Crossovers: Frequency and Inheritance Statistics – Male Versus Female Matters

Recently, a reader asked if I had any crossover statistics.

They were asking about the number of crossovers, meaning divisions on each chromosome, of the parent’s DNA when a child is created. In other words, how many segments of your maternal and paternal grandparent’s DNA do you inherit from your mother and father – and are those numbers somehow different?

Why would someone ask that question, and how is it relevant for genealogists?

What is a Crossover and Why is it Important?

We know that every child receives half of their autosomal DNA from their father, and half from their mother. Conversely that means that each parent can only give their child half of their own DNA that they received from their parents. Therefore, each parent has to combine some of the DNA from their father’s chromosome and their mother’s chromosome into a new chromosome that they contribute to their child.

Crossovers are breakpoints that are created when the DNA of the person’s parents is divided into pieces before being recombined into a new chromosome and passed on to the person’s child.

I’m going to use the following real-life scenario to illustrate.

Crossover pedigree.png

The colors of the people above are reflected on the chromosome below where the DNA of the blue daughter, and her red and green parents are compared to the DNA of the tester. The tester is shown as the gray background chromosomes in the chromosome browser. The backgroud person is whose results we are looking at.

My granddaughter has tested her DNA, as have her parents and 3 of her 4 grandparents along with 2 great-grandparents, shown as red and green in the diagram above.

Here’s an example utilizing the FamilyTreeDNA chromosome browser.

Crossover example chr 1.png

On my granddaughter’s chromosome 1, on the chromosome brower above, we see two perfect examples of crossovers.

There’s no need to compare her DNA against that of her parent, the son in the chart above, because we already know she matches the full length of every chromosome with both of her parents.

However, when comparing my granddaughter’s DNA against the grandmother (blue) and her grandmother’s parents, the great-grandmother shown in red and great-grandfather shown in green, we can see that the granddaughter received her blue segments from the grandmother.

The grandmother had to receive that entire blue segment from either her mother, in red, or her father, in green. So, every blue segment must have an exactly matching red segment, green segment or combination of both.

The first red box at left shows that the blue segment was inherited partially from the grandmother’s red mother and green father. We know that because the tester matches the red great-grandmother on part of that blue segment and the green great-grandfather on a different part of the entire blue segment that the tester inherited from her blue grandmother.

The middle colored region, not boxed, shows the entire blue segment was inherited from the red great-grandmother and the blue grandmother passed that intact through her son to her granddaughter.

The third larger red boxed area encompassing the entire tested region to the right of the centromere was inherited by the granddaughter from her grandmother (blue segment) but it was originally from the blue grandmother’s red mother and green father.

The Crossover

The areas on this chromosome where the blue is divided between the red and green, meaning where the red and green butt up against each other is called a crossover. It’s literally where the DNA of the blue daughter crosses over between DNA contributed by her red mother and green father.

Crossover segments.png

In other words, the crossover where the DNA divided between the blue grandmother’s parents when the grandmother’s son was created is shown by the dark arrows above. The son gave his daughter that exact same segment from his mother and it’s only by comparing the tester’s DNA against her great-grandparents that we can see the crossover.

Crossover 4 generations.png

What we’re really seeing is that the segments inherited by the grandmother from her parents two different chromosomes were combined into one segment that the grandmother gave to her son. The son inherited the green piece and the red piece on his maternal chromosome, which he gave intact to his daughter, which is why the daughter matches her grandmother on that entire blue segment and matches her great-grandparents on the red and green pieces of their individual DNA.

Inferred Matching Segments

Crossover untested grandfather.png

The entirely uncolored regions are where the tester does not match her blue grandmother and where she would match her grandfather, who has not tested, instead of her blue grandmother.

The testers father only received his DNA from his mother and father, and if his daughter does not match his mother, then she must match his untested father on that segment.

Looking at the Big Inheritance Picture

The tester’s full autosomal match between the blue grandmother, red great-grandmother and green great-grandfather is shown below.

Crossover autosomes.png

In light of the discussion that follows, it’s worth noting that chromosomes 4 and 20 (orange arrows) were passed intact from the blue grandmother to the tester through two meiosis (inheritance) events. We know this because the tester matches the green great-grandfather’s DNA entirely on these two chromosomes that he passed to his blue daughter, her son and then the tester.

Let’s track this for chromosomes 4 and 20:

  • Meiosis 1 –The tester matches her blue grandmother, so we know that there was no crossover on that segment between the father and the tester.
  • Meiosis 2 – The tester matches her green great-grandfather along the entire chromosome, proving that it was passed intact from the grandmother to the tester’s father, her son.
  • What we don’t know is whether there were any crossovers between the green great-grandfather when he passed his parent or parents DNA to the blue grandmother, his daughter. In order to determine that, we would need at least one of the green great-grandfather’s parents, which we don’t have. We don’t know if the green great-grandfather passed on his maternal or paternal copy of his chromosome, or parts of each to the blue great-grandmother, his daughter.

Meiosis Events and the Tree

So let’s look at these meiosis or inheritance events in a different way, beginning at the bottom with the pink tester and counting backwards, or up the tree.

Crossover meiosis events.png

By inference, we know that chromosomes 11, 16 and 22 (purple arrows) were also passed intact, but not from the blue grandmother. The tester’s father passed his father’s chromosome intact to his daughter. That’s the untested grandfather again. We know this because the tester does not match her blue grandmother at all on either of these three chromosomes, so the tester must match her untested grandfather instead, because those are the only two sources of DNA for the tester’s father.

A Blip, or Not?

If you’ve noticed that chromosome 14 looks unusual, in that the tester matches her grandmother’s blue segment, but not either of her great-grandparents, which is impossible, give yourself extra points for your good eye.

In this case, the green great-grandfather’s kit was a transfer kit in which that portion of chromosome 14 was not included or did not read accurately. Given that the red great-grandmother’s kit DID read in that region and does not match the tester, we know that chromosome 14 would actually have a matching green segment exactly the size of the blue segment.

However, in another situation where we didn’t know of an issue with the transfer kit, it is also possible that the granddaughter matched a small segment of the blue grandmother’s DNA where they were identical by chance. In that case, chromosome 14 would actually have been passed to the tester intact from her father’s father, who is untested.

Every Segment has a Story

Looking at this matching pattern and our ability to determine the source of the DNA back several generations, originating from great-grandparents, I hope you’re beginning to get a sense of why understanding crossovers better is important to genealogists.

Every single segment has a story and that story is comprised of crossovers where the DNA of our ancestors is combined in their offspring. Today, we see the evidence of these historical genetic meiosis or division/recombination events in the start and end points of matches to our genetic cousins. Every start and end point represents a crossover sometime in the past.

What else can we tell about these events and how often they occur?

Of the 22 autosomes, not counting the X chromosome which has a unique inheritance pattern, 17 chromosomes experienced at least one crossover.

What does this mean to me as a genealogist and how can I interpret this type of information?

Philip Gammon

You may remember our statistician friend Philip Gammon. Philip and I have collaborated before authoring the following articles where Philip did the heavy lifting.

I discussed crossovers in the article Concepts – DNA Recombination and Crossovers, also in collaboration with Philip, and showed several examples in a Four Generation Inheritance Study.

If you haven’t read those articles, now might be a good time to do so, as they set the stage for understanding the rest of this article.

The frequency of chromosome segment divisions and their resulting crossovers are key to understanding how recombination occurs, which is key to understanding how far back in time a common ancestor between you and a match can expect to be found.

In other words, everything we think we know about relationships, especially more distant relationships, is predicated on the rate that crossovers occur.

The Concepts article references the Chowdhury paper and revealed that females average about 42 crossovers per child and males average about 27 but these quantities refer to the total number of crossovers on all 22 autosomes and reveal nothing about the distribution of the number of crossovers at the individual chromosome level.

Philip Gammon has been taking a closer look at this particular issue and has done some very interesting crossover simulations by chromosome, which are different sizes, as he reports beginning here.

Crossover Statistics by Philip Gammon

For chromosomes there is surprisingly little information available regarding the variation in the number of crossovers experienced during meiosis, the process of cell division that results in the production of ova and sperm cells. In the scientific literature I have been able to find only one reference that provides a table showing a frequency distribution for the number of crossovers by chromosome.

The paper Broad-Scale Recombination Patterns Underlying Proper Disjunction in Humans by Fledel-Alon et al in 2009 contains this information tucked away at the back of the “Supplementary methods, figures, and tables” section. It was likely not produced with genetic genealogists in mind but could be of great interest to some. The columns X0 to X8 refer to the number of crossovers on each chromosome that were measured in parental transmissions. Separate tables are shown for male and female transmissions because the rates between the two sexes differ significantly. Note that it’s the gender of the parent that matters, not the child. The sample size is quite small, containing only 288 occurrences for each gender.

A few years ago I stumbled across a paper titled Escape from crossover interference increases with maternal age by Campbell et al 2015. This study investigated the properties of crossover placement utilising family groups contained within the database of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. In total more than 645,000 well-supported crossover events were able to be identified. Although this study didn’t directly report the observed frequency distribution of crossovers per chromosome, it did produce a table of parameters that accurately described the distribution of inter-crossover distances for each chromosome.

By introducing these parameters into a model that I had developed to implement the equations described by Housworth and Stahl in their 2003 paper Crossover Interference in Humans I was able to derive tables depicting the frequency of crossovers. The following results were produced for each chromosome by running 100,000 simulations in my crossover model:

Crossover transmissions from female to child.png

Transmissions from female parent to child, above.

Crossover transmissions male to child.png

Transmissions from male parent to child.

To be sure that we understand what these tables are revealing let’s look at the first row of the female table. The most frequent outcome for chromosome #1 is that there will be three crossovers and this occurs 27% of the time. There were instances when up to 10 crossovers were observed in a single meiosis but these were extremely rare. Cells that are blank recorded no observations in the 100,000 simulations. On average there are 3.36 crossovers observed on chromosome #1 in female to child transmissions i.e. the female chromosome #1 is 3.36 Morgans (336 centimorgans) in genetic length.

Blaine Bettinger has since examined crossover statistics using crowdsourced data in The Recombination Project: Analyzing Recombination Frequencies Using Crowdsourced Data, but only for females. His sample size was 250 maternal transmissions and Table 2 in the report presents the results in the same format as the tables above. There is a remarkable degree of conformity between Blaine’s measurements and the output from my simulation model and also to the earlier Fledel-Alon et al study.

The diagrams below are a typical representation of the chromosomes inherited by a child.

Crossovers inherited from mother.jpg

The red and orange (above) are the set of chromosomes inherited from the mother and the aqua and green (below) from the father. The locations where the colours change identify the crossover points.

It’s worth noting that all chromosomes have a chance of being passed from parent to child without recombination. These probabilities are found in the column for zero crossovers.

In the picture above the mother has passed on two red chromosomes (#14 and #20) without recombination from one of the maternal grandparents. No yellow chromosomes were passed intact.

Similarly, below, the father has passed on a total of five chromosomes that have no crossover points. Blue chromosomes #15, #18 and #21 were passed on intact from one paternal grandparent and green chromosomes #4 and #20 from the other.

Crossovers inherited from father.jpg

It’s quite a rare event for one of the larger chromosomes to be passed on without recombination (only a 1.4% probability for chromosome #1 in female transmissions) but occurs far more frequently in the smaller chromosomes. In fact, the male chromosome #21 is passed on intact more often (50.6% of the time) than containing DNA from both of the father’s parents.

However, there is nothing especially significant about chromosome #21.

The same could be said for any region of similar genetic length on any of the autosomes i.e. the first 52 cM of chromosome #1 or the middle 52 cM of chromosome #10 etc. From my simulations I have observed that on average 2.8 autosomes are passed down from a mother to child without a crossover and an average of 5.1 autosomes from a father to child.

In total (from both parents), 94% of offspring will inherit between 4 and 12 chromosomes containing DNA exclusively from a single grandparent. In the 100,000 simulations the child always inherited at least one chromosome without recombination.

Back to Roberta

If you have 3 generations who have tested, you can view the crossovers in the grandchild as compared to either one or two grandparents.

If the child doesn’t match one grandparent, even if their other grandparent through that parent hasn’t tested, you can certainly infer that any DNA where the grandchild doesn’t match the available grandparent comes from the non-tested “other” grandparent on that side.

Let’s Look at Real-Life Examples

Using the example of my 2 granddaughters, both of their parents and 3 of their 4 grandparents have tested, so I was able to measure the crossovers that my granddaughters experienced from all 4 of their grandparents.

Maternal Crossovers Granddaughter 1 Granddaughter 2 Average
Chromosome 1 6 2 3.36
Chromosome 2 4 2 3.17
Chromosome 3 3 2 2.71
Chromosome 4 2 2 2.59
Chromosome 5 2 1 2.49
Chromosome 6 4 2 2.36
Chromosome 7 3 1 2.23
Chromosome 8 2 2 2.11
Chromosome 9 3 1 1.95
Chromosome 10 4 2 2.08
Chromosome 11 3 0 1.93
Chromosome 12 3 3 2.00
Chromosome 13 1 1 1.52
Chromosome 14 3 1 1.38
Chromosome 15 4 1 1.44
Chromosome 16 2 2 1.58
Chromosome 17 2 2 1.53
Chromosome 18 2 0 1.40
Chromosome 19 2 1 1.18
Chromosome 20 0 1 1.19
Chromosome 21 0 1 0.74
Chromosome 22 1 0 0.78
Total 56 30 41.71

Looking at these results, it’s easy to see just how different inheritance between two full siblings can be. Granddaughter 1 has 56 crossovers through her mother, significantly more than the average of 41.71. Granddaughter 2 has 30, significantly less than average.

The average of the 2 girls is 43, very close to the total average of 41.71.

Note that one child received 2 chromosomes intact from her mother, and the other received 3.

Paternal Crossovers Granddaughter 1 Granddaughter 2 Average
Chromosome 1 2 2 1.98
Chromosome 2 3 2 1.85
Chromosome 3 2 2 1.64
Chromosome 4 0 1 1.46
Chromosome 5 1 2 1.46
Chromosome 6 2 1 1.41
Chromosome 7 1 2 1.36
Chromosome 8 1 1 1.23
Chromosome 9 1 3 1.26
Chromosome 10 3 2 1.30
Chromosome 11 0 1 1.20
Chromosome 12 1 1 1.32
Chromosome 13 2 1 1.02
Chromosome 14 1 0 0.97
Chromosome 15 1 2 1.01
Chromosome 16 0 1 1.02
Chromosome 17 0 0 1.06
Chromosome 18 1 1 0.98
Chromosome 19 1 1 1.00
Chromosome 20 0 0 0.99
Chromosome 21 0 0 0.52
Chromosome 22 0 0 0.63
Total 23 26 26.65

Granddaughter 2 had slightly more paternal crossovers than did granddaughter 1.

One child received 7 chromosomes intact from her father, and the other received 5.

Chromosome Granddaughter 1 Maternal Granddaughter 1 Paternal
Chromosome 1 6 2
Chromosome 2 4 3
Chromosome 3 3 2
Chromosome 4 2 0
Chromosome 5 2 1
Chromosome 6 4 2
Chromosome 7 3 1
Chromosome 8 2 1
Chromosome 9 3 1
Chromosome 10 4 3
Chromosome 11 3 0
Chromosome 12 3 1
Chromosome 13 1 2
Chromosome 14 3 1
Chromosome 15 4 1
Chromosome 16 2 0
Chromosome 17 2 0
Chromosome 18 2 1
Chromosome 19 2 1
Chromosome 20 0 0
Chromosome 21 0 0
Chromosome 22 1 0
Total 56 23

Comparing each child’s maternal and paternal crossovers side by side, we can see that Granddaughter 1 has more than double the number of maternal as compared to paternal crossovers, while Granddaughter 2 only had slightly more.

Chromosome Granddaughter 2 Maternal Granddaughter 2 Paternal
Chromosome 1 2 2
Chromosome 2 2 2
Chromosome 3 2 2
Chromosome 4 2 1
Chromosome 5 1 2
Chromosome 6 2 1
Chromosome 7 1 2
Chromosome 8 2 1
Chromosome 9 1 3
Chromosome 10 2 2
Chromosome 11 0 1
Chromosome 12 3 1
Chromosome 13 1 1
Chromosome 14 1 0
Chromosome 15 1 2
Chromosome 16 2 1
Chromosome 17 2 0
Chromosome 18 0 1
Chromosome 19 1 1
Chromosome 20 1 0
Chromosome 21 1 0
Chromosome 22 0 0
Total 30 26

Granddaughter 2 has closer to the same number of maternal and paternal of crossovers, but about 8% more maternal.

Comparing Maternal and Paternal Crossover Rates

Given that males clearly have a much, much lower crossover rate, according to the Philip’s chart as well as the evidence in just these two individual cases, over time, we would expect to see the DNA segments significantly LESS broken up in male to male transmissions, especially an entire line of male to male transmissions, as compared to female to female linear transmissions. This means we can expect to see larger intact shared segments in a male to male transmission line as compared to a female to female transmission line.

  G1 Mat G2 Mat Mat Avg G1 Pat G2 Pat Pat Avg
Gen 1 56 30 41.71 23 26 26.65
Gen 2 112 60 83.42 46 52 53.30
Gen 3 168 90 125.13 69 78 79.95
Gen 4 224 120 166.84 92 104 106.60

Using the Transmission rates for Granddaughter 1, Granddaughter 2, and the average calculated by Philip, it’s easy to see the cumulative expected average number of crossovers vary dramatically in every generation.

By the 4th generation, the maternal crossovers seen in someone entirely maternally descended at the rate of Grandchild 1 would equal 224 crossovers meaning that the descendant’s DNA would be divided that many times, while the same number of paternal linear divisions at 4 generations would only equal 92.

Yet today, we would never look at 2 people’s DNA, one with 224 crossovers compared to one with 92 crossovers and even consider the possibility that they are both only three generations descended from an ancestor, counting the parents as generation 1.

What Does This Mean?

The number of males and females in a specific line clearly has a direct influence on the number of crossovers experienced, and what we can expect to see as a result in terms of average segment size of inherited segments in a specific number of generations.

Using Granddaughter 1’s maternal crossover rate as an example, in 4 generations, chromosome 1 would have incurred a total of 24 crossovers, so the DNA would be divided into in 25 pieces. At the paternal rate, only 8 crossovers so the DNA would be in 9 pieces.

Chromosome 1 is a total of 267 centimorgans in length, so dividing 267 cM by 25 would mean the average segment would only be 10.68 cM for the maternal transmission, while the average segment divided by 9 would be 29.67 cM in length for the paternal transmission.

Given that the longest matching segment is a portion of the estimated relationship calculation, the difference between a 10.68 cM maternal linear segment match and a 29.67 paternal linear cM segment match is significant.

While I used the highest and lowest maternal and paternal rates of the granddaughters, the average would be 19 and 29, respectively – still a significant difference.

Maternal and Paternal Crossover Average Segment Size

Each person has an autosomal total of 3374 cM on chromosomes 1-22, excluding the X chromosome, that is being compared to other testers. Applying these calculations to all 22 autosomes using the maternal and paternal averages for 4 generations, dividing into the 3374 total we find the following average segment centiMorgan matches:

Crossovers average segment size.png

Keep in mind, of course, that the chart above represents 3 generations in a row of either maternal or paternal crossovers, but even one generation is significant.

The average size segment of a grandparent’s DNA that a child receives from their mother is 80.89 cM where the average segment of a grandparent’s DNA inherited from their father is 1.57 times larger at 126.6 cM.

Keep the maternal versus paternal inheritance path in mind as you evaluate matches to cousins with identified common ancestors, especially if the path is entirely or mostly maternal or paternal which would skew the cumulative average. You can easily tell, for example, that matches who descend paternally from a common ancestor and carry the surname are likely to carry more DNA from that common male ancestor than someone who descends from a mixed or directly maternal line.

For unknown matches, just keep in mind that the average that vendors calculate and use to predict relationships, because they can’t and don’t have “inside knowledge” about the inheritance path, may or may not be either accurate or average. They do the best they can do with the information they have at hand.

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