Lifetime Achievement Awards for Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld

At the 2016 Family Tree DNA 12th Annual International Conference on Genetic Genealogy held in Houston, Texas in November, I was honored to present Lifetime Achievement Awards to both Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld from the genetic genealogy community in the form of DNA double helix quilts.

I chose quilts as awards because quilts embody the deep cross-cultural symbolism of family, of caring and of warmth. Quilts can be utilitarian, artistic, or both – hung on the wall or napped under. They descend to the next generation, just like our DNA. These unique quilts, and yes, there are two, show the easily recognizable double helix strands, but also suggest the mystery of the unknown and yet to be discovered.  Quilts seemed the perfect medium.

award-dna-quilt

I must admit, I agonized for weeks about what I was going to say, and months about the DNA quilts themselves. Ok, I had a bit of analysis paralysis having to do with the quilt design and construction, but with the deadline of the approaching conference looming months, then weeks away, I kicked into overdrive to finish the quilts.

But then, the most difficult part – what to say to and about these amazing humans. I’ve been involved in public speaking for the past 30+ years, and I’m very comfortable – except not this time. This presentation was about a subject very close to my heart – and about the men who have provided all genetic genealogists with the opportunities we have today.

Before I share what I said, I would like to thank my co-conspirators:

  • Janine Cloud
  • Katherine Borges
  • Nora Probasco
  • Linda Magellan
  • Jim Brewster

Katherine, Nora and Linda have all been to all 12 of the conferences and are fellow quilters. Linda is making labels for their quilts to affix to the back so they will never forget – although I doubt there is much possibility of that happening. Jim Brewster will sew the labels to the backs of the quilts when Linda mails the labels to Texas.

Max and Bennett are very humble men and I know they were embarrassed and amazingly enough, for those of us who are fortunate enough to know then – they were also pretty much speechless. At least for a couple minutes!

I’d like to take this opportunity to share the awards presentation with you. I’ve taken the liberty of added a few photos.

Many people don’t know Max and Bennett personally, nor do they know the history of genetic genealogy and direct to consumer DNA testing. I hope this presentation both honors Max and Bennett, and serves to educate about the humble beginnings of genetic genealogy.

I’m honored to present two Lifetime Achievement Awards today. Yes, there has been a conspiracy afoot. You have no idea how difficult it is to sneak onto a conference agenda. Thank you Janine Cloud. Additional co-conspirators are Katherine Borges, Nora Probasco and Linda Magellan, three people who have attended every conference since the beginning.

award-beginning

Left to right, Roberta Estes, Linda Magellan, Katherine Borges, Nora Probasco

Let’s talk about the beginning.

Most everyone knows the story about Bennett Greenspan’s first retirement in 1999.

Bennett tried to retire, but managed to get underfoot at home, and his wife in essence threw him out of the house. She told him she didn’t much care WHAT he did, but he had to find SOMETHING to do, SOMEPLACE ELSE.

Now, knowing that Bennett is a genealogist, I’m betting that living in Houston, he went to the Clayton Library every day and assured his wife he was busy looking for a new career. He found it alright, or maybe it found him.

Someplace, at the Clayton Library or elsewhere, Bennett was thinking about how to prove that men with a common surname were or were not descended from a common ancestral line. Were they related? Bennett knew just enough about science to know that if he could find a way to test their Y chromosomes, and they descended from a common paternal ancestor, their Y DNA should match. Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

Bennett began a search to find a scientist that could and would run that one Y DNA test for him. As it turns out, could and would were two entirely different matters. Bennett found Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona who runs the Hammer Lab that specializes in human evolutionary genetics.

Dr. Hammer could, but would he?

Bennett mentions talking to Dr. Hammer on the phone several times. Dr. Hammer mentions that Bennett camped out in his office and wouldn’t leave. However persistent Bennett was or wasn’t, in person or otherwise, we should all be incredibly grateful for his tenacity, because purely in self-defense, Dr. Hammer agreed to do the test – just that one test.

However, Dr. Hammer made a fateful throwaway comment as Bennett was on the way out the door. He said, “Someone should start a business doing this. You crazy genealogists ask me about this ALL THE TIME.

Talk about what never to say to a bored entrepreneur. That “all the time” statement echoed and rolled around in Bennett’s head. “All the time…all the time.”

Now, I don’t know exactly what happened next, but Bennett and Max were already business partners in another endeavor, and I’d bet the next conversation went something like this:

“Max – I’ve got an idea….”

Followed by a brief discussion and then:

“Bennett, are you crazy? No one will ever buy that?”

Like I said, I wasn’t there – but I’m really glad Bennett was a bit crazy – because so are the rest of us genealogists – as is proven by the size and magnitude of the genetic genealogy industry today.

The fledgling business, Family Tree DNA, was founded with Dr. Hammer’s lab doing the testing.

Fast forward a few months to July 14, 2000.

Cousin Doug Mumma, who, by the way, I didn’t know was a cousin until several years later thanks to a Family Finder test, called Family Tree DNA and talked to Bennett about Y DNA testing several Mumma men and men with similar surnames to see if they descended from a common ancestor. If Bennett was crazy wanting Y DNA testing, he is accompanied a whole lot of other genealogists. Perhaps it’s genetic.

Bennett agreed to form a project for Doug and Doug agreed to commit to purchase 20 kits. Doug’s first kit in the Mumma Surname Project was kit M-01 and by the time he was ready to purchase project kit number 21, the M was gone from the kit designation, and he purchased kit number 72.

Fast forward another few months.

I had tested my mitochondrial DNA with Oxford Ancestors and for something like $900 discovered that I was the daughter of Jasmine, one of the seven daughters of Eve. I received a one page diagram with a gold star placed on the letter J. My fascination with the science of genetic genealogy had begun.

One of my cousins mentioned that some company in Texas was doing DNA testing on men for the Y chromosome for genealogy. I was just sure this was some kind of scam, because I figured if that could be done, Oxford Ancestors would be offering that too – and they weren’t.

I found the phone number for Family Tree DNA, called and left a message.

Later that night, about 9:30, my phone rang and it was Bennett Greenspan returning my call – the President of Family Tree DNA.

Little did I know, at that time, that the office consisted of Bennett’s cell phone.

award-bennett-cell

We talked for an hour. I explained to Bennett that I had tested for mitochondrial DNA and asked about the Y DNA testing. Bennett described what Family Tree DNA was doing with testing and projects, convincing me it was not a scam after all. While I certainly understood the genetic basis of how Y DNA testing worked, I had not seen the website, or the software, and I was concerned about explaining how matching worked on the site between different men in a project.

Bennett said something fateful, which I’m sure he’s regretting right about now. He said, “Don’t worry – I’ll help you.” With that, I committed to purchase 5 kits and he committed to create the Estes surname project, and help me if I needed assistance. I quickly found 5 willing Estes genealogists who desperately wanted to know if they descended from a common Estes progenitor. The Estes DNA project was formed.

In mid-December 2002, I purchased kit 6656.  Kits were selling at the incredible rate of about 2000 a year!

The DNA results were amazing and full of potential for every ancestral line. I quickly became an advocate of genetic genealogy, although Rootsweb wouldn’t let us discuss DNA testing on the boards and lists, like it was some sort of pariah. DNA proved and disproved genealogy, myths and oral history – which bothered some folks immensely.

By 2004, genetic genealogy was growing and so was the interest in this field. Around the beginning of 2004, kit 17,000 was sold and twelve months later, on New Year’s Eve, kit 30,244 was sold. Participation in genetic genealogy nearly doubled in 2004 and in two years, it had quadrupled.  By now, kits were selling at just under 2000 per month.

November 2004 saw the first conference sponsored by Family Tree DNA in Houston which lasted only one day. The excitement in the community was palpable. Not only were we excited about the conference itself, and learning, but by meeting each other face to face.

award-2004-banner

award-2004

Bennett Greenspan, Bruce Walsh (obscured by Bennett), Max Blankfeld and Matt Kaplan from the University of Arizona, at the first conference. Photos from 2004 courtesy ISOGG.

In April of 2005, Family Tree DNA made the announcement that they had teamed with the National Geographic Society and the Genographic Project was launched. This liaison was the turning point that legitimized DNA testing to the rest of the world. People began to see DNA testing featured in the iconic magazine with the yellow cover and no one wondered anymore if we were just plain crazy.

In November 2005, the second Family Tree DNA Genetic Genealogy conference, which became the second annual conference, was held in Washington DC at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society.

This conference was extra exciting because of the location and the implications for genetic genealogy. We had come of age. The conference was held in the “Explorers Hall.” We were recognized as explorers too in this brave new genetic world.

award-2005

My husband and I stayed at a hotel called The Helix in Washington, within walking distance to the National Geographic building. On the morning of the conference, we left the hotel for the 5-minute walk to Nat Geo. In front of us, maybe 30 feet, were Max and Bennett, briskly walking and chatting. We continued behind them, not wanting to interrupt. In those few minutes, I remember distinctly thinking that I was literally watching history being made by the two men in front of me. Little did I know exactly how true that was and what the future held.

On New Year’s Eve, 2005, I purchased kit 50,000. Of course, I had to purchase about 10 kits to manage to get kit 50,000, right at midnight. Unbeknownst to me, the Genographic Project had sold nearly 100,000 kits. Genetic genealogy had passed silently from its infancy.

Every year since then, more history has unfolded.

Few people get the opportunity to shape the future.

Few people get the opportunity to directly affect more than a few lives – in this case, millions.

Few people get the opportunity to found not just a business, but an industry that will continue to provide information and answers long after we are nothing more than genealogical memories.

Few people get to chart the course of history.

Yes, I’m talking about Max and Bennett.

No, they don’t know anything about this.

About this time, Bennett apparently suspected not only that the awards might be for he and Max, but also realized that he had been “had.” Janine Cloud, was the person with the difficult task of making sure that Bennett and Max were in the room during this time, in addition to providing a disguised space on the agenda for these awards.

This is the look on Bennett’s face when he realized and looked at Janine.

award-bennett-gotcha

Followed by this photo.  Janine is standing behind Bennett.

award-bennett-2

Max, however, didn’t suspect, because he was busy. I can just hear Bennett, “Pssst, Max…..”

award-bennett-max

So, until now, Max probably really doesn’t know exactly what I said up to this point.

Max and Bennett not only founded the genetic genealogy industry, they have maintained a leadership position within that industry while others perished. They have an entire series of firsts attributed to them, but if I took time to list them all, we would be here all day.

What I will say is that they have created this industry with the utmost integrity and with their eye to the consumer. One example stands out.

I was standing at a conference some years ago when a man asked Bennett about backbone SNP testing. Bennett asked him which haplogroup. The man answered, then Bennett told him not to spend his money on that test for that haplogroup, because he wasn’t likely to learn anything he didn’t already know.

Being a project administrator, I was surprised at Bennett’s response. I spoke with Bennett and he said he never wanted his customers to feel like they didn’t receive value for their money. That’s not something one would expect to hear from the mouth of a businessman. But that is Bennett.

Integrity has been the guiding principle and the foundation of Family Tree DNA and remains so today.

Max and Bennett have given us what is arguably the single most valuable tool for genealogists – ever – not to mention those searching for their birth family.

Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA in 1953, but it would be another 47 years before Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld gave us the rosetta stone so that “the rest of us” can understand our DNA and how it’s relevant to our own lives – and those of our ancestors. That vision in 1999 and the fledgling startup company in 2000 was the cornerstone of the DTC, direct to consumer, DNA industry today.

I am honored to present Max and Bennett with special Lifetime Achievement Awards – that are – well – a bit different from any other lifetime achievement award. But then, they are unique so their awards should be as well.

I am asking Katherine Borges, Linda Magellan and Nora Probasco to help present these awards on behalf of the genetic genealogy community. All 3 have attended all of the conferences.

award-katherine

Katherine Borges closed the presentation with the following quote by Wilferd Peterson.

Walk with the Dreamers,
The Believers,
The Courageous,
The Planners,
The Doers,
The Successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground,
Let their Spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it.

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Thank you Max and Bennett for inviting and allowing us to walk with you on this most fabulous journey. You are the wind beneath our wings.

What you can’t see in the photos is the standing ovation for Max and Bennett. People came up to me afterwards and thanked me, saying that they wanted to say those things, but couldn’t or didn’t know how.

At this point, we told Max and Bennett that they had to close their eyes. They are indeed trusting souls.

When they opened their eyes, I’m sure they didn’t know quite what to think. They were both looking to their left at first, and I think they thought there was one quilt.

award-first-sight

I do love the looks on their faces. We wanted them to be surprised and joyful, and they clearly were.

award-both-quilts

They weren’t entirely speechless, but close.

award-max

Max said something short and gracious, then handed the microphone to Bennett and said , “Here Bennett, you say something.” The crowd laughed. Max and Bennett both handled the situation with the grace and dignity we have come to expect.

award-bennett

For those who would like to see a closeup, Katherine Borges took a nice picture.

award-closeup

I will be writing a separate article about the quilts themselves.

Family Tree DNA offers lab tours on the Monday following the conference, and I was able to take a photo of Max and Bennett in the office with the quilts.  For those who don’t know, Gene by Gene is the parent company of Family Tree DNA.

I’m sure none of us, including Max and Bennett had any idea 16 years ago where this road would lead.  It has been an amazing journey – a fantastic magic carpet ride!

award-both-gene-by-gene

I want to thank everyone who contributed in any way to these awards for Bennett and Max, including everyone who has bought tests and participated in DNA testing for genetic genealogy.  Every time I thank Max, he always says, “No, thank YOU.  We wouldn’t be here without you,” meaning the testing community.  That’s Max, and I know he means it sincerely.

Not only was this a wonderful opportunity to honor the men who founded and anchor this industry and community, but also to celebrate individuals being able to participate in discovery on the forefront of the final frontier, the one within us.  What Max and Bennett have provided is an opportunity beyond measure. I could never have dreamed a dream this big. I’m eternally grateful that they did.

Thank you, Max and Bennett, for everything you have done for genetic genealogy over the past 16 years, for founding Family Tree DNA, for projects and a wide variety of products, for embracing, including and encouraging genealogists, scientists and citizen scientists, and for providing continuing opportunities to unwrap the genetic gifts left to us by our ancestors.

I have struggled to find words big enough, strong enough and deep enough.  I hope when you look at your quilts, you will simply feel our everlasting gratitude for how profoundly you have touched and irreversibly changed the lives of so many, one by one, in essence sewing many small stitches in the quilt of humanity.

Photos courtesy Jennifer Zinck, Jim Hollern, Katherine Borges, Janine Cloud, Jim Kvochick and ISOGG.

Beware The Sale of Your DNA – Just Because You Can Upload Doesn’t Mean You Should

You know something is coming of age when you begin to see knockoffs, opportunists – or ads on late night TV. As soon as someone figures out they can make money from something, rest assured, they will.

In the past few weeks, we’re beginning to see additional “opportunities” for places to upload your DNA files. Each of them has something to “give” you in return.  You can view this as genuine, or you can view this as bait – or maybe some of each.

So far, each of them also seems to have an agenda that is NOT serving us or our DNA – but serving only or primarily them. I’m not saying this is good or bad – that depends on your perspective – but I am saying that we need to be quite aware of a variety of factors before we participate or upload our autosomal DNA results.

Some sites are more straightforward than others.

I have already covered the fact that both 23andMe and Ancestry sell your DNA to whomever for whatever they see fit.

Truthfully, I always knew that 23andMe was focused on health, but I mistakenly presumed it was on the study of diseases like Parkinson’s. My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so I had a personal stake in that game.  When their very first patent was for “designer babies,” I felt shell-shocked, stupid, naïve, duped and taken advantage of. I had willingly opted-in and contributed my information with the idea that I was contributing to Parkinson’s research, while in reality, my DNA may have been used in the designer baby patent research.  I have no way of knowing and I had no idea that’s the type of research they were doing.

Parkinson’s yes, designer babies no.  It’s a personal decision, but once your DNA is being utilized or sold, it can be used for anything and you have no control whatsoever.  While I was perfectly willing to participate in surveys and have my DNA utilized for a cure for diseases, in particular Parkinson’s, I was not and am not willing for my DNA to be utilized for things like designer babies so the wealthy can select blue eyed, blonde haired children carrying the genes most likely to allow them to become athletes or cheerleaders.

And once the DNA cat is out of the bag, so to speak, there is no putting it back in. In some cases, you can opt out of identified data, but you can’t opt out of what has already been used, and in many cases, you can’t opt out of having your anonymized data sold.

So, let me give you an example of just how much protection anonymizing your data will give you.

Anonymized Data

Let’s say that someone in one of those unknown firms wants to know who I am. All they have to do is drop my results into GedMatch and my name is right there, along with my e-mail.

Have a fake name at Gedmatch? Well, think for a minute of the adoption search groups and how they identify people, sometimes very quickly and easily by their matches.  Everyday.

Not to mention, my children (and my parents, were they living) are very clearly identifiable utilizing my DNA. So while my DNA is mine, and legally belongs to me, it’s not entirely ONLY mine.

The promise of anonymized data by stripping out your identifying information has become somewhat of a hollow promise today. In a recent example, a cholesterol study volunteer recognized “herself” in a published paper, but was not notified of the results. In an earlier paper, several Y DNA volunteers were identified as well. Ironically, Dr. Erlich, now having formed DNA.Land and soliciting DNA uploads was involved with this unmasking.

Knowing what I know today, I would NEVER have tested at 23andMe and I would have to think very long and hard about Ancestry. The hook that Ancestry has, of course, is all of those DNA plus matching trees.  Is having my anonymized DNA sold worth that?  I don’t really know.  For me, it’s too late for an Ancestry decision, because I’ve already tested there and you cannot opt out of having your anonymized data sold.

I already had an Ancestry subscription, but some testers don’t realize they have to have at least a minimum level subscription to receive all of the benefits of testing at Ancestry. That could certainly be a rude awakening – and unexpected when they purchased the test.  The $49 DNA base subscription is not available on Ancestry’s website either – you have to know about it and call support to purchase that level.  I’m sure most people simply purchase the normal subscription or do without.

One thing is for sure, our DNA is worth a lot of money to both research and Big Pharm, and apparently worth a lot of effort as well, given how many people are attempting to capture our DNA for sale.

In the past few weeks, there have been several new sites that have come online relative to autosomal DNA uploading and testing.

But before we talk about those, I’d like to take a moment for education.

The Sanger Survey

Sanger survey

I’d like to suggest that you take a few minutes to view the videos associated with the Sanger Institute DNA survey here. I think the videos do a good job of explaining at least some of the issues facing people about the usage of their DNA.  Of course, you have to take their survey to see the videos at each step – but it’s good food for thought and they do allow you to make comments.

So, please, take a few minutes for this survey before proceeding.

Genes and US

One of the first “sidebar” companies to appear in September 2014 was at the site   http://www.genesand.us/ which is now nonfunctional.

I took screen shots at that time, since I was going to write an article about what seemed quite interesting.

Genesandus

It was a free service that offered to “find the best genes that you can give to your child.” You had to test at 23andMe, then upload both you and your partner’s raw DNA files and they would provide you with results.

I did just that, and the screen shot below shows the partial results. There were several pages.

Genesandus1

At the end of this section was a question asking if I wanted to “speak to a doctor about any of these benefits.” I didn’t, but I did want to know if gene selection was actual possible and being implemented.  I found the site’s contact information.  I sent this e-mail, which was never answered.

genesandus2

So let me ask you…where is my and my husband’s DNA today? I uploaded it.  Who has it?  Was this just a ploy to obtain our DNA files?  And for what purpose?  Who were these people anyway?  They are gone without a trace today.

DNA.Land

More recently, in the fall of 2015, DNA.Land came upon the scene.

As of today, 22,000+ people have uploaded their autosomal DNA files.

dna.land

What does DNA.Land offer the genealogist?

A different organization’s view of your ethnicity as well as relative matching to others who upload.

The quality and reliability of these enticements offered by companies in exchange for our DNA files may vary widely. For example, when DNA.Land launched, their matching routine didn’t find immediate family members.  No product should ever be launched in an alpha state, which calls into question the quality of the rest of their products and research.  That matching problem has reportedly been fixed.

The second enticement they offer is an ethnicity tool.

I can’t show you my example, because I have not uploaded my DNA to DNA.Land.   However, a genetic genealogy colleague conducted an interesting experiment.

TL Dixon uploaded four DNA files in late April 2016. He tested twice at 23andMe, both tests being the v3 version, and twice at Ancestry, in 2012 and 2014, and uploaded all 4 files to DNA.Land to see what the results would be, comparatively.

TL 23andMe test 1

23andMe v3 test 1

TL 23andme test 2

23andMe v3 test 2

TL Ancestry test 1 2014

Ancestry test from 2014

TL Ancestry test 2 2012

Ancestry test from 2012

We all know that ethnicity testing as a whole is not terribly reliable, but is the most reliable on the continent level, meaning Africa vs Europe vs Asia vs Native American. Given that these raw data files are from the same testing companies, on the same chip platform, for the same person, the Ancestry 2012 and 2014 ethnicity results from DNA.Land are quite different from each other relative to African vs Eurasian DNA, and also from the 23andMe results – even at the continent level.  Said another way, both 23andme results and the Ancestry 2014 results are very similar, with the Ancestry 2012 test, shown last, being the outlier.

Thanks to TL Dixon for both his multiple testing and sharing his results. According to TL’s known family history, the two 23andMe and the Ancestry 2014 kits are closest to accurate.  Just as an aside, TL, surprised by the differing results, utilized David Pike’s utilities to compare the two Ancestry files to see if one had a problem, and they were both very similar, so the difference does not appear to be in the Ancestry kits themselves – so the difference has to be at DNA.Land.

So, what I’m saying is that DNA.Land’s enticement of a different company’s view of ethnicity, even after several months, and even at the continent level, still needs work. This along with the original matching issue calls into question the quality of some of the enticements that are being used to attract DNA donors.  We should consider this not only at this site, but at others that provide enticement or “free” services or goodies as well.  Uploaders beware!

While the non-profit status of DNA.Land along with their verbiage leads people to believe that their work is entirely charitable, it is not, as reflected in this sentence from their consent information.

I understand that the research in this study may lead to new products, research tools, or inventions that have financial value. By accepting the terms of this consent, I understand that I will not be able to share in the profits from future commercialization of products developed from this study.

At least they are transparent about this, assuming you actually read all of the information provided on the site – which you should do with every site.

My Heritage Adds DNA Matching

This past week, My Heritage, a company headquartered in Israel, announced that it has added autosomal DNA matching. Some people think this is great, and others not so much.

MyHeritage

My Heritage, like Ancestry, is a subscription site. I happen to already be a member, so I was initially pretty excited about this, especially when I saw this in their blog.

Your DNA data will be kept private and secure on MyHeritage.

Our service will then match you to other people who share DNA with you: your relatives through a common ancestor. You will be able to review your matches’ family trees (excluding living people), and filter your matches by common surnames or geographies to focus on more relevant matches.

And also:

Who has access to the DNA data?

Only you do. Nobody else can see it, and nobody can even know that it was uploaded. Only the uploader can see the data, and you can delete it at any time. Users who are matched with your DNA will not have access to your DNA or your email address, but will be able to get in touch with you via MyHeritage.

I was thinking this might be a great opportunity, perhaps similar to the Ancestry trees, although they don’t say anything about tree matching.

However, their Terms of Service are not available to view unless you pretend to start an upload of your DNA (thanks for this tip Ann Turner) and then the “Terms of Service” and “Consent Agreement” links become available to view. They should be available for everyone BEFORE you start your upload.

On the MyHeritage main site, you’ll see DNA matching at the top. I’m a member, so, if you’re not a member, your “main site” may look different.

MyHeritage1

Click on “learn more” on the DNA Matching tab.

MyHeritage2

Step two shows you two boxes saying you have read the DNA Terms of Use and Consent Agreement. Don’t just click through these – read them.  Not just at this vendor, at all vendors.

In the required DNA Terms of Use we find this in the 5th paragraph:

By submitting DNA Results to the Website, you grant MyHeritage a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA Results, and any DNA Results you submit for any person from whom you obtained legal authorization as described in this Agreement, and to use, host, sublicense and distribute the resulting analysis to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered.

And this in item 7:

c. We may transfer, lease, rent, sell, share and/or or otherwise distribute de-identified information to third parties for any purpose, including without limitation, internal business purposes. Whenever we transfer, lease, rent, sell, share and/or or otherwise distribute your information to third parties, this information will be aggregated and personal identifiers (such as names, birth dates, etc.) will be removed.

In the optional Informed Consent agreement, we find this:

The Project collects, preserves and analyzes genealogical lineage, historical records, surveys, genetic information, and other records (collectively, “Research Information“) provided by users in order to conduct research studies to better understand, among other things, human evolution and migration, population genetics, regional health issues, ethnographic diversity and boundaries, genealogy and the history of the human species. Researchers hope that the Project will be an invaluable tool for a wide range of scholars and researchers interested in genealogy, anthropology, evolution, languages, cultures, medicine, and other topics and that the Project may benefit future generations. Discoveries made as a result of the Project may be used in the study of genealogy, anthropology, population genetics, population health issues, cultures, trends (for example, to identify health risks or spread of certain diseases), and other related topics. If we or a third party wants to conduct a study (1) on topics unrelated to the Project, or (2) using Research Information beyond what is described in this Informed Consent, we will re-contact you to seek your specific approval. In addition, we may contact you to ask you to complete a questionnaire or to ask you if you are willing to be interviewed about the Project or other matters.

  1. What are the costs and will I receive compensation? MyHeritage will not charge participants any fees in order to be part of the Project. There will be no financial compensation paid to Project participants. The data you share with us for the Project may benefit researchers and others in the future. If any commercial product is developed as a result of the Project or its outcomes, there will be no financial benefit to you.

You can’t see the terms of use or consent agreement unless you are in the process of uploading your DNA and in addition, it appears that your DNA data is automatically available in anonymized fashion to third parties. The terms of service and informed consent data above does not seem to correlate with the marketing information which states that “nobody else” can see your data.

The other thing that’s NOT obvious, is that you don’t HAVE to click the box on the Consent Agreement, but you do HAVE to click the box on the DNA Terms of Use.

If you are not alright with the entirety of the DNA Terms of Use, which is required, do not upload your DNA file to My Heritage.  If you are not alright with the Consent Agreement, don’t click the box.  Judy Russel wrote an detailed article about the terms here.

Uploading your DNA to MyHeritage is free today, but may be a pay service later. It is unclear whether a subscription is required today, or will be in the future.  However, at one time one could upload a family tree of up to 250 people to MyHeritage for free through 23andMe.  Larger files were accepted, but were only free for a certain time period and now the person whose tree was larger than 250 people and who did not subscribe is locked out of their account.  They can’t delete their larger-than-250 person tree unless they purchase a subscription.  It’s unclear what the future holds for DNA uploads, trees and subscriptions as well.

I have not uploaded my DNA to MyHeritage either, based on 7c. It would appear that even if you don’t give consent for additional “research information” to be collected and provided, they can still sell your anonymized DNA.

WeGene

WeGene

Very recently, a new company, WeGene at http://www.wegene.com has begun DNA testing focused on the Chinese marketplace.

Their website it in Chinese, but Google translates it, at least nominally, as does Chrome.

WeGene1

WeGene2

It does not appear that WeGene does matching between their customers, or if they do, I’ve missed it in the translations.

You can, however, upload at least 23andMe files to WeGene. I can’t tell about Family Tree DNA and Ancestry files.  Unless you have direct and fairly recent Chinese ancestry, I don’t know what the benefit would be.

Their privacy and security, such as it is, is at this link, although obviously autotranslated. Some people seem to have found other verbiage as well.  Navigating their site, written in Chinese, is very difficult and the accuracy of the autotranslation is questionable, at best.

Their autosomal DNA file is obviously available for download, because GedMatch now accepts these files.

I am certainly not uploading my DNA to WeGene, for numerous reasons.

Vendor Summary

This vendor summary was more difficult to put together than I thought it would be – in part because I am not a new user at either Ancestry or 23andMe and obviously can’t see what a new user would see on any of my accounts. Furthermore, Ancestry in particular has several documents that refer back and forth to each other, and let’s just say they are written more for the legal mind than the typical consumer.

vendor summary

* – Both 23andMe and Ancestry appear to utilize all clients DNA for anonymized distribution, but not for identified distribution without an individual opt-in.

*1 – According to the 23andMe Privacy Policy, although you can opt in to the higher level of research testing where your identity is not removed, you cannot opt out of the anonymized level of DNA sharing/sale. Please review current 23andMe documentation before making a decision.

*2 – Can Opt in or Opt out.

*3 – Can opt out of non-anonymized sales, but not anonymized sales. Please verify utilizing the current Ancestry documents before making a decision.

*4 – DNA.land indicates that you can withdraw consent, but does not say anything about deleting your DNA file.

*5 – DNA.Land states in their consent agreement that they will not provide identified DNA information without first contacting you.

*6 – At 23andMe, deleting DNA from data base closes account.

*7 – Automatically opted in for anonymized sales/sharing, but must opt in for identified DNA sharing.

*8 – 23andMe has been and continues to experience significant difficulties and at this point are not considered a viable genetic genealogy option by many, or stated another way, they would be the last choice of the main three testing companies.

*9 – All legal action must be brought in Tel Aviv, Israel, individually, and not as a class action suit, according to item 9 in the DNA Terms of Use document.

*10 – Website in Chinese, information through an automated English translator, so the information provided here is necessarily incomplete and may not be entirely accurate.

Please note that any or all of these factors are subject to change over time and the vendors’ documents should be consulting and read thoroughly at the time any decision is being made.

Please note that at some vendors there are many different documents that cross-reference each other. They are confusing and should all be read before any decision is made.

And of course, some vendors’ websites aren’t even in English.

Points to Consider

While these companies are the ones that have come to the forefront in the past few months, there will assuredly be more as this industry develops. Here are a list of things for you to think about and points to consider that may help you make your decision about whether you want to either test or upload your autosomal DNA with any particular company.  After all, your autosomal DNA file does contain that obviously much-sought-after medical information.

First, always read every document on a vendor site that says anything like “Terms of Use,” “Security and Privacy” or “Terms of Service” or “Informed Consent.” Many times the fine print is spread throughout several documents that reference each other.  If their policy does not say specifically, do NOT assume.

Also be aware that the verbiage of most companies says they can change their rules of engagement at any time without notification.

Here are the questions you may want to consider as you read these documents.

  • Does the company or organization sell or share your data?
  • Is the data that is sold or shared anonymized or nonanonymized, understanding that really no one is truly anonymous anymore?
  • Who do they sell your data to?
  • For what purpose?
  • Do you have the opportunity to authorize your DNA’s involvement per study?
  • If you do not live in the same country as the company with whom you are doing business, what recourse do you have to enforce any agreement?
  • How do you feel about your DNA being in the hands of either organizations or companies you don’t know for purposes you don’t know?
  • Are you asked up front if you want to participate?
  • Can you opt out of your DNA being shared or sold entirely from the beginning?
  • Can you opt out of your DNA being shared or sold entirely at any time if you have initially opted in?
  • Do you receive the opportunity to opt in, or are you automatically opted in?
  • If you are automatically opted in, do you get the opportunity, right then, to opt out, or only if you happen to discover the situation? And if you can opt out immediately, are you only able to opt out of non-anonymized data or can you opt out entirely?
  • Is the company up front and transparent about what they are doing with your DNA or do you have to dig to unearth the truth?
  • If you already tested, and gave up rights, were you aware that you did so, and do you understand if or how you can rescind that inadvertent authorization?
  • Do you have to dig for the terms of service and are they as represented in the marketing literature?
  • Do you feel like you are giving truly informed consent and understand what can and will happened to your DNA, and what your options are if you change your mind, and how to exercise those options? Are you comfortable with those options and the approach of the company towards DNA sale as a whole? Were they forthright?
  • For companies like MyHeritage and Ancestry, are their other unknown “gotchas” like a subscription being required in addition to testing or uploading to obtain the full benefits of the test or upload?
  • What happens to your DNA if the company no longer exists or goes out of business? For two examples, look at the Sorenson and Ancestry Y and mtDNA DNA results. This is certainly not what any consumer or tester expected. Not to mention, I’m left wondering where my DNA submitted to genesandus is today.
  • Who owns the company?  What are their names?  Where can you find them?  What is the address of the company?  What does google have to say about the owners or management?  Linked-In?  Facebook?  If there is absolutely no history, that’s probably as damning as a bad history.  No one can exist today in a professional capacity and have no history.  Just saying.
  • Is the company acting in any way that would cause you not to trust them, their motives or agenda?  As my mother used to say, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Near and Dear to My Heart

I have family members who work in the medical field in various capacities. I also have family members who have or have had genetically heritable conditions and like everyone else, I would love to see those diseases cured.  My reticence to donate my DNA to whomever for whatever is not a result of being heartless.  It’s a function of wanting to be in control of who profits with/from my DNA and that of my family.

Let me share a personal story with you.

My brother died of cancer in 2012. He went for chemo treatments every two weeks, and before he could have his chemo treatment, he had to have bloodwork to assure that his system was able to handle the next dose of chemo.

If his white cell count was below a certain threshold, a shot of a drug called Neulasta was available to him to stimulate his body to increase the white blood cells. The shots were $8000 a piece.  And no, that is not a typo.  $8000!  His insurance did not cover the shots, because as far as they were concerned, he could just wait until his white cell numbers increased of their own accord and have the chemo then.  Of course, delaying the chemo decreased his chances of survival.

Over the course of his chemo, he had to have three of these $8000 shots. Fortunately, he did have the money to pay, although he did have to reschedule his appointment because he was required to bring a cashier’s check with the full payment in advance before the clinic would administer the shot.  After that, he simply carried an $8000 cashier’s check to each appointment, just in case.

I do not for one minute believe that those shots COST $8000 to manufacture, but I do believe that the pharmaceutical industry could, would and does CHARGE $8000 to desperate patients in order to continue the chemo that is their only hope of life. For those whose insurance pays, it’s entirely irrelevant. For those whose insurance does not pay, it’s a matter of life and death.  And yes, I’m equally as angry with the insurance company, but they aren’t the ones asking for me to do donate my DNA.

So, as for my DNA, no Big Pharm company will ever get their hands on it if there is ANYTHING I can do about it – although it’s probably too late now since I have tested with both 23andMe and Ancestry, who do not allow you to opt out entirely. I wish I had known before I tested.  At least I would have been giving informed consent, which was not the case.

Consequently, I want to know who is doing what with my DNA, so that I have the option of participating or not – and I want to know up front – and I don’t want it hidden in fine print with the company hoping I’ll just “click through” and never read the documentation. I don’t want it to be intentionally or unintentionally confusing, and I want unquestionable full disclosure – ahead of time.  Is that too much to ask?

My brother had the money for the shots, and he died anyway, but can you imagine being the family of someone who did not have $24,000?

And if you think for one minute that Big Pharm won’t do that, consider Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, dubbed “the most hated man in America” in September 2015 for gouging patients dependent on a drug used for HIV and cancer treatment by raising the price from $13.50 per pill to $750 for the same pill, a 5,556% increase – because he could.

Medical research to cure disease I’m supportive of in terms of DNA donation, but not designer babies and not Big Pharm – and today there seems to be no way to separate the bad from the good or to determine who our DNA is being sold to for what purpose. Worse yet, some medical research is funded by Big Pharm, so it’s hard to determine which medical research is independent and which is not.

The companies selling our DNA and Big Pharm are the only people who stand to benefit financially from that arrangement – and they stand to benefit substantially from our contributions by encouraging us to “help science.” We’ll never know if a study our donated DNA was used for produced a new drug – and if it’s one we can’t afford, you can bet the pharmaceutical industry and manufacturers care not one whit that we were one of the people who donated our DNA so they could develop the drug we can’t afford.  If any industry should not be soliciting free DNA donations for research, Big Pharm is that industry with their jaw-dropping profits.

So, How Much is Our DNA Worth Anyway?

I don’t know, directly, but we can get some idea from the deal that 23andMe struck with pharmaceutical company Genentech, the US unit of Swiss drug company, Roche, in January 2015, as reported by Forbes.

Quoting now, directly from the Forbes article:

According to sources close to the deal, 23andMe is receiving an upfront payment from Genentech of $10 million, with further milestones of as much as $50 million. The deal is the first of ten 23andMe says it has signed with large pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Such deals, which make use of the database created by customers who have bought 23andMe’s DNA test kits and donated their genetic and health data for research, could be a far more significant opportunity than 23andMe’s primary business of selling the DNA kits to consumers. Since it was founded in 2006, 23andMe has collected data from 800,000 customers and it sells its tests for $99 each. That means this single deal with one large drug company could generate almost as much revenue as doubling 23andMe’s customer base.

The article further says that the drug company was particularly interested in the 12,000 Parkinson’s patients and 1,300 of their parents and siblings who had provided family information. Ten million divided by 13,300 means Genentech were willing to pay $750 for each person’s DNA, out the door.  So the tester paid $99 or upwards, depending on when they tested – $1000 before September 2008 when the test dropped to $399, to 23andMe and then 23andMe made another $750 per kit from the tester’s donated DNA results.

And that’s before the additional $50 million and the other deals 23andMe and the other DNA-sellers have struck with Big Pharm. So yes indeed, our DNA is worth a lot.

It’s no wonder so many people are trying to trying to find a way to entice us to donate our results so they can sell them. In fact, it’s a wonder, and a testament to their integrity, that there is ANY company with access to our DNA results that isn’t selling them.  In fact, there are only two companies, plus the Genographic Project.

Who Doesn’t Share or Sell Your Autosomal DNA?

Of the major companies, organizations and sites, the only three, as best I can tell, that do not share or sell your autosomal DNA (or reserve the right to do so) and specifically state that they do not are National Geographic’s Genographic Project , Family Tree DNA and GedMatch.

Of those three, Family Tree DNA, a subsidiary of Gene by Gene is the only testing company and says the following:

Gene by Gene collects, processes, stores and shares your Personal Information in a responsible, transparent and secure environment that fosters our customers’ trust and confidence. To that end, Gene by Gene respects your privacy and will not sell or rent your Personal Information without your consent.

National Geographic utilizes Family Tree DNA for testing, and the worst thing I could find in their privacy policy is that they will share:

  • with other selected third parties so that they may send you promotional materials about goods and services that they offer. You have the opportunity to opt out of our sharing information about you as described below in the section entitled “Your Choices”;
  • in accordance with your consent.

Nothing problematic here.

Your Genographic DNA file is only uploadable to Family Tree DNA and Nat Geo does not accept uploaded data from other vendors.

GedMatch, which allows users to upload their raw data files from the major testing companies for comparison says the following:

It is our policy to never provide your genealogy, DNA information, or email address to 3rd parties, except as noted above.

Please refer to the entire documents from these organizations for details.

Serious genealogists have probably already uploaded to GedMatch and tested at or uploaded to Family Tree DNA as well, so people are unlikely to find new matches at new sites that aren’t already in one of these two places.

To Be Clear

I just want to make sure there is no confusion about which type of companies we’ve been referencing, and who is excluded, and why. The only companies or organizations this article applies to are those who have access to your raw data autosomal DNA file.  Those would be either the companies who test your autosomal DNA (National Geographic, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe in the US and WeGenes in China), or if you download your raw data file from those companies and upload it to another company, organization or location, as discussed in this article.  The companies and organizations discussed may not be the only firms or organizations to which you can upload your autosomal DNA file today, and assuredly, there will be more in the future.

The line in the sand is that autosomal DNA file. Not your Y DNA, not your mitochondrial DNA, not your match list – just that raw data file – that’s what contains your DNA information that the medical and pharmaceutical industry seeks and is willing to pay handsomely to obtain.

There are other companies and organizations that offer helpful tools for autosomal DNA analysis and tree integration, but you do NOT upload your raw data file to those sites. Those sites would include sites like www.dnagedcom.com and www.wikitree.com. I want to be sure no one confuses sites that do NOT upload or solicit the upload of your raw autosomal DNA files with those that do.  I have not discussed these sites that do not upload your autosomal DNA files because they are not relevant to this discussion.

This article does not pertain to sites that do not utilize or have access to your autosomal raw data file – only those that do.

Summary

As the number of DNA testing consumers rises, the number of potential targets for DNA sales into the medical/pharmaceutical field rises equally, as does the number of targets for scammers.

Along with that, I increasingly feel like my ancestors and the data available through my DNA about my ancestors, specifically ethnicity since everyone seems to be looking for a better answer, is being used as bait to obtain my DNA for companies with a hidden, or less than obvious, agenda – that being to obtain my DNA for subsequent sale.

I greatly appreciate the Genographic Project, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, the organizations who either test or accept autosomal file uploads do not sell my DNA, and I hope that they are not forced into that position economically in order to survive. It’s quite obvious that there is significant money to be made from the sale of massive amounts of DNA to the medical and pharmaceutical communities.  They alone have resisted that temptation and stayed true to the cause of the study of indigenous cultures and population genetics in the case of Nat Geo, and genetic genealogy, and only genetic genealogy in the case of Family Tree DNA and GedMatch.

In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Frankly, I believe selling our data is fundamentally wrong unless that information is abundantly clear, as in truly informed consent as defined by the Office for Human Research Protections, in advance of purchasing (or uploading) the test, and not simply a required “click through box” that says you read something. I would be much more likely to participate in anything that was straightforward rather than something that was hidden or not straightforward, like perhaps the company or organization was hoping we wouldn’t notice, or we would automatically click the box without reading further, thinking we have no other option.

The notice needs to say something on the order of, “I understand that my DNA is going to be sold, may be used for profit making ventures, and I cannot opt out if I order this DNA test,” if that is the case. That is truly informed consent – not a check box that says “I have read the Consent Document.”

Yes, the companies that sell DNA testing and our DNA results would probably receive far fewer orders, but those who would order would be truly informed and giving informed consent. Today, in the large majority of cases, I don’t believe that’s happening.

We need to be aware as consumers and make informed decisions. I’m not telling you whether you should or should not utilize these various companies and sites, or whether you should or should not participate in contributing your DNA to research, or at which level, if at all. That is a personal decision we all have to make.

But I will tell you that I think you need to educate yourself and be aware of these trends and issues in the industry so you can make a truly informed decision each and every time you consider sharing your DNA. And you should know that in some cases, your DNA is being sold and there is absolutely nothing you can do about if it you utilize the services of that company.

Above all, read all of the fine print.

Let me say that again, channeling my best Judy Russell voice.

ALWAYS, READ ALL OF THE FINE PRINT!!!

ALWAYS.
READ.
ALL.
OF.
THE.
FINE.
PRINT.

Unfortunately, things are not always as they seem on the surface.

If you see a click-through box, a red neon danger light should now start flashing in your brain and refuse to allow you to click on that box until you’ve done what? Read all the fine print.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch – so be judiciously suspicious.

I will leave you with the same thought relative to testing companies and upload opportunities that I said about companies selling our data. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

I think early in this game we all got excited and presumed the best about the motives of companies and organizations, like I did with both 23andMe and genesandus, but now we know better – and that there may be more to the story than initially meets the eye.

And besides that, we all know that presume is the first cousin to assume…and well, we all know where this is going.  And by the way, that’s exactly how I feel about genesandus who disappeared with my and my husband’s DNA.  I wasn’t nearly suspicious or judicious enough then…but I am now.

Chromosome Browser War

There has been a lot of discussion lately, and I mean REALLY a lot, about chromosome browsers, the need or lack thereof, why, and what the information really means.

For the old timers in the field, we know the story, the reasons, and the backstory, but a lot of people don’t.  Not only are they only getting pieces of the puzzle, they’re confused about why there even is a puzzle.  I’ve been receiving very basic questions about this topic, so I thought I’d write an article about chromosome browsers, what they do for us, why we need them, how we use them and the three vendors, 23andMe, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA, who offer autosomal DNA products that provide a participant matching data base.

The Autosomal Goal

Autosomal DNA, which tests the part of your DNA that recombines between parents every generation, is utilized in genetic genealogy to do a couple of things.

  1. To confirm your connection to a specific ancestor through matches to other descendants.
  2. To break down genealogy brick walls.
  3. Determine ethnicity percentages which is not the topic of this article.

The same methodology is used for items 1 and 2.

In essence, to confirm that you share a common ancestor with someone, you need to either:

  1. Be a close relative – meaning you tested your mother and/or father and you match as expected. Or, you tested another known relative, like a first cousin, for example, and you also match as expected. These known relationships and matches become important in confirming or eliminating other matches and in mapping your own chromosomes to specific ancestors.
  2. A triangulated match to at least two others who share the same distant ancestor. This happens when you match other people whose tree indicates that you share a common ancestor, but they are not previously known to you as family.

Triangulation is the only way you can prove that you do indeed share a common ancestor with someone not previously identified as family.

In essence, triangulation is the process by which you match people who match you genetically with common ancestors through their pedigree charts.  I wrote about the process in this article “Triangulation for Autosomal DNA.”

To prove that you share a common ancestor with another individual, the DNA of  three proven descendants of that common ancestor must match at the same location.  I should add a little * to this and the small print would say, “ on relatively large segments.”  That little * is rather controversial, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit.  This leads us to the next step, which is if you’re a fourth person, and you match all three of those other people on that same segment, then you too share that common ancestor.  This is the process by which adoptees and those who are searching for the identity of a parent work through their matches to work forward in time from common ancestors to, hopefully, identify candidates for individuals who could be their parents.

Why do we need to do this?  Isn’t just matching our DNA and seeing a common ancestor in a pedigree chart with one person enough?  No, it isn’t.  I recently wrote about a situation where I had a match with someone and discovered that even though we didn’t know it, and still don’t know exactly how, we unquestionably share two different ancestral lines.

When you look at someone’s pedigree chart, you may see immediately that you share more than one ancestral line.  Your shared DNA could come from either line, both lines, or neither line – meaning from an unidentified common ancestor.  In genealogy parlance, those are known as brick walls!

Blaine Bettinger wrote about this scenario in his now classic article, “Everyone Has Two Family Trees – A Genealogical Tree and a Genetic Tree.”

Proving a Match

The only way to prove that you actually do share a genealogy relative with someone that is not a known family member is to triangulate.  This means searching other matches with the same ancestral surname, preferably finding someone with the same proven ancestral tree, and confirming that the three of you not only share matching DNA, but all three share the same matching DNA segments.  This means that you share the same ancestor.

Triangulation itself is a two-step process followed by a third step of mapping your own DNA so that you know where various segments came from.  The first two triangulation steps are discovering that you match other people on a common segment(s) and then determining if the matches also match each other on those same segments.

Both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, as vendors have provided ways to do most of this.  www.gedmatch.com and www.dnagedcom.com both augment the vendor offerings.  Ancestry provides no tools of this type – which is, of course, what has precipitated the chromosome browser war.

Let’s look at how the vendors products work in actual practice.

Family Tree DNA

1. Chromosome browser – do they match you?

Family Tree DNA makes it easy to see who you match in common with someone else in their matching tool, by utilizing the ICW crossed X icon.

chromosome browser war13

In the above example, I am seeing who I match in common with my mother.  Sure enough, our three known cousins are the closest matches, shown below.

chromosome browser war14

You can then push up to 5 individuals through to the chromosome browser to see where they match the participant.

The following chromosome browser is an example of a 4 person match showing up on the Family Tree DNA chromosome browser.

This example shows known cousins matching.  But this is exactly the same scenario you’re looking for when you are matching previously unknown cousins – the exact same technique.

In this example, I am the participant, so these matches are matches to me and my chromosome is the background chromosome displayed.  I have switched from my mother’s side to known cousins on my father’s side.

chromosome browser war1

The chromosome browser shows that these three cousins all match the person whose chromosomes are being shown (me, in this case), but it doesn’t tell you if they also match each other.  With known cousins, it’s very unlikely (in my case) that someone would match me from my mother’s side, and someone from my father’s side, but when you’re working with unknown cousins, it’s certainly possible.  If your parents are from the same core population, like Germans or an endogamous population, you may well have people who match you on both sides of your family.  Simply put, you can’t assume they don’t.

It’s also possible that the match is a genuine genealogical match, but you don’t happen to match on the exact same segments, so the ancestor can’t yet be confirmed until more cousins sharing that same ancestral line are found who do match, and it’s possible that some segments could be IBS, identical by state, meaning matches by chance, especially small segments, below the match threshold.

2. Matrix – do they match each other?

Family Tree DNA also provides a tool called the Matrix where you can see if all of the people who match on the same segment, also match each other at some place on their DNA.

chromosome browser war2

The Matrix tool measures the same level of DNA as the default chromosome browser, so in the situation I’m using for an example, there is no issue.  However, if you drop the threshold of the match level, you may well, and in this case, you will, find matches well below the match threshold.  They are shown as matches because they have at least one segment above the match threshold.  If you don’t have at least one segment above the threshold, you’ll never see these smaller matches.  Just to show you what I mean, this is the same four people, above, with the threshold lowered to 1cM.  All those little confetti pieces of color are smaller matches.

chromosome browser war3

At Family Tree DNA, the match threshold is about 7cM.  Each of the vendors has a different threshold and a different way of calculating that threshold.

The only reason I mention this is because if you DON’T match with someone on the matrix, but you also show matches at smaller segments, understand that matrix is not reporting on those, so matrix matches are not negative proof, only positive indications – when you do match, both on the chromosome browser and utilizing the matrix tool.

What you do know at this point is that these individuals all match you on the same segments, and that they match each other someplace on their chromosomes, but what you don’t know is if they match each other on the same locations where they match you.

If you are lucky and your matches are cousins or experienced genetic genealogists and are willing to take a look at their accounts, they can tell you if they match the other people on the same segments where they match you – but that’s the only way to know unless they are willing to download their raw data file to GedMatch.  At GedMatch, you can adjust the match thresholds to any level you wish and you can compare one-to-one kits to see where any two kits who have provided you with their kit number match each other.

3. Downloading data – mapping your chromosome.

The “download to Excel” function at Family Tree DNA, located just above the chromosome browser graphic, on the left, provides you with the matching data of the individuals shown on the chromosome browser with their actual segment data shown. (The download button on the right downloads all of your matches, not just the ones shown in the browser comparison.)

The spreadsheet below shows the downloaded data for these four individuals.  You can see on chromosome 15 (yellow) there are three distinct segments that match (pink, yellow and blue,) which is exactly what is reflected on the graphic browser as well.

chromosome browser war4

On the spreadsheet below, I’ve highlighted, in red, the segments which appeared on the original chromosome browser – so these are only the matches at or over the match threshold.

chromosome browser war5

As you can see, there are 13 in total.

Smaller Segments

Up to this point, the process I’ve shared is widely accepted as the gold standard.

In the genetic genealogy community, there are very divergent opinions on how to treat segments below the match threshold, or below even 10cM.  Some people “throw them away,” in essence, disregard them entirely.  Before we look at a real life example, let’s talk about the challenges with small segments.

When smaller segments match, along with larger segments, I don’t delete them, throw them away, or disregard them.  I believe that they are tools and each one carries a message for us.  Those messages can be one of four things.

  1. This is a valid IBD, meaning identical by descent, match where the segment has been passed from one specific ancestor to all of the people who match and can be utilized as such.
  2. This is an IBS match, meaning identical by state, and is called that because we can’t yet identify the common ancestor, but there is one. So this is actually IBD but we can’t yet identify it as such. With more matches, we may well be able to identify it as IBD, but if we throw it away, we never get that chance. As larger data bases and more sophisticated software become available, these matches will fall into place.
  3. This is an IBS match that is a false match, meaning the DNA segments that we receive from our father and mother just happen to align in a way that matches another person. Generally these are relatively easy to determine because the people you match won’t match each other. You also won’t tend to match other people with the same ancestral line, so they will tend to look like lone outliers on your match spreadsheets, but not always.
  4. This is an IBS match that is population based. These are much more difficult to determine, because this is a segment that is found widely in a population. The key to determining these pileup areas, as discussed in the Ancestry article about their new phasing technique, if that you will find this same segment matching different proven lineages. This is the reason that Ancestry has implemented phasing – to identify and remove these match regions from your matches. Ancestry provided a graphic of my pileup areas, although they did not identify for me where on my chromosomes these pileup regions occurred. I do have some idea however, because I’ve found a couple of areas where I have matches from my mother’s side of the family from different ancestors – so these areas must be IBS on a population level. That does not, however, make them completely irrelevant.

genome pileups

The challenge, and problem, is where to make the cutoff when you’re eliminating match areas based on phased data.  For example, I lost all of my Acadian matches at Ancestry.  Of course, you would expect an endogamous population to share lots of the same DNA – and there are a huge number of Acadian descendants today – they are in fact a “population,” but those matches are (were) still useful to me.

I utilize Acadian matches from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe to label that part of my chromosome “Acadian” even if I can’t track it to a specific Acadian ancestor, yet.  I do know from which of my mother’s ancestors it originated, her great-grandfather, who is her Acadian ancestor.  Knowing that much is useful as well.

The same challenge exists for other endogamous groups – people with Jewish, Mennonite/Brethren/Amish, Native American and African American heritage searching for their mixed race roots arising from slavery.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this problem exists for anyone looking for ancestors beyond the 5th or 6th generation, because segments inherited from those ancestors, if there are any, will probably be small and fall below the generally accepted match thresholds.  The only way you will be able to find them, today, is the unlikely event that there is one larger segments, and it leads you on a search, like the case with Sarah Hickerson.

I want to be very clear – if you’re looking for only “sure thing” segments – then the larger the matching segment, the better the odds that it’s a sure thing, a positive, indisputable, noncontroversial match.  However, if you’re looking for ancestors in the distant past, in the 5th or 6th generation or further, you’re not likely to find sure thing matches and you’ll have to work with smaller segments. It’s certainly preferable and easier to work with large matches, but it’s not always possible.

In the Ralph and Coop paper, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry Across Europe, they indicated that people who matched on segments of 10cM or larger were more likely to have a common ancestor with in the past 500 years.  Blocks of 4cM or larger were estimated to be from populations from 500-1500 years ago.  However, we also know that there are indeed sticky segments that get passed intact from generation to generation, and also that some segments don’t get divided in a generation, they simply disappear and aren’t passed on at all.  I wrote about this in my article titled, Generational Inheritance.

Another paper by Durand et al, Reducing pervasive false positive identical-by-descent segments detected by large-scale pedigree analysis, showed that 67% of the 2-4cM segments were false positives.  Conversely, that also means that 33% of the 2-4cM segments were legitimate IBD segments.

Part of the disagreement within the genetic genealogy community is based on a difference in goals.  People who are looking for the parents of adoptees are looking first and primarily as “sure thing” matches and the bigger the match segment, of course, the better because that means the people are related more closely in time.  For them, smaller segments really are useless.  However, for people who know their recent genealogy and are looking for those brick wall ancestors, several generations back in time, their only hope is utilizing those smaller segments.  This not black and white but shades of grey.  One size does not fit all.  Nor is what we know today the end of the line.  We learn every single day and many of our learning experiences are by working through our own unique genealogical situations – and sharing our discoveries.

On this next spreadsheet, you can see the smaller segments surrounding the larger segments – in other words, in the same match cluster – highlighted in green.  These are the segments that would be discarded as invalid if you were drawing the line at the match threshold.  Some people draw it even higher, at 10 cM.  I’m not being critical of their methodology or saying they are wrong.  It may well work best for them, but discarding small segments is not the only approach and other approaches do work, depending on the goals of the researcher.  I want my 33% IBD segments, thank you very much.

All of the segments highlighted in purple match between at least three cousins.  By checking the other cousins accounts, I can validate that they do all match each other as well, even though I can’t tell this through the Family Tree DNA matrix below the matching threshold.  So, I’ve proven these are valid.  We all received them from our common ancestor.

What about the white rows?  Are those valid matches, from a common ancestor?  We don’t have enough information to make that determination today.

chromosome browser war6

Downloading my data, and confirming segments to this common ancestor allows me to map my own chromosomes.  Now, I know that if someone matches me and any of these three cousins on chromosome 15, for example, between 33,335,760 and 58,455,135 – they are, whether they know it or not, descended from our common ancestral line.

In my opinion, I would think it a shame to discount or throw away all of these matches below 7cM, because you would be discounting 39 of your 52 total matches, or 75% of them.  I would be more conservative in assigning my segments with only one cousin match to any ancestor, but I would certainly note the match and hope that if I added other cousins, that segment would be eventually proven as IBD.

I used positively known cousins in this example because there is no disputing the validity of these matches.  They were known as cousins long before DNA testing.

Breaking Down Brick Walls

This is the same technique utilized to break down brick walls – and the more cousins you have tested, so that you can identify the maximum number of chromosome pieces of a particular ancestor – the better.

I used this same technique to identify Sarah Hickerson in my Thanksgiving Day article, utilizing these same cousins, plus several more.

Hey, just for fun, want to see what chromosome 15 looks like in this much larger sample???

In this case, we were trying to break down a brick wall.  We needed to determine if Sarah Hickerson was the mother of Elijah Vannoy.  All of the individuals in the left “Name” column are proven Vannoy cousins from Elijah, or in one case, William, from another child of Sarah Hickerson.  The individuals in the right “Match” column are everyone in the cousin match group plus the people in green who are Hickerson/Higginson descendants.  William, in green, is proven to descend from Sarah Hickerson and her husband, Daniel Vannoy.

chromosome browser war7

The first part of chromosome 15 doesn’t overlap with the rest.  Buster, David and I share another ancestral line as well, so the match in the non-red section of chromosome 15 may well be from that ancestral line.  It becomes an obvious possibility, because none of the people who share the Vannoy/Hickerson/Higginson DNA are in that small match group.

All of the red colored cells do overlap with at least one other individual in that group and together they form a cluster.  The yellow highlighted cells are the ones over the match threshold.  The 6 Hickerson/Higginson descendants are scattered throughout this match group.

And yes, for those who are going to ask, there are many more Vannoy/Hickerson triangulated groups.  This is just one of over 60 matching groups in total, some with matches well above the match threshold. But back to the chromosome browser wars!

23andMe

This example from 23andMe shows why it’s so very important to verify that your matches also match each other.

chromosome browser war8

Blue and purple match segments are to two of the same cousins that I used in the comparison at Family Tree DNA, who are from my father’s side.  Green is my first cousin from my mother’s side.   Note that on chromosome 11, they both match me on a common segment.  I know by working with them that they don’t match each other on that segment, so while they are both related to me, on chromosome 11, it’s not through the same ancestor.  One is from my father’s side and one is from my mother’s side.  If I hadn’t already known that, determining if they matched each other would be the acid test and would separate them into 2 groups.

23andMe provides you with a tool to see who your matches match that you match too.  That’s a tongue twister.

In essence, you can select any individual, meaning you or anyone that you match, on the left hand side of this tool, and compare them to any 5 other people that you match.  In my case above, I compared myself to my cousins, but if I want to know if my cousin on my mother’s side matches my two cousins on my father’s side, I simply select her name on the left and theirs on the right by using the drop down arrows.

chromosome browser war9

I would show you the results, but it’s in essence a blank chromosome browser screen, because she doesn’t match either of them, anyplace, which tells me, if I didn’t already know, that these two matches are from different sides of my family.

However, in other situations, where I match my cousin Daryl, for example, as well as several other people on the same segment, I want to know how many of these people Daryl matches as well.  I can enter Daryl’s name, with my name and their names in the group of 5, and compare.  23andMe facilitates the viewing or download of the results in a matrix as well, along with the segment data.  You can also download your entire list of matches by requesting aggregated data through the link at the bottom of the screen above or the bottom of the chromosome display.

I find it cumbersome to enter each matches name in the search tool and then enter all of the other matches names as well.  By utilizing the tools at www.dnagedcom.com, you can determine who your matches match as well, in common with you, in one spreadsheet.  Here’s an example.  Daryl in the chart below is my match, and this tool shows you who else she matches that I match as well, and the matching segments.  This allows me to correlate my match with Gwen for example, to Daryl’s match to Gwen to see if they are on the same segments.

chromosome browser war10

As you can see, Daryl and I both match Gwen on a common segment.  On my own chromosome mapping spreadsheet, I match several other people as well at that location, at other vendors, but so far, we haven’t been able to find any common genealogy.

Ancestry.com

At Ancestry.com, I have exactly the opposite problem.  I have lots of people I DNA match, and some with common genealogy, but no tools to prove the DNA match is to the common ancestor.

Hence, this is the crux of the chromosome browser wars.  I’ve just showed you how and why we use chromosome browsers and tools to show if our matches match each other in addition to us and on which segments.  I’ve also illustrated why.  Neither 23andMe nor Family Tree DNA provides perfect tools, which is why we utilize both GedMatch and DNAGedcom, but they do provide tools.  Ancestry provides no tools of this type.

At Ancestry, you have two kinds of genetic matches – ones without tree matches and ones with tree matches.  Pedigree matching is a service that Ancestry provides that the other vendors don’t.  Unfortunately, it also leads people to believe that because they match these people genetically and share a tree, that the tree shown is THE genetic match and it’s to the ancestor shown in the tree.  In fact, if the tree is wrong, either your tree or their tree, and you match them genetically, you will show up as a pedigree match as well.  Even if both pedigrees are right, that still doesn’t mean that your genetic match is through that ancestor.

How many bad trees are at Ancestry percentagewise?  I don’t know, but it’s a constant complaint and there is absolutely nothing Ancestry can do about it.  All they can do is utilize what they have, which is what their customers provide.  And I’m glad they do.  It does make the process of working through your matches much easier. It’s a starting point.  DNA matches with trees that also match your pedigree are shown with Ancestry’s infamous shakey leaf.

In fact, in my Sarah Hickerson article, it was a shakey leaf match that initially clued me that there was something afoot – maybe. I had to shift to another platform (Family Tree DNA) to prove the match however, where I had tools and lots of known cousins.

At Ancestry, I now have about 3000 matches in total, and of those, I have 33 shakey leaves – or people with whom I also share an ancestor in our pedigree charts.  A few of those are the same old known cousins, just as genealogy crazy as me, and they’ve tested at all 3 companies.

The fly in the ointment, right off the bat, is that I noticed in several of these matches that I ALSO share another ancestral line.

Now, the great news is that Ancestry shows you your surnames in common, and you can click on the surname and see the common individuals in both trees.

The bad news is that you have to notice and click to see that information, found in the lower left hand corner of this screen.

chromosome browser war11

In this case, Cook is an entirely different line, not connected to the McKee line shown.

However, in this next case, we have the same individual entered in our software, but differently.  It wasn’t close enough to connect as an ancestor, but close enough to note.  It turns out that Sarah Cook is the mother of Fairwick Claxton, but her middle name was not Helloms, nor was her maiden name, although that is a long-standing misconception that was proven incorrect with her husband’s War of 1812 documents many years ago. Unfortunately, this misinformation is very widespread in trees on the internet.

chromosome browser war12

Out of curiosity, and now I’m sorry I did this because it’s very disheartening – I looked to see what James Lee Claxton/Clarkson’s wife’s name was shown to be on the first page of Ancestry’s advanced search matches.

Despite extensive genealogical and DNA research, we don’t know who James Lee Claxton/Clarkson’s parents are, although we’ve disproven several possibilities, including the most popular candidate pre-DNA testing.  However, James’ wife was positively Sarah Cook, as given by her, along with her father’s name, and by witnesses to their marriage provided when she applied for a War of 1812 pension and bounty land.  I have the papers from the National Archives.

James Lee Claxton’s wife, Sara Cook is identified as follows in the first 50 Ancestry search entries.

Sarah Cook – 4

Incorrect entries:

  • Sarah Cook but with James’ parents listed – 3
  • Sarah Helloms Cook – 2, one with James’ parents
  • Sarah Hillhorns – 15
  • Sarah Cook Hitson – 13, some with various parents for James
  • No wife, but various parents listed for James – 12
  • No wife, no parents – 1

I’d much rather see no wife and no parents than incorrect information.

Judy Russell has expressed her concern about the effects of incorrect trees and DNA as well and we shared this concern with Ancestry during our meeting.

Ancestry themselves in their paper titled “Identifying groups of descendants using pedigrees and genetically inferred relationships in a large database” says, “”As with all analyses relating to DNA Circles™, tree quality is also an important caveat and limitation.”  So Ancestry is aware, but they are trying to leverage and utilize one of their biggest assets, their trees.

This brings us to DNA Circles.  I reviewed Ancestry’s new product release extensively in my Ancestry’s Better Mousetrap article.  To recap briefly, Ancestry gathers your DNA matches together, and then looks for common ancestors in trees that are public using an intelligent ranking algorithm that takes into account:

  1. The confidence that the match is due to recent genealogical history (versus a match due to older genealogical history or a false match entirely).
  2. The confidence that the identified common recent ancestor represents the same person in both online pedigrees.
  3. The confidence that the individuals have a match due to the shared ancestor in question as opposed to from another ancestor or from more distant genealogical history.

The key here is that Ancestry is looking for what they term “recent genealogical history.”  In their paper they define this as 10 generations, but the beta version of DNA Circles only looks back 7 generations today.  This was also reflected in their phasing paper, “Discovering IBD matches across a large, growing database.”

However, the unfortunate effect has been in many cases to eliminate matches, especially from endogamous groups.  By way of example, I lost my Acadian matches in the Ancestry new product release.  They would have been more than 7 generations back, and because they were endogamous, they may have “looked like” IBS segments, if IBS is defined at Ancestry as more than 7 or 10 generations back.  Hopefully Ancestry will tweek this algorithm in future releases.

Ancestry, according to their paper, “Identifying groups of descendants using pedigrees and genetically inferred relationships in a large database,” then clusters these remaining matching individuals together in Circles based on their pedigree charts.  You will match some of these people genetically, and some of them will not match you but will match each other.  Again, according to the paper, “these confidence levels are calculated by the direct-line pedigree size, the number of shared ancestral couples and the generational depth of the shared MRCA couple.”

Ancestry notes that, “using the concordance of two independent pieces of information, meaning pedigree relationships and patterns of match sharing among a set of individuals, DNA Circles can serve as supporting evidence for documented pedigree lines.”  Notice, Ancestry did NOT SAY proof.  Nothing that Ancestry provides in their DNA product constitutes proof.

Ancestry continues by saying that Circles “opens the possibility for people to identify distant relatives with whom they do not share DNA directly but with whom they still have genetic evidence supporting the relationship.”

In other words, Ancestry is being very clear in this paper, which is provided on the DNA Circles page for anyone with Circles, that they are giving you a tool, not “the answer,” but one more piece of information that you can consider as evidence.

joel vannoy circleJoel Vannoy circle2

You can see in my Joel Vannoy circle that I match both of these people both genetically and on their tree.

We, in the genetic genealogy community, need proof.  It certainly could be available, technically – because it is with other vendors and third party sites.

We need to be able to prove that our matches also match each other, and utilizing Ancestry’s tools, we can’t.  We also can’t do this at Ancestry by utilizing third party tools, so we’re in essence, stuck.

We can either choose to believe, without substantiation, that we indeed share a common ancestor because we share DNA segments with them plus a pedigree chart from that common ancestor, or we can initiate a conversation with our match that leads to either or both of the following questions:

  1. Have you or would you upload your raw data to GedMatch?
  2. Have you or would you upload your raw data file to Family Tree DNA?

Let the begging begin!!!

The Problem

In a nutshell, the problem is that even if your Ancestry matches do reply and do upload their file to either Family Tree DNA or GedMatch or both, you are losing most of the potential information available, or that would be available, if Ancestry provided a chromosome browser and matrix type tool.

In other words, you’d have to convince all of your matches and then they would have to convince all of the matches in the circle that they match and you don’t to upload their files.

Given that, of the 44 private tree shakey leaf matches that I sent messages to about 2 weeks ago, asking only for them to tell me the identity of our common pedigree ancestor, so far 2 only of them have replied, the odds of getting an entire group of people to upload files is infinitesimal.  You’d stand a better chance of winning the lottery.

One of the things Ancestry excels at is marketing.

ancestry ad1

If you’ve seen any of their ads, and they are everyplace, they focus on the “feel good” and they are certainly maximizing the warm fuzzy feelings at the holidays and missing those generations that have gone before us.

ancestry ad2

This is by no means a criticism, but it is why so many people do take the Ancestry DNA test. It’s advertised as easy and you’ll learn more about your family.  And you do, no question – you learn about your ethnicity and you get a list of DNA matches, pedigree matches when possible and DNA Circles.

The list of what you don’t get is every bit as important, a chromosome browser and tools to see whether your matches also match each other.  However, most of their customers will never know that.

Judging by the high percentage of inaccurate trees I found at Ancestry in my little experiment relative to the known and documented wife’s name of James Lee Claxton, which was 96%, based on just the first page of 50 search matches, it would appear that about 96% of Ancestry’s clientele are willing to believe something that someone else tells them without verification.  I doubt that it matters whether that information is a tree or a DNA test where they are shown  matches with common pedigree charts and circles.  I don’t mean this to be critical of those people.  We all began as novices and we need new people to become interested in both genealogy and DNA testing.

I suspect that most of Ancestry’s clients, especially new ones, simply don’t have a clue that there is a problem, let alone the magnitude and scope.  How would they?  They are just happy to find information about their ancestor.  And as someone said to me once – “but there are so many of those trees (with a wrong wife’s name), how can they all be wrong?”  Plus, the ads, at least some of them, certainly suggest that the DNA test grows your family tree for you.

ancestry ad3 signoff

The good news in all of this is that Ancestry’s widespread advertising has made DNA testing just part of the normal things that genealogists do.  Their marketing expertise along with recent television programs have served to bring DNA testing into the limelight. The bad news is that if people test at Ancestry instead of at a vendor who provides tools, we, and they, lose the opportunity to utilize those results to their fullest potential.  We, and they, lose any hope of proving an ancestor utilizing DNA.  And let’s face it, DNA testing and genealogy is about collaboration.  Having a DNA test that you don’t compare against others is pointless for genealogy purposes.

When a small group of bloggers and educators visited Ancestry in October, 2014, for what came to be called DNA Day, we discussed the chromosome browser and Ancestry’s plans for their new DNA Circles product, although it had not yet been named at that time.  I wrote about that meeting, including the fact that we discussed the need for a chromosome browser ad nauseum.  Needless to say, there was no agreement between the genetic genealogy community and the Ancestry folks.

When we discussed the situation with Ancestry they talked about privacy and those types of issues, which you can read about in detail in that article, but I suspect, strongly, that the real reason they aren’t keen on developing a chromosome browser lies in different areas.

  1. Ancestry truly believes that people cannot understand and utilize a chromosome browser and the information it provides. They believe that people who do have access to chromosome browsers are interpreting the results incorrectly today.
  2. They do not want to implement a complex feature for a small percentage of their users…the number bantered around informally was 5%…and I don’t know if that was an off-the-cuff number or based on market research. However, if you compare that number with the number of accurate versus inaccurate pedigree charts in my “James Claxton’s wife’s name” experiment, it’s very close…so I would say that the 5% number is probably close to accurate.
  3. They do not want to increase their support burden trying to explain the results of a chromosome browser to the other 95%. Keep in mind the number of users you’re discussing. They said in their paper they had 500,000 DNA participants. I think it’s well over 700,000 today, and they clearly expect to hit 1 million in 2015. So if you utilize a range – 5% of their users are 25,000-50,000 and 95% of their users are 475,000-950,000.
  4. Their clients have already paid their money for the test, as it is, and there is no financial incentive for Ancestry to invest in an add-on tool from which they generate no incremental revenue and do generate increased development and support costs. The only benefit to them is that we shut up!

So, the bottom line is that most of Ancestry’s clients don’t know or care about a chromosome browser.  There are, however, a very noisy group of us who do.

Many of Ancestry’s clients who purchase the DNA test do so as an impulse purchase with very little, if any, understanding of what they are purchasing, what it can or will do for them, at Ancestry or anyplace else, for that matter.

Any serious genealogist who researched the autosomal testing products would not make Ancestry their only purchase, especially if they could only purchase one test.  Many, if not most, serious genealogists have tested at all three companies in order to fish in different ponds and maximize their reach.  I suspect that most of Ancestry’s customers are looking for simple and immediate answers, not tools and additional work.

The flip side of that, however, if that we are very aware of what we, the genetic genealogy industry needs, and why, and how frustratingly lacking Ancestry’s product is.

Company Focus

It’s easy for us as extremely passionate and focused consumers to forget that all three companies are for-profit corporations.  Let’s take a brief look at their corporate focus, history and goals, because that tells a very big portion of the story.  Every company is responsible first and foremost to their shareholders and owners to be profitable, as profitable as possible which means striking the perfect balance of investment and expenditure with frugality.  In corporate America, everything has to be justified by ROI, or return on investment.

Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA was the first one of the companies to offer DNA testing and was formed in 1999 by Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, both still principles who run Family Tree DNA, now part of Gene by Gene, on a daily basis.  Family Tree DNA’s focus is only on genetic genealogy and they have a wide variety of products that produce a spectrum of information including various Y DNA tests, mitochondrial, autosomal, and genetic traits.  They are now the only commercial company to offer the Y STR and mitochondrial DNA tests, both very important tools for genetic genealogists, with a great deal of information to offer about our ancestors.

In April 2005, National Geographic’s Genographic project was announced in partnership with Family Tree DNA and IBM.  The Genographic project, was scheduled to last for 5 years, but is now in its 9th year.  Family Tree DNA and National Geographic announced Geno 2.0 in July of 2012 with a newly designed chip that would test more than 12,000 locations on the Y chromosome, in addition to providing other information to participants.

The Genographic project provided a huge boost to genetic genealogy because it provided assurance of legitimacy and brought DNA testing into the living room of every family who subscribed to National Geographic magazine.  Family Tree DNA’s partnership with National Geographic led to the tipping point where consumer DNA testing became mainstream.

In 2011 the founders expanded the company to include clinical genetics and a research arm by forming Gene by Gene.  This allowed them, among other things, to bring their testing in house by expanding their laboratory facilities.  They have continued to increase their product offerings to include sophisticated high end tests like the Big Y, introduced in 2013.

23andMe

23andMe is also privately held and began offering testing for medical and health information in November 2007, initially offering “estimates of predisposition for more than 90 traits ranging from baldness to blindness.”  Their corporate focus has always been in the medical field, with aggregated customer data being studied by 23andMe and other researchers for various purposes.

In 2009, 23andMe began to offer the autosomal test for genealogists, the first company to provide this service.  Even though, by today’s standards, it was very expensive, genetic genealogists flocked to take this test.

In 2013, after several years of back and forth with 23andMe ultimately failing to reply to the FDA, the FDA forced 23andMe to stop providing the medical results.  Clients purchasing the 23andMe autosomal product since November of 2013 receive only ethnicity results and the genealogical matching services.

In 2014, 23andMe has been plagued by public relations issues and has not upgraded significantly nor provided additional tools for the genetic genealogy community, although they recently formed a liaison with My Heritage.

23andMe is clearly focused on genetics, but not primarily genetic genealogy, and their corporate focus during this last year in particular has been, I suspect, on how to survive, given the FDA action.  If they steer clear of that landmine, I expect that we may see great things in the realm of personalized medicine from them in the future.

Genetic genealogy remains a way for them to attract people to increase their data base size for research purposes.  Right now, until they can again begin providing health information, genetic genealogists are the only people purchasing the test, although 23andMe may have other revenue sources from the research end of the business

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is a privately held company.  They were founded in the 1990s and have been through several ownership and organizational iterations, which you can read about in the wiki article about Ancestry.

During the last several years, Ancestry has purchased several other genealogy companies and is now the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world.  That’s either wonderful or terrible, depending on your experiences and perspective.

Ancestry has had an on-again-off-again relationship with DNA testing since 2002, with more than one foray into DNA testing and subsequent withdrawal from DNA testing.  If you are interested in the specifics, you can read about them in this article.

Ancestry’s goal, as it is with all companies, is profitability.  However, they have given themselves a very large black eye in the genetic genealogy community by doing things that we consider to be civically irresponsible, like destroying the Y and mitochondrial DNA data bases.  This still makes no sense, because while Ancestry spends money on one hand to acquire data bases and digitize existing records, on the other hand, they wiped out a data base containing tens of thousands of irreplaceable DNA records, which are genealogy records of a different type.  This was discussed at DNA Day and the genetic genealogy community retains hope that Ancestry is reconsidering their decision.

Ancestry has been plagued by a history of missteps and mediocrity in their DNA products, beginning with their Y and mitochondrial DNA products and continuing with their autosomal product.  Their first autosomal release included ethnicity results that gave many people very high percentages of Scandinavian heritage.  Ancestry never acknowledged a problem and defended their product to the end…until the day when they announced an update titled….a whole new you.  They are marketing geniuses.  While many people found their updated product much more realistic, not everyone was happy.  Judy Russell wrote a great summary of the situation.

It’s difficult, once a company has lost their credibility, for them to regain it.

I think Ancestry does a bang up job of what their primary corporate goal is….genealogy records and subscriptions for people to access those records. I’m a daily user.  Today, with their acquisitions, it would be very difficult to be a serious genealogist without an Ancestry subscription….which is of course what their corporate goal has been.

Ancestry does an outstanding job of making everything look and appear easy.  Their customer interface is intuitive and straightforward, for the most part. In fact, maybe they have made both genealogy and genetic genealogy look a little too easy.  I say this tongue in cheek, full well knowing that the ease of use is how they attract so many people, and those are the same people who ultimately purchase the DNA tests – but the expectation of swabbing and the answer appearing is becoming a problem.  I’m glad that Ancestry has brought DNA testing to so many people but this success makes tools like the chromosome browser/matrix that much more important – because there is so much genealogy information there just waiting to be revealed.  I also feel that their level of success and visibility also visits upon them the responsibility for transparency and accuracy in setting expectations properly – from the beginning – with the ads. DNA testing does not “grow your tree” while you’re away.

I’m guessing Ancestry entered the DNA market again because they saw a way to sell an additional product, autosomal DNA testing, that would tie people’s trees together and provide customers with an additional tool, at an additional price, and give them yet another reason to remain subscribed every year.  Nothing wrong with that either.  For the owners, a very reasonable tactic to harness a captive data base whose ear you already have.

But Ancestry’s focus or priority is not now, and never has been, quality, nor genetic genealogy.  Autosomal DNA testing is a tool for their clients, a revenue generation source for them, and that’s it.  Again, not a criticism.  Just the way it is.

In Summary

As I look at the corporate focus of the three players in this space, I see three companies who are indeed following their corporate focus and vision.  That’s not a bad thing, unless the genetic genealogy community focus finds itself in conflict with the results of their corporate focus.

It’s no wonder that Family Tree DNA sponsors events like the International DNA Conference and works hand in hand with genealogists and project administrators.  Their focus is and always has been genetic genealogy.

People do become very frustrated with Family Tree DNA from time to time, but just try to voice those frustrations to upper management at either 23andMe or Ancestry and see how far you get.  My last helpdesk query to 23andMe submitted on October 24th has yet to receive any reply.  At Family Tree DNA, I e-mailed the project administrator liaison today, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, hoping for a response on Monday – but I received one just a couple hours later – on a holiday weekend.

In terms of the chromosome browser war – and that war is between the genetic genealogy community and Ancestry.com, I completely understand both positions.

The genetic genealogy community has been persistent, noisy, and united.  Petitions have been created and signed and sent to Ancestry upper management.  To my knowledge, confirmation of any communications surrounding this topic with the exception of Ancestry reaching out to the blogging and education community, has never been received.

This lack of acknowledgement and/or action on the issues at hand frustrates the community terribly and causes reams of rather pointed and very direct replies to Anna Swayne and other Ancestry employees who are charged with interfacing with the public.  I actually feel sorry for Anna.  She is a very nice person.  If I were in her position, I’d certainly be looking for another job and letting someone else take the brunt of the dissatisfaction.  You can read her articles here.

I also understand why Ancestry is doing what they are doing – meaning their decision to not create a chromosome browser/match matrix tool.  It makes sense if you sit in their seat and now have to look at dealing with almost a million people who will wonder why they have to use a chromosome browser and or other tools when they expected their tree to grow while they were away.

I don’t like Ancestry’s position, even though I understand it, and I hope that we, as a community, can help justify the investment to Ancestry in some manner, because I fully believe that’s the only way we’ll ever get a chromosome browser/match matrix type tool.  There has to be a financial benefit to Ancestry to invest the dollars and time into that development, as opposed to something else.  It’s not like Ancestry has additional DNA products to sell to these people.  The consumers have already spent their money on the only DNA product Ancestry offers, so there is no incentive there.

As long as Ancestry’s typical customer doesn’t know or care, I doubt that development of a chromosome browser will happen unless we, as a community, can, respectfully, be loud enough, long enough, like an irritating burr in their underwear that just won’t go away.

burr

The Future

What we “know” and can do today with our genomes far surpasses what we could do or even dreamed we could do 10 years ago or even 5 or 2 years ago.  We learn everyday.

Yes, there are a few warts and issues to iron out.  I always hesitate to use words like “can’t,” “never” and “always” or to use other very strongly opinionated or inflexible words, because those words may well need to be eaten shortly.

There is so much more yet to be done, discovered and learned.  We need to keep open minds and be willing to “unlearn” what we think we knew when new and better information comes along.  That’s how scientific discovery works.  We are on the frontier, the leading edge and yes, sometimes the bleeding edge.  But what a wonderful place to be, to be able to contribute to discovery on a new frontier, our own genes and the keys to our ancestors held in our DNA.

Family Tree DNA Surpasses the Million Test Mark

Family-Tree-DNA logo

Family Tree DNA, the genetic genealogy arm of Gene by Gene, announced today in a press release that it has processed over 1,000,000 DNA test kits results for genealogy and anthropology purposes.

This historic amount includes Family Tree DNA’s tests as well the processing of public participation samples for National Geographic’s Genographic Projects genetic testing partner.

The million-test milestone was reached this week during the company’s Father’s Day sale, which includes the Family Finder test currently discounted to the price of $79 and the Big Y at $595.  So if you purchased one of these tests this week, you could have been that historic millionth person!

The press release goes on to say:

Family Tree DNA offers the widest range of DNA testing services in the field of genetic genealogy.  The company prides itself on its commitment to the practice of solid, ethical science. Family Tree DNA has the largest database in the world for matching purposes, which means increased chances of finding long lost relatives. In that regard, Family Tree DNA is an important resource for the three million people in the United States who either were adopted or descend from adoptees.

Founded in 2000, Gene By Gene, Ltd. is a CAP-accredited and CLIA-registered genetic testing company that serves consumers, researchers, and physicians. Gene by Gene offers a wide range of regulated clinical diagnostic tests, as well as research use only (RUO) tests. The Family Tree DNA division of Gene by Gene is a pioneer and leader in DNA testing for genealogy and ancestry. The company operates the largest genetic genealogy database in the world and has provided more than 5 million discrete genetic tests.

It seems like only yesterday that I ordered kit 6656, but it was December of 2002, nearly a dozen years ago.  On New Year’s Eve of 2005, right at midnight, I ordered kit 50,000.  The genetic genealogy community was very excited at that milestone as well.  Eight and a half years later, one million.  It took Family Tree DNA 3 years, from 2002 to 2005, to sell 43,000 kits, or about 14,500 kits per year.  Between 2005 and today, they have sold another 950,000 kits, or just over 100,000 per year, on average.

The 5 million number also suggests that the average client has purchased 5 different tests or upgrades, per kit.  In my case, that’s true because I began purchasing when only the HVR region of mtDNA was available, so I’ve upgraded several times and purchased every test or upgrade Family Tree DNA has ever offered.  All in the unquenchable thirst to learn more about my ancestors.

Congratulations Family Tree DNA on this historic and important milestone.  May your second million happen quickly and include a lot of my relatives:)

Mitochondrial DNA Results from the Big Y Test

Say what? Mitochondrial results from a Y DNA test? You must be kidding? It’s April Fool’s Day, right???

“Not funny,” you say…

Keep reading:)

Felix’s Thought Logs, by Felix Chandrakumar, a software engineer from Australia, ran a nice article about the deliverable report from a company called YFull that does an analysis of the output of the fully sequenced Y chromosome files from either Family Tree DNA (Big Y) or Full Genomes (Full Y). I did find this report very interesting, but having said this, I would NOT go so far as to recommend this service. It’s free, and I know that’s enticing, but there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

YFull lists no terms of service. What are they doing with the DNA results, other than analyzing them for you? Are they also processing or retaining them in some other manner, for something else? There has to be a benefit of some sort to YFull, and they don’t tell us what that is. You can read more about YFull here. The YFull service is located in Moscow, Russia.

Until I fully understand what is being done with the files and results, I certainly will never recommend anyone send files to an unknown foreign entity under uncertain circumstances. Furthermore, Russia is outside the legal reach of people in the US if a dispute arises. There is no available recourse. Looking at the owners, and the websites they are involved with, are the DNA results being incorporated into those sites? Again, without terms of service and full disclosure, as consumers, we have no way of knowing.

Now that we have that housekeeping out of the way, let’s take a look at a very unusual report.

When reviewing Felix’s YFull results, I was very surprised to notice one screen in particular – his mitochondrial DNA.

Felix mito

This, of course, begs the question of how, on a Y chromosome test, can one obtain mitochondrial DNA results? To the best of my knowledge, there is no mitochondria on the Y chromosome.

mito y nucleus

In fact, the mitochondrial isn’t even in the cell nucleus with the X and Y chromosomes – it’s outside. So, how can the Y test be returning mitochondrial results?

I turned to Dr. David Mittelman, PhD, geneticist and Chief Scientific Officer for Gene by Gene, parent company of Family Tree DNA for answers.

Dr. Mittelman has been gracious enough to provide insights into how this happens.  See, no April Fools joke afterall!

Q. Dr. Mittelman, can you please confirm that the mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome are completely separate entities?

A. The mtDNA and Y chromosome are still separate entities 🙂

Q. Then how are mitochondrial DNA results being returned in conjunction with the Big Y test?

A. When you perform capture sequencing, you enrich for specific targets (in this case, the Y chromosome) but enrichment means you also get trace amounts of other sequences in the genome.

Q. Are these mitochondrial results high quality? Does the Big Y test cover all 16,569 mitochondrial DNA locations, like the full mitochondrial sequence test?

A.These mitochondrial results do not represent a high quality, high coverage sequence; and it does not give you the full mtDNA sequence — however in many cases you get enough markers to assign a haplogroup. You would probably prefer the complete sequence, however, if you want to use mtDNA for genealogical matching. Furthermore, since these are incidental findings, they are not reported on your mitochondrial page at Family Tree DNA, so no matching is possible. Only the specific mitochondrial tests designed for complete mitochondrial DNA coverage are reported on your personal page as results.

Q. If there are mitochondrial insertions, deletions or heteroplasmies, will the Big Y test be able to “see” those?

A. Yes but again the biggest limitation is coverage. At lower coverage and with fewer high quality reads, it is harder to resolve heteroplasmies and even some insertions and deletions. The BigY does not contain enough information to fully characterize all your variants in your mtDNA sequence, which is why we do not advertise it as such. It is exciting, however, to see that others are trying to extract value from the data. That is a key reason we make the raw data available. We are eager to see what complementary tools and insights other folks come up with.

Q. So, from what you’re saying, it sounds like the Big Y sequencing process may return an indeterminate amount of mitochondrial information, but it should not be relied upon as there is no guarantee that it is accurate or complete. In other words, they are simply incidental findings that are included coincidentally. Haplogroups predicted from this information may be incorrect or incomplete based on the quality or lack thereof of the incidental mtDNA data.

A. Certainly we did not design BigY to return your mtDNA sequence and I have not personally reviewed the accuracy of YFull, but it is possible for some customers to get some bonus mtDNA data. I think to gain more clarity it would be valuable to compare mtDNA data from the BigY to high quality, full mtDNA sequence from the same customers. Comparing that data would tell us more about the accuracy and value.

Following up on Dr. Mittelman’s suggestion, I checked with Felix about the accuracy of his mitochondrial results.

Felix has had his full mitochondrial sequence tested at Family Tree DNA. He reported that the YFull report found all of his 31 mutations, except for one in the coding region, and that another mutation, 315.1 was reported as 310. His haplogroup is accurate, but if some of the mutations missed were haplogroup defining mutations, it certainly could be, and probably would be estimated incorrectly. Not at all bad though, for an incidental freebie!

I want to thank Felix for being gracious enough to allow me to use his mtDNA results and Dr. Mittelman for his insights.

 

Houston Chronicle Article Features Gene by Gene Founders

On Sunday, March 16th, 2014, the Houston Chronicle features an article about Houston’s own entrepreneurs, Max Blankfeld and Bennett Greenspan who founded Gene by Gene, parent company of Family Tree DNA.  Below, in a photo from the Chronicle, they hold samples of DNA trayed and ready to run in their Gene by Gene lab.

Max and Bennett

How many of you know that the pair began as a photographic film salesman and a watchmaker?  This just proves what passion and innovation can and will do.  Impossible is not a word either man knows.

Begun in 2000 as a retirement business, today Family Tree DNA has tested over 600,000 people directly and another half a million people through National Geographic through the Genographic and Geno 2.0 projects.

Their business model: Buy what you can afford. Don’t hire anyone you might have to lay off. Invest in automation and technology.

This seems to be working, as they are profitable and have provided a total of over 5 million discrete tests, between Family Tree DNA and the other Gene by Gene testing companies which provide medical and paternity testing.

The story of how the company began is legendary in DNA circles.  Bennett Greenspan, a frustrated genealogist who had hit a dead end approached Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona.  One might suggest that approached isn’t really the correct word.  Hounded might be better.  Bennett understood that his Y chromosome would match that of someone else who shared a paternal ancestor, and he wanted to find a lab to do that test.  Michael Hammer finally simply acquiesced to get rid of Bennett, with the now infamous throw away line, “You know, someone should start a business doing this.”  Never, never say that to an entrepreneur.

As reported in the Chronicle, reflectively, Dr. Hammer, an adviser to Gene by Gene and a regular speaker at the Family Tree DNA annual genetics conference, says today, “It was just the right time, right place. No one thought this was going to turn into anything.”  Michael had obviously never met a man like Bennett.

I’ve known Bennett for 13 or 14 years now.  It’s easy to see him as a successful businessman.  But to know Bennett is to remember that he is truly a genealogist at heart, and everything he does with Family Tree DNA has genealogy as its heart and soul.  If you walk into his office, you will be immediately reminded of this fact, and it’s hard to see Bennett as anything else other than one of us – just a kind-hearted genealogist seeking answers.  In the photo below from the Chronicle, Bennett stands in front of his ancestor timeline which resides on his office wall.  I wonder how many of these ancestors he has represented by DNA haplogroups today.

Bennett in office

Thank you so much Bennett, for pushing that envelope, hounding Dr. Hammer and birthing genetic genealogy.  Today, Max and Bennett are truly shepherding consumer genetics to the next step.

“We took science that was performed in a stuffy lab and brought it into the general public,” Greenspan said.

Thank Heavens they did.  We are all the beneficiaries.

To read the rest of the article and for more photos, click here.

STRs vs SNPs, Multiple DNA Personalities

One of the questions I receive rather regularly is about the difference between STRs and SNPs.

Generally, what people really want to understand is the difference between the products, and a basic answer is really all they want.  I explain that an STR or Short Tandem Repeat is a different kind of a mutation than a SNP or a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism.  STRs are useful genealogically, to determine to whom you match within a recent timeframe, of say, the past 500 years or so, and SNPs define haplogroups which reach much further back in time.  Furthermore SNPs are considered “once in a lifetime,” or maybe better stated, “once in the lifetime of mankind” type of events, known as a UEP, Unique Event Polymorphism, where STRs happen “all the time,” in every haplogroup.  In fact, this is why you can check for the same STR markers in every haplogroup – those markers we all know and love.

STR

This was a pretty good explanation for a long time but as sequencing technology has improved and new tests have become available, such as the Full Y and Big Y tests, new mutations are being very rapidly discovered which blurs the line between the timeframes that had been used to separate these types of tests.  In fact, now they are overlapping in time, so SNPs are, in some cases becoming genealogically useful.  This also means that these newly discovered family SNPs are relatively new, meaning they only occurred between the current generation and 1000 years ago, so we should not expect to find huge numbers of these newly developed mutations in the population.  For example, if the SNP that defined haplogroup R1b1a2, M269, occurred 15,000 years ago in one man, his descendants have had 15,000 years to procreate and pass his M269 on down the line(s), something they have done very successfully since about half of Europe is either M269 or a subclade.

Each subclade has a SNP all its own.  In fact, each subclade is defined by a specific SNP that forms its own branch of the human Y haplotree.

So far, so good.

But what does a SNP or an STR really look like, I mean, in the raw data?  How do you know that you’re seeing one or the other?

Like Baseball – 4 Bases

The smallest units of DNA are made up of 4 base nucleotides, DNA words, that are represented by the following letters:

A = Adenine
C = Cytosine
G = Guanine
T = Thymine

TACG

These nucleotides combine in pairs to form the ladder rungs of DNA, shown right that connect the helix backbones.  T typically combines with A and C usually combines with G, reaching between the backbones of the double helix to connect with their companion protein in the center.

You don’t need to remember the words or even the letters, just remember that we are looking for pattern matches of segments of DNA.

Point Mutations

Your DNA when represented on paper looks like a string of beads where there are 4 kinds of beads, each representing one of the nucleotides above.  One segment of your DNA might look like this:

Indel example 1

If this is what the standard or reference sequence for your haplotype (your personal DNA results) or your family haplogroup (ancestral clan) looks like, then a mutation would be defined as any change, addition, or deletion.  A change would be if the first A above were to change to T or G or C as in the example below:

Indel example 2

A deletion would be noticed if the leading A were simply gone.

Indel example 3

An addition of course would be if a new bead were inserted in the sequence at that location.

Indel example 4

All of the above changes involve only one location.  These are all known as Point Mutations, because they occur at one single point.

SNPs

A point mutation may or may not be a SNP.  A SNP is defined by geneticists as a point mutation that is found in more than 1% of the population.  This should tell you right away that when we say “we’ve discovered a new SNP,” we’re really mis-applying that term, because until we determine that the frequency which it is found in the population is over the 1% threshold, it really isn’t a SNP, but is still considered a point mutation or binary polymorphism.

Today, when SNPS, or point mutations are discovered, they are considered “private mutations” or “family mutations.”  There has been consternation for some time about how to handle these types of situations.  ISOGG has set forth their criteria on their website.  They currently have the most comprehensive tree, but they certainly have their work cut out for them with the incoming tsunami of new SNPS that will be discovered utilizing these next generation tests, hundreds of which are currently in process.

STRs

A STR, or Short Tandem Repeat is analogous to a genetic stutter, or the copy machine getting stuck.  In the same situation as above, utilizing the same base for comparison, we see a group of inserted nucleotides that are all duplicates of each other.

STR example

In this case, we have a short tandem repeat that is 4 segments in length meaning that CT is inserted 4 times.  To translate, if this is marker DYS marker 390, you have a value of 5, meaning 5 repeats of CT.

So I’ve been fat and happy with this now for years, well over a decade.

The Monkey Wrench

And then I saw this:

“The L69/L159 polymorphism is essentially a SNP/STR oxymoron.”

To the best of my knowledge, this is impossible – one type of mutation excludes the other.  I googled about this topic and found nothing, nor did I find additional discussion of L69, other than this.

L69 verbiage

My first reaction to this was “that’s impossible,” followed by “Bloody Hell,” and my next reaction was to find someone who knew.

I reached out to Dr. David Mittelman, geneticist and Chief Scientific Officer at Gene by Gene, parent company of Family Tree DNA.  I asked him about the SNP/STR oxymoron and he said:

“This is impossible. There is no such thing as a SNP/STR.”

Whew!  I must say, I’m relieved.  I thought there for a minute there I had lost my mind.

I asked him what is really going on in this sequence, and he replied that, “This would be a complex variant — when multiple things are happening at once.”

Now, that I understand.  I have children, and grandchildren – I fully understand multiple things happening at once.  Let’s break this example apart and take a look at what is really happening.

HUGO is a reference standard, so let’s start there as our basis for comparison.

HUGO variant 1

In the L69 variant we have the following sequence.

HUGO variant 2

We see two distinct things happening in this sequence.  First, we have the deletion of two Gs, and secondly, we have the insertion of one additional TG.  According to Dr. Mittelman, both of these events are STRs, multiple insertions or deletions, and neither are point mutations or SNPs, so neither of these should really have SNP names, they should have STR type of names.

Let’s look at the L159 variant.

HUGO variant 3

In this case, we have the GG insertion and then we have a TG deletion.

In both cases, L69 and L159, the actual length of the DNA sequence remains the same as the reference, but the contents are different.  Both had 2 nucleotides removed and 2 added.

The good news is, as a consumer, that you don’t really need to know this, not at this level.  The even better news is that with the new discoveries forthcoming, whether they be STRs or SNPs, at the leafy end of the branch, they are often now overlapping with SNPs becoming much more genealogically useful.  In the past, if you were looking at a genetics mutation timeline, you had STRs that covered current to 1000 years, then nothing, then beginning at 5,000 or 10,000 years, you have SNPs that were haplogroup defining.

That gap has been steadily shrinking, and today, there often is no gap, the chasm is gone, and we’re discovering freshly hatched recently-occurring SNPs on a daily basis.

The day is fast approaching when you’ll want the full Y sequence, not to further define your haplogroup, but to further delineate your genealogy lines.  You’ll have two tools to do that, SNPs and STRs both, not just one.

I want to thank Dr. Mittelman for his generous assistance with this article.