In Search of…Vendor Features, Strengths, and Testing Strategies

This is the third in our series of articles about searching for unknown close family members, specifically; parents, grandparents, or siblings. However, these same techniques can be applied to ancestors further back in time too.

In this article, we are going to discuss your goals and why testing or uploading to multiple vendors is advantageous – even if you could potentially solve the initial mystery at one vendor. Of course, the vendor you test with first might not be the vendor where the mystery will be solved, and data from multiple vendors might just be the combination you need.

Testing Strategy – You Might Get Lucky

I recommended in the first article that you go ahead and test at the different vendors.

Some people asked why, and specifically, why you wouldn’t just test at one vendor with the largest database first, then proceed to the others if you needed to.

That’s a great question, and I want to discuss the pros and cons in this article more specifically.

Clearly, that is one strategy, but the approach you select might differ based on a variety of considerations:

  • You may only be interested in obtaining the name of the person you are seeking – or – you may be interested in finding out as much as possible.
  • You may find that your best match at one company is decidedly unhelpful, and may even block you or your efforts, while someone elsewhere may be exactly the opposite.
  • Solving your mystery may be difficult and painful at one vendor, but the answer may be infinitely easier at a different vendor where the answer may literally be waiting.
  • There may not be enough, or the right information, or matches, at any one vendor, but the puzzle may be solvable by combining information from multiple vendors and tests. Every little bit helps.
  • You may have a sense of urgency, especially if you hope to meet the person and you’re searching for parents, siblings or grandparents who may be aging.
  • You may be cost-sensitive and cannot afford more than one test at a time. Fortunately, our upload strategy helps with that too. Also, watch for vendor sales or bundles.

From the time you order your DNA test, it will be about 6-8 weeks, give or take a week or two in either direction, before you receive results.

When those results arrive, you might get lucky, and the answer you seek is immediately evident with no additional work and just waiting for you at the first testing company.

If that’s the case, you got lucky and hit the jackpot. If you’re searching for both parents, that means you still have one parent to go.

Unidentified grandparents can be a little more difficult, because there are four of them to sort between.

If you discover a sibling or half-sibling, you still need to figure out who your common parent is. Sometimes X, Y, and mitochondrial DNA provides an immediate answer and is invaluable in these situations.

It’s more likely that you’ll find a group of somewhat more distant relatives. You may be able to figure out who your common grandparents or great-grandparents are, but not your parent(s) initially. Often, the closer generation or two is actually the most difficult because you’re dealing with contemporary records which are not publicly available, fewer descendants, and the topic may be very uncomfortable for some people. It’s also complicated because you’re often not dealing with “full” relationships, but “half,” as in half-sibling, half-niece, half-1C, etc.

You may spend a substantial amount of time trying to solve this puzzle at the first vendor before ordering your next test.

That second test will also take about 6-8 weeks, give or take. I recommend that you order the first two autosomal tests, now.

Order Your First Two Autosomal Tests

The two testing companies with the largest autosomal databases for comparison, Ancestry, and 23andMe, DO NOT accept DNA file uploads from other companies, so you’ll need to test with each individually.

Fortunately, you CAN transfer your autosomal DNA tests to both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA, for free.

You will have different matches at each company. Some people will be far more responsive and helpful than others.

I recommend that you go ahead and order both the Ancestry and 23andMe tests initially, then upload the first one that comes back with results to both FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage. Complete, step-by-step download/upload instructions can be found here.

You can also upload your DNA file to a fifth company, Living DNA, but they are significantly smaller and heavily focused on England and Great Britain. However, if that’s where you’re searching, this might be where you find important matches.

You can also upload to GEDMatch, a popular third-party database, but since you’re going to be in the databases of the four major testing companies, there is little to be gained at GEDMatch in terms of people who have not tested at one of the major companies. Do NOT upload to GEDMatch INSTEAD of testing or uploading to the four major sites, as GEDMatch only has a small fraction of the testers in each of the vendor databases.

What GEDMatch does offer is a chromosome browser – something that Ancestry does NOT offer, along with other clustering tools which you may find useful. I recommend GEDMatch in addition to the others, if needed or desired.

Ordering Y and Mitochondrial DNA Tests

We reviewed the basics of the different kinds of DNA, here.

Some people have asked why, if autosomal DNA shows relatives on all of your lines, would one would want to order specific tests that focus on just one line?

It just so happens that the two lines that Y and mitochondrial DNA test ARE the two lines you’re seeking – direct maternal – your mother (and her mother), and direct paternal, your father (and his father.)

These two tests are different kinds of DNA tests, testing a different type of DNA, and provide very focused information, and matches, not available from autosomal DNA tests.

For men, Y DNA can reveal your father’s surname, which can be an invaluable clue in narrowing paternal candidates. Knowing that my brother’s Y DNA matched several men with the surname of Priest made me jump for joy when he matched a woman of that same last name at another vendor.

Here’s a quote from one of the members of a Y DNA project where I’m the volunteer administrator:

“Thank you for your help understanding and using all 4 kinds of my DNA results. By piecing the parts together, I identified my father. Specifically, without Y DNA testing, and the Big Y test, I would not have figured out my parental connection, and then that my paternal line had been assigned to the wrong family. STR testing gave me the correct surname, but the Big Y test showed me exactly where I fit, and disproved that other line. I’m now in touch with my father, and we both know who our relatives are – two things that would have never happened otherwise.”

If you fall into the category of, “I want to know everything I can now,” then order both Y and mitochondrial DNA tests initially, along with those two autosomal tests.

You will need to order Y (males only) and mitochondrial DNA tests separately from the autosomal Family Finder test, although you should order on the same account as your Family Finder test at FamilyTreeDNA.

If you take the Family Finder autosomal test at FamilyTreeDNA or upload your autosomal results from another vendor, you can simply select to add the Y and mitochondrial DNA tests to your account, and they will send you a swab kit.

Conversely, you can order either a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, and then add a Family Finder or upload a DNA file if you’ve already taken an autosomal DNA test to that account too. Note – these might not be current prices – check here for sales.

You will want all 3 of your tests on the same account so that you can use the Advanced Matches feature.

Using Advanced Matches, you’ll be able to view people who match you on combinations of multiple kinds of tests.

For example, if you’re a male, you can see if your Y DNA matches also match you on the Family Finder autosomal test, and if so, how closely?

Here’s an example.

In this case, I requested matches to men with 111 markers who also match the tester on the Family Finder test. I discovered both a father and a full sibling, plus a few more distant matches. There were ten total combined matches to work with, but I’ve only shown five for illustration purposes.

This information is worth its weight in gold.

Is the Big Y Test Worth It?

People ask if the Big Y test is really worth the extra money.

The answer is, “it depends.”

If all you’re looking for are matching surnames, then the answer is probably no. A 37 or 111 marker test will probably suffice. Eventually, you’ll probably want to do the Big Y, though.

If you’re looking for exact placement on the tree, with an estimated distance to other men who have taken that test, then the answer is, “absolutely.” I wish the Big Y test had been available back when I was hunting for my brother’s biological family.

The Big Y test provides a VERY specific haplogroup and places you very accurately in your location on the Y DNA tree, along with other men of your line, assuming they have tested. You may find the surname, as well as being placed within a generation or a few of current in that family line.

Additionally, the Discover page provides estimates of how far in the past you share a common ancestor with other people that share the same haplogroup. This can be a HUGE boon to a male trying to figure out his surname line and how closely in time he’s related to his matches.

Big Y NPE Examples

Y DNA SNP mutations tested with the Big Y test accrue a mutation about every generation, or so. Sometimes we see mutations in every generation.

Here’s an example from my Campbell line. Haplogroups are listed in the top three rows.

I created this spreadsheet, but FamilyTreeDNA provides a block tree for Big Y testers. I’ve added the genealogy of the testers, with the various Big Y testers at the bottom and common ancestors above, in bold.

We have two red NPE lines showing. The MacFarlane tester matches M. Campbell VERY closely, and two Clark males match W. Campbell and other Campbells quite closely. We utilized autosomal plus the Y results to determine where the unknown parentage events occurred. Today, if you’re a Clark or MacFarlane male, or a male by any other surname who was fathered by a Y chromosome Campbell male (by any surname), you’ll know exactly where you fit in this group of testers on your direct paternal line.

Y DNA is important because men often match other men with the same surname, which is a HUGE clue, especially in combination with autosomal DNA results. I say “often,” because it’s possible that no one in your line has tested, or that your father’s surname is not his biological surname either.

Y and mitochondrial DNA matches can be HUGELY beneficial pieces of information either by confirming a close autosomal relationship on that line, or eliminating the possibility.

Lineage-Specific Population Information

In addition to matching other people, both Y and mitochondrial DNA tests provide you with lineage-specific population or “ethnicity” information for this specific line which helps you focus your research.

For example, if you view the Y DNA Haplogroup Origins shown for this tester, you’ll discover that these matches are Jewish.

The tester might not be Jewish on any other genealogical line, but they definitely have Jewish ancestry on their Y DNA, paternal, line.

The same holds true for mitochondrial DNA as well. The main difference with mitochondrial DNA is that the surname changes with each generation, haplogroups today (pre-Million Mito) are less specific, and fewer people have been tested.

Y and Mitochondrial DNA Benefits

Knowing your Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups not only arm you with information about yourself, they provide you with matching tools and an avenue to include or exclude people as your direct line paternal or maternal ancestors.

Your Y and mitochondrial DNA can also provide CRITICALLY IMPORTANT information about whether that direct line ancestor belonged to an endogamous population, and where they came from.

For example, both Jewish and Native populations are endogamous populations, meaning highly intermarried for many generations into the past.

Knowing that helps you adjust your autosomal relationship analysis.

Why Order Multiple Tests Initially Instead of Waiting?

If you’ve been adding elapsed time, two autosomal tests (Ancestry and 23andMe), two uploads (to FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage,) a Y DNA test, and a mitochondrial DNA test, if all purchased serially, one following the other, means you’ll be waiting approximately 6-8 months.

Do you want to wait 6-8 months for all of your results? Can you afford to?

Part of this answer has to do with what, exactly, you’re seeking, and how patient you are.

Only you can answer that question.

A Name or Information?

Are you seeking the name or identity of a person, or are you seeking information about that person?

Most people don’t just want to put a name to the person they are seeking – they want to learn about them and the rest of the family that door opens.

You will have different matches at each company. Even after you identify the person you seek, the people you match may have trees you can view, with family photos and other important information. (Remember, you can’t see living people in trees.) Your matches may have first-person information about your relative and may know them if they are living, or have known them.

Furthermore, you may have the opportunity to meet that person. Time delayed may not be able to be recovered or regained.

One cousin that I assisted discovered that his father had died just six weeks before he broke through that wall and made the connection.

Working with data from all vendors simultaneously will allow you to combine that data and utilize it together. Using your “best” matches at each company, augmented by X, Y, and/or mitochondrial DNA, can make MUCH shorter work of this search.

Your closest autosomal matches are the most important and insightful. In this series, I will be working with the top 15 autosomal results at each vendor, at least initially. This approach provides me with the best chance of meaningful close relationship discoveries.

Data and Vendor Results Integration

Here’s a table of my two closest maternal and paternal matches at the four major vendors. I can assign these to maternal or paternal sides, because I know the identity of my parents, and I know some of these people. If an adoptee was doing this, the top 4 could all be from one parent, which is why we work with the top 15 or so matches.

Vendor Closest Maternal Closest Paternal Comments
Ancestry 1C, 1C1R Half-1C, 2C I recognized both of the maternal and neither of the paternal.
23andMe 2C, 2C 1C1R, half-gr-niece Recognized both maternal, one paternal
MyHeritage Mother uploaded, 1C Half-niece, half-1C Recognized both maternal, one paternal
FamilyTreeDNA Mother tested, 1C1R Parent/child, half-gr-niece uploaded Recognized all 4

To be clear, I tested my mother’s mitochondrial DNA before she passed away, but because FamilyTreeDNA archives DNA samples for 25 years, as the owner/manager of her DNA kit, I was able to order the Family Finder test after she had passed away. Her tests are invaluable today.

Then, years later, I uploaded her results to MyHeritage.

If I was an adopted child searching for my mother, I would find her results in both databases today. She’ll never be at either 23andMe or Ancestry because she passed away before she could test there and they don’t accept uploads.

Looking at the other vendors, my half-niece at MyHeritage is my paternal half-sibling’s daughter. My half-sibling is deceased, so this is as close as I’ll ever get to matching her.

At 23andMe, the half-great-niece is my half-siblings grandchild.

It’s interesting that I have no matches to descendants of my other half-sibling, who is also deceased. Maybe I should ask if any of his children or grandchildren have tested. Hmmmm…..

You can see that I stand a MUCH BETTER chance of figuring out close relatives using the combined closest matches of all four databases instead of the top matches from just one database. It doesn’t matter if the database is large if the right person or people didn’t test there.

Combine Resources

I’ll be providing analysis methodologies for working with results from all of the vendors together, just in case your answer is not immediately obvious. Taking multiple DNA tests facilitates using all of these tools immediately, not months later. Solving the puzzle sooner means you may not miss valuable opportunities.

You may also discover that the door slams shut with some people, or they may not respond to your queries, but another match may be unbelievably helpful. Don’t limit your possibilities.

Let’s take a look at the strengths of each vendor.

Vendor Strengths and Things to Know

Every vendor has product strengths and idiosyncracies that the others do not. All vendors provide matches and shared matches. Each vendor provides ethnicity tools which certainly can be useful, but the features differ and will be covered elsewhere.

  • AncestryAncestry has the largest autosomal database and includes ThruLines, but no Y or mitochondrial DNA testing, no clusters, no chromosome browser, no triangulation, and no X chromosome matching or reporting. Ancestry provides genealogical records, advanced tools, and full tree access to your matches’ trees with an Ancestry subscription. Ancestry does not allow downloading your match list or segment match information, but the other vendors do.
  • 23andMe 23andMe has the second largest database. They provide triangulation and genetic trees that include your closest matches. Many people test at 23andMe for health and wellness information, so 23andMe has people in their database who are not specifically interested in genealogy and probably won’t have tested elsewhere, but may be invaluable to your search. 23andMe provides Y and mtDNA high-level haplogroups only, but no matching or other haplogroup information. If you purchase a new test or have a V5 ancestry+health current test, you can expand your matches from a limit of 1500 to about 5000 with an annual membership. For seeking close relatives, you don’t need those features, but you may want them for genealogy. 23andMe is the only vendor that limits their customers’ matches.
  • MyHeritageMyHeritage has the third largest database that includes lots of European testers. MyHeritage provides triangulation, Theories of Family Relativity, and an integrated cluster tool* but does not report X matches and does not offer Y or mitochondrial DNA testing. MyHeritage accepts autosomal DNA file uploads from other testing companies for free and provides access to advanced DNA features for a one-time unlock fee. MyHeritage includes genealogical records and full feature access to advanced DNA tools with a Complete Subscription. (Free 15 days trial subscription, here.)
  • FamilyTreeDNA Family Finder (autosomal)FamilyTreeDNA is the oldest DNA testing company, meaning their database includes people who initially tested 20+ years ago and have since passed away. This, in essence, gets you one generation further back in time, with the possibility of stronger matches. Their Family Matching feature buckets and triangulates your matches, assigning them to your maternal or paternal sides if you link known matches to their proper place in your tree, even if your parents have not tested. FamilyTreeDNA accepts uploads from other testing companies for free and provides advanced DNA features for a one time unlock fee.
  • FamilyTreeDNAFamilyTreeDNA is the only company that offers both Y and mitochondrial DNA testing products that include matching, integration with autosomal test results, and other tools. These two tests are lineage-specific and don’t have to be sorted from your other ancestral lines.

I wrote about using Y DNA results, here.

I wrote about using mitochondrial DNA results, here.

*Third parties such as Genetic Affairs provide clustering tools for both 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA. Clustering is integrated at MyHeritage. Ancestry does not provide a tool for nor allow third-party clustering. If the answer you seek isn’t immediately evident, Genetic Affairs clustering tools group people together who are related to each other, and you, and create both genetic and genealogical trees based on shared matches. You can read more about their tools, here.

Fish in all the Ponds and Use All the Bait Possible

Here’s the testing and upload strategy I recommend, based on the above discussion and considerations. The bottom line is this – if you want as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, order the four tests in red initially. Then transfer the first autosomal test results you receive to the two companies identified in blue. Optionally, GEDMatch may have tools you want to work with, but they aren’t a testing company.

What When Ancestry 23andMe MyHeritage FamilyTreeDNA
Order autosomal Initially X X    
Order Y 111 or Big-Y DNA test if male Initially       X
Order mitochondrial DNA test Initially if desired       X
Upload free autosomal When Ancestry or 23andMe results are available     X X
Unlock Advanced Tools When you upload     $29 $19
Optional GEDMatch free upload If desired, can subscribe for advanced tools

When you upload an autosomal DNA file to a vendor site, only upload one file per site, per tester. Otherwise, multiple tests simply glom up everyone’s match list with multiple matches to the same person.

Multiple vendor sites will hopefully provide multiple close matches, which increase your opportunity to discover INFORMATION about your family, not just the identity of the person you seek.

Or maybe you prefer to wait and order these DNA tests serially, waiting until one set of results is back and you’re finished working with them before ordering the next one. If so, that means you’re a MUCH more patient person than me. 😊

Our next article in this series will be about endogamy, how to know if it applies to you, and what that means to your search.

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DNA: In Search of…What Do You Mean I’m Not Related to My Family? – and What Comes Next?

Welcome to the second in our series of articles about how to search for unknown family members.

I introduced the series in the article, DNA: In Search of…New Series Launches.

This article addresses the question of “How did this happen?” and introduces the tools we need to answer that question. I’ve combined two articles into one because I really didn’t want to leave you hanging after introducing you to the problem.

We discuss the various kinds of DNA tests, when they are appropriate for your biological sex, and how one can use them to discover information about the person or people you’re seeking.

In other words, we begin at the point of making the discovery that there is something amiss, then review possible glitches. Once we confirm there is someone you need to search for, we discuss how to use genetic testing reasonably and in a planned fashion to solve that mystery.

Please note that I am NOT referring to unexpected ethnicity results in this article. This article refers to your match list and who you do and don’t match on that list. We will discuss ethnicity and how it can help you in a different context in a future article.

The Unknown

Some people have known all their lives that they were adopted, or that they didn’t know the identity of one parent, generally their father.

Other people have made or will make that discovery in a different way. Sometimes, that realization happens when they take an autosomal DNA test and don’t match people they expect to match, either not at all or in a different way.

For example:

  • You might not match a parent or a sibling.
  • You could match only people on your mother’s side, but no known relatives on your father’s side.
  • Your parents or siblings have tested, but you don’t match any of them.
  • Your immediate family hasn’t tested, but your first and second cousins have tested, and you don’t match any of them.
  • You recognize no people, families, or family names on your match list.
  • You think you know your genealogy, but nothing on your match list looks familiar.
  • If your parents and close relatives haven’t tested, not recognizing families might be explained if your family is part of a community of undertested individuals.
  • You might not recognize anyone or surnames if you know absolutely nothing about your family genealogy.
  • Sometimes, a sibling is reported as a half-sibling instead of a full sibling, which is an unexpected finding. This means that you only share one parent, not two. I wrote about this in the article Full or Half Siblings. The non-matching parent is generally the father. The question that follows is, which one of you, if not both, weren’t fathered by the man you thought was your biological father?

These discoveries are generally unexpected and unwelcome – a horrible shock followed by some level of disbelief.

I’ve been there.

My half-brother turned out to not be my half-brother, so we weren’t biologically related at all, although that didn’t change how much I loved him one iota.

Later, I did identify his father, but it was too late for them. My brother had passed on by that time.

Ironically, his biological family would have welcomed him with open arms.

If you’re interested, I wrote about our journey in a series of articles:

The Shock of Discovery

It’s difficult discovering that your full sibling isn’t a full sibling or not a sibling at all, but it’s even worse when you discover that one or both of your parents are not your biological parent(s) when you weren’t expecting that. Obviously, sometimes those two shockers accompany each other.

And no, if you don’t match your parents, siblings, first or second cousins, DNA tests can’t be “that” wrong in terms of matching. That’s generally the first question everyone asks.

Yes, we have seen a couple of instances of test mix-ups at the labs, many years ago, among the millions of tests taken. Better quality control procedures were introduced, and a mix-up hasn’t happened in a very long time. However, if you really think that’s a possibility, or you need peace of mind – order another test from the same vendor. If the second test comes back with the same match list as the first test, there is no lab mix-up.

Or, you can order a test from another vendor – something you’re going to need anyway to solve the mystery and for your genealogy. Hint – the two vendors you must test at directly are Ancestry and 23andMe because they don’t accept uploads. If you’re going to order another test, make it one or both of those.

Before deciding you’ve discovered a genetic disconnect, let’s take a deep breath and look at a couple of other possibilities first.

Be Sure the Vial or Transfer Wasn’t Confused

If you’re encountering a situation where you’re not matching relatives that you know have tested, or for some reason, you suspect something isn’t right, the first things that need to be considered are:

  • Are you positive that your relative(s) have taken a DNA test? You wouldn’t believe how many times someone has told me that they don’t match their mother/father/sibling and come to find out, their family member hasn’t tested. Did they order a test but never send it in? Did they send it in, but their results arent’ back yet?
  • Are you positive that your relative(s) tested at the same company where you did? Many times we discover that they’ve tested, but at a different company. Have your relative show you their results, take a screenshot, or give you their login to confirm you’re at the same vendor.
  • Are you missing all of your relatives or just one or two in the same line? If the answer is one or two, they, not you, may have a disconnect, especially if you match other people on the same side of your family.
  • Did you and a friend or spouse both swab or spit at the same time? If so, is there any possibility that your and their vials were inadvertently swapped when you put them in envelopes and mailed them?

If there is any doubt, check with that other person and see if they are experiencing the same issue. If you look at their results, you may recognize your own family. I’ve seen this occur at family reunions and at the holidays, where several DNA tests were taken by various family members.

  • This last situation is much more common and is caused by confusing files during a download/upload to another vendor. Do you manage multiple kits, and did you inadvertently download the wrong DNA file, or upload the wrong person’s DNA file to a different vendor?

If so, you’re looking at someone else’s results, thinking they are your own. If that person is a cousin, you may be even more confused because you may match some of the same people, just at very different levels. This could make your sibling look like a half-sibling or first cousin, for example.

If there is any possibility of an upload mix-up, or any doubt whatsoever:

  1. Delete the suspect file at the vendor where you uploaded the DNA file
  2. Delete the downloaded files from your computer
  3. Start over by downloading the DNA file again from the original vendor
  4. Label the downloaded file clearly, and immediately, with the tester’s name and date.
  5. Upload the new file to the target vendor before you download another person’s DNA file.

Step-by-step upload/download instructions can be found, here.

Not Parent Expected

If you discover that one of two parents is not the expected biological parent, you’ve discovered a genetic disconnect that is known by a number of different terms. Initially, the term NPE was used, but other terms have been added over the years, and they are sometimes used differently, depending on who is speaking.

  • NPE – Non-Parental Event, Not Parent Expected
  • MPE – Misattributed Paternal/Parental Event or Misattributed Parentage Experience
  • Undocumented Adoption – Regardless of how the situation occurred, it was not documented.

Please, please do NOT jump to conclusions and make assumptions about infidelity and duplicity. There can be many reasons for this occurrence, including:

  • Agreed upon “open” relationships
  • Intentional impregnation when one partner is infertile
  • Surrogacy
  • Infidelity
  • Rape
  • Sperm donor
  • Adoption
  • Unknown first marriage, with step-father raising a child as his own
  • Illegitimate birth of a child before marriage
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Intoxication
  • Coercion

In other words, the situation may have been known to the involved parties, even if they did not share that information with you or others. Prior to the last 20 years, no one would ever have considered that this information might ever be revealed. Social norms and judgments were very different a generation or more ago.

I wrote about this in the article, Things That Need To Be said: Adoption, Adultery, Coercion, Rape, and DNA.

Of course, these events could happen in any generation, but the closer to you, in time, the more evident it will be when looking at your matches.

Now that we’ve determined that we have an unknown parent or grandparent, how do we sort this out?

Let’s Start with the Basics

I’m going to begin by explaining the basics of the different kinds of tests, and when each test can be used.

In this series, we will be focused on searching for six individuals, separately – both parents and all four grandparents.

You will be able to use the same techniques for ancestors in more distant generations by following the same instructions and methodologies, just adapting to include more matches to reach further back in time.

We will be taking the search step-by-step in each article.

Four Kinds of DNA

For genealogy, we can work with four kinds of DNA:

We can potentially use each of these when searching for unknown ancestors, including parents and grandparents. Each type of DNA has specific characteristics and uses in different situations because it’s inherited differently by the son and daughter, below.

In these examples, everything is from the perspective of the son and daughter.

Y DNA testing is only available to males, because only males have a Y chromosome which is inherited directly from the father, shown by the blue arrow. In other words, the son has the father’s Y chromosome (and generally his surname,) but the daughter does not.

The Y chromosome can provide surnames and very close matches, or reach far back in time, or both. Ideally, Y DNA is used in conjunction with autosomal testing when searching for unknown individuals.

Mitochondrial DNA can be tested by everyone since males and females both receive mitochondrial DNA from their mother, passed to her from her direct maternal line, shown by the pink arrows and the yellow hearts. Both the son and daughter can test for their mother’s mitochondrial DNA.

Both Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA can reach far back in time, but can also be informative of recent connections. Neither are ever mixed with the DNA of the other parent, so the DNA is not diluted over the generations.

Think of Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA as having the ability to provide recent genealogy information and connections, plus a deep dive on just one particular line. Fortunately, when you’re looking for parents, the lines they test are the direct maternal (or matrilineal) line and the direct paternal (or patrilineal) lines.

Both Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA tests are deep, not broad. One line each.

Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA will both be able to tell you if that specific ancestral line is European, African, Native American, Asian, Jewish, and so forth. Additionally, both offer matching at FamilyTreeDNA, information about where other testers’ ancestors are found in the world, and more.

If you want more information about what these tests have to offer, now, I provide a Y DNA Resource page, here, and a Mitochondrial DNA Resource page, here.

Autosomal DNA is the DNA contributed to you on chromosomes 1-22 by your ancestors from across all your ancestral lines in your tree, shown by the green arrow.

Everyone receives half of their autosomal DNA from each parent, with the exception of the X chromosome, which we’ll discuss in a minute.

This means that because the parent’s DNA is cut in half in each generation, the contributions of more distant ancestors’ DNA are reduced over time, with each generational division, until it’s no longer discernable or disappears altogether.

Autosomal DNA is broad across many lines, but not deep.

This figure provided by Dr. Paul Maier at FamilyTreeDNA, in the MyOrigins 3.0 White Paper, illustrates that by the 7th generation, you won’t receive DNA from a few of your ancestors. Some may be contained in segments too small to be reported by DNA testing vendors.

Translated, this means that autosomal DNA matching is most reliable in the closest generations, which is where we are working.

There is no documented occurrence of second cousins who don’t match each other. 90% of third cousins match, and about 50% of fourth cousins. I wrote about that in the article, Why Don’t I Match My Cousin?

The 23rd Chromosome – Sex Determination

Autosomal DNA generally refers to chromosomes 1-22. The 23rd chromosome is the sex selection chromosome.

Males have a Y chromosome contributed by their father, and an X contributed by their mother. The Y chromosome is what makes males, male.

Females have an X chromosome contributed by both their mother and father, which recombines just like chromosomes 1-22, but women have no Y chromosome.

In this graphic, you can see that a male child receives the father’s Y chromosome and the mother’s X. The female child receives an X chromosome from both parents.

Only FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe report X chromosome results by including them with their autosomal DNA test.

Let’s take a look at how the X chromosome works in a little more detail.

X Chromosome DNA is another type of autosomal DNA, meaning it can be inherited from both parents in some circumstances. However, the X chromosome has a different inheritance path which means we analyze it differently for genealogy.

The father gives an X or a Y chromosome to his offspring, but not both.

If the child inherits the Y chromosome from the father, the child becomes a male. If the child inherits the X chromosome from the father, the child becomes a female.

Men only receive an X chromosome from their mother since they receive a Y chromosome from their father. Men can inherit a mixture of their mother’s X chromosomes that were contributed to their mother from both her mother (peach) and father (green.) Conversely, men can inherit their maternal grandmother’s or maternal grandfather’s X chromosome intact.

In this example, the mother and father have three sons. None of the sons can inherit an X chromosome from their father, whose X chromosome is shown in yellow. The father gives the sons his Y chromosome, not shown here, instead of an X, which is how they become males. Males only inherit their X chromosome from their mother.

The mother inherited one copy of her X chromosome from her father, shown in green, and one copy from her mother, shown in peach.

  1. The first son inherited his maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome, intact, from his mother, and none of his maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome.
  2. The second son inherited a portion of his maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome and a portion of his maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome. I’ve shown the portions as half, but the division could vary.
  3. The third son inherited his maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome, intact, and none of his maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome.

This means if you match a man on his X chromosome, assuming it’s a valid match and not identical by chance, that match MUST come from his mother’s line.

In a future article, I’ll provide some X-specific fan charts and tips to help you easily discern potential X inheritance paths.

Women inherit an X chromosome from both their mother and father. They inherit their father’s X chromosome intact that he received from his mother, because he only has one X to give his daughter. Therefore, daughters inherit their paternal grandmother’s X chromosome from their father, because he passes on exactly what he received from his mother.

In this graphic, the father and mother have three daughters. You can see that each daughter receives the father’s yellow X chromosome that he inherited from his mother.

He doesn’t have a second copy of an X chromosome to mix with his mother’s.

Women inherit their mother’s X chromosome in the same fashion that men do. You can see in our example that:

  • The first daughter inherited her father’s yellow X chromosome, plus her maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome, intact, and none of her maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome.
  • The second daughter inherited her father’s yellow X chromosome, plus part of her maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome and part of her maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome from her mother. The portions of the mother’s pink and green chromosomes inherited by the daughter can vary widely.
  • The third daughter inherited her father’s yellow X chromosome, plus her maternal grandfather’s green X chromosome, intact, which is his mother’s X chromosome, of course. This daughter inherited none of her maternal grandmother’s peach X chromosome.

Women inherit two X chromosomes, one from each parent, while men only inherit one X, contributed from their mother. This means that X matches have different inheritance paths for women and men.

Because the X inheritance path involves the mother, many people confuse mitochondrial DNA inheritance with X inheritance. I wrote about that in the article, X Matching and Mitochondrial DNA is NOT the Same Thing.

Testing Strategies and Vendor Strengths

In the next article, we will be discussing detailed testing strategies based on multiple factors:

  • Who you are searching for in your tree
  • Who, other than you, is available to test
  • Sex of the tester(s)
  • Vendor strengths and unique offerings
  • Urgency, or not
  • Using combinations of vendor results and why you want to

Getting lucky may be what you hope for, but it’s not a strategy.😊

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DNA: In Search of… New Series Launches

Today, I’m excited to announce a new series titled “DNA: In Search of…”

I receive queries every single day about how to search for either unknown parents or unknown grandparents using genetic genealogy.

While some of the techniques are the same when searching for these different people, others vary and depend on a combination of factors: Continue reading