myDNA Merges With FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene

2021 is starting out with an exciting announcement in the genetic genealogy world. A marriage!

Dr. Lior Rauchberger, CEO of Australian company, myDNA, has announced a merger with well-known genetic genealogy company, FamilyTreeDNA along with the parent company that owns their DNA processing lab, Gene by Gene.

click to enlarge images

Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, founders of both Houston-based companies, FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene, will retain board seats in the merged organization, while Rauchberger will be the CEO of the organization.

Here’s the full press release.

I spoke with Bennett, and he assured me that myDNA has every intention of maintaining and investing in the genealogy side of the house. He indicated that both companies felt that this was a very compatible marriage.

I didn’t know anything about myDNA previously, but like any genealogist, I’ve done some research.

Who is myDNA?

According to their website, myDNA, founded in 2007, is focused on personal health management.

Their approach seems to be a bit different than health and wellness tests I’ve seen before.

The myDNA test is a functional pathology test that reports on how genetic factors may influence the ways in which medications affect individuals. Different people metabolize and eliminate medications differently, and at various speeds.

myDNA testing provides customers with the ability to work with their physicians to tailor their medications to maximize benefits and minimize side effects.

I’m not surprised that FamilyTreeDNA has, one way or another, added a health component to the menu. As I mentioned in my Genetic Genealogy at 20 Years article earlier this week, all three of the other major players have a health/medical aspect of their products.

You can take a look at what myDNA offers, here, and here, for yourself, and at an example report, here.

The myDNA products also offer ways to make sustainable lifestyle changes, DNA based meal plans and workouts customized for your goals.

I don’t have any personal experience with myDNA, but I will as soon as I order a test.

Benefits and Opportunities

I see several potential benefits to the genetic genealogy community, including:

  • myDNA customers may provide a pool of new customers (and matches) who might possibly be interested in genealogy, aka, YDNA, mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal testing.

I would presume that these tests will soon be offered as options to myDNA customers. Australia, in addition to its aboriginal population, consists of immigrants from the British Isles and elsewhere. I actually discovered the DNA match down under who broke through my decades-old Speak family brick wall in Lancashire.

  • myDNA customers, even if they aren’t interested in genealogy, per se, may be interested in more general “where did I come from,” personal history type of information.

This might include interesting Y and mitochondrial DNA migration map “journeys,” along with ethnicity. I’m thinking along the lines of “myY,” “myMito” and the already existing  “myOrigins,” Perhaps something similar to the less in-depth, but still quite interesting (now-defunct) Genographic product test results.

Adding FamilyTreeDNA tools for myDNA customers would benefit both sides of the equation. Every additional person who tests helps the scientific research aspect, meaning building both the Y and mitochondrial trees, which in turn helps traditional genealogy customers.

Conversely, FamilyTreeDNA customers may want to easily add some of the myDNA products and have them available through one single customer portal.

I’m extremely hopeful about opportunities for the genetic genealogy side of the house. Specifically, my fingers are crossed that myDNA will invest in:

  • Website infrastructure which will improve performance.
  • Enhancing current and adding new advanced genealogy tools and products that aren’t just pieces, but provide us with innovative solutions.

And yes, I have suggestions. Like a kid in the toy store, I have a long wish list of features I’d love to see😊.

I’d like to hear your (positively constructed) wish list as well.

I’m excited about this new opportunity!

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Genetic Genealogy at 20 Years: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going and What’s Important?

Not only have we put 2020 in the rear-view mirror, thankfully, we’re at the 20-year, two-decade milestone. The point at which genetics was first added to the toolbox of genealogists.

It seems both like yesterday and forever ago. And yes, I’ve been here the whole time,  as a spectator, researcher, and active participant.

Let’s put this in perspective. On New Year’s Eve, right at midnight, in 2005, I was able to score kit number 50,000 at Family Tree DNA. I remember this because it seemed like such a bizarre thing to be doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve. But hey, we genealogists are what we are.

I knew that momentous kit number which seemed just HUGE at the time was on the threshold of being sold, because I had inadvertently purchased kit 49,997 a few minutes earlier.

Somehow kit 50,000 seemed like such a huge milestone, a landmark – so I quickly bought kits, 49,998, 49,999, and then…would I get it…YES…kit 50,000. Score!

That meant that in the 5 years FamilyTreeDNA had been in business, they had sold on an average of 10,000 kits per year, or 27 kits a day. Today, that’s a rounding error. Then it was momentous!

In reality, the sales were ramping up quickly, because very few kits were sold in 2000, and roughly 20,000 kits had been sold in 2005 alone. I know this because I purchased kit 28,429 during the holiday sale a year earlier.

Of course, I had no idea who I’d test with that momentous New Year’s Eve Y DNA kit, but I assuredly would find someone. A few months later, I embarked on a road trip to visit an elderly family member with that kit in tow. Thank goodness I did, and they agreed and swabbed on the spot, because they are gone today and with them, the story of the Y line and autosomal DNA of their branch.

In the past two decades, almost an entire generation has slipped away, and with them, an entire genealogical library held in their DNA.

Today, more than 40 million people have tested with the four major DNA testing companies, although we don’t know exactly how many.

Lots of people have had more time to focus on genealogy in 2020, so let’s take a look at what’s important? What’s going on and what matters beyond this month or year?

How has this industry changed in the last two decades, and where it is going?

Reflection

This seems like a good point to reflect a bit.

Professor Dan Bradley reflecting on early genetic research techniques in his lab at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College in Dublin. Photo by Roberta Estes

In the beginning – twenty years ago, there were two companies who stuck their toes in the consumer DNA testing water – Oxford Ancestors and Family Tree DNA. About the same time, Sorenson Genomics and GeneTree were also entering that space, although Sorenson was a nonprofit. Today, of those, only FamilyTreeDNA remains, having adapted with the changing times – adding more products, testing, and sophistication.

Bryan Sykes who founded Oxford Ancestors announced in 2018 that he was retiring to live abroad and subsequently passed away in 2020. The website still exists, but the company has announced that they have ceased sales and the database will remain open until Sept 30, 2021.

James Sorenson died in 2008 and the assets of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, including the Sorenson database, were sold to Ancestry in 2012. Eventually, Ancestry removed the public database in 2015.

Ancestry dabbled in Y and mtDNA for a while, too, destroying that database in 2014.

Other companies, too many to remember or mention, have come and gone as well. Some of the various company names have been recycled or purchased, but aren’t the same companies today.

In the DNA space, it was keep up, change, die or be sold. Of course, there was the small matter of being able to sell enough DNA kits to make enough money to stay in business at all. DNA processing equipment and a lab are expensive. Not just the equipment, but also the expertise.

The Next Wave

As time moved forward, new players entered the landscape, comprising the “Big 4” testing companies that constitute the ponds where genealogists fish today.

23andMe was the first to introduce autosomal DNA testing and matching. Their goal and focus was always medical genetics, but they recognized the potential in genealogists before anyone else, and we flocked to purchase tests.

Ancestry settled on autosomal only and relies on the size of their database, a large body of genealogy subscribers, and a widespread “feel-good” marketing campaign to sell DNA kits as the gateway to “discover who you are.”

FamilyTreeDNA did and still does offer all 3 kinds of tests. Over the years, they have enhanced both the Y DNA and mitochondrial product offerings significantly and are still known as “the science company.” They are the only company to offer the full range of Y DNA tests, including their flagship Big Y-700, full sequence mitochondrial testing along with matching for both products. Their autosomal product is called Family Finder.

MyHeritage entered the DNA testing space a few years after the others as the dark horse that few expected to be successful – but they fooled everyone. They have acquired companies and partnered along the way which allowed them to add customers (Promethease) and tools (such as AutoCluster by Genetic Affairs), boosting their number of users. Of course, MyHeritage also offers users a records research subscription service that you can try for free.

In summary:

One of the wonderful things that happened was that some vendors began to accept compatible raw DNA autosomal data transfer files from other vendors. Today, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, and GEDmatch DO accept transfer files, while Ancestry and 23andMe do not.

The transfers and matching are free, but there are either minimal unlock or subscription plans for advanced features.

There are other testing companies, some with niche markets and others not so reputable. For this article, I’m focusing on the primary DNA testing companies that are useful for genealogy and mainstream companion third-party tools that complement and enhance those services.

The Single Biggest Change

As I look back, the single biggest change is that genetic genealogy evolved from the pariah of genealogy where DNA discussion was banned from the (now defunct) Rootsweb lists and summarily deleted for the first few years after introduction. I know, that’s hard to believe today.

Why, you ask?

Reasons varied from “just because” to “DNA is cheating” and then morphed into “because DNA might do terrible things like, maybe, suggest that a person really wasn’t related to an ancestor in a lineage society.”

Bottom line – fear and misunderstanding. Change is exceedingly difficult for humans, and DNA definitely moved the genealogy cheese.

From that awkward beginning, genetic genealogy organically became a “thing,” a specific application of genealogy. There was paper-trail traditional genealogy and then the genetic aspect. Today, for almost everyone, genealogy is “just another tool” in the genealogist’s toolbox, although it does require focused learning, just like any other tool.

DNA isn’t separate anymore, but is now an integral part of the genealogical whole. Having said that, DNA can’t solve all problems or answer all questions, but neither can traditional paper-trail genealogy. Together, each makes the other stronger and solves mysteries that neither can resolve alone.

Synergy.

I fully believe that we have still only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Inheritance

As we talk about the various types of DNA testing and tools, here’s a quick graphic to remind you of how the different types of DNA are inherited.

  • Y DNA is inherited paternally for males only and informs us of the direct patrilineal (surname) line.
  • Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by everyone from their mothers and informs us of the mother’s matrilineal (mother’s mother’s mother’s) line.
  • Autosomal DNA can be inherited from potentially any ancestor in random but somewhat predictable amounts through both parents. The further back in time, the less identifiable DNA you’ll inherit from any specific ancestor. I wrote about that, here.

What’s Hot and What’s Not

Where should we be focused today and where is this industry going? What tools and articles popped up in 2020 to help further our genealogy addiction? I already published the most popular articles of 2020, here.

This industry started two decades ago with testing a few Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA markers, and we were utterly thrilled at the time. Both tests have advanced significantly and the prices have dropped like a stone. My first mitochondrial DNA test that tested only 400 locations cost more than $800 – back then.

Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA are still critically important to genetic genealogy. Both play unique roles and provide information that cannot be obtained through autosomal DNA testing. Today, relative to Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, the biggest challenge, ironically, is educating newer genealogists about their potential who have never heard about anything other than autosomal, often ethnicity, testing.

We have to educate in order to overcome the cacophony of “don’t bother because you don’t get as many matches.”

That’s like saying “don’t use the right size wrench because the last one didn’t fit and it’s a bother to reach into the toolbox.” Not to mention that if everyone tested, there would be a lot more matches, but I digress.

If you don’t use the right tool, and all of the tools at your disposal, you’re not going to get the best result possible.

The genealogical proof standard, the gold standard for genealogy research, calls for “a reasonably exhaustive search,” and if you haven’t at least considered if or how Y
DNA
and mitochondrial DNA along with autosomal testing can or might help, then your search is not yet exhaustive.

I attempt to obtain the Y and mitochondrial DNA of every ancestral line. In the article, Search Techniques for Y and Mitochondrial DNA Test Candidates, I described several methodologies to find appropriate testing candidates.

Y DNA – 20 Years and Still Critically Important

Y DNA tracks the Y chromosome for males via the patrilineal (surname) line, providing matching and historical migration information.

We started 20 years ago testing 10 STR markers. Today, we begin at 37 markers, can upgrade to 67 or 111, but the preferred test is the Big Y which provides results for 700+ STR markers plus results from the entire gold standard region of the Y chromosome in order to provide the most refined results. This allows genealogists to use STR markers and SNP results together for various aspects of genealogy.

I created a Y DNA resource page, here, in order to provide a repository for Y DNA information and updates in one place. I would encourage anyone who can to order or upgrade to the Big Y-700 test which provides critical lineage information in addition to and beyond traditional STR testing. Additionally, the Big Y-700 test helps build the Y DNA haplotree which is growing by leaps and bounds.

More new SNPs are found and named EVERY SINGLE DAY today at FamilyTreeDNA than were named in the first several years combined. The 2006 SNP tree listed a grand total of 459 SNPs that defined the Y DNA tree at that time, according to the ISOGG Y DNA SNP tree. Goran Rundfeldt, head of R&D at FamilyTreeDNA posted this today:

2020 was an awful year in so many ways, but it was an unprecedented year for human paternal phylogenetic tree reconstruction. The FTDNA Haplotree or Great Tree of Mankind now includes:

37,534 branches with 12,696 added since 2019 – 51% growth!
defined by
349,097 SNPs with 131,820 added since 2019 – 61% growth!

In just one year, 207,536 SNPs were discovered and assigned FT SNP names. These SNPs will help define new branches and refine existing ones in the future.

The tree is constructed based on high coverage chromosome Y sequences from:
– More than 52,500 Big Y results
– Almost 4,000 NGS results from present-day anonymous men that participated in academic studies

Plus an additional 3,000 ancient DNA results from archaeological remains, of mixed quality and Y chromosome coverage at FamilyTreeDNA.

Wow, just wow.

These three new articles in 2020 will get you started on your Y DNA journey!

Mitochondrial DNA – Matrilineal Line of Humankind is Being Rewritten

The original Oxford Ancestor’s mitochondrial DNA test tested 400 locations. The original Family Tree DNA test tested around 1000 locations. Today, the full sequence mitochondrial DNA test is standard, testing the entire 16,569 locations of the mitochondria.

Mitochondrial DNA tracks your mother’s direct maternal, or matrilineal line. I’ve created a mitochondrial DNA resource page, here that includes easy step-by-step instructions for after you receive your results.

New articles in 2020 included the introduction of The Million Mito Project. 2021 should see the first results – including a paper currently in the works.

The Million Mito Project is rewriting the haplotree of womankind. The current haplotree has expanded substantially since the first handful of haplogroups thanks to thousands upon thousands of testers, but there is so much more information that can be extracted today.

Y and Mitochondrial Resources

If you don’t know of someone in your family to test for Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA for a specific ancestral line, you can always turn to the Y DNA projects at Family Tree DNA by searching here.

The search provides you with a list of projects available for a specific surname along with how many customers with that surname have tested. Looking at the individual Y DNA projects will show the earliest known ancestor of the surname line.

Another resource, WikiTree lists people who have tested for the Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA lines of specific ancestors.

Click on images to enlarge

On the left side, my maternal great-grandmother’s profile card, and on the right, my paternal great-great-grandfather. You can see that someone has tested for the mitochondrial DNA of Nora (OK, so it’s me) and the Y DNA of John Estes (definitely not me.)

MitoYDNA, a nonprofit volunteer organization created a comparison tool to replace Ysearch and Mitosearch when they bit the dust thanks to GDPR.

MitoYDNA accepts uploads from different sources and allows uploaders to not only match to each other, but to view the STR values for Y DNA and the mutation locations for the HVR1 and HVR2 regions of mitochondrial DNA. Mags Gaulden, one of the founders, explains in her article, What sets mitoYDNA apart from other DNA Databases?.

If you’ve tested at nonstandard companies, not realizing that they didn’t provide matching, or if you’ve tested at a company like Sorenson, Ancestry, and now Oxford Ancestors that is going out of business, uploading your results to mitoYDNA is a way to preserve your investment. PS – I still recommend testing at FamilyTreeDNA in order to receive detailed results and compare in their large database.

CentiMorgans – The Word of Two Decades

The world of autosomal DNA turns on the centimorgan (cM) measure. What is a centimorgan, exactly? I wrote about that unit of measure in the article Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’ Crab.

Fortunately, new tools and techniques make using cMs much easier. The Shared cM Project was updated this year, and the results incorporated into a wonderfully easy tool used to determine potential relationships at DNAPainter based on the number of shared centiMorgans.

Match quality and potential relationships are determined by the number of shared cMs, and the chromosome browser is the best tool to use for those comparisons.

Chromosome Browser – Genetics Tool to View Chromosome Matches

Chromosome browsers allow testers to view their matching cMs of DNA with other testers positioned on their own chromosomes.

My two cousins’ DNA where they match me on chromosomes 1-4, is shown above in blue and red at Family Tree DNA. It’s important to know where you match cousins, because if you match multiple cousins on the same segment, from the same side of your family (maternal or paternal), that’s suggestive of a common ancestor, with a few caveats.

Some people feel that a chromosome browser is an advanced tool, but I think it’s simply standard fare – kind of like driving a car. You need to learn how to drive initially, but after that, you don’t even think about it – you just get in and go. Here’s help learning how to drive that chromosome browser.

Triangulation – Science Plus Group DNA Matching Confirms Genealogy

The next logical step after learning to use a chromosome browser is triangulation. If fact, you’re seeing triangulation above, but don’t even realize it.

The purpose of genetic genealogy is to gather evidence to “prove” ancestral connections to either people or specific ancestors. In autosomal DNA, triangulation occurs when:

  • You match at least two other people (not close relatives)
  • On the same reasonably sized segment of DNA (generally 7 cM or greater)
  • And you can assign that segment to a common ancestor

The same two cousins are shown above, with triangulated segments bracketed at MyHeritage. I’ve identified the common ancestor with those cousins that those matching DNA segments descend from.

MyHeritage’s triangulation tool confirms by bracketing that these cousins also match each other on the same segment, which is the definition of triangulation.

I’ve written a lot about triangulation recently.

If you’d prefer a video, I recorded a “Top Tips” Facebook LIVE with MyHeritage.

Why is Ancestry missing from this list of triangulation articles? Ancestry does not offer a chromosome browser or segment information. Therefore, you can’t triangulate at Ancestry. You can, however, transfer your Ancestry DNA raw data file to either FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, or GEDmatch, all three of which offer triangulation.

Step by step download/upload transfer instructions are found in this article:

Clustering Matches and Correlating Trees

Based on what we’ve seen over the past few years, we can no longer depend on the major vendors to provide all of the tools that genealogists want and need.

Of course, I would encourage you to stay with mainstream products being used by a significant number of community power users. As with anything, there is always someone out there that’s less than honorable.

2020 saw a lot of innovation and new tools introduced. Maybe that’s one good thing resulting from people being cooped up at home.

Third-party tools are making a huge difference in the world of genetic genealogy. My favorites are Genetic Affairs, their AutoCluster tool shown above, DNAPainter and DNAGedcom.

These articles should get you started with clustering.

If you like video resources, here’s a MyHeritage Facebook LIVE that I recorded about how to use AutoClusters:

I created a compiled resource article for your convenience, here:

I have not tried a newer tool, YourDNAFamily, that focuses only on 23andMe results although the creator has been a member of the genetic genealogy community for a long time.

Painting DNA Makes Chromosome Browsers and Triangulation Easy

DNAPainter takes the next step, providing a repository for all of your painted segments. In other words, DNAPainter is both a solution and a methodology for mass triangulation across all of your chromosomes.

Here’s a small group of people who match me on the same maternal segment of chromosome 1, including those two cousins in the chromosome browser and triangulation sections, above. We know that this segment descends from Philip Jacob Miller and his wife because we’ve been able to identify that couple as the most distant ancestor intersection in all of our trees.

It’s very helpful that DNAPainter has added the functionality of painting all of the maternal and paternal bucketed matches from Family Tree DNA.

All you need to do is to link your known matches to your tree in the proper place at FamilyTreeDNA, then they do the rest by using those DNA matches to indicate which of the rest of your matches are maternal and paternal. Instructions, here. You can then export the file and use it at DNAPainter to paint all of those matches on the correct maternal or paternal chromosomes.

Here’s an article providing all of the DNAPainter Instructions and Resources.

DNA Matches Plus Trees Enhance Genealogy

Of course, utilizing DNA matching plus finding common ancestors in trees is one of the primary purposes of genetic genealogy – right?

Vendors have linked the steps of matching DNA with matching ancestors in trees.

Genetic Affairs take this a step further. If you don’t have an ancestor in your tree, but your matches have common ancestors with each other, Genetic Affairs assembles those trees to provide you with those hints. Of course, that common ancestor might not be relevant to your genealogy, but it just might be too!

click to enlarge

This tree does not include me, but two of my matches descend from a common ancestor and that common ancestor between them might be a clue as to why I match both of them.

Ethnicity Continues to be Popular – But Is No Shortcut to Genealogy

Ethnicity is always popular. People want to “do their DNA” and find out where they come from. I understand. I really do. Who doesn’t just want an answer?

Of course, it’s not that simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to people who test for that purpose with high expectations. Hopefully, ethnicity will pique their curiosity and encourage engagement.

All four major vendors rolled out updated ethnicity results or related tools in 2020.

The future for ethnicity, I believe, will be held in integrated tools that allow us to use ethnicity results for genealogy, including being able to paint our ethnicity on our chromosomes as well as perform segment matching by ethnicity.

For example, if I carry an African segment on chromosome 1 from my father, and I match one person from my mother’s side and one from my father’s side on that same segment – one or the other of those people should also have that segment identified as African. That information would inform me as to which match is paternal and which is maternal

Not only that, this feature would help immensely tracking ancestors back in time and identifying their origins.

Will we ever get there? I don’t know. I’m not sure ethnicity is or can be accurate enough. We’ll see.

Transition to Digital and Online

Sometimes the future drags us kicking and screaming from the present.

With the imposed isolation of 2020, conferences quickly moved to an online presence. The genealogy community has all pulled together to make this work. The joke is that 2020’s most used phrase is “can you hear me?” I can vouch for that.

Of course while the year 2020 is over, the problem isn’t and is extending at least through the first half of 2021 and possibly longer. Conferences are planned months, up to a year, in advance and they can’t turn on a dime, so don’t even begin to expect in-person conferences until either late in 2021 or more likely, 2022 if all goes well this year.

I expect the future will eventually return to in-person conferences, but not entirely.

Finding ways to be more inclusive allows people who don’t want to or can’t travel or join in-person to participate.

I’ve recorded several sessions this year, mostly for 2021. Trust me, these could be a comedy, mostly of errors😊

I participated in four MyHeritage Facebook LIVE sessions in 2020 along with some other amazing speakers. This is what “live” events look like today!

Screenshot courtesy MyHeritage

A few days ago, I asked MyHeritage for a list of their LIVE sessions in 2020 and was shocked to learn that there were more than 90 in English, all free, and you can watch them anytime. Here’s the MyHeritage list.

By the way, every single one of the speakers is a volunteer, so say a big thank you to the speakers who make this possible, and to MyHeritage for the resources to make this free for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to coordinate anything like this, it’s anything but easy.

Additonally, I’ve created two Webinars this year for Legacy Family Tree Webinars.

Geoff Rasmussen put together the list of their top webinars for 2020, and I was pleased to see that I made the top 10! I’m sure there are MANY MORE you’d be interested in watching. Personally, I’m going to watch #6 yet today! Also, #9 and #22. You can always watch new webinars for free for a few days, and you can subscribe to watch all webinars, here.

The 2021 list of webinar speakers has been announced here, and while I’m not allowed to talk about something really fun that’s upcoming, let’s just say you definitely have something to look forward to in the springtime!

Also, don’t forget to register for RootsTech Connect which is entirely online and completely free, February 25-27, here.

Thank you to Penny Walters for creating this lovely graphic.

There are literally hundreds of speakers providing sessions in many languages for viewers around the world. I’ve heard the stats, but we can’t share them yet. Let me just say that you will be SHOCKED at the magnitude and reach of this conference. I’m talking dumbstruck!

During one of our zoom calls, one of the organizers says it feels like we’re constructing the plane as we’re flying, and I can confirm his observation – but we are getting it done – together! All hands on deck.

I’ll be presenting an advanced session about triangulation as well as a mini-session in the FamilySearch DNA Resource Center about finding your mother’s ancestors. I’ll share more information as it’s released and I can.

Companies and Owners Come & Go

You probably didn’t even notice some of these 2020 changes. Aside from the death of Bryan Sykes (RIP Bryan,) the big news and the even bigger unknown is the acquisition of Ancestry by Blackstone. Recently the CEO, Margo Georgiadis announced that she was stepping down. The Ancestry Board of Directors has announced an external search for a new CEO. All I can say is that very high on the priority list should be someone who IS a genealogist and who understands how DNA applies to genealogy.

Other changes included:

In the future, as genealogy and DNA testing becomes ever more popular and even more of a commodity, company sales and acquisitions will become more commonplace.

Some Companies Reduced Services and Cut Staff

I understand this too, but it’s painful. The layoffs occurred before Covid, so they didn’t result from Covid-related sales reductions. Let’s hope we see renewed investment after the Covid mess is over.

In a move that may or may not be related to an attempt to cut costs, Ancestry removed 6 and 7 cM matches from their users, freeing up processing resources, hardware, and storage requirements and thereby reducing costs.

I’m not going to beat this dead horse, because Ancestry is clearly not going to move on this issue, nor on that of the much-requested chromosome browser.

Later in the year, 23andMe also removed matches and other features, although, to their credit, they have restored at least part of this functionality and have provided ethnicity updates to V3 and V4 kits which wasn’t initially planned.

It’s also worth noting that early in 2020, 23andMe laid off 100 people as sales declined. Since that time, 23andMe has increasingly pushed consumers to pay to retest on their V5 chip.

About the same time, Ancestry also cut their workforce by about 6%, or about 100 people, also citing a slowdown in the consumer testing market. Ancestry also added a health product.

I’m not sure if we’ve reached market saturation or are simply seeing a leveling off. I wrote about that in DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons.

Of course, the pandemic economy where many people are either unemployed or insecure about their future isn’t helping.

The various companies need some product diversity to survive downturns. 23andMe is focused on medical research with partners who pay 23andMe for the DNA data of customers who opt-in, as does Ancestry.

Both Ancestry and MyHeritage provide subscription services for genealogy records.

FamilyTreeDNA is part of a larger company, GenebyGene whose genetics labs do processing for other companies and medical facilities.

A huge thank you to both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA for NOT reducing services to customers in 2020.

Scientific Research Still Critical & Pushes Frontiers

Now that DNA testing has become a commodity, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that DNA testing is still a scientific endeavor that requires research to continue to move forward.

I’m still passionate about research after 20 years – maybe even more so now because there’s so much promise.

Research bleeds over into the consumer marketplace where products are improved and new features created allowing us to better track and understand our ancestors through their DNA that we and our family members inherit.

Here are a few of the research articles I published in 2020. You might notice a theme here – ancient DNA. What we can learn now due to new processing techniques is absolutely amazing. Labs can share files and information, providing the ability to “reprocess” the data, not the DNA itself, as more information and expertise becomes available.

Of course, in addition to this research, the Million Mito Project team is hard at work rewriting the tree of womankind.

If you’d like to participate, all you need to do is to either purchase a full sequence mitochondrial DNA kit at FamilyTreeDNA, or upgrade to the full sequence if you tested at a lower level previously.

Predictions

Predictions are risky business, but let me give it a shot.

Looking back a year, Covid wasn’t on the radar.

Looking back 5 years, neither Genetic Affairs nor DNAPainter were yet on the scene. DNAAdoption had just been formed in 2014 and DNAGedcom which was born out of DNAAdoption didn’t yet exist.

In other words, the most popular tools today didn’t exist yet.

GEDmatch, founded in 2010 by genealogists for genealogists was 5 years old, but was sold in December 2019 to Verogen.

We were begging Ancestry for a chromosome browser, and while we’ve pretty much given up beating them, because the horse is dead and they can sell DNA kits through ads focused elsewhere, that doesn’t mean genealogists still don’t need/want chromosome and segment based tools. Why, you’d think that Ancestry really doesn’t want us to break through those brick walls. That would be very bizarre, because every brick wall that falls reveals two more ancestors that need to be researched and spurs a frantic flurry of midnight searching. If you’re laughing right now, you know exactly what I mean!

Of course, if Ancestry provided a chromosome browser, it would cost development money for no additional revenue and their customer service reps would have to be able to support it. So from Ancestry’s perspective, there’s no good reason to provide us with that tool when they can sell kits without it. (Sigh.)

I’m not surprised by the management shift at Ancestry, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see several big players go public in the next decade, if not the next five years.

As companies increase in value, the number of private individuals who could afford to purchase the company decreases quickly, leaving private corporations as the only potential buyers, or becoming publicly held. Sometimes, that’s a good thing because investment dollars are infused into new product development.

What we desperately need, and I predict will happen one way or another is a marriage of individual tools and functions that exist separately today, with a dash of innovation. We need tools that will move beyond confirming existing ancestors – and will be able to identify ancestors through our DNA – out beyond each and every brick wall.

If a tester’s DNA matches to multiple people in a group descended from a particular previously unknown couple, and the timing and geography fits as well, that provides genealogical researchers with the hint they need to begin excavating the traditional records, looking for a connection.

In fact, this is exactly what happened with mitochondrial DNA – twice now. A match and a great deal of digging by one extremely persistent cousin resulting in identifying potential parents for a brick-wall ancestor. Autosomal DNA then confirmed that my DNA matched with 59 other individuals who descend from that couple through multiple children.

BUT, we couldn’t confirm those ancestors using autosomal DNA UNTIL WE HAD THE NAMES of the couple. DNA has the potential to reveal those names!

I wrote about that in Mitochondrial DNA Bulldozes Brick Wall and will be discussing it further in my RootsTech presentation.

The Challenge

We have most of the individual technology pieces today to get this done. Of course, the combined technological solution would require significant computing resources and processing power – just at the same time that vendors are desperately trying to pare costs to a minimum.

Some vendors simply aren’t interested, as I’ve already noted.

However, the winner, other than us genealogists, of course, will be the vendor who can either devise solutions or partner with others to create the right mix of tools that will combine matching, triangulation, and trees of your matches to each other, even if you don’t’ share a common ancestor.

We need to follow the DNA past the current end of the branch of our tree.

Each triangulated segment has an individual history that will lead not just to known ancestors, but to their unknown ancestors as well. We have reached critical mass in terms of how many people have tested – and more success would encourage more and more people to test.

There is a genetic path over every single brick wall in our genealogy.

Yes, I know that’s a bold statement. It’s not future Jetson’s flying-cars stuff. It’s doable – but it’s a matter of commitment, investment money, and finding a way to recoup that investment.

I don’t think it’s possible for the one-time purchase of a $39-$99 DNA test, especially when it’s not a loss-leader for something else like a records or data subscription (MyHeritage and Ancestry) or a medical research partnership (Ancestry and 23andMe.)

We’re performing these analysis processes manually and piecemeal today. It’s extremely inefficient and labor-intensive – which is why it often fails. People give up. And the process is painful, even when it does succeed.

This process has also been made increasingly difficult when some vendors block tools that help genealogists by downloading match and ancestral tree information. Before Ancestry closed access, I was creating theories based on common ancestors in my matches trees that weren’t in mine – then testing those theories both genetically (clusters, AutoTrees and ThruLines) and also by digging into traditional records to search for the genetic connection.

For example, I’m desperate to identify the parents of my James Lee Clarkson/Claxton, so I sorted my spreadsheet by surname and began evaluating everyone who had a Clarkson/Claxton in their tree in the 1700s in Virginia or North Carolina. But I can’t do that anymore now, either with a third-party tool or directly at Ancestry. Twenty million DNA kits sold for a minimum of $79 equals more than 1.5 billion dollars. Obviously, the issue here is not a lack of funds.

Including Y and mitochondrial DNA resources in our genetic toolbox not only confirms accuracy but also provides additional hints and clues.

Sometimes we start with Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA, and wind up using autosomal and sometimes the reverse. These are not competing products. It’s not either/or – it’s *and*.

Personally, I don’t expect the vendors to provide this game-changing complex functionality for free. I would be glad to pay for a subscription for top-of-the-line innovation and tools. In what other industry do consumers expect to pay for an item once and receive constant life-long innovations and upgrades? That doesn’t happen with software, phones nor with automobiles. I want vendors to be profitable so that they can invest in new tools that leverage the power of computing for genealogists to solve currently unsolvable problems.

Every single end-of-line ancestor in your tree represents a brick wall you need to overcome.

If you compare the cost of books, library visits, courthouse trips, and other research endeavors that often produce exactly nothing, these types of genetic tools would be both a godsend and an incredible value.

That’s it.

That’s the challenge, a gauntlet of sorts.

Who’s going to pick it up?

I can’t answer that question, but I can say that 23andMe can’t do this without supporting extensive trees, and Ancestry has shown absolutely no inclination to support segment data. You can’t achieve this goal without segment information or without trees.

Among the current players, that leaves two DNA testing companies and a few top-notch third parties as candidates – although – as the past has proven, the future is uncertain, fluid, and everchanging.

It will be interesting to see what I’m writing at the end of 2025, or maybe even at the end of 2021.

Stay tuned.

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Books

Genos Will Be Discontinued June 22, 2020 – Download Your Data Now

Sadly, Genos (original article here) is discontinuing both its service and supporting the customer portal to access your results. This means that if you tested with Genos, you need to download your raw data file now (before June 22, 2020) to be able to utilize your raw DNA with other providers that accept an exome file.

What I liked about Genos, aside from the medical information and easy-to-use platform, was that instead of selling your data for research, with them retaining the money, they provided a platform for you to make your DNA available for studies. The study organizer would contact you directly, and you could choose based on the study involved. That’s much more transparent and fair to the consumer than other models where you consent generally, but literally have no idea where your DNA is, or who is using it for what type of study.

Here’s what the email from Genos said.

Genos1

Genos2

Genos3

Download Now

Download your raw data file now.

Sign in to your account at Genos. You’ll see the following options on the Data Download page:

Genos4

I recommend downloading your data in all of the available formats. Be sure to name the files something familiar, so you know what they are. On a PC, these files download into the Downloads folder, and you’ll need to rename and move them.

You can upload your file to Promethease to receive similar medically focused results. I wrote about my experience with Promethease, here.

I hate to see a good product bite the dust. RIP Genos.

Phylogenetic Tree of Novel Coronavirus (hCoV-19) Covid-19

Covid Pedigree.png

I found this information about the phylogenetic tree of Covid-19 very interesting, in part, due to how rapidly this virus mutates.

Note that this tree was constructed with shared contributed information from just 333 samples, and that as of today, we know of 126,000+ confirmed cases, meaning that there are assuredly many more and this tree is a bare bones structure.

This tree and additional information can be viewed in various ways on this site.

Covid branching.png

Imagine how vast this tree would look if we could see the entire branching tree structure. This also explains the phenomenon of rapid viral mutation to either more or less virulent strains, and why “next year’s” vaccine will only be partially effective against a strain that was prevalent a few months earlier.

Let’s talk about mutations for a minute. We look at trees like this for the history of mankind or womankind over tens of thousands of years, not a 9 or 10 week timeline in the evolution of a virus.

If you look at that orange branch at about 5 o’clock, you can easily imagine that branch mutating to be nearly harmless, and the red branch at about 2 o’clock mutating to be even more deadly. It would be some time until we discovered that the different tree branches were behaving in different ways, and then even longer to determine how to harvest that information and distill it to be useful for prevention or cure.

I also found it very interesting to view the source of the various viral strains in the Americas on a GIS map.

Covid infection map.png

The strain in western Canada originated in Iran, as did the strain in New Zealand and one in Australia. Of course, the Iranian line originally came from China. Some infections in Australia came directly from China, as did most of the European pockets. South America and Mexico both arrived from Italy, as did many of the UK infections, although some appear to have passed through the Netherlands and Belgium first.

If you ever had any doubt in your mind about world being high interconnected, this should remove any question.

Take a few minutes and look at all of the informational options on this website. It’s wonderfully cool and is not limited to this outbreak.

I’ve updated my original article with additional resources as they’ve become available – in particular this “active case” map.

Keep yourself safe. Wash, limit social contact and hey, do some genealogy!

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

Parallels & Help: COVID-19 Coronavirus and Spanish Flu Pandemics

Pandemics, described as epidemics that spread to very large areas or the entire world, aren’t new.

It was exactly 100 years ago, this day, that my father, serving in the military where he had been suffering from the Spanish Flu in the Army barracks at Camp Custer, Michigan awaited word about his grandparents.

Joseph, known as Dode, Bolton had died on February 24rd. The flu was rampant in the Claiborne County, TN community of Hoop Creek where he and his wife, Margaret Claxton lived.

On Dode’s death certificate, his cause of death was described as “Pneumonia in both lungs following the flu.” The doctor has been caring for him for 6 days, although there wasn’t much the doctor could do.

flu Dode.png

The death certificate says Dode was buried the next day, but that’s not what the family recalled.

Dode’s body was put out in the barn where it was cold, awaiting burial. Everyone was sick, too sick to build a casket and dig a grave. Besides, the family was waiting on something else.

Margaret was sick too. She wasn’t expected to live either – and she didn’t. She lingered another 14 days beyond Dode when she too died of flu complications on March 10.

Flu Margaret.png

According to her death certificate, she had been under the doctor’s care since the same day as Dode. Her cause of death was “Bronco Pnumonia following flu.”

The family stated that they were buried together in the spring, when the ground thawed and people got well enough to dig the graves and bury the couple.

Browsing the Claiborne County death records, there were many spring deaths that year.

100 Years Apart

Dode and Margaret died before the invention of antibiotics and anti-viral drugs. Before the days of oxygen “tents,” hospitals and life-saving treatments. And certainly, before the days of vaccinations.

One would think that in today’s modern world, we would be beyond rapidly spreading pandemics – yet – here we are.

Exactly 100 years later we are facing another uncontrolled pandemic – the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

But there is one big difference. Our world has gotten smaller in the sense that people travel more often, more rapidly and more widely. Everyone depends on automobiles and rapid transit systems. Air travel is an everyday occurrence – meaning that a contagious disease can be very quickly spread worldwide. That’s exactly what’s happening. People travel, become infected and spread the disease back home before they know they are ill, like ant poison carried into the heart of the entire ant colony – Typhoid Mary on steroids.

What is the COVID-19 Coronavirus?

The Covid-19 Coronavirus is related to other viruses, which make humans and animals sick.

Over time, viruses mutate, become slightly different and more deadly as we have no immunity to fight the new viral strain.

That’s why there’s a new flu shot developed every year, and why the effectiveness may vary. Sometimes different people become sick from the same virus in different ways, meaning some people who are infected with the COVID-19 may have either no or light symptoms. Some become very sick but recover. And of course, as we’ve all heard, some die.

The worse part though, is that it appears that people can actually infect others during the 2- 14 days before they develop symptoms and up to 14 days after the symptoms are gone.

Symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure. Some people are contagious but have no symptoms as all. Not a lot is known about this virus at this time, so an abundance of caution is in order.

What are the Symptoms?

Flu Covid symptoms

By Mikael Häggström, M.D.- Author info- Reusing images – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87644670

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports symptoms here, which include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

Generally NOT a runny nose, vomiting or intestinal discomfort. This virus attacks through the lungs – although everyone can manifest this disease somewhat differently.

Older people, over 60, and increasing with age, or people with compromised immune systems such as HIV or transplant patients, people undergoing chemo or people with underlying organic systemic health issues such as lung, liver, kidney or heart disease are particularly vulnerable.

There is currently no vaccine nor treatment except for treating the symptoms individually as they appear. Therefore, prevention is key.

Diagnostic Swab Test

There is a swab test, but they are in very short supply inthe US and most people with symptoms are currently not being tested here.

Currently, the virus has been confirmed in about half the US states, but with no or inadequate testing, it’s certainly possible that it’s far more widespread than we know at this point.

My family member who teaches at a medical school hospital says they’ve adopted the “washing and introvert” protocol. That’s good advice for all of us.

What Can You Do?

This is NOT a time to panic, but it absolutely IS time to educate yourself and take preventative measures, including:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for a full minute, often.
  • Use hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes liberally. Can’t find hand sanitizer? You can use anything with more than 60% alcohol. Here’s a list of disinfecting products provided by the EPA. Here’s a sanitizer recipe, and another one here from the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Follow CDC recommendations here.
  • If you get sick with COVID-19 symptoms, the initial recommendation was to go to the hospital to be tested. However, now the recommendation is to call your health-care provider so as not to potentially infect others.
  • Don’t touch things like gas pump handles and doorknobs, especially in public places. I always wash my hands after touching things like menus in restaurants.
  • Stay home. Given that people don’t know if they are infected and can be infecting others for a full 2 weeks before they realize they are ill, your best bet to stay well is to stay at home.
  • If you feel ill or “off,” don’t go to work or anyplace. Many employers are arranging for people to work from home if possible.
  • If your child is ill, keep them at home too. School and confined spaces are literally petri dishes.
  • Don’t touch your face, meaning mouth, nose or eyes. People think they don’t, but they do without realizing it. This also extends to finger foods.

Face masks may or may not be effective. The virus is typically spread by actual contact, but if you are sneezed on directly and breath in the drops, you can contract the disease that way. However, the most common infection route is through touching something an infected person touched or otherwise contaminated and then touching your face. Face masks may help prevent you from touching your own face, even if they don’t directly prevent the virus in other ways. Please see the letter from Dr. Robb, below.

Where to Obtain Reliable News

This virus is a health issue, not a political football (please, no political comments, regardless of how you feel.) I would strongly, strongly recommend obtaining your information from health professionals and those who have no other agenda.

Here are some resources for you, including maps.

Letter from Dr. James Robb, MD FCAP

This letter, written to his family and friends by James Robb, MD FCAP, a renowned pathologist, confirmed by SNOPES, provides the following common-sense insight:

Dear Family and Friends, as some of you may recall, when I was a professor of pathology at the University of California San Diego, I was one of the first molecular virologists in the world to work on coronaviruses (the 1970s). I was the first to demonstrate the number of genes the virus contained. Since then, I have kept up with the coronavirus field and its multiple clinical transfers into the human population (e.g., SARS, MERS), from different animal sources.

The current projections for its expansion in the US are only probable, due to continued insufficient worldwide data, but it is most likely to be widespread by mid to late March and April.

Here is what I have done and the precautions that I take and will take. These are the same precautions I currently use during our influenza seasons, except for the mask and gloves.:

1) NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump, etc.

2) Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches. elevator buttons, etc.. Lift the gasoline dispenser with a paper towel or use a disposable glove.

3) Open doors with your closed fist or hip – do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. Especially important on bathroom and post office/commercial doors.

4) Use disinfectant wipes at the stores when they are available, including wiping the handle and child seat in grocery carts.

5) Wash your hands with soap for 10-20 seconds and/or use a greater than 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you return home from ANY activity that involves locations where other people have been.

6) Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances. AND in your car for use after getting gas or touching other contaminated objects when you can’t immediately wash your hands.

7) If possible, cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and discard. Use your elbow only if you have to. The clothing on your elbow will contain infectious virus that can be passed on for up to a week or more!

What I have stocked in preparation for the pandemic spread to the US:

1) Latex or nitrile latex disposable gloves for use when going shopping, using the gasoline pump, and all other outside activity when you come in contact with contaminated areas.

Note: This virus is spread in large droplets by coughing and sneezing. This means that the air will not infect you! BUT all the surfaces where these droplets land are infectious for about a week on average – everything that is associated with infected people will be contaminated and potentially infectious. The virus is on surfaces and you will not be infected unless your unprotected face is directly coughed or sneezed upon. This virus only has cell receptors for lung cells (it only infects your lungs). The only way for the virus to infect you is through your nose or mouth via your hands or an infected cough or sneeze onto or into your nose or mouth.

2) Stock up now with disposable surgical masks and use them to prevent you from touching your nose and/or mouth (We touch our nose/mouth 90X/day without knowing it!). This is the only way this virus can infect you – it is lung-specific. The mask will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth – it is only to keep you from touching your nose or mouth.

3) Stock up now with hand sanitizers and latex/nitrile gloves (get the appropriate sizes for your family). The hand sanitizers must be alcohol-based and greater than 60% alcohol to be effective.

4) Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY “cold-like” symptoms beginning. It is best to lie down and let the lozenge dissolve in the back of your throat and nasopharynx. Cold-Eeze lozenges is one brand available, but there are other brands available.

I, as many others do, hope that this pandemic will be reasonably contained, BUT I personally do not think it will be. Humans have never seen this snake-associated virus before and have no internal defense against it. Tremendous worldwide efforts are being made to understand the molecular and clinical virology of this virus. Unbelievable molecular knowledge about the genomics, structure, and virulence of this virus has already been achieved. BUT, there will be NO drugs or vaccines available this year to protect us or limit the infection within us. Only symptomatic support is available.

I hope these personal thoughts will be helpful during this potentially catastrophic pandemic. Good luck to all of us,

James Robb, MD FCAP

There is NO Rewind

Once it’s too late, you can’t go back for a do-over, so please don’t think this advice is for “everyone else.” It’s for everyone, including you and me. Yes, I know it’s inconvenient, but it’s also critically important.

Major conferences are cancelling as are events that bring people into close contact. These cancellations have huge economic impacts on the sponsors and attendees, meaning this is not a decision the organizers take lightly. If they are willing to forgo this opportunity and suffer the economic consequences in order to keep attendees safe, even if the virus isn’t known to be found in that location – yet – please heed that example and do the same, even if something you had planned to do hasn’t yet cancelled. All I can say is that I’m glad RootsTech was last week instead of next week – because I wouldn’t be there.

If you minimize your own chances of exposure, you also minimize infecting others before you know you’ve been exposed. Remember, people are contagious as much as 2 weeks both before and after they are actually ill, if they manifest symptoms at all.

Once the damage is done, there no going back and “I’m sorry” matters not to dead people or their grieving families. Back in 1920, Dode and Margaret were sharing a gourd dipper for drinking well water and attending church with their neighbors who were doing the same. They didn’t understand about germs and contagion. We do and we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to prevent that same outcome.

Take a look around you – those people you love are the people you are saving by NOT taking a chance of getting infected yourself.

Introvert, stay home, wash your hands and do some genealogy.

As Dr. Robb said, “good luck to all of us.”

Please feel free to share this article widely.

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

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

Layoffs

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, So What’s Happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at each one.

Market Saturation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising and Ethnicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Repeat Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Testing Products

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

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

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

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

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

Medical Research and DNA Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privacy Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they never go any further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISOGG provides a FAQ on Investigative Genetic Genealogy, here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA Testing Was A FAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowed Growth – Not Dead in the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Too Shall Pass

At least I hope it will.

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

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

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

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

I would call this “DNA crack.” 😊

Cooking Up DNA Crack!

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

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

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

Family Tree DNA

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

General Suggestion – Fix chronic site loading issues which discourage customers

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

MyHeritage

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

General – Clarify confusing subscription options in comparative grid format

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

Ancestry

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

General – Focus on the customers’ needs and repeated requests

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

23andMe

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

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

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

Summary

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

Just the facts.

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

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

Everybody row!

As genealogists, we need to:

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

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

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

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

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

There’s so much opportunity and work to do.

The sky is not falling. It rained a bit.

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

Rising tide

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

FamilyTreeDNA Thanksgiving Sale + New Comprehensive Health Report

FTDNA Thanksgiving.png

FamilyTreeDNA’s Thanksgiving Sale has begun. Almost everything is on sale. I don’t know about you, but I like to have all of my holiday planning and purchasing DONE before Thanksgiving. Some of the gifts I wanted for people this year are already sold out or backordered – but DNA testing is always available. The gift of history, and now of health too.

I wrote about the Big Y test and upgrades just a couple days ago, here, including the restructuring of the Big Y product resulting in a permanent $100 dollar reduction, in addition to sale prices.

FamilyTreeDNA has made a few product changes and introduced the new Tovana Health test.

I’ve included a special section of frequently asked questions (and answers) about tests and when upgrading does, and doesn’t, make sense.

Individual Tests

Let’s start with the sale prices for individual tests.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder (FF) $59 $79 $20
Y DNA 37 $99 $169 $70
Y DNA 111 *1 $199 $359 $160
Big Y-700 *2 $399 $649 $250
Mitochondrial Full Sequence *3 $139 $199 $60

*1 – You may notice that only the 37-marker and 111-marker tests are listed above. The 111-marker test was reduced to the 67-marker sale price, so, at least during the sale, the 67-marker test is not available. In other words, you get 111 markers for the price of 67.

*2 – The Big Y-700 test includes the Y 111 test plus another 589 STR markers (to equal or exceed 700 markers total) plus the SNP testing. You can read about the Big Y here.

*3 – The mitochondrial full sequence (FMS) aka mtFullSequence test is now the only mitochondrial DNA test available. I’m glad to see this change. The price of the mtFullSequence test has now dropped to the level of the less specific partial tests of yesteryear. Genealogists really need the granularity of the full test.

Bundles save even more – an additional $9 over purchasing the bundled items separately

Bundles

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder + mtFullSequence $189 $278 $89
Family Finder + Y-37 $149 $248 $188
Family Finder + Y111 $249 $438 $189
Y-37 + mtFullSequence $229 $368 $139
Y-111 + mtFullSequence $329 $558 $229
Family Finder + Y-37 + mtFull $279 $447 $170
Family Finder + Y-111 + mtFull $379 $637 $258

When Does Upgrading Make Sense?

Y DNA Q&A

Q – If I have several Y DNA matches, will upgrading help?

A – If you need more specific or granular information to tease your line out of several matches – upgrading will help refine your matches and determine who is a closer match, assuming some of your matches have tested at a higher level.

Q – If I have tested at a lower level of STR markers and have no matches, will I have matches at a higher level?

A – Sometimes, but not usually. If your mutations just happen to fall in the lower panels, you may have matches on higher panels that allow for more mutations. If you do have matches on a higher test in this circumstance, the person may or may not have your surname. You can also join haplogroup and surname projects where thresholds are slightly lower for matching within projects.

If you don’t test, you’ll never know.

Q – If I have no matches on STR markers, meaning 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111, will upgrading to the Big Y be beneficial?

A – Possibly to probably – and here’s why, even if you don’t initially have matches:

  • The Big Y-700 provides multiple tools including matches at the SNP level, not just the STR level, so you are matched in two entirely different ways.
  • You may have same-surname matches at the SNP level that you do not have at the STR level which are further back in time, but still valuable and relevant to your family history.
  • You may have SNP matches that aren’t STR matches that are not your surname, but reflect your family history before the advent of surnames. These matches can tell you where your family came from before you can locate them in records. In fact, this is the ONLY way you can track your family before the advent of surnames.
  • Even if you don’t have matches, you’ll receive all of your SNP markers that allow you to view your results on the Block Tree, which is in essence a migration map back through time. You can read about the Block Tree here.
  • Your test contributes to building the phylotree – meaning the Y DNA tree of man – which benefits all genealogists. In just the first 10 months of 2019, 32,000 new SNPs have been placed on the tree, resulting in about 5,000 new individual branches. All because of Big Y-700
  • New people test every day and your DNA tests fish for you every minute of every day.

Mitochondrial DNA Q&A

If you’ve previously taken lower level mitochondrial HVR1 and HVR2 tests, now is the perfect time to upgrade.

Q – I have 5,000 <or fill in large number here> HVR1 level matches. Will upgrading reduce the number of matches to those that are more meaningful?

A – Absolutely! Your most genealogically relevant matches, meaning closest in time, are those that match you exactly at the full sequence level.

Q – I don’t know where my ancestor was from. Can a full sequence test help me?

A – Yes. You can use the Matches Map and see where the ancestors of your closest matches were from. That’s a huge hint. You can also utilize your haplogroup, which, in some instances, will point to a specific continent such as Africa, Europe, Asia or Native American and Jewish populations.

Q – If I have no matches at the HVR1 or HVR2 level? Will an upgrade help me?

A – Possibly. Both the HVR1 and HVR2 (now obsolete) tests only allowed for one mutation difference to be considered a match. The full sequence allows for many more differences. If you were unlucky and your mutations just happened to fall in the HVR1 or HVR2 levels, it would prevent a match which will occur at a higher level. Either way, you’ll receive information about your rare mutations – which may well explain why you don’t have matches (yet)! You’ll also receive a full haplogroup which will be useful, allowing you to use the mitochondrial haplotree to track back in time, which I wrote about here.

There are so many ways to obtain useful information. I wrote a step-by-step guide to using mitochondrial DNA, here.

Upgrade Options

Please note that if you are considering an upgrade, it maybe beneficial to upgrade to the maximum test available for either the Y or mitochondrial DNA, especially if you cannot obtain more of the sample. Of course, if it’s your own sample, you can always swab again, but others can’t.

Every time a vial is opened for testing, more DNA is used, until there is none left. Additionally, DNA degrades with time, depending on the quality of the original scraping and the amount of bacteria in the sample. Generally, the sample is viable for at least 5 years, but not always. Some older samples remain viable for many years. There’s no way to know in advance.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Y-12 to Y-37 $79 $109 $30
Y-12 to Y-67 $149 $199 $50
Y-12 to Y-111 $169 $359 $190
Y-25 to Y-37 $49 $59 $10
Y-25 to Y-67 $119 $159 $40
Y-25 to Y-111 $149 $269 $120
Y-37 to Y-67 $69 $109 $40
Y-37 to Y-111 $119 $228 $109
Y-67 to Y-111 $69 $99 $30
Y-12 to Big Y-700 $359 $629 $270
Y-25 to Big Y-700 $349 $599 $250
Y-37 to Big Y-700 $319 $569 $250
Y-67 to Big Y-700 $259 $499 $240
Y-111 to Big Y-700 $229 $499 $270
Big Y-500 to Big Y-700 $189 $249 $60
HVR1 to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60
mtDNA Plus to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60

Tovana – A New Limited Availability Exome Medical Report 

Recently, FamilyTreeDNA did a limited announcement about a medically supervised health exome health test for a subset of customers, specifically customers who:

  • Don’t live in Pennsylvania, New York, California or Maryland, due to state law restrictions.
  • Took the Family Finder test since October 2015 – meaning no transfers. The Family Finder test is used in conjunction with the exome chip to generate the customer report.

If you took the Family Finder test before October 2015, you are eligible but the rollout is being done in stages and your kit will be eligible in December.

This Tovana Genome Report is focused towards people who are health and wellness conscious. Meaning those who don’t want to die a premature death that might be preventable.

All genetic health tests focus on predispositions. You may or may not develop the condition, with a few notable exceptions, but forewarned is forearmed.

You might, however, be VERY interested in intervening, one way or another, BEFORE you develop potentially life-threatening conditions, or taking preventative actions to avoid developing those conditions. At the very least, you can be aware and monitor your health to catch them early, when they are treatable, manageable or potentially curable.

It only takes one, ONE, terrifying experience to convince you that health testing might make a difference.

Once you’re embroiled in that health nightmare, there is no going back in time to take a test and enact preventative measures.

My mother might still be with us had we known she was susceptible to blood clots. My sister had metastatic breast cancer.

Let me show you something from a Tovana report.

FTDNA Tovana.png

This portion of a page from an actual customer report shows this individual is positive for a mutation for a clotting disorder where clots are formed that can cause strokes, pulmonary embolisms and DVTs (deep vein thrombosis).

I’d give anything, any amount of money – to have had advance warning so we could have watched my mother more vigilantly and taken simple proactive measures that might have prevented her stroke and resulting death.

What would another 10 or 15 years with her have been worth?

We could have and would have discussed this with her doctors and asked about preventative measures, like taking aspirin or other measures as indicated by her health and other medications. (Please do not self-diagnose or medicate without discussing with your physician as drugs interact in ways patients may not be aware of.)

Compared to hospital (or funeral) bills, not to mention the sheer agony…the cost of this test at $799 is irrelevant. What better way to say, “I love you”?

I would pick up bottles by the side of the road, if I needed to, to be able to purchase this test for my Mom 15 years ago. Sadly, this type of testing wasn’t available then, but it is now.

Ignorance is not bliss.

I want to know if I or my children carry these predispositions so that we can take action.

The Tovana Test is Different

The Tovana test is different from and much more comprehensive than the tests offered by Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe that utilize only your autosomal genealogy test.

To begin with, the Tovana test is run on an exome chip that tests over 50 million locations in addition to the 700,000+ locations tested in the Family Finder test.

The completed report that I viewed was 128 pages in length, with lots of graphics. This  explain explains autosomal dominant inheritance.

FTDNA Tovana autosomal dominant.png

The report is very user-friendly, including drawings, a risk-meter for polygenic conditions that involve more than a simple yes or no answer, explanations and recommendations for each condition reported.

FTDNA Tovana risk meter.png

And yes, in case you’re wondering, the report also includes the fun traits like ear wax and such that you can discuss if you’re bored beyond imagination at a cocktail party.

Each report is centered around and tailored to the family information you provide, such as known Jewish heritage, or known cases of cancer.

FTDNA Tovana Table of Contents.png

Comparisons

I’ve compiled a chart with some comparison details – although this test is in a class by itself where the other three tests compete directly with each other.

I’ve personally taken the other tests, except for the Ancestry upgrade. I also took an early exome test a few years ago, but THAT ONE CAME WITH NO REPORT OR EXPLANATIONS.

  23andme Ancestry Health Core MyHeritage Family Tree DNA Tovana Test
# DNA locations tested About 700,000 About 700,000 About 700,000 >50 million plus the 700,000 in the Family Finder test
# Results Provided to Customer 78 health + polygenic diabetes +34 traits such as freckles 84 88+ polygenic heart, diabetes, breast cancer 3000+ including many polygenic diseases including heart, diabetes & 35 genes associated with breast cancer
Physician Oversight No PWNHealth PWNHealth Tovana
Personal Clinical Analysis No No No Yes
Analysis, Interpretation by board certified geneticist No No No Yes
Genetic Counseling No Yes, limited Yes, limited $50 for 30-minute session
Updates Yes, episodic depending on test level, may not receive, sometimes have to purchase new test No, one time results only Yes, free for first year then with $99 per year subscription Not at this time, but under consideration
Cost – Initial Purchase $149 upgrade only after DNA test $199 new purchase -combined health plus ancestry $799 introductory price
Upgrade if Already Tested No $49 upgrade if have already tested $120 to upgrade if already tested, plus $99 year subscription after year 1 Not relevant
Requirements None This is an upgrade from an existing Ancestry test Must test with MyHeritage, not a transfer kit

Are You Eligible?

To see if you are one of the customers eligible to purchase the Tovane Genome Report, sign in, here, and then check your personal page under “Additional Features” to see if the Tovana Genome Report is available. If so, click for more information or to order.

FTDNA Tovana order.png

You’ve probably guessed what my family is receiving for Christmas😊. No one else is going to suffer from or die from something preventable if I can help it.

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

MyHeritage Expands DNA Testing to Include (Optional) Health Information

Recently, I received news that MyHeritage is now offering a DNA test for genealogy that can also be utilized to obtain health information. I had some questions about the service and reached out to MyHeritage, so after I share their announcement, I’ll provide the information I received from MyHeritage.

The MyHeritage Health service is different from the services currently provided by either 23andMe or, individually, Promethease, by uploading your file.

MyHeritage Health and Ancestry.png

The text of the MyHeritage announcement e-mail follows below:

The new test provides comprehensive health reports that can empower future health and lifestyle choices. It is a superset of the current MyHeritage DNA test and includes its pillar features: a percentage breakdown of ethnic origins and matching to relatives through shared DNA. MyHeritage is now the only global consumer DNA company to offer an extensive health and ancestry product in dozens of languages. The two tests will be offered on our website side by side.

The new test provides health reports that show users their risk of developing or carrying genetic conditions. Reports include conditions where single genes contribute to the risk, such as hereditary breast cancer, late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and late-onset Parkinson’s disease; conditions associated with multiple genes, such as heart disease, and type 2 diabetes; and carrier status reports on conditions that can be passed down from a couple to their children, such as Tay-Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis.

Learn more about the MyHeritage DNA Health + Ancestry test by reading the press release and the blog post.

For an overview of the new test, you are invited to view the “About MyHeritage DNA Health + Ancestry Test” video. This video has a separate version for US users.

The MyHeritage DNA Health + Ancestry kit is available at the price of $199 + shipping on the MyHeritage DNA website. Users who have already purchased the genealogical (ancestry-only) MyHeritage DNA test can upgrade to receive health reports for $120. The new health kit is available globally except in a few countries that do not allow health-related consumer genetic testing.

Privacy is our top priority. All health data is protected by state-of-the-art encryption. Health report data is secured using additional password protection and is so secure that even MyHeritage employees cannot access it. MyHeritage has never licensed or sold user data, and has committed to never do so without explicit user consent. MyHeritage is the only consumer DNA company that has pledged to never sell data to insurance companies. It also applies a strict policy to prohibit the use of its DNA services by law enforcement agencies.

There’s more detail in the MyHeritage press release:

In total, MyHeritage’s Health+Ancestry test covers one of the most extensive ranges of conditions offered by an at-home DNA test: 11 Genetic Risk Reports, including a hereditary breast cancer (BRCA) report that tests 10 pathogenic variants; 3 Polygenic Risk Reports; and 15 Carrier Status Reports.

The World Health Organization identifies cardiovascular disease as the number one cause of death globally. This makes MyHeritage’s unique report for heart disease risk particularly beneficial. This report is based on a cutting-edge method called Polygenic Risk Score that examines hundreds, and in some cases thousands of variants across the entire genome.

In addition to heart disease, the Health+Ancestry product also includes a Polygenic Risk Score for type 2 diabetes, a condition that has significantly increased in prevalence in recent decades and now affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide and 40% of Americans within their lifetime. MyHeritage is also unique in providing a third Polygenic Risk Score for breast cancer, which delivers a risk assessment for breast cancer when none of the BRCA variants that MyHeritage tests for are found. MyHeritage is currently the only major home DNA testing company to offer Polygenic Risk Reports for multiple conditions, and more Polygenic Risk Reports will be added shortly after the product’s initial release. The three initial Polygenic Risk Reports support only populations with European ancestry, but the company has begun conducting research to allow the polygenic reports to cover a broader spectrum of populations in the future.

The list of conditions and genes reported can be found here.

The unique aspect of the MyHeritage Health test is that they include diseases or conditions that are polygenic, meaning that multiple locations on multiple genes are taken into consideration in combination to create the report.

From the MyHeritage blog, for people in the US:

In the United States, we work with an independent network of physicians called PWNHealth, which supervises this new service and provides clinical oversight.

As with our current genealogical DNA kit, activation is required to associate the kit with the individual who is taking the test. With the MyHeritage DNA Health + Ancestry kit, activation must be done by the user who took the DNA test and it includes an additional step: completing a personal and family health history questionnaire. This ensures that users receive the reports that are appropriate for them. In the United States, an independent physician will review each health history questionnaire, approve the processing of the test, and evaluate all health reports before they are released. When a report indicates an increased risk for a specific condition, the physician will further determine whether genetic counseling is advised. If genetic counseling is recommended, a phone or video consultation with a genetic counselor from PWNHealth is included at no additional cost.

In the United States, the physician oversight and genetic counseling is an important benefit of the MyHeritage DNA Ancestry + Health test. This ensures that users will not be on their own when interpreting the results, in cases where the results indicate increased risk and the physician considers genetic counseling to be essential. In other words, our test provides access to experts who can help people understand their results, which our major competitor does not provide.

I personally feel that the physician oversight and access to a counselor is extremely important. I greatly appreciate that the counselor is included free in cases that merit that level of attention.

Of course, having taken the 23andMe test and utilized Promethease, I’m curious what the MyHeritage information might reveal that wasn’t covered in either of those others. In particular, my father had heart disease and my sister died of a heart attack, so I’m particularly concerned about heart health.

Questions, Answers and Things to Note

  • If you transferred your DNA to MyHeritage from any vendor, you’ll need to test on the MyHeritage chip in order to receive the health reports.
  • The health part of the test is not available to residents of NY, NH and RI due to their state laws. Sorry folks.
  • If you tested your DNA at MyHeritage, you are eligible for an upgrade to the Health product for the price of $120 by signing on to your account here and clicking on the Health tab. If you do not see the $120 upgrade option, that means that you are not eligible for the upgrade because you either haven’t tested yet, or you transferred your DNA file from another vendor.

MyHeritage Health.png

  • To order a new DNA+Health test or upgrade, click here. Current subscribers after signing on will see the new Health tab beside the DNA tab.

MyHeritage DNA tab.png

  • If you order a DNA kit without ordering through the Health tab, you’ll receive an Ancestry only test, but you can still upgrade for the $120 later, so don’t worry.

Occasionally, you can save a few $$ by ordering the initial genealogy-only MyHeritage DNA kit on sale, like for the current price of $59, then wait until your results are back and order the upgrade for $120, for a total of $179 – representing a $20 savings over the $199 price for the Ancestry+Health kit. Now is a great time to order!

  • The upgrade or purchase of the Health test provides initial health information for the first year, but after year 1, if you want updated health information as it becomes available, a health subscription costs $99 per year.

MyHeritage Health subscription.png

I was confused about exactly what the $99 Health Subscription covers, so I asked MyHeritage if I already have a full subscription (which I do, love, and you can try for free), would I still need to purchase the $99 Health Subscription?

I received the following reply:

Yes, you would still need the $99 Health Subscription, if you wish to gain access to all new Genetic Risk and Carrier Status Reports as they are released, beyond those you will get in your initial health results. None of the current subscriptions negates the need for the additional Health subscription for receiving health updates.

However, the Health Subscription will also unlock the advanced MyHeritage DNA genealogical features (see https://blog.myheritage.com/2018/12/starting-today-new-dna-upload-policy/) such as AutoClusters and Theory of Family Relativity.

So, a non-genealogist who buys the new MyHeritage DNA Health+Ancestry kit and adds the health subscription will not need to buy another type of subscription to unlock the advanced MyHeritage DNA genealogical features.

What’s Next?

MyHeritage Kit.jpg

I literally have my new MyHeritage DNA kit in my hands (because I transferred by DNA from another vendor initially) and I’m getting ready to swab.

After I receive my results, I’ll write a comparison about my MyHeritage health results as compared to my 23andMe results.

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Whole Genome Sequencing – Is It Ready for Prime Time?

Dante Labs is offering a whole genomes test for $199 this week as an early Black Friday special.

Please note that just as I was getting ready to push the publish button on this article, Veritas Genetics also jumped on the whole sequencing bandwagon for $199 for the first 1000 testers Nov. 19 and 20th. In this article, I discuss the Dante Labs test. I have NOT reviewed Veritas, their test nor terms, so the same cautions discussed below apply to them and any other company offering whole genome sequencing. The Veritas link is here.

Update – Veritas provides the VCF file for an additional $99, but does not provide FASTQ or BAM files, per their Tweet to me.

I have no affiliation with either company.

$199 (US) is actually a great price for a whole genome test, but before you click and purchase, there are some things you need to know about whole genome sequencing (WGS) and what it can and can’t do for you. Or maybe better stated, what you’ll have to do with your own results before you can utilize the information for genealogical purposes.

The four questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Why do you want to consider whole genome testing?
  • What question(s) are you trying to answer?
  • What information do you seek?
  • What is your testing goal?

I’m going to say this once now, and I’ll say it again at the end of the article.

Whole genome sequencing tests are NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR GENEALOGICAL DNA TESTS for mitochondrial, Y or autosomal testing. Whole genome sequencing is not a genealogy magic bullet.

There are both pros and cons of this type of purchase, as with most everything. Whole genome tests are for the most experienced and technically savvy genetic genealogists who understand both working with genetics and this field well, who have already taken the vendors’ genealogy tests and are already in the Y, mitochondrial and autosomal comparison data bases.

If that’s you or you’re interested in medical information, you might want to consider a whole genome test.

Let’s start with some basics.

What Is Whole Genome Sequencing?

Whole Genome Sequencing will sequence most of your genome. Keep in mind that humans are more than 99% identical, so the only portions that you’ll care about either medically or genealogically are the portions that differ or tend to mutate. Comparing regions where you match everyone else tells you exactly nothing at all.

Exome Sequencing – A Subset of Whole Genome

Exome sequencing, a subset of whole genome sequencing is utilized for medical testing. The Exome is the region identified as the portions most likely to mutate and that hold medically relevant information. You can read about the benefits and challenges of exome testing here.

I have had my Exome sequenced twice, once at Helix and once at Genos, now owned by NantOmics. Currently, NantOmics does not have a customer sign-in and has acquired my DNA sequence as part of the absorption of Genos. I’ll be writing about that separately. There is always some level of consumer risk in dealing with a startup.

Helix sequences your Exome (plus) so that you can order a variety of DNA based or personally themed products from their marketplace, although I’m not convinced about the utility of even the legitimacy of some of the available tests, such as the “Wine Explorer.”

On the other hand, the world-class The National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project now utilizes Helix for their testing, as does Spencer Well’s company, Insitome.

You can also pay to download your Exome sequence data separately for $499.

Autosomal Testing for Genealogy

Both whole genome and Exome testing are autosomal testing, meaning that they test chromosomes 1-22 (as opposed to Y and mitochondrial DNA) but the number of autosomal locations varies vastly between the various types of tests.

The locations selected by the genealogy testing companies are a subset of both the whole genome and the Exome. The different vendors that compare your DNA for genealogy generally utilize between 600,000 and 900,000 chip-specific locations that they have selected as being inclined to mutate – meaning that we can obtain genealogically relevant information from those mutations.

Some vendors (for example, 23andMe and Ancestry) also include some medical SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) on their chips, as both have formed medical research alliances with various companies.

Whole genome and Exome sequencing includes these same locations, BUT, the whole genome providers don’t compare the files to other testers nor reduce the files to the locations useful for genealogical comparisons. In other words, they don’t create upload files for you.

The following chart is not to scale, but is meant to convey the concept that the Exome is a subset of the whole genome, and the autosomal vendors’ selected SNPs, although not the same between the companies, are all subsets of the Exome and full genome.

I have not had my whole genome sequenced because I have seen no purpose for doing so, outside of curiosity.

This is NOT to imply that you shouldn’t. However, here are some things to think about.

Whole Genome Sequencing Questions

Coverage – Medical grade coverage is considered to be 30X, meaning an average of 30 scans of every targeted location in your genome. Some will have more and some will have less. This means that your DNA is scanned thirty different times to minimize errors. If a read error happens once or twice, it’s unlikely that the same error will happen several more times. You can read about coverage here and here.

Genomics Education Programme [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.

Here’s an example where the read length of Read 1 is 18, and the depth of the location shown in light blue is 4, meaning 4 actual reads were obtained. If the goal was 30X, then this result would be very poor. If the goal was 4X then this location is a high quality result for a 4X read.

In the above example, if the reference value, meaning the value at the light blue location for most people is T, then 4 instances of a T means you don’t have a mutation. On the other hand, if T is not the reference value, then 4 instances of T means that a mutation has occurred in that location.

Dante Labs coverage information is provided from their webpage as follows:

Other vendors coverage values will differ, but you should always know what you are purchasing.

Ownership – Who owns your data? What happens to your DNA itself (the sample) and results (the files) under normal circumstances and if the company is sold. Typically, the assets of the company, meaning your information, are included during any acquisition.

Does the company “share, lease or sell” your information as an additional revenue stream with other entities? If so, do they ask your permission each and every time? Do they perform internal medical research and then sell the results? What, if anything, is your DNA going to be used for other than the purpose for which you purchased the test? What control do you exercise over that usage?

Read the terms and conditions carefully for every vendor before purchasing.

File Delivery – Three types of files are generated during a whole genome test.

The VCF (Variant Call Format) which details your locations that are different from the reference file. A reference file is the “normal” value for humans.

A FASTQ file which includes the nucleotide sequence along with a corresponding quality score. Mutations in a messy area or that are not consistent may not be “real” and are considered false positives.

The BAM (Binary Alignment Map) file is used for Y DNA SNP alignment. The output from a BAM file is displayed in Family Tree DNA’s Big Y browser for their customers. Are these files delivered to you? If so, how? Family Tree DNA delivers their Big Y DNA BAM files as free downloads.

Typically whole genome data is too large for a download, so it is sent on a disc drive to you. Dante provides this disc for BAM and FASTQ files for 59 Euro ($69 US) plus shipping. VCF files are available free, but if you’re going to order this product, it would be a shame not to receive everything available.

Version – Discoveries are still being made to the human genome. If you thought we’re all done with that, we’re not. As new regions are mapped successfully, the addresses for the rest change, and a new genomic map is created. Think of this as street addresses and a new cluster of houses is now inserted between existing houses. All of the houses are periodically renumbered.

Today, typically results are delivered in either of two versions: hg19(GRVH37) or hg38(GRCH38). What happens when the next hg (human genome) version is released?

When you test with a vendor who uses your data for comparison as a part of a product they offer, they must realign your data so that the comparison will work for all of their customers (think Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, for example), but a vendor who only offers the testing service has no motivation to realign your output file for you. You only pay for sequencing, not for any after-the-fact services.

Platform – Multiple sequencing platforms are available, and not all platforms are entirely compatible with other competing platforms. For example, the Illumina platform and chips may or may not be compatible with the Affymetrix platform (now Thermo Fisher) and chips. Ask about chip compatibility if you have a specific usage in mind before you purchase.

Location – Where is your DNA actually being sequenced? Are you comfortable having your DNA sent to that geographic location for processing? I’m personally fine with anyplace in either the US, Canada or most of Europe, but other locations maybe not so much. I’d have to evaluate the privacy policies, applicable laws, non-citizen recourse and track record of those countries.

Last but perhaps most important, what do you want to DO with this file/information?

Utilization

What you receive from whole genome sequencing is files. What are you going to do with those files? How can you use them? What is your purpose or goal? How technically skilled are you, and how well do you understand what needs to be done to utilize those files?

A Specific Medical Question

If you have a particular question about a specific medical location, Dante allows you to ask the question as soon as you purchase, but you must know what question to ask as they note below.

You can click on their link to view their report on genetic diseases, but keep in mind, this is the disease you specifically ask about. You will very likely NOT be able to interpret this report without a genetic counselor or physician specializing in this field.

Take a look at both sample reports, here.

Health and Wellness in General

The Dante Labs Health and Wellness Report appears to be a collaborative effort with Sequencing.com and also appears to be included in the purchase price.

I uploaded both my Exome and my autosomal DNA results from the various testing companies (23andMe V3 and V4, Ancestry V1 and V2, Family Tree DNA, LivingDNA, DNA.Land) to Promethease for evaluation and there was very little difference between the health-related information returned based on my Exome data and the autosomal testing vendors. The difference is, of course, that the Exome coverage is much deeper (and therefore more reliable) because that test is a medical test, not a consumer genealogy test and more locations are covered. Whole genome testing would be more complete.

I wrote about Promethease here and here. Promethease does accept VCF files from various vendors who provide whole genome testing.

None of these tests are designed or meant for medical interpretation by non-professionals.

Medical Testing

If you plan to test with the idea that should your physician need a genetics test, you’re already ahead of the curve, don’t be so sure. It’s likely that your physician will want a genetics test using the latest technology, from their own lab, where they understand the quality measures in place as well as how the data is presented to them. They are unlikely to accept a test from any other source. I know, because I’ve already had this experience.

Genealogical Comparisons

The power of DNA testing for genealogy is comparing your data to others. Testing in isolation is not useful.

Mitochondrial DNA – I can’t tell for sure based on the sample reports, but it appears that you receive your full sequence haplogroup and probably your mutations as well from Dante. They don’t say which version of mitochondrial DNA they utilize.

However, without the ability to compare to other testers in a database, what genealogical benefit can you derive from this information?

Furthermore, mitochondrial DNA also has “versions,” and converting from an older to a newer version is anything but trivial. Haplogroups are renamed and branches sawed from one part of the mitochondrial haplotree and grafted onto another. A testing (only) vendor that does not provide comparisons has absolutely no reason to update your results and can’t be expected to do so. V17 is the current build, released in February 2016, with the earlier version history here.

Family Tree DNA is the only vendor who tests your full sequence mitochondrial DNA, compares it to other testers and updates your results when a new version is released. You can read more about this process, here and how to work with mtDNA results here.

Y DNA – Dante Labs provides BAM files, but other whole genome sequencers may not. Check before you purchase if you are interested in Y DNA. Again, you’ll need to be able to analyze the results and submit them for comparison. If you are not capable of doing that, you’ll need to pay a third party like either YFull or FGS (Full Genome Sequencing) or take the Big Y test at Family Tree DNA who has the largest Y Database worldwide and compares results.

Typically whole genome testers are looking for Y DNA SNPs, not STR values in BAM files. STR (short tandem repeat) values are the results that you receive when you purchase the 37, 67 or 111 tests at Family Tree DNA, as compared to the Big Y test which provides you with SNPs in order to resolve your haplogroup at the most granular level possible. You can read about the difference between SNPs and STRs here.

As with SNP data, you’ll need outside assistance to extract your STR information from the whole genome sequence information, none of which will be able to be compared with the testers in the Family Tree DNA data base. There is also an issue of copy-count standardization between vendors.

You can read about how to work with STR results and matches here and Big Y results here.

Autosomal DNA – None of the major providers that accept transfers (MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA, GedMatch) accept whole genome files. You would need to find a methodology of reducing the files from the whole genome to the autosomal SNPs accepted by the various vendors. If the vendors adopt the digital signature technology recently proposed in this paper by Yaniv Erlich et al to prevent “spoofed files,” modified files won’t be accepted by vendors.

Summary

Whole genome testing, in general, will and won’t provide you with the following:

Desired Feature Whole Genome Testing
Mitochondrial DNA Presumed full haplogroup and mutations provided, but no ability for comparison to other testers. Upload to Family Tree DNA, the only vendor doing comparisons not available.
Y DNA Presume Y chromosome mostly covered, but limited ability for comparison to other testers for either SNPs or STRs. Must utilize either YFull or FGS for SNP/STR analysis. Upload to Family Tree DNA, the vendor with the largest data base not available when testing elsewhere.
Autosomal DNA for genealogy Presume all SNPs covered, but file output needs to be reduced to SNPs offered/processed by vendors accepting transfers (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, GedMatch) and converted to their file formats. Modified files may not be accepted in the future.
Medical (consumer interest) Accuracy is a factor of targeted coverage rate and depth of actual reads. Whole genome vendors may or may not provide any analysis or reports. Dante does but for limited number of conditions. Promethease accepts VCF files from vendors and provides more.
Medical (physician accepted) Physician is likely to order a medical genetics test through their own institution. Physicians may not be willing to risk a misdiagnosis due to a factor outside of their control such as an incompatible human genome version.
Files VCF, FASTQ and BAM may or may not be included with results, and may or may not be free.
Coverage Coverage and depth may or may not be adequate. Multiple extractions (from multiple samples) may or may not be included with the initial purchase (if needed) or may be limited. Ask.
Updates Vendors who offer sequencing as a part of a products that include comparison to other testers will update your results version to the current reference version, such as hg38 and mitochondrial V17. Others do not, nor can they be expected to provide that service.
Version Inquire as to the human genome (hg) version or versions available to you, and which version(s) are acceptable to the third party vendors you wish to utilize. When the next version of the human genome is released, your file will no longer be compatible because WGS vendors are offering sequencing only, not results comparisons to databases for genealogy.
Ownership/Usage Who owns your sample? What will it be utilized for, other than the service you ordered, by whom and for what purposes? Will you we able to authorize or decline each usage?
Location Where geographically is your DNA actually being sequenced and stored? What happens to your actual DNA sample itself and the resulting files? This may not be the location where you return your swab kit.

The Question – Will I Order?

The bottom line is that if you are a genealogist, seeking genetic information for genealogical purposes, you’re much better off to test with the standard and well know genealogy vendors who offer compatibility and comparisons to other testers.

If you are a pioneer in this field, have the technical ability required to make use of a whole genome test and are willing to push the envelope, then perhaps whole genome sequencing is for you.

I am considering ordering the Dante Labs whole genome test out of simple curiosity and to upload to Promethease to determine if the whole genome test provides me with something potentially medically relevant (positive or negative) that autosomal and Exome testing did not.

I’m truly undecided. Somehow, I’m having trouble parting with the $199 plus $69 (hard drive delivery by request when ordering) plus shipping for this limited functionality. If I was a novice genetic genealogist or was not a technology expert, I would definitely NOT order this test for the reasons mentioned above.

A whole genome test is not in any way a genealogical replacement for a full sequence mitochondrial test, a Y STR test, a Y SNP test or an autosomal test along with respective comparison(s) in the data bases of vendors who don’t allow uploads for these various functions.

The simple fact that 30X whole genome testing is available for $199 plus $69 plus shipping is amazing, given that 15 years ago that same test cost 2.7 billion dollars. However, it’s still not the magic bullet for genealogy – at least, not yet.

Today, the necessary integration simply doesn’t exist. You pay the genealogy vendors not just for the basic sequencing, but for the additional matching and maintenance of their data bases, not to mention the upgrading of your sequence as needed over time.

If I had to choose between spending the money for the WGS test or taking the genealogy tests, hands down, I’d take the genealogy tests because of the comparisons available. Comparison and collaboration is absolutely crucial for genealogy. A raw data file buys me nothing genealogically.

If I had not previously taken an Exome test, I would order this test in order to obtain the free Dante Health and Wellness Report which provides limited reporting and to upload my raw data file to Promethease. The price is certainly right.

However, keep in mind that once you view health information, you cannot un-see it, so be sure you do really want to know.

What do you plan to do? Are you going to order a whole genome test?

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Disclosure

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

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Suicide – 52 Ancestors #197


Those.

Those are flashing red neon warning words.

We’ve all been there one time or another. The question is, do we stay there? Is that a momentary thought, or perhaps something that motivates us to create a better life? The abused spouse who leaves, and takes with her the children also condemned to an abusive father. Those end-of-the line words in that situation are actually positive.

But in other situations, they aren’t positive at all.

My Story

Yes, this is my story, that of my father, and the story of other family members too.

I’ve never shared this before, not even with close friends and family. I’ve hesitated over and over before pressing the “publish” button.

Why haven’t I shared?

Because there didn’t seem to be any reason to dig up old dead history. Ironic words for a genealogist, right?

There is a lot of shame, prejudice, embarrassment and misunderstanding about suicide and the process of getting to that point.

If you think, for one minute, that suicide hasn’t touched you, you’re wrong. You may not know. Some suicides are hidden as accidents, either intentionally by the victim or by the embarrassed family. Some suicide attempts fail (thankfully) and are either disguised or simply not discovered. If you haven’t been touched yet, you will be, because suicides are sharply on the rise.

I’m telling my story now because there are ways to help if you recognize the signs – and ways to “not help” too. Sometimes that’s a fine line.

If this story helps even one of you, or your loved ones, it’s worth telling.

There is far too much shame surrounding suicide, which often prevents discussion, so today, I’m telling you these stories in their bare naked truth with the hope that we can lift the curtain of shame and embarrassment, thereby saving people in desperate pain.

Why Now?

Why am I telling this story now?

One of the suicide predictors to watch for is other suicides. Two suicides of famous people have hit the airwaves this week, and people who might be on the edge may be “inspired,” or pushed over the edge by these suicides.

So anyone already at risk is now more at risk.

It’s time to tell this truth.

I hope you’ll take the time to read and listen, because the life you save may be the life of someone you love.

Danger Signs and Resources

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reports the following danger signs:

  • Withdrawal
  • Alcohol and drug use, both of which are high risk in and of themselves
  • Comments about killing oneself – 50-75% of people say something to someone first
  • Insomnia
  • Losing interest in things that previously interested them
  • Finding ways to kill themselves such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
  • Other suicides

I would add other things to that list:

  • Illness
  • Self-harm, like cutting
  • Dramatic life changes such as divorce, severe illness or death of a close family member
  • Suicides among peer groups, including online acquaintances
  • Negative self-image activities, such as bulimia or purging

If there is any question in your mind, please seek help or advice for yourself or your friend or family member at:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
  • Veterans Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
  • LGBTQ Suicide Hotline 1-866-488-7386
  • Teen Suicide Hotline 1-800-872-5437
  • Christian Suicide Hotline 1-888-667-5947
  • International Resources

Please read this article, What to Do When a Loved One is Severely Depressed.

Where to Start

I almost don’t even know where to start, because, looking back to the two primary events I’m going to share with you, the beginnings were vastly different. There are many paths.

My father’s probable suicide began years and years before his death with poor choices that led to a life spinning out of control, exacerbated by alcohol addiction.

My own desperation journey began with my former husband’s stroke, which turned my life and that of my children entirely upside down.

Two very different situations, and two very different outcomes.

I probably need to say at this point that I am writing this article with very little editing. I am not a social worker or mental health counselor. I’m sharing my rather raw experiences. They may or may not be politically correct. They are my truth and written in my stream-of-consciousness “unedited voice.” There are sentence fragments and opinions. And yes, I swear:)

Suicide and Depression

Before I sought (and attended) counseling, I thought of depression only in the context of what I was personally familiar with. I thought of depression as something rather temporary, fleeting and “curable” with time. Meaning that one could be “depressed” over something at work, or the loss of a spouse through divorce, but those things are curable by a different job or a different spouse.

In other words, depression was a result of a life event, but escapable in most instances. I was young and depression then wasn’t diagnosed as a disease, per se. Mental health diseases were things like schizophrenia which was somewhat treatable, but not escapable. My former mother-in-law was afflicted with that disease and I had horrible first-hand knowledge.

During the counseling process, I learned that there are two types of depression.

One type of depression, which my counselor termed clinical depression, seems to others and sometimes to the person affected to appear “out of no place” or “for no reason.” It’s a mental health disease. Diseases don’t necessarily have “reasons.” They just are. Depression seems to be genetically linked, but it’s a complex disease with many factors. Regardless of why, it’s horrible for those affected.

Two suicides in the past few years have affected me greatly, for two entirely different reasons.

The first was the death of Robin Williams in 2014. Just ripped my heart out. So tragically sad.

I knew Robin Williams, but not well. Before Robin was famous, he made training videos for Hewlett Packard. He also occasionally participated in training sessions for new employees. That’s how I met Robin Williams. He was funny, warm, genuine and never would I have expected this man to carry the demon of depression. He was inspirational. When someone that inspires you dies by their own hand in such obvious misery, it rocks your boat. Shakes you to the core.

It’s somehow ironic that the comedian who related to so many and made us laugh joyfully was so horribly tortured and unhappy himself. To the point of death. Where death was preferable to torture. No one, but no one, would ever have expected Robin Williams to die by suicide.

The second suicide of a public figure happened earlier today, June 8, 2018 (as I write this) with the death of Anthony Bourdain. I didn’t know Anthony personally, but it seems like those of us who watched Anthony over the years felt like we did. He was incredibly outspoken, the consummate bad boy who had “made it” in spite of what seemed like insurmountable odds. His tough life and substance addition were well known.

While I liked Robin Williams immensely, I connected with Anthony Bourdain on a different level. Anthony seemed like one of us, plus food is always connected with comfort. Food, travel and a non-drama-free mince-no-words unapologetic survivor. Who didn’t want to watch? And watch we did, in droves. Now, we’ve watched his demise too.

Both Robin and Anthony were known to battle depression.

Not all people who are depressed have suicidal thoughts, and not all people who end their life by suicide are depressed.

I know that sounds odd, but it’s true.

Types of Suicide

When a person who has a reasonable expectation of life left to live dies by their own choice, that’s the kind of suicide that might have been preventable. That’s where recognition and prevention efforts need to focus.

The other type of suicide, which I wish desperately was called by a different name is when a person who does not have a reasonable expectation of a quality life left to live chooses their own time, place and way to exit.

In my mind, that’s entirely different. I strongly feel that it’s the epitome of inhumanity to force a person who will die miserably to live through that death when we have other, quick and pain-free choices. And if you’re about to tell me that hospice does just that, I will beg to differ with you until the cows come home. Been there, done that with multiple family members and it’s just not the case. We don’t force our pets to suffer at their end of life, but we subject our family members to torturous deaths.

My step-father somehow mustered enough strength and removed his own ventilator in order to end the misery of a prolonged death. Was that suicide? Probably, technically. He certainly ended his own life on his terms. He removed his first wife’s life support too when there was no hope and she was permanently comatose and brain dead. I guess, technically, that makes him a murderer too.

In reality, he was a humane hero. I would want him at my bedside because I know MY best interest would come first.

I certainly missed him when he died, but he had lived his life to the fullest and prolonging the inevitable was only cruel.

My Father

But that’s not the father whose story I want to tell. My biological father, my Daddy, William Sterling Estes, died in a car accident in 1963. That’s the official story. The one everyone told. The one I believed. Until one day when I was an adult and the accidental truth arrived in separate pieces from different people and the truth dawned on me like an unwelcome storm.

Losing a parent when you are a child is exceedingly difficult. My father was the third close death in as many years. My maternal grandmother and grandfather, followed by my father.

My parents were divorced and my father had remarried. I loved going to visit my father and step-mother, Virgie. She was a lovely woman. She and my mother got along just fine.

I didn’t see my father often, so he was something of an absent hero. I was always extremely excited when he appeared, often bearing some kind of small gift. My mother, of course, who bore the brunt of everything everyday while he was absent was chronically irritated at this turn of events. He was no hero to Mother, in fact, just the opposite, a scoundrel, but their story is one for another time.

As a result of having lived with him for half a decade, ending just three years before his death, it was a piece of information from her that eventually explained part of the answer to the question of why he might have chosen suicide.

The Day Before

How my father came to work at a funeral home is also a story for a full article, but let’s just say that he had previously worked as a physician and apparently dead bodies didn’t bother him. He worked with the local funeral director as needed. At that time, funeral homes were owned by local families. It took two strong men unbothered by death and body fluids to lift bodies, a task which had to be accomplished multiple times between the removal of the body from where they died and the funeral.

At that time in small-town Indiana, the hearse also performed a second duty as an ambulance. If this strikes you as funny today, it did me too. I can just imagine waking up in the hearse after an accident of some sort and not knowing if you were on the way to the hospital or morgue, or worse yet, the cemetery. Dark humor, I know.

My father was backing the hearse into the funeral home garage, the day before his “accident,” and the funeral director asked him why. My father replied, “Because you’re going to need it this weekend.”

I learned of this about 50 years after the fact, in a happenstance conversation. I had called the funeral home to see if they had any additional information about my father’s funeral – not knowing that he was working there at the time – and certainly unaware of the conversation the day before his death. Imagine my shock!

The man I spoke with 50 years later was the son of the director and was present at the time of the conversation. He took over the family business from his father. The son retired shortly after that conversation and sold the funeral home to a corporate interest. I’m glad I accidentally talked to him when I did, because that opportunity was forever gone shortly thereafter.

The man said that at the time, his father had mentioned that my father’s comment was “odd,” but after the “accident” the following day, the funeral director told his son that he believed my father’s death was suicide. That tidbit may not have been shared with anyone else, but when I heard it, and then combined it with additional puzzle pieces, it made sense. Terrible sense.

Although I can tell you, it was one hell of an electric shock wave to learn as an adult that your father actually committed suicide. It changed the death narrative entirely and caused me to ask questions and reflect on the consummate question, why.

And it hurt.

Accidental death and intentional death is very different for the survivors.

The “Accident”

God this is hard to write.

Even all these years later.

My father had a long history of alcohol abuse.

Before you judge him too harshly, he and his siblings were fed alcohol as children. Their father, William George Estes, was a bootlegger, and apparently not a great one or they wouldn’t have wanted for food. When there was no food, they were given alcohol to make their hungry bellies stop hurting and to make them sleep. My aunt revealed these sordid, heartbreaking details in a letter to my step-mother. Then other family members corroborated. I was horrified and hurt terribly for my father as a child. His parents may not have doomed him, but they certainly started him down a terrible path.

My grandmother, Ollie Bolton, eventually left my grandfather after she caught him cheating, but according to various family resources, she didn’t want her two sons who hopped a freight train in Indiana and found their way to their grandparents in Tennessee. And Ollie wasn’t painted as the villain in the story, William George was worse.

I try desperately not to judge my grandparents, neither of whom I ever met.

In any event, my father learned very young that alcohol was the answer to everything and it made you feel better. For all I know, he may actually have been addicted before he was even a teenager. Regardless, it’s horribly sad.

Dad certainly was an alcoholic by the time he was an adult – his drink of choice being whiskey or moonshine. He was also a veteran of two wars, and according to both my mother and my step-mother, he checked himself into VA hospitals more than once to “dry-out,” but then would fall off the wagon again after release. Sometimes the wagon event took weeks or months, but it always happened.

Clearly, his undependability affected his relationships with women and probably with others as well. The exception was my step-mother, Virgie, who knew him when he was young, married him when he was old, and loved him for who he was. It’s somehow ironic that it was in that supportive relationship that he decided to exit the world.

My father’s military records were burned in the National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis in 1972. The VA attempted to help me reconstruct them from different records that existed elsewhere, but medical records were entirely absent.

According to Virgie and Mom, Dad had once again checked into the VA hospital in Fort Wayne and dried out. He was dismissed and went back home, once again hopeful and upbeat. All I can say is that my heart aches that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t yet exist ubiquitously – because he might had stood a fighting chance.

Virgie told me that he was stone-cold sober after his release and at the time of the accident, but years later, her daughter told a different story.

Apparently, either the day before, or the morning of the accident, he was seen in the local park intoxicated. Perhaps he wasn’t. Perhaps he was and Virgie didn’t know. Perhaps she was in denial. Perhaps she wanted to spare me thinking about my father’s last few hours as an alcoholic who had fallen off the wagon again, a drunk in the park.

The stories vary somewhat, but the essence of the situation was that at the time of the accident, he was either going to pick the preacher up to go fishing, or had dropped him off after fishing. My father loved to fish and judging from the time of day, I’d guess they had already been fishing.

My father was also a master of disguising his alcohol use and abuse, and alcohol consumption wasn’t viewed as negatively at that time as it is today. My recollection was that he always had an unobtrusive flask in his tackle box.

About 7:30 that evening, Dad was driving Virgie’s 1960 Rambler, and at a T-road, with a telephone pole at the intersection, he pressed the gas instead of the brake and hit the telephone pole head on, more than 100 feet from the road. That’s a huge distance and he could have easily maneuvered enough to avoid the pole. Instead, he hit it dead on. No skid marks – no evasive maneuvers. Full on throttle.

Genealogists, please note that the relationships are incomplete and my name is incorrect. Virginia Little is a half-sister, not step-sister and other relatives were omitted.

Today, that transmission pole still seems to be in place, to the right of the small grey pin at the left side of the picture below. It pains me to look, but I had to. I bet no one today knows that someone died there in 1963 – 55 years ago this summer.

The official diagnosis was that Dad had an angina attack and accidentally stomped the gas instead of the brake. Until the other pieces of evidence came to light, no one questioned that.

Indeed, the very hearse he had backed into the garage the day before transported him from the accident scene to the hospital, just as he had predicted. Then the next day, it drove him to the funeral home, and then after the funeral, to the cemetery.

He died at Mt. Auburn and Main, he lived on Hickory and he is buried in the IOOF (Oddfellows) Cemetery in the upper left hand corner on the map below, within sight of where he lived – everything within a mile.

A nice tidy bundle. But it wasn’t tidy at all.

Why?

Why would Dad have committed suicide?

Three possible reasons come to mind.

  • He had once again disappointed his spouse by falling off the wagon. Except this time, it wasn’t a spouse who was threatening to leave him if he didn’t sober up, but one that loved him unconditionally. He may have realized that he truly was not in control of his life – that alcohol controlled him and had controlled his entire life. Maybe he was just done trying.
  • Maybe Dad was depressed because of his relapse and could have succeeded if he had tried again. This was his rock bottom, when other rock bottoms hadn’t been rock bottom enough – but he didn’t survive this rock bottom.
  • Maybe Dad knew something else. As Mom aged, she told me things she would never have told me earlier. Dad had consumed alcohol his entire life. He was about 62 when he died. We don’t know exactly which year he was born, because his birth year on his delayed birth certificate and other identifying information varied by what he wanted/needed his age to be at the moment. His liver was very probably a hot mess. Mom thought he had cancer. She told me rather explicit details about the “messes she had to clean up” which certainly do sound like someone with an internal issue.

If Dad knew he had cancer, suspected he had cirrhosis of the liver (which often precedes cancer) and had disappointed his wife once again, maybe Dad decided it was better to just check out. Maybe he knew what was coming and was afraid. Maybe medically, he was worse than anyone, except him, knew. Maybe his drinking by then was to medicate physical pain.

No Goodbye

I never got to say goodbye.

It was bad enough when I thought his death was an accident.

Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to do that, to say goodbye to me. Maybe he wanted to spare me.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

So many maybes and no answers.

He did leave a message for me with Virgie when he was in the hospital, before he passed away. According to his death certificate, he died of internal bleeding sometime after midnight, about 6 hours after the accident.

And then, 50 miles away, in my bedroom, a shadowy silhouette of my father sat on the edge of my bed. I felt his weight as he sat down and the mattress moved as he touched me. I woke up, seeing his silhouette with the streetlight behind him – so glad that he had come to visit.

In the morning, I leaped out of bed when I heard the phone ring. I knew that Daddy had arrived late the night before and would be there this morning, drinking coffee with cream and sugar at the kitchen table with Mom, waiting for me to get up. Like so many other times before.

I ran up to mother, who was just hanging up the phone, and excitedly asked her where Daddy was.

I didn’t see him.

Mother didn’t say anything, at first, then asked me what I meant.

I told her that I knew he was there because he came and sat on my bed the night before. I was confused, because I didn’t see him anyplace in the house.

She turned ashen and began to shake.

Mother asked me to come and sit beside her on the couch. She put her arms around me, like she wanted to shelter me.

She explained to me that not only was Daddy not there, but he hadn’t been there and that he would never be there again.

I didn’t believe her.

I cried gulping sobs. Unfortunately, I understood death all too well. I didn’t know what to think. I was just sure that she had sent him away, and I was very angry with my mother. I asked many questions and the only answers she had for me were, “I don’t know.”

The phone call had been Virgie and Mom simply didn’t have any answers yet.

For a change, Mom didn’t seem angry with him. She was crying too. I was very confused. Then I talked to Virgie and I was just heartbroken. I can still feel that searing pain ripping through my little body, sitting here today.

I grieved my father’s death terribly and never obtained closure as a child. I’m still not entirely sure that I ever did, although I finally accepted that he had died. As an adult, I arranged for his military headstone myself and had it set.

I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral, or those of either grandparent. Children then were “spared” grief as much as possible. That would have helped me a lot – to at least see him one more time, even if it was in a casket.

Death became a thief in the night, a stealer of those I loved. Death was an enemy and without any of the positive benefits of group grieving and comfort. Everything about death and funerals had a very negative connotation. To this day, I abhor funerals.

My Step-Father

A few years later, my mother married my step father, Dean Long, whom I completely adored. He and I had a symbiotic relationship because his daughter, who was about my age had died, and I had lost my father. We healed each other’s wounds and formed a bond that not even death could sever.

I did what kids do. I went to school, made mistakes and got called on the carpet. My Mom was the disciplinarian and my step-father was a quiet man of few words. He didn’t need many. I listened to him without reservation.

It was my step-father who encouraged me to stretch my wings beyond what “girls” were supposed to be able to do back then, and beyond Indiana. It was he who told me I could be and do anything I set my mind to. It was him that told me never to let anyone tell me otherwise.

When I found myself married to an abusive spouse, it was Dad that encouraged me to leave. I use the word “encourage’ loosely. He literally put his life on the line for me, more than once. Abuse is a terribly intimidating cyclic phenomenon and without his support, I don’t know that I would have been able to break free of that cycle alone.

I did, moved and remarried. He saved me, or more succinctly, helped me to save myself.

My Turn in the Hot Seat

Fast forward.

Years later, in 1993, I was in my prime. I had finished multiple college degrees and a few years earlier, left a lucrative professional position in the computer industry to found a consulting company. Things were going well, at home and at work – until Sunday, June 20st.

When I woke up that morning, my husband couldn’t get out of bed and his speech was quite slurred. I knew there was a problem, and immediately called 911. My husband and son were both volunteer firefighters and paramedics, although my son wasn’t home at the time.

I had never been so glad to see those men arrive. They were at the house within a couple minutes. My husband’s best friend was the first to arrive. I had to leave my husband in the bedroom to go outside to explain to Chuck what was happening.

“I think he had a stroke.”

And then I began to sob, because I knew.

That stroke, he might have recovered mostly from, but the devastating stroke that followed a week later destroyed much of his brain.

He was hospitalized for months with complication after complication, hovering near death anew every day.

Needless to say, he not only couldn’t work, he would never be able to work again. I couldn’t be at the hospital managing his daily health crisis and work at the same time. Not only that, but I suddenly needed to make as much money as we both had made together previously. The bills didn’t go down, they went up with his skyrocketing medical bills during his 6 month hospital stay.

I vividly remember the night that I walked into the house after working all day and then going to the hospital to deal with a crisis of some sort and saying to myself, “I need a beer.”

Then I heard what I said, especially the word “need.” I knew in that instant that if I had one beer, I would never stop. I did need that beer. It’s called self-medication – and it’s a hallmark of depression. I didn’t have that beer that day, nor did I allow myself to drink anything alcoholic for several years. Alcoholism clearly has a hereditary component and I knew that I was susceptible. I do occasionally have a drink now, but they are few and far between, and never, ever on a “bad day.”

A few months later, when it was determined that my husband wasn’t going to die, at least not immediately, focus shifted to his hospital release. Our home was not handicapped accessible for a wheelchair. Not only that, but he could never be left alone with his cognitive judgement impairments. Insurance does not pay for home modifications. No one pays for home modifications for handicapped access. Neither does anyone pay for home assistance nor residence in a facility. I had no good options.

By December, we were scheduling his release from the hospital. I had taken a loan to convert the garage into a handicapped bedroom/bathroom and make the kitchen and living room handicapped accessible. I had hired an aide to stay with him while I worked, but in the next few months, I would go through aides like water because he was “difficult” in many ways, including sexually inappropriate.

His “executive function” that prevents normal people from doing things like grabbing women by the genitals had been destroyed in the stroke. I understood that he couldn’t help himself, but understanding and living with the situation are two entirely different things.

Our daughter was a teenager at this time and suffice it to say that this situation pushed her into behaviors that were not healthy for her. That’s her story to tell, not mine, but it was living Hell on earth for everyone involved.

My son, an older teen, couldn’t cope and left the family and would remain estranged for many years. However, my daughter and I were trapped there.

My step-father was in failing health with COPD and would die in September of 1994.

My mother was a wreck between my step-father, my husband’s stoke, me and my children. She wanted to help, but couldn’t leave Indiana to do so.

My step-brother lived in another state and had a host of serious issues. He was in no condition to help anyone, not even himself.

There was no one to depend on, other than my daughter who was too young to have that kind of responsibility foisted upon her.

When you’re in that kind of a situation you learn very quickly who your friends and family are that care. Many you think you can depend on simply disappear into the shadows. Sometimes people you don’t expect step forward too.

Of my husband’s three brothers, two were ministers and they were “too busy” to help. All I can say is “bless their hearts.” You southern people will know exactly what that means.

The third brother, the official “black sheep” of the family, condemned by the ministers, came with his wife periodically to help us. I’ve always liked black sheep.

My husband’s parents were in their 80s and couldn’t really grasp the situation. They thought that if he could talk, he was fine. Never mind that he made no sense. My mother-in-law had advanced Parkinson’s disease and my father-in-law had congestive heart failure. They really couldn’t help much, but they could certainly criticize everything I did, or didn’t do. Both died within a few years.

My half-brother couldn’t be bothered and never offered to help. So much for family.

A couple of my husband’s fire-department buddies came to help from time to time, as did my quilting friends. Chuck was here regularly trying to help me get things in order, but after my husband came home, few could deal with him. I was extremely, extremely grateful, but the need so far outweighed the available resources.

Eventually, I was at the end of my rope – 18 months progressively descending into the fires of Hell.

The Christmas from Hell

It was Christmas 1994.

I had decorated the Christmas tree, not that I cared, but because that’s what I was “supposed to do.” I was still trying to make everything as normal as I could. I sat down and cried, but then I was just too tired and hopeless even for tears. There was no beauty in that tree, no beauty in Christmas, no beauty in life.

I was terribly, chronically sleep deprived and had been for months. I worked in the day, and was my husband’s caregiver the rest of the time. 24X7X365 with no break. His care meant looking after an incontinent 260 pound 2 or 3 year old that is never cute, never grows up and you can’t take anyplace because of his behavior. His weight increased and he was very difficult for me to manage.

My son was gone and had been gone throughout the entire episode. My daughter had run away from home. My step-father had died. My mother was coming the next day, Christmas Eve, and the week after Christmas, we had to take my husband to live in a care facility because I had lost the final aide and couldn’t find anyone willing to take care of him while I worked. My job was hanging on by a thread, through the extreme generosity of my customer, but that wouldn’t last forever. I had to do something and I felt like an abysmal failure on every level.

My husband was going to be crushed that he had to live someplace else. I dreaded trying to explain to someone who couldn’t understand why that had to happen. I dreaded driving away that day. I dreaded every single day.

All of that money spent on handicapped remodeling was for naught. I couldn’t stay home and take care of him, because someone had to make the house payment, pay the utilities, the car payment, buy the groceries, arrange, transport to and pay for his therapy, etc.

When my mother arrived the next day, I was going to have to explain to her what had happened with my daughter, and that she had run away. My mother had born so much heartbreak over the past few months with my Dad’s prolonged death that I didn’t know how she would withstand this final straw.

I didn’t know how I was going to withstand this final straw.

Everything seemed entirely and completely hopeless.

My husband was not a man I knew. He had become abusive and inappropriate as a result of the stroke. In hindsight, I should never have brought him home and subjected me and my daughter to his behaviors, but I didn’t know, and the medical professionals certainly didn’t explain that. I thought I could make it work, and wanted to, but in the end – I couldn’t.

My children were gone. My step-father, whose last words in this life to me were, “I love you. You’ll make it, Honey. I’ve been so lucky to have you in my life,” was gone.

The creditors were calling about my husband’s hospital bills, and if you’ve never spoken to a professional bill collector – you’ve never been bullied. They are professionals at lies, fear and intimidation. May they rot in hell.

I finally learned to turn the tables and I took out my long-pent-up frustration on them when they began their bully routine. One actually had the AUDACITY to tell me my husband was LUCKY to have had a stroke so he didn’t have to pay his bills. Huh? He had the medical bills because he had the stroke. Some people are pure evil. My friend who was also a nurse overheard one of those conversations and bought be a pin that said “psycho bitch from hell.” Let me tell you, I wore it proudly as a badge of honor. It meant that maybe, just maybe, I was mad enough to survive.

Crossing the Line

It was late that December 23rd night or maybe very early morning the 24th by then. I sat down on the couch after I finished decorating the tree. I knew neither my son or daughter would be there for Christmas. I didn’t know where they would be, but it wasn’t at home. I needed to see them, but that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t even get ahold of them in the days before cell phones.

My husband was too impaired to realize they were absent, but my mother would be devastated. I was devastated. Christmas would be a day of sorrow, the first holiday since Dad’s death and so much loss. I wanted to sleep through it. I wanted to sleep forever and never wake up.

The Christmas tree was a catalyst. The ornaments handmade in happier times, those hopes and dreams now entirely dashed. No hope. No dreams. Nothing. That life ripped from me. And seemingly, no way out.

I had finally gotten my infant-adult husband to sleep. The house was silent. The lights were out except for the Christmas tree lights, flickering Christmas colors mockingly, and the tree which had been the center of so much happiness and joy for so long represented everything lost forever.

And I thought:

“I can’t take this anymore.”

It wasn’t a shout, but a whisper.

But it was the crossing of a line.

I also realized what was happening.

I suddenly understood that suicide wasn’t about wanting to be dead.

It was about wanting the pain to stop.

The chronic unending pain.

That there was no other way to make stop.

Death seemed far more reasonable and attractive than THAT life.

You don’t hurt after you’re dead.

Three things stopped me.

My love for my mother and my son, my hope and love for my daughter and my responsibility towards my husband, in no particular order.

  • Without me advocating for my husband and watching over him, not to mention paying his bills, he would have wound up in an abusive welfare hell-hole. He was not a nice man, but I remembered the man before the stroke and I couldn’t do that to him.
  • Without me, my daughter, no matter how difficult she was being, would have had no hope of recovery. I wasn’t exactly her best friend at the time, but I was a resource when she was ready.
  • I think my death would have killed my mother.
  • Which would have killed my son.

I couldn’t live and I couldn’t die. It was that simple.

I had to get help. At that moment, death would have been easier, far easier, believe me.

I never told my mother about this. I may have told my children since, but I certainly didn’t tell them at the time. Even if they had been there, I wouldn’t have wanted to burden them. My husband wouldn’t have understood or cared. He had lost all capability to care about anyone but himself.

After Christmas, I found a counselor whose husband was also wheel-chair bound. The difference was that her husband was not mentally impaired as well, but she fully understood the challenges I faced. She saw me weekly, on a sliding scale, for years.

The Uphill Battle

Life improved, slowly. With my counselor’s approval, I declined depression and anxiety medications, because I was concerned about addiction. My family was already too full of that and I knew I had a history with both my father and grandfather.

With my husband living in a specialized facility where he received good care and constant supervision, I was once again able to sleep and work with regularity – which means the bills were much easier to pay. Good thing, because his living situation was extremely expensive.

However, putting him into a care facility came with a huge dosage of guilt, dealt out freely by his family and others who had no clue.

“You put your husband in a home?”

Yep, I did, for his good and everyone else’s too. I finally told anyone who thought otherwise that they were welcome to take him for a day. A couple of people took me up on that offer, and I never, ever heard another word like that out of them again – nor did anyone ever take him a second time. Walking a mile in someone’s moccasins is truly the best teacher.

My daughter eventually recovered, but that took another decade.

My son returned to the family about the same time my daughter recovered.

Healing was slow and difficult for everyone and still isn’t complete.

My step-brother died under “suspicious circumstances” at Thanksgiving in 1999. The case was never closed. That situation caused my mother an extreme amount of grief and anxiety.

My mother moved near my half-brother and passed away in 2006. She never really recovered after my step-father’s and step-brother’s deaths. I’m sure she had undiagnosed depression, but she never told me – just like I had never told her or my children. I found many flyers about seniors and depression in her belongings after her death. I felt just awful. I would have done something had I known.

Keeping depression a secret was a mistake on my part and hers as well. Sometimes the depressed person can’t reach out, so it’s up to the rest of us to reach in.

I became officially single in 2000, remarried in 2003. Those years are scars, not open wounds any longer.

It was a very long, very ugly decade of descent into Hell followed by an uphill battle of gargantuan proportions – but I made it. I would not have made it without my counselor, my friends and the part of my family that actually cared. I found strength in the memory of my step-father that often sustained me in difficult times. I have since added grandchildren, a son-in-law, daughter-in-law and new family-of-heart members to my family that was dwindling.

Needless to say, my life changed in the instant of that stroke. That life was forever broken, shattered into a million unrecognizable pieces and was never whole again. I rebuilt a new life out of a few salvageable pieces, namely my children, but not without a huge amount of pain and effort – on their part as well as mine. Those relationships were indelibly changed too.

Had I exited, my children would have been much more permanently damaged, perhaps irreparably. I’m so glad I didn’t do that in my darkest moment. They were that oh-so-tiny spec of light.

So many times, it was the little blessings from people that told me they cared that meant so much and kept me going. That’s also part of the reason why I make care quilts today and have since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when my friend and I made quilts for the children and husband of Rebecca Anderson who gave her life rescuing victims. It’s my way of giving back by paying it forward.

If you find someone in a depressing situation, what can you do, even if they won’t admit to depression? I honestly didn’t realize the severity until that December 23rd when I was at the end of my rope.

How to Help

My rule of thumb is that I will make every effort to help someone who is truly trying to help themselves, or who can genuinely not help themselves but would if they could. This means that I’m not interested in high-drama situations where people are looking to benefit from their situation, for attention or to manipulate others. I also draw the line at substance abuse. Tough love. I will help them, but they MUST help themselves too.

For people suffering from clinical depression, meaning depression as a disease that is not related to a specific trigger event:

  • Offer support. Tell them you love them, if appropriate. Love is powerful medicine.
  • Listen, empathize, and ask questions.
  • Tell them you understand and offer helpful suggestions. Don’t begin the sentences with, “Why don’t you…” which implies criticism, or with, “You should…”
  • Do NOT tell them that they shouldn’t feel the way they do – i.e. do NOT say, “But you have such a good life. You shouldn’t be depressed.” Or worse yet, “Just get over it.” You may not mean that as judgmental, but it feels that way and will only drive a wedge between you and depress them further.
  • Encourage or help them to seek appropriate assistance. Assistance could be in the form of counseling, advocating for them to receive some sort of assistance program or in severe cases, intervention if self-harm is a potential issue.

For people suffering from situational depression – like the stroke scenario:

  • Offer support. Tell them you love them, if appropriate.
  • Listen, empathize, and ask questions.
  • Tell them you understand and offer help. Don’t say, “All you need to do is ask” because they may not be able to ask. Asking feels like begging and imposing yourself on other people. It also opens up the opportunity for rejection.
  • Figure out what they need and help make arrangement to meet those needs. My quilt sisters brought food frozen into meal sized portions for months – without me asking. I was so incredibly grateful. My neighbor occasionally brought over a pot of chili. Someone anonymously dropped off Thanksgiving dinner on the porch when my kitchen was torn apart to make it handicapped safe and accessible – bless them. My EGA chapter took up a collection. My brother-in-law and his wife would occasionally come to relieve my daughter and I so the two of us could do something together like shop for clothes. I would have given anything for someone to mow the lawn or plow the snow.
  • Do NOT say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” What I heard was that my husband and family were being punished because I was a strong woman. Secondly, those people NEVER offered to help. I guess from their perspective, God was going to do it all. Well, let me tell you, God doesn’t shovel snow. I thought if I heard that phrase one more time I would explode. Say what you really mean, not that platitude. Trust me, it’s not comforting even though you mean it to be, especially to the person who has heard it hundreds of times and there is no food in the house and the furnace doesn’t work. If you don’t know what to say, say, “I’m sorry. What do you need?”
  • Don’t rely on the person to voluntarily tell you what they need, because no one wants to be THAT PERSON who asks for help and for assistance from others. Especially when you’ve been told over and over that God is supposed to be providing, but you’re still in need. It’s especially difficult for people who have been giving assistance their entire lives. Accepting charity or being in the position that you need to is very embarrassing and often humiliating. It makes people feel weak and vulnerable. It was extremely difficult for me then and even discussing it today, this many years later, is uncomfortable.

If you feel any person is a danger to themselves, call a suicide hotline with them or call 911. Don’t interpret a threat or discussion of suicide as an idle threat. It may not be. You could be dead wrong.

If you live with someone who takes medication for depression or anxiety, watch to be sure they are taking their medication. Often people want to stop when they feel better, but they feel better because they are taking the medication. Then they become too depressed to take their medication. It’s a downward spiral.

Be on the lookout for either words or actions that say:

If you hear those, or see those, be their light. Make the difference.

  • Tell them everything is better in the light of day.
  • Tell them that you are THERE for them, and mean it. Follow through and follow up. Nothing is worse than feeling completely irrelevant and then having someone make hollow promises about how they are going to help you – and then they don’t.
  • Tell them that when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, life looks bleak. So HALT.
  • Tell them you can fix hungry, angry, lonely and tired, but you can’t fix gone.
  • Tell them what a bright spot they are in the world and why you believe that.
  • Tell them how much they mean to you.
  • Tell them about the darkness that will replace their light in the lives of the people who love them if they leave.
  • Tell them you will help them and begin the discussion to solve the problem any way other than by leaving permanently. Make a plan.
  • Tell them that you love them, because if you don’t, you may never get the opportunity again.
  • If they have tried before to solve problems like addiction that seem unsolvable, encourage them to try again, with help, one day at a time.
  • Strongly discourage the use of alcohol or drugs, other than under medical supervision. You can’t deal with life’s issues when you don’t face them. You can’t overcome what you don’t confront. You need all of your mental faculties to slay those dragons.

You may not be able to stop them, because ultimately, the choice is theirs, but you can damned sure try. Sometimes trying means the world, and life, to someone who sees only a very dark tunnel and no light.

There is light, but they may need your hand to reach it.

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