees equals the formation of incorrect Circles.

It’s also possible that I’m matching people on multiple lines and my DNA match to the people in any given Circle is through another common ancestor entirely.

A serious genealogist will test minimally at Ancestry and at Family Tree DNA, who provides a chromosome browser and other tools necessary to confirm relationships and shared DNA segments.

Family Tree DNA is more sophisticated, so consequently more complex to use.  They provide matching plus numerous other tools. The website and matching is certainly friendly for the novice, but to benefit fully, some experience or additional education is beneficial, not unlike traditional genealogy research itself. This is true not just for Family Tree DNA, but GedMatch and 23andMe who all three utilize chromosome browsers.

The user will want to understand what a chromosome browser is indicating about matching DNA segments, so some level of education makes life a lot easier. Fortunately, understanding chromosome browser matching is not complex. You can read an article about Match Groups and Triangulation here. I also have an entire series of Concepts articles, Family Tree DNA offers a webinar library, their Learning Center and other educational resources are available as well.

Family Tree DNA is the only vendor to provide Phased Family Matches, meaning that by connecting known relatives who have DNA tested to your tree, Family Tree DNA can then identify additional matches as maternal, paternal or both. This, in combination with pseudo-phasing are very powerful matching tools.

23andMe is the least friendly of the three companies, with several genetic genealogy unfriendly restrictions relative to matching, opt-ins, match limits and such. They have experienced problem after problem for years relative to genetic genealogy, which has always been a second-class citizen compared to their medical research, and not a priority.

23andMe has chosen to implement a business model where their customers must opt-in to share segment information with other individuals, either one by one or by opting into open sharing. Based on my match list, roughly 60% of my actual DNA matches have opted in to sharing.

Their customer base includes fewer serious genealogists and their customers often are not interested in genealogy at all.

Having said that, 23andMe is the only one of the three that provides actual triangulated matches for users on the New Experience and who have opted into sharing.

If I were entering the genetic genealogy testing space today, I would test my autosomal DNA at Ancestry and at Family Tree DNA, but I would probably not test at 23andMe. I would test both my Y DNA (if a male) and mitochondrial at Family Tree DNA.

Thank you to Kitty Cooper for assistance with parent/child matching and triangulation at 23andMe.

Genealogy Autosomal Vendor Feature Summary Chart

Family Tree DNA Ancestry 23andMe
Matching Yes Yes Yes – each person has to opt in for open sharing or authorize sharing individually, many don’t
Estimated Relationships Yes Yes Yes
Chromosome Browser Yes No – Large Issue Yes
Chromosome Browser Threshold Adjustment Yes No Chromosome Browser No
X Chromosome Matching Yes No Yes
Trees Yes Yes – subscription required so see matches’ trees No
Ability to upload Gedcom file Yes Yes No
Ability to search trees Yes Yes No
Subscription in addition to DNA test price No No for partial, Yes for full functionality, minimal subscription for $59 by calling Ancestry No
DNA + Ancestor in Tree Matches No Yes – Leaf Hints – subscription required – Best Feature No
Phased Parental Side Matching Yes – Best Feature No No
Parent Match Indicator Yes No Yes
Sort or Group by Parent Match Yes Yes Yes
In Common With Tool Yes Yes Yes
Not In Common With Tool Yes No No
Triangulated Matches No – pseudo with ICW, browser and matrix No Yes – Best Feature
Common Surnames Yes Yes – subscription required No
Ability to Link DNA Matches on Tree Yes No No
Matrix to show match grid between multiple matches Yes No No
Match Filter Tools Yes Minimal Some
Advanced Matching Tool Yes No No
Multiple Test Matching Tool Yes No multiple tests No multiple tests
Ethnicity Matching Yes No Yes
Projects Yes No No
Maximum # of Matches Restricted No No Yes – 2000 unless you are communicating with the individuals, then they are not removed from your match list
All Customers Participate Yes Yes, unless they don’t have a subscription No – between 50-60% opt-in
Accepts Transfers from Other Testing Companies Yes No No
Free Features with Transfer Matching, ICW, Matrix, Advanced Matching No transfers No transfers
Transfer Features Requiring Unlock $ Chromosome Browser, Ethnicity, Ancient Origins, Linked Relationships, Parentally Phased Matches No Transfers No transfers
Archives DNA for Later Testing Yes, 25 years No, no additional tests available No, no additional tests available
Additional Tool DNA Circles – subscription required
Additional Tool New Ancestor Discoveries – subscription required
Y DNA Not included in autosomal test but is additional test, detailed results including matching No Haplogroup only
Mitochondrial DNA Not included in autosomal test but is additional test, detailed results including matching No Haplogroup only
Advanced Testing Available Yes No No
Website Intuitive Yes, given their many tools Yes, very simple No
Data Base Size Large Largest Large but many do not test for genealogy, only test for health
Strengths Many tools, multiple types of tests, phased matching without parent DNA + Tree matching, size of data base Triangulation
Challenges Website episodically times out No chromosome browser or advanced tools Sharing is difficult to understand and many don’t, website is far from intuitive

 

Genealogy – Y and Mitochondrial DNA

Two indispensable tools for genetic genealogy that are often overlooked are Y and mitochondrial DNA.

The inheritance path for Y DNA is shown by the blue squares and the inheritance path for mitochondrial DNA is shown by the red circles for the male and female siblings shown at the bottom of the chart.

Y-DNA Testing for Males

Y DNA is inherited by males only, from their father. The Y chromosome makes males male. Women instead inherit an X chromosome from their father, which makes them female. Because the Y chromosome is not admixed with the DNA of the mother, the same Y chromosome has been passed down through time immemorial.

Given that the Y chromosome follows the typical surname path, Y DNA testing is very useful for confirming surname lineage to an expected direct paternal ancestor. In other words, an Estes male today should match, with perhaps a few mutations, to other descendants of Abraham Estes who was born in 1647 in Kent, England and immigrated to the colony of Virginia.

Furthermore, that same Y chromosome can look far back in time, thousands of years, to tell us where that English group of Estes men originated, before the advent of surnames and before the migration to England from continental Europe. I wrote about the Estes Y DNA here, so you can see an example of how Y DNA testing can be used.

Y DNA testing for matching and haplogroup identification, which indicates where in the world your ancestors were living within the past few hundred to few thousand years, is only available from Family Tree DNA. Testing can be purchased for either 37, 67 or 111 markers, with the higher marker numbers providing more granularity and specificity in matching.

Family Tree DNA provides three types of Y DNA tests.

  • STR (short tandem repeat) testing is the traditional Y DNA testing for males to match to each other in a genealogically relevant timeframe. These tests can be ordered in panels of 37, 67 or 111 markers and lower levels can be upgraded to higher levels at a later date. An accurate base haplogroup prediction is made from STR markers.
  • SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) testing is a different type of testing that tests single locations for mutations in order to confirm and further refine haplogroups. Think of a haplogroup as a type of genetic clan, meaning that haplogroups are used to track migration of humans through time and geography, and are what is utilized to determine African, European, Asian or Native heritage in the direct paternal line. SNP tests are optional and can be ordered one at a time, in groups called panels for a particular haplogroup or a comprehensive research level Y DNA test called the Big Y can be ordered after STR testing.
  • The Big Y test is a research level test that scans the entire Y chromosome to determine the most refined haplogroup possible and to report any previously unknown mutations (SNPs) that may define further branches of the Y DNA tree. This is the technique used to expand the Y haplotree.

You can read more about haplogroups here and about the difference between STR markers and SNPs here, here and here.

Customers receive the following features and tools when they purchase a Y DNA test at Family Tree DNA or the Ancestry Services test at 23andMe. The 23andMe Y DNA information is included in their Ancestry Services test. The Family Tree DNA Y DNA information requires specific tests and is not included in the Family Finder test. You can click here to read about the difference in the technology between Y DNA testing at Family Tree DNA and at 23andMe. Ancestry is not included in this comparison because they provide no Y DNA related information.

Y DNA Vendor Feature Summary Chart

Family Tree DNA 23andMe
Varying levels of STR panel marker testing Yes, in panels of 37, 67 and 111 markers No
Test panel (STR) marker results Yes Not tested
Haplogroup assignment Yes – accurate estimate with STR panels, deeper testing available Yes –base haplogroup by scan – haplogroup designations are significantly out of date, no further testing available
SNP testing to further define haplogroup Yes – can purchase individual SNPs, by SNP panels or Big Y test No
Matching to other participants Yes No
Trees available for your matches Yes No
E-mail of matches provided Yes No
Calculator tool to estimate probability of generational distance between you and a match Yes No
Earliest known ancestor information Yes No
Projects Surname, haplogroup and geographic projects No
Ability to search Y matches Yes No Y matching
Ability to search matches within projects Yes No projects
Ability to search matches by partial surname Yes No
Haplotree and customer result location on tree Yes, detailed with every branch Yes, less detailed, subset
Terminal SNP used to determine haplogroup Yes Yes, small subset available
Haplogroup Map Migration map Heat map
Ancestral Origins – summary by ancestral location of others you match, by test level Yes No
Haplogroup Origins – match ancestral location summary by haplogroup, by test level Yes No
SNP map showing worldwide locations of any selected SNP Yes No
Matches map showing mapped locations of your matches most distant ancestor in the paternal line, by test panel Yes No
Big Y – full scan of Y chromosome for known and previously unknown mutations (SNPs) Yes No
Big Y matching Yes No
Big Y matching known SNPs Yes No
Big Y matching novel variants (unknown or yet unnamed SNPs) Yes No
Filter Big Y matches Yes No
Big Y results Yes No
Advanced matching for multiple test types Yes No
DNA is archived so additional tests or upgrades can be ordered at a later date Yes, 25 years No

Mitochondrial DNA Testing for Everyone

Mitochondrial DNA is contributed to both genders of children by mothers, but only the females pass it on. Like the Y chromosome, mitochondrial DNA is not admixed with the DNA of the other parent. Therefore, anyone can test for the mitochondrial DNA of their matrilineal line, meaning their mother’s mother’s mother’s lineage.

Matching can identify family lines as well as ancient lineage.

You receive the following features and tools when you purchase a mitochondrial DNA test from Family Tree DNA or the Ancestry Services test from 23andMe. The Family Tree DNA mitochondrial DNA information requires specific tests and is not included in the Family Finder test. The 23andMe mitochondrial information is provided with the Ancestry Services test. Ancestry is omitted from this comparison because they do not provide any mitochondrial information.

Mitochondrial DNA Vendor Feature Summary Chart

Family Tree DNA 23andMe
Varying levels of testing Yes, mtPlus and Full Sequence No
Test panel marker results Yes, in two formats, CRS and RSRS No
Rare mutations, missing and extra mutations, insertions and deletions reported Yes No
Haplogroup assignment Yes, most current version, Build 17 Yes, partial and out of date version
Matching to other participants Yes No
Trees of matches available to view Yes No
E-mail address provided to matches Yes No
Earliest known ancestor information Yes No
Projects Surname, haplogroup and geographic available No
Ability to search matches Yes No
Ability to search matches within project Yes No projects
Ability to search match by partial surname Yes No
Haplotree and customer location on tree No Yes
Mutations used to determine haplogroup provided Yes No
Haplogroup Map Migration map Heat map
Ancestral Origins – summary by ancestral location of others you match, by test level Yes No
Haplogroup Origins –match ancestral location summary by haplogroup Yes No
Matches map showing mapped locations of your matches most distant ancestor in the maternal line, by test level Yes No
Advanced matching for multiple test types Yes No
DNA is archived so additional tests or upgrades can be ordered at a later date Yes, 25 years No

 

Overall Genealogy Summary

Serious genealogists should test with at least two of the three major vendors, being Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, with 23andMe coming in as a distant third.

No genetic genealogy testing regimen is complete without Y and mitochondrial DNA for as many ancestral lines as you can find to test. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll never know if you don’t test.

Unfortunately, many people, especially new testers, don’t know Y and mitochondrial DNA testing for genetic genealogy exists, or how it can help their genealogy research, which is extremely ironic since these were the first tests available, back in 2000.

You can read about finding Y and mitochondrial information for various family lines and ancestors and how to assemble a DNA Pedigree Chart here.

You can also take a look at my 52 Ancestors series, where I write about an ancestor every week. Each article includes some aspect of DNA testing and knowledge gained by a test or tests, DNA tool, or comparison. The DNA aspect of these articles focuses on how to use DNA as a tool to discover more about your ancestors.

 

Testing for Medical/Health or Traits

The DTC market also includes health and medical testing, although it’s not nearly as popular as genetic genealogy.

Health/medical testing is offered by 23andMe, who also offers autosomal DNA testing for genealogy.

Some people do want to know if they have genetic predispositions to medical conditions, and some do not. Some want to know if they have certain traits that aren’t genealogically relevant, but might be interesting – such as whether they carry the Warrior gene or if they have an alcohol flush reaction.

23andMe was the first company to dip their toes into the water of Direct to Consumer medical information, although they called it “health,” not medicine, at that time. Regardless of the terminology, information regarding Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, for example, were provided for customers. 23andMe attempted to take the raw data and provide the consumer with something approaching a middle of the road analysis, because sometimes the actual studies provide conflicting information that might not be readily understood by consumers.

The FDA took issue with 23andMe back in November of 2013 when they ordered 23andMe to discontinue the “health” aspect of their testing after 23andMe ignored several deadlines. In October 2015, 23andMe obtained permission to provide customers with some information, such as carrier status, for 36 genetic disorders.

Since that time, 23andMe has divided their product into two separate tests, with two separate prices. The genealogy only test called Ancestry Service can be purchased separately for $99, or the combined Health + Ancestry Service for $199.

If you are interested in seeing what the Health + Ancestry test provides, you can click here to view additional information.

However, there is a much easier and less expensive solution.

If you have taken the autosomal test from 23andMe, Ancestry or Family Tree DNA, you can download your raw data file from the vendor and upload to Promethease to obtain a much more in-depth report than is provided by 23andMe, and much less expensively – just $5.

I reviewed the Promethease service here. I found the Promethease reports to be very informative and I like the fact that they provide information, both positive and negative for each SNP (DNA location) reported. Promethease avoids FDA problems by not providing any interpretation or analysis, simply the data and references extracted from SNPedia for you to review.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you should be sure you really want to know before you delve into medical testing. Some mutations are simply indications that you could develop a condition that you will never develop or that is not serious. Other mutations are not so benign. Promethease provides this candid page before you upload your data.

Different files from different vendors provide different results at Promethease, because those vendors test different SNP locations in your DNA. At the Promethease webpage, you can view examples.

Traits

Traits fall someplace between genealogy and health. When you take the Health + Ancestry test at 23andMe, you do receive information about various traits, as follows:

Of course, you’ll probably already know if you have several of these traits by just taking a look in the mirror, or in the case of male back hair, by asking your wife.

At Family Tree DNA, existing customers can order tests for Factoids (by clicking on the upgrade button), noted as curiosity tests for gene variants.

Family Tree DNA provides what I feel is a great summary and explanation of what the Factoids are testing on their order page:

“Factoids” are based on studies – some of which may be controversial – and results are not intended to diagnose disease or medical conditions, and do not serve the purpose of medical advice. They are offered exclusively for curiosity purposes, i.e. to see how your result compared with what the scientific papers say. Other genetic and environmental variables may also impact these same physiological characteristics. They are merely a conversational piece, or a “cocktail party” test, as we like to call it.”

Test Price Description
Alcohol Flush Reaction $19 A condition in which the body cannot break down ingested alcohol completely. Flushing, after consuming one or two alcoholic beverages, includes a range of symptoms: nausea, headaches, light-headedness, an increased pulse, occasional extreme drowsiness, and occasional skin swelling and itchiness. These unpleasant side effects often prevent further drinking that may lead to further inebriation, but the symptoms can lead to mistaken assumption that the people affected are more easily inebriated than others.
Avoidance of Errors $29 We are often angry at ourselves because we are unable to learn from certain experiences. Numerous times we have made the wrong decision and its consequences were unfavorable. But the cause does not lie only in our thinking. A mutation in a specific gene can also be responsible, because it can cause a smaller number of dopamine receptors. They are responsible for remembering our wrong choices, which in turn enables us to make better decisions when we encounter a similar situation.
Back Pain $39 Lumbar disc disease is the drying out of the spongy interior matrix of an intervertebral disc in the spine. Many physicians and patients use the term lumbar disc disease to encompass several different causes of back pain or sciatica. A study of Asian patients with lumbar disc disease showed that a mutation in the CILP gene increases the risk of back pain.
Bitter Taste Perception $29 There are several genes that are responsible for bitter taste perception – we test 3 of them. Different variations of this gene affect ability to detect bitter compounds. About 25% of people lack ability to detect these compounds due to gene mutations. Are you like them? Maybe you don’t like broccoli, because it tastes too bitter?
Caffeine Metabolism $19 According to the results of a case-control study reported in the March 8, 2006 issue of JAMA, coffee is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world, and caffeine consumption has been associated with increased risk for non-fatal myocardial infarction. Caffeine is primarily metabolized by the cytochrome P450 1A2 in the liver, accounting for 95% of metabolism. Carriers of the gene variant *1F allele are slow caffeine metabolizers, whereas individuals homozygous for the *1A/*1A genotype are rapid caffeine metabolizers.
Earwax Type $19 Whether your earwax is wet or dry is determined by a mutation in a single gene, which scientists have discovered. Wet earwax is believed to have uses in insect trapping, self-cleaning and prevention of dryness in the external auditory canal of the ear. It also produces an odor and causes sweating, which may play a role as a pheromone.
Freckling $19 Freckles can be found on anyone no matter what the background. However, having freckles is genetic and is related to the presence of the dominant melanocortin-1 receptor MC1R gene variant.
Longevity $49 Researchers at Harvard Medical School and UC Davis have discovered a few genes that extend lifespan, suggesting that the whole family of SIR2 genes is involved in controlling lifespan. The findings were reported July 28, 2005 in the advance online edition of Science.
Male Pattern Baldness $19 Researchers at McGill University, King’s College London and GlaxoSmithKline Inc. have identified two genetic variants in Caucasians that together produce an astounding sevenfold increase of the risk of male pattern baldness. Their results were published in the October 12, 2008 issue of the Journal of Nature Genetics.
Monoamine Oxidase A (Warrior Gene) $49.50 The Warrior Gene is a variant of the gene MAO-A on the X chromosome. Recent studies have linked the Warrior Gene to increased risk-taking and aggressive behavior. Whether in sports, business, or other activities, scientists found that individuals with the Warrior Gene variant were more likely to be combative than those with the normal MAO-A gene. However, human behavior is complex and influenced by many factors, including genetics and our environment. Individuals with the Warrior Gene are not necessarily more aggressive, but according to scientific studies, are more likely to be aggressive than those without the Warrior Gene variant. This test is available for both men and women, however, there is limited research about the Warrior Gene variant amongst females. Additional details about the Warrior Gene genetic variant of MAO-A can be found in Sabol et al, 1998.
Muscle Performance $29 A team of researchers, led by scientists at Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth College, have identified and tested a gene that dramatically alters both muscle metabolism and performance. The researchers say that this finding could someday lead to treatment of muscle diseases, including helping the elderly who suffer from muscle deterioration and improving muscle performance in endurance athletes.
Nicotine Dependence $19 In 2008, University of Virginia Health System researchers have identified a gene associated with nicotine dependence in both Europeans and African Americans.

Many people are interested in the Warrior Gene, which I wrote about here.

At Promethease, traits are simply included with the rest of the conditions known to be associated with certain SNPs, such as baldness, for example, but I haven’t done a comparison to see which traits are included.

 

Additional Vendor Information to Consider

Before making your final decision about which test or tests to purchase, there are a few additional factors you may want to consider.

As mentioned before, Ancestry requires a subscription in addition tot he cost of the DNA test for the DNA test to be fully functional.

One of the biggest issues, in my opinion, is that both 23andMe and Ancestry sell customer’s anonymized DNA information to unknown others. Every customer authorizes the sale of their information when they purchase or activate a kit – even though very few people actually take the time to read the Terms and Conditions, Privacy statements and Security documents, including any and all links. This means most people don’t realize they are authorizing the sale of their DNA.

At both 23andMe and Ancestry, you can ALSO opt in for additional non-anonymized research or sale of your DNA, which you can later opt out of. However, you cannot opt out of the lower level sale of your anonymized DNA without removing your results from the data base and asking for your sample to be destroyed. They do tell you this, but it’s very buried in the fine print at both companies. You can read more here.

Family Tree DNA does not sell your DNA or information.

All vendors can change their terms and conditions at any time. Consumers should always thoroughly read the terms and conditions including anything having to do with privacy for any product they purchase, but especially as it relates to DNA testing.

Family Tree DNA archives your DNA for later testing, which has proven extremely beneficial when a family member has passed away and a new test is subsequently introduced or the family wants to upgrade a current test.  Had my mother’s DNA not been archived at Family Tree DNA, I would not have Family Finder results for her today – something I thank Mother and Family Tree DNA for every single day.

Family Tree DNA also accepts transfer files from 23andMe, Ancestry and very shortly, MyHeritage – although some versions work better than others. For details on which companies accept which file versions, from which vendors, and why, please read Autosomal DNA Transfers – Which Companies Accept Which Tests?

If you tested on a compatible version of the 23andMe Test (V3 between December 2010 and November 2013) or the Ancestry V1 (before May 2016) you may want to transfer your raw data file to Family Tree DNA for free and pay only $19 for full functionality, as opposed to taking the Family Finder test. Family Tree DNA does accept later versions of files from 23andMe and Ancestry, but you will receive more matches if you test on the same chip platform that Family Tree DNA utilizes instead of doing a transfer.

Additional Vendor Considerations Summary Chart

Family Tree DNA Ancestry 23andMe
Subscription required in addition to cost of DNA test No Yes for full functionality, partial functionality is included without subscription, minimum subscription is $59 by calling Ancestry No
Customer Support Good and available Available, nice but often not knowledgeable about DNA Poor
Sells customer DNA information No Yes Yes
DNA raw data file available to download Yes Yes Yes
DNA matches file available to download including match info and chromosome match locations Yes No Yes
Customers genealogically focused Yes Yes Many No
Accepts DNA raw data transfer files from other companies Yes, most, see article for specifics No No
DNA archived for later testing Yes, 25 years No No
Beneficiary provision available Yes No No

 

Which Test is Best For You?

I hope you now know the answer as to which DNA test is best for you – or maybe it’s multiple tests for you and other family members too!

DNA testing holds so much promise for genealogy. I hesitate to call DNA testing a miracle tool, but it often is when there are no records. DNA testing works best in conjunction with traditional genealogical research.

There are a lot of tests and options.  The more tests you take, the more people you match. Some people test at multiple vendors or upload their DNA to third party sites like GedMatch, but most don’t. In order to make sure you reach those matches, which may be the match you desperately need, you’ll have to test at the vendor where they tested. Otherwise, they are lost to you. That means, of course, that eventually, if you’re a serious genealogist, you’ll be testing at all 3 vendors.  Don’t forget about Y and mitochondrial tests at Family Tree DNA.

Recruit family members to test and reach out to your matches.  The more you share and learn – the more is revealed about your ancestors. You are, after all, the unique individual that resulted from the combination of all of them!

Nine Autosomal Tools at Family Tree DNA

The introduction of the Phased Family Finder Matches has added a new way to view autosomal DNA results at Family Tree DNA and a powerful new tool to the genealogists toolbox.

The Phased Family Finder Matches are the 9th tool provided for autosomal test results by Family Tree DNA. Did you know where were 9?

Each of the different methodologies provides us with information in a unique way to assist in our relentless search for cousins, ancestors and our quests to break down brick walls.

That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that sometimes options are confusing, so I’d like to review each tool for viewing autosomal match information, including:

  • When to use each tool
  • How to use each tool
  • What the results mean to you
  • The unique benefits of each tool
  • The cautions and things you need to know about each tool including what they are not

The tools are:

  1. Regular Matching
  2. ICW (In Common With)
  3. Not ICW (Not In Common With)
  4. The Matrix
  5. Chromosome Browser
  6. Phased Family Matching
  7. Combined Advanced Matching
  8. MyOrigins Matching
  9. Spreadsheet Matching

You Have Options

Family Tree DNA provides their clients with options, for which I am eternally grateful. I don’t want any company deciding for me which matches are and are not important based on population phasing (as opposed to parental phasing), and then removing matches they feel are unimportant. For people who are not fully endogamous, but have endogamous lines, matches to those lines, which are valid matches, tend to get stripped away when a company employs population based phasing – and once those matches are gone, there is no recovery unless your match happens to transfer their results to either Family Tree DNA or GedMatch.

The great news is that the latest new option, Phased Family Matching, is focused on making easy visual comparisons of high quality parental matches which is especially useful for those who don’t want to dig deeply.

There are good options for everyone at all ranges of expertise, from beginners to those who like to work with spreadsheets and extract every teensy bit of information.

So let’s take a look at all of your matching options at Family Tree DNA. If you’re not taking advantage of all of them, you’re missing out. Each option is unique and offers something the other options don’t offer.

In case you’re curious, I’ll be bouncing back and forth between my kit, my mother’s kit and another family member’s kit because, based on their matches utilizing the various tools, different kits illustrate different points better.

Also, please note that you can click on any image to see a larger version.

Selecting Options

FF9 options

Your selection options for Family Finder are available on both your Dashboard page under the Family Finder heading, right in the middle of the page, and the dropdown myFTDNA menu, on the upper left, also under Family Finder.

Ok, let’s get started. 

#1 – Regular Matching

By regular matching, I’m referring to the matches you see when you click on the “Matches” tab on your main screen under Family Finder or in the dropdown box.

FF9 regular matching

Everyone uses this tool, but not everyone knows about the finer points of various options provided.

There’s a lot of information here folks. Are you systematically using this information to its full advantage?

Your matches are displayed in the highest match first order. All of the information we utilize regularly (or should) is present, including:

  • Relationship Range
  • Match Date
  • Shared CentiMorgans
  • Longest (shared) Block
  • X-Match
  • Known Relationship
  • Ancestral Surnames (double click to see entire list)
  • Notes
  • E-mail envelope icon
  • Family Tree
  • Parental “side” icon

The Expansion “+” at the right side of each match, shown below, shows us:

  • Tests Taken
  • mtDNA haplogroup
  • Y haplogroup

Clicking on your match’s profile (their picture) provides additional information, if they have provided that information:

  • Most distant maternal ancestor
  • Most distant paternal ancestor
  • Additional information in the “about me” field, sometimes including a website link

On the match page, you can search for matches either by their full name, first name, last name or click on the “Advanced Search” to search for ancestral surname. These search boxes can be found at the top right.

FF9 advanced search

The Advanced Search feature, underneath the search boxes at right, also provides you with the option of combining search criteria, by opening two drop down boxes at the top left of the screen.

FF9 search combo

Let’s say I want to see all of my matches on the X chromosome. I make that selection and the only people displayed as matches are those whom I match on the X chromosome.

You can see that in this case, there are 280 matches. If I have any Phased Family Matches, then you will see how many X matches I have on those tabs too.

The first selection box works in combination with the second selection box.

FF9 search combo 2

Now, let’s say I want to sort in Longest Block Order. That section sorts and displays the people who match me on the X chromosome in Longest Block Order.

FF9 longest block

Prerequisites

  • Take the Family Finder test or transfer your results from either 23andMe (V3 only) or Ancestry (V1 only, currently.)
  • Match must be over the matching threshold of 9cM if shared cM are less than 20, or, the longest block must be at least 7.69 cM if the total shared cM is 20 or greater.

Power Features

  • The ability to customize your view by combining search, match and sort criteria.

Cautions

  • It’s easy to forget that you’re ONLY working with X matches, for example, once you sort, and not all of your matches. Note the Reset Filter button above your matches which clears all of the sort and search criteria. Always reset, just to be on the safe side, before you initiate another sort.

FF9 reset filter

  • Please note that the search boxes and logic are in the process of being redesigned, per a conversation Michael Davila, Director of Product Development, on 7-20-2016. Currently, if you search for the name “Donald,” for example, and then do an “in common with” match to someone on the Donald match list, you’ll only see those individuals who are in common with “Donald,” meaning anyone without “Donald” as one of their names won’t show as a match. The logic will be revised shortly so that you will see everyone “in common with,” not just “Donald.” Just be aware of this today and don’t do an ICW with someone you’ve searched for in the search box until this is revised.

#2 – In Common With (ICW)

You can select anyone from your match list to see who you match in common with them.

This is an important feature because it gives me a very good clue as to who else may match me on that same genealogical line.

For example, cousin Donald is related on the paternal line. I can select Donald by clicking the box to the left of his profile which highlights his row in yellow. I can then select what I want to do with Don’s match.

FF9 ICW

You will see that Don is selected in the match selection box on the lower left, and the options for what I can do with Don are above the matches. Those options are:

  • Chromosome Browser
  • In Common With
  • Not in Common With

Let’s select “In Common With.”

Now, the matches displayed will ONLY be those that I match in common with Don, meaning that Donald and I both match these people.

FF9 ICW matches

As you can see, I’m displaying my matches in common with Don in longest block order. You can click on any of the header columns to display in reverse order.

There are a total of 82 matches in common with Don and of those, 50 are paternally assigned. We’ll talk about how parental “side” assignments happen in a minute.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches warrant further inspection and may (or may not) be from a common genealogical line.

Cautions

  • An ICW match does NOT mean that the matching individual IS from the same common line – only genealogical research can provide that information.
  • An ICW matches does NOT mean that these three people, you, your match and someone who matches both of you is triangulated – meaning matching on the same segment. Only individual matching with each other provides that information.
  • It’s easy to forget that you’re not working with your entire match list, but a subset. You can see that Donald’s name appears in the box at the upper left, along with the function you performed (ICW) and the display order if you’ve selected any options from the second box.

# 3 – Not In Common With

Now, let’s say I want to see all of my X matches that are not in common with my mother, who is in the data base, which of course suggests that they are either on my father’s side or identical by chance. My father is not in the data base, and given that he died in 1963, there is no chance of testing him.

Keep in mind though that because X matches aren’t displayed unless you have another qualifying autosomal segment, that they are more likely to be valid matches than if they were displayed without another matching segment that qualifies as a match.

For those who don’t know, X matches have a unique inheritance pattern which can yield great clues as to which side of your tree (if you’re a male), and which ancestors on various sides of your tree X matches MUST come from (males and females both.) I wrote about this here, along with some tools to help you work with X matches.

To utilize the “Not In Common With” feature, I would select my mother and then select the “Not In Common With” option, above the matches.

FF9 NICW

I would then sort the results to see the X matches by clicking on the top of the column for X-Match – or by any other column that I wanted to see.

FF9 NICW X

I have one very interesting not in common with match – and that’s with a Miller male that I would have assumed, based on the surname, was a match from my mother’s side. He’s obviously not, at least based on that X match. No assuming allowed!

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches warrant further inspection and may be from a common genealogical line – or are NOT in common with a particular person.

Cautions

  • Be sure to understand that “not in common with” means that you, the person you match and the list of people shown as a result of the “Not ICW” do not all match each other.  You DO match the person on your match list, but the list of “not in common with” matches are the people who DON’T match both of you.  Not in common with is the opposite of “in common with” where your match list does match you and the person you’re matching in common with.
  • The X and other chromosome matches may be inherited from different ancestors. Every matching segment needs to be analyzed separately.

#4 – The Matrix

Let’s say that I have a list of matches, perhaps a list of individuals that I found doing an ICW with my cousin, and I wonder if these people match each other. I can utilize the Matrix grid to see.

Going back to the ICW list with cousin Donald, let’s see if some of those people match each other on the Matrix.

Let’s pick 5 people.

I’m selecting Cheryl, Rex, Charles, Doug and Harold.

Margaret Lentz chart

I’m making these particular selections because I know that all of these people, except Harold, are related to my mother, Barbara, shown on the bottom row of the chart above.  This chart, borrowed from another article (William is not in this comparison), shows how Cheryl, Rex, Charles and Barbara who have all DNA tested are related to each other.  Some are related through the Miller line, some through the dual Lentz/Miller line, and some just from the Lentz line.  Doug is related through the Miller line only, and at least 4 generations upstream. Doug may also be related through multiple lines, but is not descended from the Lentz line.

The people I’ve selected for the matrix are not all related to each other, and they don’t all share one common ancestral line.

Harold is a wild card – I have no idea how he is related or who he is related to, so let’s see what we can determine.

FF9 Matrix choices

As you make selections on the Matrix page, up to 10 selections are added to the grid.

FF9 Matrix grid

You can see that Charles matches Cheryl and Harold.

You can see that Rex matches Charles and Cheryl and Harold.

You can see that Doug matches only Cheryl, but this isn’t surprising as the common line between Doug and the known cousins is at least 4 generations further back in time on the Miller line.

The known relationship are:

  • Don and Cheryl are siblings, descended from the Lentz/Miller.
  • Rex is a known cousin on the Miller/Lentz line
  • Charles is a known cousin on the Lentz line only
  • Doug is a known cousin on the Miller line only

Let me tell you what these matches indicate to me.

Given that Harold matches Rex and Charles and Cheryl, IF and that’s a very big IF, he descends from the same lines, then he would be related to both sides of this family, meaning both the Miller and Lentz lines.

  • He could be a downstream cousin after the Lentz and Miller lines married, meaning a descendant of Margaret Lentz and John David Miller, or other Miller/Lentz couples
  • He could be independently related to both lines upstream. They did intermarry.
  • He could be related to Charles or Rex through an entirely separate line that has nothing to do with Lentz or Miller.

So I have no exact answer, but this does tell me where to look. Maybe I could find additional known Lentz or Miller line descendants to add to the Matrix which would provide additional information.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches match each other as well.

Cautions

  • Matrix matches do NOT mean that these individuals match on the same segments, it just means they do match on some segment. A matrix match is not triangulation.
  • Matrix matches can easily be from different lines to different ancestors. For example, Harold could match each one of three individuals that he matches on different ancestral lines that have nothing to do with their common Lentz or Miller line.

#5 – Chromosome Browser

I want to know if the 5 individuals that I selected to compare in the Matrix match me on any of the same segments.

I’m going back to my ICW list with cousin Donald.

I’ve selected my 5 individuals by clicking the box to the left of their profiles, and I’m going to select the chromosome browser.

FF9 chromosome browser choices

The chromosome browser shows you where these individuals match you.

Overlapping segments mean the people who overlap all match you on that segment, but overlapping segments do NOT mean they also match each other on these same segments.

Translated, this means they could be matching you on different sides of your family or are identical by chance. Remember, you have two sides to your chromosome, a Mom’s side and a Dad’s side, which are intermingled, and some people will match you by chance. You can read more about this here.

The chromosome browser shows you THAT they match you – it doesn’t tell you HOW they match you or if they match each other.

FF9 chromosome browser view2

The default view shows matches of 5cM or greater. You can select different thresholds at the top of the comparison list.

You’ll notice that all 5 of these people match me, but that only two of them match me on overlapping segments, on chromosome 3. Among those 5 people, only those who match me on the same segments have the opportunity to triangulate.

This gives you the opportunity to ask those two individuals if they also match each other on this same chromosome. In this case, I have access to both of those kits, and I can tell you that they do match each other on those segments, so they do triangulate mathematically. Since I know the common ancestor between myself, Cheryl and Rex, I can assign this segment to John David Miller and Margaret Lentz. That, of course, is the goal of autosomal matching – to identify the common ancestor of the individuals who match.

You also have the option to download the results of this chromosome browser match into a spreadsheet. That’s the left-most download option at the top of the chromosomes. We’ll talk about how to utilize spreadsheets last.

The middle option, “view in a table” shows you these results, one pair of individuals at a time, in a table.

This is me compared to Rex. You will have a separate table for each one of the individuals as compared to you. You switch between them at the bottom right.

FF9 chromosome browser table2

The last download option at the furthest right is for your entire list of matches and where they match you on your chromosomes.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can visually see where individuals and multiple people match you on your chromosomes, and where they overlap which suggests they may triangulate.

Cautions

  • When two people match you on the same chromosome segment, this does not mean that they also match each other on that segment. Matching on overlapping segments is not triangulation, although it’s the first step to triangulation.
  • For triangulation, you will need to contact your matches to determine if they also match each other on the same segment where they both match you. You may also be able to deduce some family matching based on other known individuals from the same line that you also match on that same segment, if your match matches them on that segment too.
  • The chromosome browser is limited to 5 people at a time, compared to you. By utilizing spreadsheet matching, you can see all of your matches on a particular segment, together.

#6 – Phased Family Matching

Phased Family Matching is the newest tool introduced by Family Tree DNA. I wrote about it here. The icons assigned to matches make it easy to see at a glance which side of your family, maternal or paternal, or both, a match derives from.

ff9 parental iconPhased Family Matching allows you to link the DNA results of qualified relatives to your tree and by doing so, Family Tree DNA assigns matches to maternal or paternal buckets, or sometimes, both, as shown in the icon above.

This phased matching utilizes both parental phasing in addition to a slightly higher threshold to assure that the matches they assign to parental sides can be done so with confidence. In order to be assigned a maternal or paternal icon, your match must match you and your qualifying relative at 9cM or greater on at least one of the same segments over the matching threshold. This is different than an ICW match, which only tells you that you do match, not how you match or that it’s on the same segment.

Qualifying relatives, at this time, are parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and first cousins. Additional relatives are planned in the near future.

Icons are ONLY placed based on phased match results that meet the criteria.

These icons are important because they indicate which side of your family a match is from with a great deal of precision and confidence – beyond that of regular matching.

This is best illustrated by an example.

Phased FF2

In this example, this individual has their father and mother both in the system. You can see that their father’s side is assigned a blue icon and their mother’s side is assigned a pink (red) icon. This means they match this person on only one side of their family.  A purple icon with both a male and female image means that this person is related to you on both sides of your family.  Full siblings, when both parents are in the system to phase against, would receive both icons.

This sibling is showing as matching them on both sides of their family, because both parents are available for phasing.

If only one parent was available, the father, for example, then the sibling would only shows the paternal icon. The maternal icon is NOT added by inference. In Phased Family Matching, nothing is added by inference – only by exact allele by allele matching on the same segment – which is the definition of parentally phased matching.

These icons are ONLY added as a result of a high quality phased matches at or above the phased match threshold of 9cM.

You can read more about the Family Matching System in the Family Tree DNA Learning Center, here.

Prerequisites

  • You must have tested (or transferred a kit) for a qualifying relative. At this time qualifying relatives parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.
  • You must have uploaded a GEDCOM file or created a tree.
  • You must link the DNA of qualifying kits to that person your tree. I provided instructions for how to do this in this article.
  • You must match at the normal matching threshold to be on the match list, AND then match at or above the Phased Family Match threshold in the way described to be assigned an icon.
  • You must match on at least one full segment at or above 9cM.

Power Features

  • Can visually see which side of your family an individual is related to. You can be confident this match is by descent because they are phased to your parent or qualifying family member.

Cautions

  • If someone does not have an icon assigned, it does NOT mean they are not related on that particular side of the family. It only means that the match is not strong enough to generate an icon.
  • If someone DOES match on a particular side of the family, you will still need to do additional matching and genealogy work to determine which ancestor they descend from.
  • If someone is assigned to one side of your family, it does NOT preclude the possibility that they have a smaller or weaker match to your other side of the family.
  • If you upload a new Gedcom file after linking DNA to people in your tree, you will overwrite your DNA links and will have to relink individuals.
  • Having an icon assigned indicates mathematical triangulation for the person who tested, their parents or close relative against whom they were phased and their match with the icon.  However, technically, it’s not triangulation in cases where very close relatives are involved.  For example, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings are too closely related to be considered the third leg of the triangulation stool.  First cousins, however, in my opinion, could be considered the third leg of the three needed for triangulation.  Of course when triangulation is involved, more than three is always better – the more the merrier and the more certain you can be that you have identified the correct ancestor, ancestral couple, or ancestral line to assign that particular triangulated segment to.

# 7 – Combined Advanced Matching

One of the comparison tools often missed by people is Combined Advanced Matching.

Combined matching is available through the “Tools and Apps” button, then select “Advanced Matching.”

Advanced Matching allows you to select various options in combination with each other.

For example, one of my favorites is to compare people within a project.

You can do this a number of ways.

In the case of my mother, I’ll select everyone she matches on the Family Finder test in the Miller-Brethren project. This is a very focused project with the goal of sorting the Miller families who were of the Brethren faith.

FF9 combined matching

You can see that she has several matches in that project.

You can select a variety of combinations, including any level of Y or mtDNA testing, Family Finder, X matching, projects and “last name begins with.”

One of the ways I utilize this feature often is within a surname project, for males in particular, I select one Y level of matching at a time, combined with Family Finder, “show only people I match on all tests” and then the project name. This is a quick way to determine whether someone matches someone on Family Finder that is also in a particular surname project. And when your surname is Smith, this tool is extremely valuable. This provides a least a hint as to the possible distance to a common ancestor between individuals.

Another favorite way to utilize this feature is for non-surname projects like the American Indian project. This is perfect for people who are hunting for others with Native roots that they match – and you can see their Y and mtDNA haplogroups as a bonus!

Prerequisites

  • Must have joined the particular project if you want to use the project match feature within that project.

Power Features

  • The ability to combine matching criteria across products.
  • The ability to match within projects.
  • The ability to specify partial surnames.

Cautions

  • If you match someone on both Family Finder and either Y or mtDNA haplogroups, this does NOT mean that your common Family Finder ancestor is on that haplogroup line. It might be a good place to begin looking. Check to see if you match on the Y or mtDNA products as well.
  • All matches have their haplogroup displayed, not just IF you also match that haplogroup, unless you’ve specified the Y or mtDNA options and then you would only see the people you match which would be in the same major haplogroup, although not always the same subgroup because not everyone tests at the same level.
  • Not all surname project administrators allow people who do not carry that surname in the present generation to join their projects.

# 8 – MyOrigins Matching

One tool missed by many is the MyOrigins matching by ethnicity. For many, especially if you have all European, for example, this tool isn’t terribly useful, but if you are of mixed heritage, this tool can be a wonderful source of information.

Your matches (who have authorized this type of matching) will be displayed, showing only if they match you on your major world categories.  Only your matching categories will show.  For example, if my match, Frances, also has African heritage and I do not, I won’t see Frances’s African percentage and vice versa.

FF9 myOrigins

In this example, the person who tested falls into the major categories of European and Middle Eastern. Their matches who fall into either of these same categories will be displayed in the Shared Origins box. You may not be terribly excited about this – unless you are mixed African, Asian, European and Native American – and you have “lost ancestors” you can’t find. In that case, you may be very excited to contact other matches with the same ethnic heritage.

When you first open your myOrigins page, you will be greeted with a choice to opt in (by clicking) or to opt out (by doing nothing) of allowing your ethnic matches to view the same ethnic groups you carry. Your matches will not be able to see your ethnic groups that they don’t have in common with you.

FF9 myorigins opt in

You can also access those options to view or change by clicking on Account Settings, Privacy and Sharing, and then you can view or change your selection under “My DNA Results.”

FF9 myorigins security

Prerequisites

  • Must authorize Shared Origins matching.

Power Features

  • The ability to discern who among your matches shares a particular ethnicity, and to what degree.

Cautions

  • Just because you share a particular ethnicity does NOT mean you match on the shared ethnic line. Your common ancestor with that person may be on an entirely unrelated line.

# 9 – Spreadsheet Matching

Family Tree DNA offers you the ability to download your entire list of matches, including the specific segments where your matches match you, to a spreadsheet.

This is the granddaddy of the tools and it’s a tool used by all serious genetic genealogists. It’s requires the most investment from you both in terms of understanding and work, but it also yields the most information.

The power of spreadsheet comparisons isn’t in the 5 people I pushed through to the chromosome browser, in and of themselves, but in the power of looking at the locations where all of your matches match you and known relatives on particular segments.

Utilizing the chromosome browser, we saw that chromosome 3 had an overlap match between Rex (green) and Cheryl (blue) as compared to my mother (background chromosome.)

FF9 chr 3

We see that same overlap between Cheryl and Rex when we download the match spreadsheet for those 5 people.

However, when we download all of my mother’s matches, we have a much more powerful view of that segment, below. The 2 segments we saw overlapping on the chromosome browser are shown in green. All of these people colored pink match my mother on some part of the 37cM segment she shares with Rex.

FF9 spreadsheet match

This small part of my master spreadsheet combines my own results, rows in white, with those of my mother, rows in pink.

In this case, I only match one of these individuals that mother also matches on the same segment – Rex. That’s fine. It just means that I didn’t receive the rest of that DNA from mother – meaning the portions of the segments that match Sam, Cheryl, Don, Christina and Sharon.

On the first two rows, I did receive part of that DNA from mother, 7.64 of the 37cMs that Rex matches to Mom at a threshold of 5cM.

We know that Cheryl, Don and Rex all share a common ancestor on mother’s father’s side three generations removed – meaning John David Miller and Margaret Lentz. By looking at Cheryl, Don and Rex’s matches as well, I know that several of her matches do triangulate with Cheryl, Don and/or Rex.

What I didn’t know was how Christina fit into the picture. She is a new match. Before the new Phased Family Matching, I would have had to go into each account, those of Rex, Cheryl and Don, all of which I manage, to be sure that Christina matched all of them individually in addition to Mom’s kit.

I don’t have to do that now, because I can utilize the phased Family Matching instead. The addition of the Family Matching tool has taken this from three additional steps, assuming I have access to all kits, which most people don’t, to one quick definitive step.

Cheryl and Don are both mother’s first cousins, so matches can be phased against them. I have linked both of them to mother’s kit so she how has several individuals who are phased to Don and Cheryl which generate paternal icons since Don and Cheryl are related to mother on her father’s side.

Now, instead of looking at all of the accounts individually, my first step is to see if Christina has a paternal icon, which, in this case, means she phased against either Don and/or Cheryl since those are the only two people linked to mother who qualify for phasing, today.

FF9 parental phased match

Look, Christina does have a paternal icon, so I can add “Dad” into the side column for Christine in the spreadsheet for mother’s matches AND I know Christina triangulates to Mom and either Cheryl or Don, which ever cousin she phased against.

FF9 Christina chr 3

I can see which cousin she phased against by looking at the chromosome browser and comparing mother against Cheryl, Don and Christina.  As it turns out, Christina, in green, above, phased against both Cheryl and Don whose results are in orange and blue.

It’s a great day in the neighborhood to be able to use these tools together.

Prerequisites

  • Must download matches spreadsheet through the chromosome browser, adding new matches to your spreadsheet as they occur.
  • Must have a familiarity with Excel or another spreadsheet.
  • Must learn about matching, match groups and triangulation.

Power Features

  • The ability to control the threshold you wish to work with. For matches over the match threshold, Family Tree DNA provides all segment matches to 1cM with a total of 500 SNPs.
  • The ability to see trends and groups together.
  • The ability to view kits from all of your matches for more powerful matching.
  • The ability to combine your results with those of a parent (or sibling if parents not available) to see joint matching where it occurs.

Cautions

  • There is a comparatively steep learning curve if you’re not familiar with using spreadsheets, but it’s well worth the effort if you are serious about proving ancestors through triangulation.

Summary

I’m extremely grateful for the full complement of tools available at Family Tree DNA.

They provide a range of solutions for users at all levels – people who just want to view their ethnicity or to utilize matches at the vendor site as well as those who want tools like a chromosome browser, projects, ICW, not ICW, the Matrix, ethnicity matching, combined advanced matching and chromosome browser downloads for those of us who want actual irrefutable proof.  No one has to use the more advanced tools, but they are there for those of us who want to utilize them.

I’m sorry, I’m not from Missouri, but I still want to see it for myself. I don’t want any vendor taking the “trust me” approach or doing me any favors by stripping out my data. I’m glad that Family Tree DNA gives us multiple options and doesn’t make one size fit all by using a large hammer and chisel.

The easier, more flexible and informative Family Tree DNA makes the tools, the easier it will be to convince people to test or download their data from other vendors. The more testers, the better our opportunity to find those elusive matches and through them, ancestors.

The Concepts Series

I’ve been writing a “Concepts” series of articles. Recent articles have been about how to utilize and work with autosomal matches on a spreadsheet.

You might want to read these Concepts articles if you’re serious about working with autosomal DNA.

Concepts – How Your Autosomal DNA Identifies Your Ancestors

Concepts – Identical by…Descent, State, Population and Chance

Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’ Crab

Concepts – Parental Phasing

Concepts – Downloading Autosomal Data from Family Tree DNA

Concepts – Managing Autosomal DNA Matches – Step 1 – Assigning Parental Sides

Please join me shortly for the next Concepts article – Step 2 – Who’s Related to Whom?

In the meantime:

  • Make full use of the autosomal tools available at Family Tree DNA.
  • Test additional relatives meaning parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, siblings, any cousin you can identify and talk into testing.
  • Take test kits to family reunions and holiday gatherings. No, I’m not kidding.
  • Don’t forget Y or mtDNA which can provide valuable tools to identify which line you might have in common, or to quickly eliminate some lines that you don’t have in common. Some cousins will carry valuable Y or mtDNA of your direct ancestral lines – and that DNA is full of valuable and unique information as well.
  • Link the DNA kits of those individuals you know to their place in your tree.
  • Transfer family kits from other vendors.

The more relatives you can identify and link in the system, the better your chances for meaningful matches, confirming ancestral relations, and solving puzzles.

Have fun!!!

Autosomal DNA Matching Confidence Spectrum

Are you confused about DNA matches and what they mean…different kinds of matches…from different vendors and combined results between vendors.  Do you feel like lions and tigers and bears…oh my?  You’re not alone.

As the vendors add more tools, I’ve noticed recently that along with those tools has come a significant amount of confusion surrounding matches and what they mean.  Add to this issue confusion about the terminology being used within the industry to describe various kinds of matches.  Combined, we now have a verbiage or terminology issue and we have confusion regarding the actual matches and what they mean.  So, as people talk, what they mean, what they are trying to communicate and what they do say can be interpreted quite widely.  Is it any wonder so many people are confused?

I reached out within the community to others who I know are working with autosomal results on a daily basis and often engaged in pioneering research to see how they are categorizing these results and how they are referring to them.

I want to thank Jim Bartlett, Blaine Bettinger, Tim Janzen and David Pike (in surname alphabetical order) for their input and discussion about these topics.  I hope that this article goes a long way towards sorting through the various kinds of matches and what they can and do mean to genetic genealogists – and what they are being called.  To be clear, the article is mine and I have quoted them specifically when applicable.

But first, let’s talk about goals.

Goals

One thing that has become apparent over the past few months is that your goals may well affect how you interpret data.  For example, if you are an adoptee, you’re going to be looking first at your closest matches and your largest segments.  Distant matches and small segments are irrelevant at least until you work with the big pieces.  The theory of low hanging fruit, of course.

If your goal is to verify and generally validate your existing genealogy, you may be perfectly happy with Ancestry’s Circles.  Ancestry Circles aren’t proof, as many people think, but if you’re looking for low hanging fruit and “probably” versus “positively,” Ancestry Circles may be the answer for you.

If you didn’t stop reading after the last sentence, then I’m guessing that “probably” isn’t your style.

If your goal is to prove each ancestor and/or map their segments to your DNA, you’re not going to be at all happy with Ancestry’s lack of segment data – so your confidence and happiness level is going to be greatly different than someone who is just looking to find themselves in circles with other descendants of the same ancestor and go merrily on their way.

If you have already connected the dots on most of your ancestry for the past 4 or 5 generations, and you’re working primarily with colonial ancestors and those born before 1700, you may be profoundly interested in small segment data, while someone else decides to eliminate that same data on their spreadsheet to eliminate clutter.  One person’s clutter is another’s goldmine.

While, technically, the different types of tests and matches carry a different technical confidence level, your personal confidence ranking will be influenced by your own goals and by some secondary factors like how many other people match on a particular segment.

Let’s start by talking about the different kinds of matching.  I’ve been working with my Crumley line, so I’ll be utilizing examples from that project.

Individual Matching, Group Matching and Triangulation

There is a difference between individual matching, group matching and triangulation.  In fact, there is a whole spectrum of matching to be considered.

Individual Matching

Individual matching is when someone matches you.

confidence individual match

That’s great, but one match out of context generally isn’t worth much.  There’s that word, generally, because if there is one thing that is almost always true, it’s that there is an exception to every rule and that exception often has to do with context.  For example, if you’re looking for parents and siblings, then one match is all you need.

If this match happens to be to my first cousin, that alone confirms several things for me, assuming there is not a secondary relationship.  First, it confirms my relationship with my parent and my parent’s descent from their parents, since I couldn’t be matching my first cousin (at first cousin level) if all of the lines between me and the cousin weren’t intact.

confidence cousins

However, if the match is to someone I don’t know, and it’s not a close relative, like the 2nd to 4th cousins shown in the match above, then it’s meaningless without additional information.  Most of your matches will be more distant.  Let’s face it, you have a lot more distant cousins than close cousins.  Many ancestors, especially before about 1900, were indeed, prolific, at least by today’s standards.

So, at this point, your match list looks like this:

confidence match list

Bridget looks pretty lonely.  Let’s see what we can do about that.

Matching Additional People

The first question is “do you share a common ancestor with that individual?”  If yes, then that is a really big hint – but it’s not proof of anything – unless they are a close relative match like we discussed above.

Why isn’t a single match enough for proof?

You could be related to this person through more than one ancestral line – and that happens far more than I initially thought.  I did an analysis some time back and discovered that about 15% of the time, I can confirm a secondary genealogical line that is not related to the first line in my tree.  There were another 7% that were probable – meaning that I can’t identify a second common ancestor with certainty, but the surname and location is the same and a connection is likely.  Another 8% were from endogamous lines, like Acadians, so I’m sure there are multiple lines involved.  And of those matches (minus the Acadians), about 10% look to have 3 genealogical lines, not just two.  The message here – never assume.

When you find one match and identify one common genealogical line, you can’t assume that is how you are genetically related on the segment in question.

Ideally, at this point, you will find a third person who shares the common ancestor and their DNA matches, or triangulates, between you and your original match to prove the connection.  But, circumstances are not always ideal.

What is Triangualtion?

Triangulation on the continuum of confidence is the highest confidence level achievable, outside of close relative matching which is evident by itself without triangulation.

Triangulation is when you match two people who share a common ancestor and all three of you match each other on that same segment.  This means that segment descended to all three of you from that common ancestor.

This is what a match group would look like if Jerry matches both John and Bridget.

confidence example 1 match group

Example 1 – Match Group

The classic definition of triangulation is when three people, A, B and C all match each other on the same segment and share a known, identifiable common ancestor.  Above, we only have two.  We don’t know yet if John matches Bridget.

A matches B
A matches C
B matches C

This is what an exact triangulation group would look like between Jerry, John and Bridget.  Most triangulation matches aren’t exact, meaning the start and/or end segment might be different, but some are exact.

confidence example 2 triangulation group

Example 2 – Triangulation Group

It’s not always possible to prove all three.  Sometimes you can see that Jerry matches Bridget and Jerry matches John, but you have no access to John or Bridget’s kits to verify that they also match each other.  If you are at Family Tree DNA, you can run the ICW (in common with) tool to see if John and Bridget do match each other – but that tool does not confirm that they match on the same segment.

If the individuals involved have uploaded their kits to GedMatch, you have the ability to triangulate because you can see the kit numbers of your matches and you can then run them against each other to verify that they do indeed match each other as well.  Not everyone uploads their kits to GedMatch, so you may wind up with a hybrid combination of triangulated groups (like example 2, above) and matching groups (like example 1, above) on your own personal spreadsheet.

Matching groups (that are not triangulated) are referred to by different names within the community.  Tim Janzen refers to them as clusters of cousins, Blaine as pseudo triangulation and I have called them triangulation groups in the past if any three within the group are proven to be triangulated. Be careful when you’re discussing this, because matching groups are often misstated as triangulated groups.  You’ll want to clarify.

Creating a Match List

Sometimes triangulation options aren’t available to us.  For example, at Family Tree DNA, we can see who matches us, and we can see if they match each other utilizing the ICW tool, but we can’t see specifically where they match each other.  This is considered a match group.  This type of matching is also where a great deal of confusion is introduced because these people do match each other, but they are NOT (yet) triangulated.

What we know is that all of these people are on YOUR match list, but we don’t know that they are on each other’s match lists.  They could be matching you on different sides of your DNA or, if smaller segments, they might be IBC (identical by chance.)

You can run the ICW (in common with) tool at Family Tree DNA for every match you have.  The ICW tool is a good way to see who matches both people in question.  Hopefully, some of your matches will have uploaded trees and you can peruse for common ancestors.

The ICW tool is the little crossed arrows and it shows you who you and that person also match in common.

confidence match list ftdna

You can run the ICW tool in conjunction with the ancestral surname in question, showing only individuals who you have matches in common with who have the Crumley surname (for example) in their ancestral surname list.  This is a huge timesaver and narrows your scope of search immediately.  By clicking on the ICW tool for Ms. Bridget,  you see the list, below of those who match both the person whose account we are signed into and Ms. Bridget, below.

confidence icw ftdna

Another way to find common matches to any individual is to search by either the current surname or ancestral surnames.  The ancestral surname search checks the surnames entered by other participants and shows them in the results box.

In the example above, all of these individuals have Crumley listed in their surnames.  You can see that I’ve sorted by ancestral surname – as Crumley is in that search box.

Now, your match lists looks like this relative to the Crumley line.  Some people included trees and you can find your common ancestor on their tree, or through communications with them directly.  In other cases, no tree but the common surname appears in the surname match list.  You may want to note those results on your match list as well.

confidence match list 2

Of course, the next step is to compare these individuals in a matrix to see who matches who and the chromosome browser to see where they match you, which we’ll discuss momentarily.

Group Matching

The next type of matching is when you have a group of people who match each other, but not necessarily on the same segment of DNA.  These matching groups are very important, especially when you know there is a shared ancestor involved – but they don’t indicate that the people share the same segment, nor that all (or any) of their shared segments are from this particular ancestor.  Triangulation is the only thing that accomplishes proof positive.

This ICW matrix shows some of the Crumley participants who have tested and who matches whom.

confidence icw grid

You can display this grid by matching total cM or by known relationship (assuming the individuals have entered this information) or by predicted relationship range.  The total cMs shared is more important for me in evaluating how closely this person might be related to the other individual.

The Chromosome Browser

The chromosome browser at Family Tree DNA shows matches from the perspective of any one individual.  This means that the background display of the 22 Chromosomes (plus X) is the person all of the matches are comparing against. If you’re signed in to your account, then you are the black background chromosomes, and everyone is being compared against your DNA.  I’m only showing the first 6 chromosomes below.

confidence chromosome browser

You can see where up to 5 individuals match the person you’re comparing them to.  In this case, it looks like they may share a common segment on chromosome 2 among several descendants.  Of course, you’d need to check each of these individuals to insure that they match each other on this same segment to confirm that indeed, it did come from a common ancestor.  That’s triangulation.

When you see a grouping of matches of individuals known to descend from a common ancestor on the same chromosome, it’s very likely that you have a match group (cluster of cousins, pseudo triangulation group) and they will all match each other on that same segment if you have the opportunity to triangulate them, but it’s not absolute.

For example, below we have a reconstructed chromosome 8 of James Crumley, the common ancestor of a large group of people shown based on matches.  In other words, each colored segment represents a match between two people.  I have a lot more confidence in the matches shown with the arrows than the single or less frequent matches.

confidence chromosome 8 match group'

This pseudo triangulation is really very important, because it’s not just a match, and it’s not triangulation.  The more people you have that match you on this segment and that have the same ancestor, the more likely that this segment will triangulate.  This is also where much of the confusion is coming from, because matching groups of multiple descendants on the same segments almost always do triangulate so they have been being called triangulation groups, even when they have not all been triangulated to each other.  Very occasionally, you will find a group of several people with a common ancestor who triangulate to each other on this common segment, except one of a group doesn’t triangulate to one other, but otherwise, they all triangulate to others.

confidence triangulation issue

This situation has to be an error of some sort, because if all of these people match each other, including B, then B really must match D.  Our group discussed this, and Jim Bartlett pointed out that these problem matches are often near the vendor matching threshold (or your threshold if you’re using GedMatch) and if the threshold is lowered a bit, they continue to match.  They may also be a marginal match on the edge, so to speak or they may have a read error at a critical location in their kit.

What “in common with” matching does is to increase your confidence that these are indeed ancestral matches, a cousin cluster, but it’s not yet triangulation.

Ancestry Matches

Ancestry has added another level of matching into the mix.  The difference is, of course, that you can’t see any segment data at all, at Ancestry, so you don’t have anything other than the fact that you do match the other person and if you have a shakey leaf hint, you also share a common ancestor in your trees.

confidence ancestry matches

When three people match each other on any segment (meaning this does not infer a common segment match) and also share a common ancestor in a tree, they qualify to be a DNA Circle.  However, there is other criteria that is weighted and not every group of 3 individuals who match and share an ancestor becomes a DNA Circle.  However, many do and many Circles have significantly more than three individuals.

confidence Phoebe Crumley circle

This DNA Circle is for Phebe Crumley, one of my Crumley ancestors.  In this grouping, I match one close family group of 5 people, and one individual, Alyssa, all of whom share Phebe Crumley in their trees.  As luck would have it, the family group has also tested at Family Tree DNA and has downloaded their results to GedMatch, but as it stands here at Ancestry, with DNA Circle data only…the only thing I can do is to add them to my match list.

confidence match list 3

In case you’re wondering, the reason I only added three of the 5 family members of the Abija group to my match list is because two are children of one of the members and their Crumley DNA is represented through their parent.

While a small DNA Circle like Phebe Crumley’s can be incorrect, because the individuals can indeed be sharing the DNA of a different ancestor, a larger group gives you more confidence that the relationship to that group of people is actually through the common ancestor whose circle you are a member of.  In the example Circle shown below, I match 6 individuals out of a total of 21 individuals who are all interrelated and share Henry Bolton in their tree.

Confidence Henry Bolton circle

New Ancestor Discoveries

Ancestry introduced New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs) a few months ago.  This tool is, unfortunately, misnamed – and although this is a good concept for finding people whose DNA you share, but whose tree you don’t – it’s not mature yet.

The name causes people to misinterpret the “ancestors” given to them as genuinely theirs.  So far, I’ve had a total of 11 NADS and most have been easily proven false.

Here’s how NADs work.  Let’s say there is a DNA Circle, John Doe, of 3 people and you match two of them.  The assumption is that John Doe is also your ancestor because you share the DNA of his descendants.  This is a critically flawed assumption.  For example, in one case, my ancestors sister’s husband is shown as my “new ancestor discovery” because I share DNA with his descendants (through his wife, my ancestor’s sister.)  Like I said, not mature yet.

I have discussed this repeatedly, so let’s just suffice it to say for this discussion, that there is absolutely no confidence in NADs and they aren’t relevant.

Shared Matches

Ancestry recently added a Shared Matches function.

For each person that you match at Ancestry, that is a 4th cousin or closer and who has a high confidence match ranking, you can click on shared matches to see who you and they both match in common.

confidence ancestry shared matches

This does NOT mean you match these people through the same ancestor.  This does NOT mean you match them on the same segment.  I wrote about how I’ve used this tool, but without additional data, like segment data, you can’t do much more with this.

What I have done is to build a grid similar to the Family Tree DNA matrix where I’ve attempted to see who matches whom and if there is someone(s) within that group that I can identify as specifically descending from the same ancestor.  This is, unfortunately, extremely high maintenance for a very low return.  I might add someone to my match list if they matched a group (or circle) or people that match me, whose common ancestor I can clearly identify.

Shared Matches are the lowest item on the confidence chart – which is not to say they are useless.  They can provide hints that you can follow up on with more precise tools.

Let’s move to the highest confidence tool, triangulation groups.

Triangulation Groups

Of course, the next step, either at 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, through GedMatch, or some combination of each, is to compare the actual segments of the individuals involved.  This means, especially at Ancestry where you have no tools, that you need to develop a successful begging technique to convince your matches to download their data to GedMatch or Family Tree DNA, or both.  Most people don’t, but some will and that may be the someone you need.

You have three triangulation options:

  1. If you are working with the Family Inheritance Advanced at 23andMe, you can compare each of your matches with each other. I would still invite my matches to download to GedMatch so you can compare them with people who did not test at 23andMe.
  2. If you are working with a group of people at Family Tree DNA, you can ask them to run themselves against each other to see if they also match on the same segment that they both match you on. If you are a project administrator on a project where they are all members, you can do this cross-check matching yourself. You can also ask them to download their results to GedMatch.
  3. If your matches will download their results to GedMatch, you can run each individual against any other individual to confirm their common segment matches with you and with each other.

In reality, you will likely wind up with a mixture of matches on your match list and not everyone will upload to GedMatch.

Confirming that segments create a three way match when you share a common ancestor constitutes proof that you share that common ancestor and that particular DNA has been passed down from that ancestor to you.

confidence match list 4

I’ve built this confidence table relative to matches first found at Family Tree DNA, adding matches from Ancestry and following them to GedMatch.  Fortunately, the Abija group has tested at all 3 companies and also uploaded their results to GedMatch.  Some of my favorite cousins!

Spectrum of Confidence

Blaine Bettinger built this slide that sums up the tools and where they fall on the confidence range alone, without considerations of your goals and technical factors such as segment size.  Thanks Blaine for allowing me to share it here.

confidence level Blaine

These tools and techniques fall onto a spectrum of confidence, which I’ve tried to put into perspective, below.

confidence level highest to lowest

I really debated how to best show these.  Unfortunately, there is almost always some level of judgment involved. In some cases, like triangulation at the 3 vendors, the highest level is equivalent, but in other cases, like the medium range, it really is a spectrum from lowest to highest within that grouping.

Now, let’s take a look at our matches that we’ve added to our match list in confidence order.

confidence match list 5

As you would expect, those who triangulated with each other using some chromosome browser and share a common ancestor are the highest confidence matches – those 5 with a red Y.  These are followed by matches who match me and each other but not on the same segment (or at least we don’t know that), so they don’t triangulate, at least not yet.

I didn’t include any low confidence matches in this table, but of the lowest ones that are included, the shakey leaf matches at Ancestry that won’t answer inquiries and the matches at FTDNA who do share a common surname but didn’t download their information to be triangulated are the least confident of the group.  However, even those lower confidence matches on this chart are medium, meaning at Ancestry they are in a Circle and at FTDNA, they do match and share a common surname.  At Family Tree DNA, they may eventually fall into a triangulation group of other descendants who triangulate.

Caveats

As always, there are some gotchas.  As someone said in something I read recently, “autosomal DNA is messy.”

Endogamy

Endogamous populations are just a mess.  The problem is that literally, everyone is related to everyone, because the founder population DNA has just been passed around and around for generations with little or no new DNA being introduced.

Therefore, people who descend from endogamous populations often show to be much more closely related than they are in a genealogical timeframe.

Secondly, we have the issue pointed out by David Pike, and that is when you really don’t know where a particular segment came from, because the segment matches both the parents, or in some cases, multiple grandparents.  So, which grandparent did that actual segment that descended to the grandchild descend from?

For people who are from the same core population on both parent’s side, close matches are often your only “sure thing” and beyond that, hopefully you have your parents (at least one parent) available to match against, because that’s the only way of even beginning to sort into family groups.  This is known as phasing against your parents and while it’s a great tool for everyone to use – it’s essential to people who descend from endogamous groups. Endogamy makes genetic genealogy difficult.

In other cases, where you do have endogamy in your line, but only in one of your lines, endogamy can actually help you, because you will immediately know based on who those people match in addition to you (preferably on the same segment) which group they descend from.  I can’t tell you how many rows I have on my spreadsheet that are labeled with the word “Acadian,” “Brethren” and “Mennonite.”  I note the common ancestor we can find, but in reality, who knows which upstream ancestor in the endogamous population the DNA originated with.

Now, the bad news is that Ancestry runs a routine that removes DNA that they feel is too matchy in your results, and most of my Acadian matches disappeared when Ancestry implemented their form of population based phasing.

Identical by Population

There is sometimes a fine line between a match that’s from an ancestor one generation further back than you can go, and a match from generations ago via DNA found at a comparatively high percentage in a particular population.  You can’t tell the difference.  All you know is that you can’t assign that segment to an ancestor, and you may know it does phase against a parent, so it’s valid, meaning not IBC or identical by chance.

Yes, identical by population segment matching is a distinct problem with endogamy, but it can also be problematic with people from the same region of the world but not members of endogamous populations.  Endogamy is a term for the timeframe we’re familiar with.  We don’t know what happened before we know what happened.

From time to time, you’ll begin to see something “odd” happened where a group of segments that you already have triangulated to one ancestor will then begin to triangulate to a second ancestor.  I’m not talking about the normal two groups for every address – one from your Mom’s side and one from your Dad’s.  I’m talking, for example, when my Mom’s DNA in a particular area begins to triangulate to one ancestral group from Germany and one from France.  These clearly aren’t the same ancestors, and we know that one particular “spot” or segment range that I received from her DNA can only come from one ancestor.  But these segment matches look to be breaking that rule.

I created the example below to illustrate this phenomenon.  Notice that the top and bottom 3 all match nicely to me and to each other and share a common ancestor, although not the same common ancestor for the two groups.  However, the range significantly overlaps.  And then there is the match to Mary Ann in the middle whose common ancestor to me is unknown.

confidence IBP example

Generally, we see these on smaller segment groups, and this is indicative that you may be seeing an identical by population group.  Many people lump these IBP (identical by population) groups in with IBC, identical by chance, but they aren’t.  The difference is that the DNA in an IBP group truly is coming from your ancestors – it’s just that two distinct groups of ancestors have the same DNA because at some point, they shared a common ancestor.  This is the issue that “academic phasing” (as opposed to parental phasing) is trying to address.  This is what Ancestry calls “pileup areas” and attempts to weed out of your results.  It’s difficult to determine where the legitimate mathematical line is relative to genealogically useful matches versus ones that aren’t.  And as far as I’m concerned, knowing that my match is “European” or “Native” or “African” even if I can’t go any further is still useful.

Think about this, if every European has between 1 and 4% Neanderthal DNA from just a few Neanderthal individuals that lived more than 20,000 years ago in Europe – why wouldn’t we occasionally trip over some common DNA from long ago that found its way into two different family lines.

When I find these multiple groupings, which is actually relatively rare, I note them and just keep on matching and triangulating, although I don’t use these segments to draw any conclusions until a much larger triangulated segment match with an identified ancestor comes into play.  Confidence increases with larger segments.

This multiple grouping phenomenon is a hint of a story I don’t know – and may never know.  Just because I don’t quite know how to interpret it today doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.  In time, maybe its full story will be revealed.

ROH – Runs of Homozygosity

Autosomal DNA tests test someplace over 500,000 locations, depending on the vendor you select.  At each of those locations, you find a value of either T, A, C or G, representing a specific nucleotide.  Sometimes, you find runs of the same nucleotide, so you will find an entire group of all T, for example.  If either of your parents have all Ts in the same location, then you will match anyone with any combination of T and anything else.

confidence homozygosity example

In the example above, you can see that you inherited T from both your Mom and Dad.  Endogamy maybe?

Sally, although she will technically show as a match, doesn’t really “match” you.  It’s just a fluke that her DNA matches your DNA by hopping back and forth between her Mom’s and Dad’s DNA.  This is not a match my descent, but by chance, or IBC (identical by chance.)  There is no way for you to know this, except by also comparing your results to Sally’s parents – another example of parental phasing.  You won’t match Sally’s parents on this segment, so the segment is IBC.

Now let’s look at Joe.  Joe matches you legitimately, but you can’t tell by just looking at this whether Joe matches you on your Mom’s or Dad’s side.  Unfortunately, because no one’s DNA comes with a zipper or two sides of the street labeled Mom and Dad – the only way to determine how Joe matches you is to either phase against Joe’s parents or see who else Joe matches that you match, preferable on the same segment – in other words – create either a match or ICW group, or triangulation.

Segment Size

Everyone is in agreement about one thing.  Large segments are never IBC, identical by chance.  And I hate to use words like never, so today, interpret never to mean “not yet found.”  I’ve seen that large segment number be defined both 13cM and 15cM and “almost never” over 10cM.  There is currently discussion surrounding the X chromosome and false positives at about this threshold, but the jury is still out on this one.

Most medium segments hold true too.  Medium segment matches to multiple people with the same ancestors almost always hold true.  In fact, I don’t personally know of one that didn’t, but that isn’t to say it hasn’t happened.

By medium segments, most people say 7cM and above.  Some say 5cM and above with multiple matching individuals.

As the segment size decreases, the confidence level decreases too, but can be increased by either multiple matches on that segment from a common proven ancestor or, of course, triangulation.  Phasing against your parent also assures that the match is not IBD.  As you can see, there are tools and techniques to increase your confidence when dealing with small segments, and to eliminate IBC segments.

The issue of small segments, how and when they can be utilized is still unresolved.  Some people simply delete them.  I feel that is throwing the baby away with the bathwater and small segments that triangulate from a common ancestor and that don’t find themselves in the middle of a pileup region that is identical by population or that is known to be overly matchy (near the center of chromosome 6, for example) can be utilized.  In some cases, these segments are proven because that same small segment section is also proven against matches that are much larger in a few descendants.

Tim Janzen says that he is more inclined to look at the number of SNPs instead of the segment size, and his comfort number is 500 SNPs or above.

The flip side of this is, as David Pike mentioned, that the fewer locations you have in a row, the greater the chance that you can randomly match, or that you can have runs of heterozygosity.

No one in our discussion group felt that all small segments were useless, although the jury is still out in terms of consensus about what exactly defines a small segment and when they are legitimate and/or useful.  Everyone of us wants to work towards answers, because for those of us who are dealing with colonial ancestors and have already picked the available low hanging fruit, those tantalizing small segments may be all that is left of the ancestor we so desperately need to identify.

For example, I put together this chart detailing my matching DNA by generation. Interesting, I did a similar chart originally almost exactly three years ago and although it has seemed slow day by day, I made a lot of progress when a couple of brick walls fell, in particular, my Dutch wall thanks to Yvette Hoitink.

If you look at the green group of numbers, that is the amount of shared DNA to be expected at each level.  The number of shared cMs drops dramatically between the 5th and 6th generation from 13 cM which would be considered a reasonable matching level (according to the above discussion) at the 5th generation, and 3.32 cM at the 6th generation level, which is a small segment by anyone’s definition.

confidence segment size vs generation

The 6th generation was born roughly in 1760, and if you look to the white grouping to the right of the green group, you can see that my percentage of known ancestors is 84% in the 5th generation, 80% in the 6th generation, but drops quickly after that to 39, 22 and 3%, respectively.  So, the exact place where I need the most help is also the exact place where the expected amount of DNA drops from 13 to 3.32 cM.  This means, that if anyone ever wants to solve those genealogical puzzles in that timeframe utilizing genetic genealogy, we had better figure out how to utilize those small segments effectively – because it may well be all we have except for the occasional larger sticky segment that is passed intact from an ancestor many generations past.

From my perspective, it’s a crying shame that Ancestry gives us no segment data and it’s sad that 23andMe only gives us 5cM and above.  It’s a blessing that we can select our own threshold at GedMatch.  I’m extremely grateful that FTDNA shows us the small segment matches to 1cM and 500 SNPs if we also match on 20cM total and at least one segment over 7cM.  That’s a good compromise, because small segments are more likely to be legitimate if we have a legitimate match on a larger segment and a known ancestor.  We already discussed that the larger the matching segment, the more likely it is to be valid. I would like to see Family Tree DNA lower the matching threshold within projects.  Surname projects imply that a group of people will be expected to match, so I’d really like to be able to see those lower threshold matches.

I’m hopeful that Family Tree DNA will continue to provide small segment information to us.  People who don’t want to learn how to use or be bothered with small segments don’t have to.  Delete is perfectly legitimate option, but without the data, those of us who are interested in researching how to best utilize these segments, can’t.  And when we don’t have data to use, we all lose.  So, thank you Family Tree DNA.

Coming Full Circle

This discussion brings us full circle once again to goals.

Goals change over time.

My initial reason for testing, the first day an autosomal test could be ordered, was to see if my half-brother was my half-brother.  Obviously for that, I didn’t need matching to other people or triangulation.  The answer was either yes or no, we do match at the half-sibling level, or we don’t.

He wasn’t.  But by then, he was terminally ill, and I never told him.  It certainly explained why I wasn’t a transplant match for him.

My next goal, almost immediately, was to determine which if either my brother or I were the child of my father.  For that, we did need matching to other people, and preferably close cousins – the closer the better.  Autosomal DNA testing was new at that time, and I had to recruit cousins.  Bless those who took pity on me and tested, because I was truly desperate to know.

Suffice it to say that the wait was a roller coaster ride of emotion.

If I was not my father’s child, I had just done 30+ years of someone else’s genealogy – not a revelation I relished, at all.

I was my father’s child.  My brother wasn’t.  I was glad I never told him the first part, because I didn’t have to tell him this part either.

My goal at that point changed to more of a general interest nature as more cousins tested and we matched, verifying different lineages that has been unable to be verified by Y or mtDNA testing.

Then one day, something magical happened.

One of my Y lines, Marcus Younger, whose Y line is a result of a NPE, nonparental event, or said differently, an undocumented adoption, received amazing information.  The paternal Younger family line we believed Marcus descended from, he didn’t.  However, autosomal DNA confirmed that even though he is not the paternal child of that line, he is still autosomally related to that line, sharing a common ancestor – suggesting that he may have been born of a Younger female and given that surname, while carrying the Y DNA of his biological father, who remains unidentified.

Amazingly, the next day, a match popped up that matched me and another Younger relative.  This match descended not from the Younger line, but from Marcus Younger’s wife’s alleged surname family.  I suddenly realized that not only was autosomal DNA interesting for confirming your tree – it could also be used to break down long-standing brick walls.  That’s where I’ve been focused ever since.

That’s a very different goal from where I began, and my current goal utilizes the tools in a very different way than my earlier goals.  Confidence levels matter now, a great deal, where that first day, all I wanted was a yes or no.

Today, my goal, other than breaking down brick walls, is for genetic genealogy to become automated and much easier but without taking away our options or keeping us so “safe” that we have no tools (Ancestry).

The process that will allow us to refine genetic genealogy and group individuals and matches utilizing trees on our desktops will ultimately be the key to unraveling those distant connections.  The data is there, we just have to learn how to use it most effectively, and the key, other than software, is collaboration with many cousins.

Aside from science and technology, the other wonderful aspect of autosomal DNA testing is that is has the potential to unite and often, reunite families who didn’t even know they were families.  I’ve seen this over and over now and I still marvel at this miracle given to us by our ancestors – their DNA.

So, regardless of where you fall on the goals and matching confidence spectrum in terms of genetic genealogy, keep encouraging others to test and keep reaching out and sharing – because it takes a village to recreate an ancestor!  No one can do it alone, and the more people who test and share, the better all of our chances become to achieve whatever genetic genealogy goals we have.

One Chromosome, Two Sides, No Zipper – ICW and the Matrix

ZipperThe questions I’ve received most often since the release of the new Family Finder Matrix from Family Tree DNA has to do with matches.  Specifically, what the “In Common With” feature is telling you versus what the Family Finder “Matrix” is telling you and how to utilize all of this information together.  At the bottom of this confusion is often a fundamental lack of understanding of how matching occurs and what it means in different contexts.

Let’s talk about this, step by step.

The “in common with” function (called triangulation for a few weeks, but now labeled “run common matches” ) shows you every person that you and one of your matches, match with in common.  I’ll be running this option for my matches with cousin David, shown below.

zipper 1

Here’s an example of my matches in common with my cousin, David.

Zipper 2

The Family Finder Matrix takes this information a bit further and shows you whether or not the people involved with this match, match each other as well.

In this case, I happen to know that my cousins Harold, Carl and Dean will match each other on my father’s side, as will my cousin David.  Warren doesn’t have firm genealogy, but from this, we can tell that he is indeed connected to this family group because he matches me, David, Harold and Carl, but not Dean and not Nova.  We have no idea how Nova connects to this line, if she does.  Notice that Nova does not match any of the other people in this group in the matrix below.  That means that my and David’s common ancestor with her is likely not from this same ancestral line shared by Harold, Carl and Dean.

zipper 3

From this point forward, I would drop back to my trusty downloaded full match spreadsheet that I maintain to see if indeed any of these people match me and my known cousins on the same segments.  If so, that confirms a family/ancestor relationship.   On the snipped from my spreadsheet below, you can see that Warren indeed matches both Buster and David and I, but not on the same segments.  Nova didn’t match any grouping on the same segments.  However, Buster and David both match me on the same portion of chromosome 19, so this confirms that we do share a common ancestor.  In this case, we also know, from our genealogy that the common ancestor is Lazarus Estes and wife, Elizabeth Vannoy.  Based on our multiple cousin matches, we can say that Warren is somehow connected to this line, but we can’t say how.

Zipper 4

I’ve had comments like “I have everything I need on my spreadsheet – I can see where all of my matches match me.”  And indeed, you can, but it’s not everything you need.  Here’s why.

Without additional information, you can’t tell, by just looking at your spreadsheet whether two people who match you on the same segment are matching on your Mom or Dad’s side.  For example, above, I know that both David and Buster are from my Dad’s line, but if I didn’t know that, one of them could be from Mom’s line and one could be from Dad’s, and while they are both related to me, on the same chromosome, they would, in that case, not be related to each other.  So, my spreadsheet of matches tells me clearly THAT people match me, and where, but it doesn’t tell me HOW or on which side.  For that, I need additional tools like ICW, the Matrix and plain old genealogy research.

This is the fundamental concept of matching and in a nutshell, why it’s so difficult.

Every Chromosome Has Two Sides

There are two sides to every chromosome, Mom’s side and Dad’s side.  Except nature has played a cruel trick on us and not installed a zipper.  There are no Mom and Dad labels.  There is no dividing that DNA or those matches in half magically, except by determing who they match, and how they do or don’t match each other.

When we match ourselves against our parents, for example, we then know immediately which half of our DNA came from which parent, but if you don’t have any parents available to match against, then you have to use genealogy or cousin matches to figure that out.

I talk about that in the Chromosome Mapping aka Ancestor Mapping article.

I’m going to use spreadsheets as examples here.  It think they are easier to see and understand, plus, I can manipulate them easily to reflect different situations.

Example 1 – The Very Basics of Matching

At each DNA location, or address, you have two alleles, one from each parent.  These alleles can have one of 4 values, or nucleotides, at each location, represented by the abbreviations T, A, C and G, short for Thymine, Adenine, Cytosine and Guanine.  That’s it, you’re done with all the science words now, so keep reading:)

On any given chromosome, from locations 1-20, you have the following DNA, in our example.

From Mom, you received all As and from Dad, all Cs.  You know that because I’m telling you, but remember, the matching software doesn’t know that because there is no zipper in your DNA.  All the software sees are that you have both an A and an C in location 1 and either an A or C is considered a match.

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In fact, this is what the software sees.  Be aware that in this case, AC=CA.

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Easy so far, right?

Example Two – Mom’s Known Cousin and Dad’s Known Cousin

Now you have two cousins, Mary and Myrtle.  You know, from having known them all of your life and sharing lots of Thanksgiving turkey that they are your family and you know clearly which side of your family they descend from.  Both of your cousins, Mary and Myrtle match you at the same locations on this chromosome, from 5-15.

But Mary is your mother’s cousin, and Myrtle is your Dad’s cousin.  So even though they both match you on the same exact chromosome and the same location, they do not match each other.  Well, let’s put it this way, if they also match each other, then you have an entirely different family genetic genealogy problem, called endogamy, and yes, you might be your own grandpa…but I digress.  But we’re going to assume for this discussion that your mother and father are not related to each other and do not share common ancestors.

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Still easy, right?

Example Three – An Unknown Cousin

Next, we have Martha.  You don’t know Martha, and you don’t know how she is related, but she obviously is.  Martha matches you, but she does not match Myrtle at all, and she doesn’t match Mary on enough overlapping chromosomes to be considered a match to her.  You can see their common match here between Mary and Martha in location 5.  In this case, as it turns out, Martha IS a cousin to Mary on Mom’s side, but we can’t tell that from this information because they don’t match in enough common locations to be above the matching threshold.  With this information, you can’t draw any conclusions.  You will have to wait to see who else Martha matches and look on your spreadsheet to see if Martha matches any of your known cousins and you on common segments which would confirm a common ancestor.  Your download spreadsheet will contain much more detailed information because once you match on any segment above the match threshold of about 7.7cM (plus a few other factors,) all matching segments of 1cM or above are downloaded – so you have a lot of information to work with.

But using both the ICW and matrix tools, Mary might cluster with other cousins on Mom’s side which would provide us with clues as to her relationship.  In fact, the first thing I’d do is to run an ICW with Mary and then utilize the Matrix tool to further define those relationships.

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Still not difficult.

Example Four – A “False Match”

Next we have Jeremy who is also a match to you.

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If you look at how Jeremy matches, you can see that he is actually matching on both sides, Mom’s and Dad’s side, but randomly.  Technically, he is a match to you, because he does match one or the other of your nucleotides at each location, A or C, but without a zipper, we have no idea HOW that DNA is divided in you between Mom and Dad.  In other words, the software doesn’t know that Mom was all A and Dad was all C, unless we’ve phased the data against your parents AND the software knows how to utilize that information.

However, if your parents are one of your matches, you can immediately see which side the match falls on, if either.  In this case, Jeremy doesn’t fall on either side because he is simply a circumstantial match, also known as a match my convergence or a false match.  This is also called IBS, or identical by state, as opposed to IBD, identical by descent.  The smaller the segment you show as a match, especially if there is no clustering, the more likely the match is to be IBS instead of the genealogically desirable IBD.

When people ask how someone can match a child but not a parent, this is the answer.  He matches you on 11 segments, circumstantially, but he only matches your parents on 5 and 6 segments, respectively, which often (but not always) puts him under the matching threshold.  Jeremy may also match Mary, depending on the thresholds.

This is also how someone can match in the “in common with” tool, but not be a match to anyone on the match list in the Matrix.  In fact, this is the power of these multiple tools.

This also doesn’t mean this match is entirely useless, because you DO match.  It may simply not be relevant genealogically.  In “The Autosomal Me” series, I’ve utilized very small match segments that in fact very probably ARE reflective of a common population and not of recent ancestry.  In my Native American research, this is exactly what I was looking for.  You may not be able to utilize this information today, but don’t entirely discount it either.  Just set it aside and move on to a more productive match.

Example Five – Common Matches, Different Ancestors

This situation provides clues, but no proof.

Mary and Joyce both match me on Mom’s segments, but they do not match each other.  They don’t match me on the same segments, so this indicates that they are probably from different ancestors in my Mother’s lines.  As more matches appear, the clusters of people and their genealogy will make this more apparent.

In order to determine which ancestors, I’ll need to work on the genealogy of both Mary and Joyce and see who else they also match on the same segments.  Sometimes the secret of the genealogy match is in the genealogy research or descent of your matches.

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Example Six – Clusters of Cousins

In this example, no one matches Dad, so he’s just out for now.  Susie and Mary match mom on the same segment, which proves that the three of these people share a common ancestor.  Mom and Joyce match each other too, but Joyce doesn’t match Mary and Susie, so they won’t cluster together on the matrix.  However, on the ICW tool, all three women, Joyce, Mary and Susie will match me and Mom.

Using the ICW tool if I were to ICW with Mom, you would see this list:

  • Joyce
  • Mary
  • Susie

The question then becomes, are Joyce, Mary and Susie related to each other, or not.  If so, and to me and Mom, then that indicates a common ancestor within the match group, like me, Joyce and Mom.  The second group doesn’t match the first group – me, Mary, Mom and Susie.  Using these tools together, these people clearly fall into two match groups, the green and blue on the spreadsheet below.  But remember, the match routine doesn’t know which side your As and Cs came from.  All it knows is that you match these people.  But based on these groups and my download spreadsheet common segment matches, I can tell that I’m working with two ancestral lines.

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My matrix for these people would look like this:

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My master matching spreadsheet would now look like this.

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When we started, all I would have been able to see is that all of these people matched Mom and Dad and I on the same segments. By utilizing the various tools, I was able to sort into groups and eventually, subgroups.

In fact, you can see below that within Mom’s pink group, there is also the smaller cluster of Mary, Susie, me and Mom.

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For Jeremy and Martha, we can’t do any more right now, so I’ve recorded what we do know and set them aside.

Here, you can see the matches sorted by chromosome, start and end segment.

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It looks a lot different than where we started, shown below, when all we had was a list of people who matched each other with no additional information.  We’ve added a lot!

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In Summary – Creating the Zipper

So, where are we with this?

By utilizing all of the tools at your disposal, including the ICW tool, the Family Finder Matrix, your matching spreadsheet and your genealogical information, you’re in essence creating that zipper that divides half of your DNA into Mom’s side and Dad’s side.  Then into grandma’s and grandpa’s side, and on up the pedigree chart.

Each of these tools can tell you something unique and important.

The ICW tool tells you who matches you and another person, in common.  It doesn’t tell you if they also match each other.  This tool can provide extremely important clustering information.  For example, if I see unknown cousin Martha clustered with a whole group of known Estes descendants, then that’s a pretty good clue about how I’m related to Martha.  If, on the other hand, I find Martha clustered with people from both sides of my family, well, my Mom and Dad just might be related to each other or their ancestors went to or came from the same places.

By utilizing the Matrix tool, I can tell which of my matches are actually matching each other too, so that puts Martha in a much smaller group, or maybe eliminates her from certain groups.

By then utilizing my downloaded match spreadsheet, on which I record every known tidbit of genealogy information, even generalities like, “family from NC” if that’s the best I can get, I can then see where Martha matches me and others on the same segments, and based on the information in the ICW and the Matrix and my genealogy info, I may be able to slot Martha into a family group.  On a great day – I’ll be able to be more specific and tell her which family group – like we were able to do with my newly found cousin, Loujean.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning how to install a chromosome zipper.  Now you can happily go about unzipping all of that genealogy information held in your DNA, that piece by piece, we’re slowing revealing.

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