Which DNA Test is Best?

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

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

Testing Goals

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

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

We will be discussing testing for:

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

We will be reviewing the following test types:

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

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

  • Additional Vendor Considerations

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

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

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

The Big 3

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

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

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

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

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

A Word About Third Party Tools

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

Let’s get started!

Ethnicity

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

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

Yep, same person, different ethnicity breakdowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at each company separately.

Ethnicity – Family Tree DNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnicity – Ancestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Genetic Communities here and here.

Ethnicity – 23andMe

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnicity Summary

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

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

Ethnicity Vendor Summary Chart

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

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

 

Adoption and Parental Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adoptee Y and Mitochondrial Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adoption Summary

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

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

Adoptee Vendor Feature Summary Chart

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

Genealogy – Cousin Matching and Ancestor Search/Verification

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

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

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

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

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

Genealogy – Autosomal –  Family Tree DNA

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

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

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

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

Unique autosomal tools provided by Family Tree DNA are:

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

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

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

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

Genealogy – Autosomal – Ancestry

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

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

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

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

Unique tools provided by Ancestry include:

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

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

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

Genealogy – Autosomal – 23and Me

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

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

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

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

The one genealogy feature unique to 23andMe is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genealogy – Autosomal Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genealogy Autosomal Vendor Feature Summary Chart

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

 

Genealogy – Y and Mitochondrial DNA

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

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

Y-DNA Testing for Males

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

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

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

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

Family Tree DNA provides three types of Y DNA tests.

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

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

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

Y DNA Vendor Feature Summary Chart

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

Mitochondrial DNA Testing for Everyone

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

Matching can identify family lines as well as ancient lineage.

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

Mitochondrial DNA Vendor Feature Summary Chart

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

 

Overall Genealogy Summary

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testing for Medical/Health or Traits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Additional Vendor Information to Consider

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

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

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

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

Family Tree DNA does not sell your DNA or information.

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

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

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

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

Additional Vendor Considerations Summary Chart

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

 

Which Test is Best For You?

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

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

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

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

Zeroes aka Deletions – Null DNA Markers

Someone recently asked me about why one of their Y DNA STR marker values was zero, what that means, and how it got to be that way.

Probably the marker most prone to develop this trait is marker 425, the 48th marker that is in the 67 marker panel.  If you haven’t tested beyond 37 markers, then you won’t see a result for marker 425, because it’s in the 67 marker panel which tests markers 38-67.

A null marker result looks like this for Y DNA:

null result

You can see that location DYS425, highlighted in blue, has a zero and a red asterisk.

This means that there is no DNA present at that location, and a deletion has occurred.

Mitochondrial DNA

Deletions also occur in mitochondrial DNA.

If you view your results as CRS values, deletions show as little dash marks.

Mito deletion CRS

In the RSRS results view, below, they are shown with a little d indicating a deletion has replaced the normal value shown before the location number.

Mito deletion RSRS

In the case above in the coding region, an entire contiguous segment has been deleted.  In mitochondrial DNA, these are sometimes haplogroup defining.

While deletions also occur routinely in mitochondrial DNA, we’re going to use Y DNA for our discussion and examples.

What Does This Mean?

A zero in Y DNA as a marker result means that no DNA was detected at this location.  In essence, barring a lab processing error, it means that the DNA that used to be in this location got deleted in the process of replication at some point in time.

Once DNA on the Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA is gone, it’s gone forever.  This is called a deletion.

Why Did This Happen?

We don’t know exactly why deletions happen, but they do.  If the deletion is in an area that isn’t troublesome to the organism, life goes on normally and the deletion is passed on to the next generation.  If the deletion would interfere with a critical function, typically the organism is never born.

So, if you have a deletion, it’s really nothing to worry about, because, chances are your ancestors, for generations, had this same deletion and you are obviously here. 

When Did This Happen?

Sometimes we can deduce an answer to this question, at least somewhat.

If your DNA value at location 425 is 0 (zero), there are three possibilities.

1.  This mutation happened long ago in your family line – maybe even before the adoption of surnames.  This is usually relatively easy to tell, especially if other men from your direct line have tested.  If they have, you’ll need to determine if their value at location 425 is zero.  If you and they are in a common project, often the easiest way to determine their value is to look within the project page. If you see others with the same surname that match most of your other marker results, and have a value of 0 at 425, then you know that this mutation happened long ago in your family line and has been being passed from father to son ever since – and will be as long as any male who carries that paternal line lives.

You can also check your haplogroup project to see if the people you are grouped, which will have different surnames, with also have a deletion at that location.

In some cases, almost everyone in a particular group has a zero at that location.  In the case of marker 425, the value of 0 is almost universally found in haplogroup E-L117, downstream of E-M35, as you can see in the Jewish haplogroup E project.

Sometimes, if the null marker at that location is not prevalent in the haplogroup itself, or in the larger family group, then the null value may be considered a line marker mutation in your specific family line.

2.  The null value may have happened more recently.  In fact, it’s possible that it happened between you and your father.  It happened between some father and son, someplace in your line.  If you find that you have a null marker value, and no one else if your family surname project has a null value at that marker, I would suggest proceeding in two ways.  First, I would test a second person, slightly upstream.  For example, test another paternal descendant of your grandfather or great-grandfather.  If they too have the null value, then you know that deletion occurred in some generation before your common ancestor.

null family example

If your father is Sterling and his father is Ben, then you’ll want to test one of Ben’s other sons, Hezekiah or Joseph, or one of their sons.

Let’s say that you test Hezekiah Jr. and he too carries a null value at location 425.  This confirms that your common ancestor, Ben Doe, indeed also had a null value because he passed it to both of his sons.  So, the mutation to a null value happened someplace upstream of Ben.

In this next example, let’s say, based on the surname project results, we know that neither John Doe nor James Doe carry the null value mutation, because at least some of their descendants through various sons don’t carry that mutation.  Therefore, it had to happen someplace downstream of Joe and James and between them and you.  The question is where.

Null ancestors inferred

In the original test, you discovered your null value.  In the second test, we discovered Hezekiah Jr.’s null value and by doing so, also discovered the value of that DNA in Sterling, Hezekiah Sr. and Ben, shown in the second test column above.

From previous testing in the family surname project, we know that the progenitor, John Doe and his son James don’t carry that mutation, so that only leaves two generations with an unknown status as to that marker value.  If you can find someone descended through another son born to William or Thomas, you can determine which man had the mutation.

But what if Hezekiah Jr. does not have the null value?

Then, either the mutation happened between you and your father or between your father and his father, which can be confirmed by testing either your father or one of your male siblings, or there was a lab processing error.

3.  In rare cases, the DNA simply does not read in a particular area.  It’s rare, but it does happen.  If you find no other family individuals with a null value, I’d ask the Family Tree DNA lab to take a second look to verify accuracy and to see if they can get a good reading if that is the issue.  They already routinely do multiple reads on null values, so this is rarely an issue.

Does This Really Matter?

It might matter, because in this line, the null value will serve as a line marker mutation for the family lines BELOW the man who had the mutation.  So, in this case, either William or Thomas Doe.  So if you find someone who matches this line, and DOES have a null value, it tells you which line he falls under and where to look.  If he does NOT have the null value, it tells you not to bother looking in the null value line.

Do Other Markers and Haplogroups Have Null Markers Too?

They do indeed.  I’ve written the Personalized DNA Reports for a decade now and I’ve seen null marker values in just about every haplogroup and on many markers, although some instances are very rare and seem to be a one-time occurrence.

In other situations, especially in haplogroup E-M35 (old E1b1b1) and branches, null values are quite common, especially on marker 425.  Marker 425 seems to be more prone to zero or null values in every haplogroup than other markers…and no, we don’t know why.

This has been the explanation of null values for normal air breathing humans.  If you would like the eyes-glazed-over techie version, this presentation was given at the 2009 Family Tree DNA Conference.

Estes Big Y DNA Results

In late 2013, a new Y DNA product called the Big Y was introduced by Family Tree DNA.  The goal of this new test was to read virtually all of the Y chromosome that was useful for genealogical purposes.

I decided to wait and see how useful this tool actually was, and how to effectively use the information before delving into a family study, in part, because the individuals tests are quite expensive. We began our Estes Big Y family study in 2014 and I have now completed a report for family members.  With their permission, I’m sharing this information with the hope that other groups will see the potential in combining STR and full sequence SNP testing for family groups.

The temptation, of course, especially in the case of the Estes lineage is to see if we could reach back further in time to see if we can connect with, confirm or dispel the persistent myth that the Estes line is descended from the d’Este family line of Italy.  Of course, if there was a direct line male from that family that existed, or was willing to test, that would answer the question in a heartbeat but that’s not the case.

The belief that the Estes family was descended from the d’Este’s is an old one and not just limited to the American Estes family or the Estes family itself.

Long-time Estes researcher and archivist, David Powell, gathered several instances where various families in England used the d’Este name, at least one of which was suggested by King James himself.

King James I of England and Scotland (reigned from 1603 to 1625) was convinced that a gentleman in his service by the name of East was in fact a descendent of the d’Este family and suggested he change his name to Este. One did not gainsay a suggestion from the king in those days!

Even earlier, the English printer Thomas East (1540-1608) used the names East, Est, Este and Easte and hinted at a connection with the d’Este family, although his motivations were much more obvious – he made his fame publishing Italian music in England and suggesting a connection to the d’Este’s would certainly not have adversely affected his sales! Thomas’ son, Michael (1580-1680), who was a composer in his own right, also used the names East, Est, Este and Easte.

Somewhat more recent was the case of Sir Augustus d’Este (1794-1848), who despite the surname, was pure English. Augustus was son of the Duke of Sussex and the daughter of the Earl of Dunmore. The marriage of his parents was without the King’s consent and he (George III) subsequently annulled the marriage, thus making Augustus illegitimate *after* his birth.  After the annulment, Augustus and his sister were given the name d’Este by their father, a name that was “anciently belonging to the House of Brunswick”. There were several other instances where English aristocrats named Este or East changed their name to d’Este, including one family in the 1800’s that changed their name from East and claimed the non-existent title “Baron d’Este.”

The Big Y test holds out the promise, or at least the possibility, of being able to connect the outside limits of the standard genealogy Y DNA STR tests and bridge the hundreds to a couple thousand year gap between STR testing and haplogroup definitions.

In our case, we needed to know where our ancestors were and what they were doing, genetically, between about 500BC and 1495AD when we both find them (coming forward in time) and lose them (going backward in time) in Deal, Kent, England.

Had they been in Kent forever, without a surname or with a surname, but not reflected in the available records, or had they truly been royalty on the continent and recently immigrated?

In the article, Nycholas Ewstas (c1495-1533) English Progenitor, I found and compiled the various list of Estes/d’Este ancestral stories.  The most reasonable seems to be found in David Powell’s article, “Origins of the Estes/Eastes Family Name,” as follows:

“…Francesco of Este, who was the son of Marquis Leonello [1407-1450], left Ferrara [1471] to go and live in Burgundy, by the will of Duke Ercole [Francesco’s uncle, who succeeded Leonello] .. and, in order that he should go at once, he gave him horses and clothes and 500 ducats more; and this was done because His Excellency had some suspicions of him .. ‘Francesco .. went to Burgundy and afterward to England’. These were the words written on the back of the picture of Francesco found in a collection of paintings near Ferrara.”

Many of the details are similar to earlier stories. But why would Francesco flee Italy? In 1471 Francesco’s brother, Ericolo, led a revolt in an attempt to overthrow Duke Ercole. The attempt was unsuccessful and in typical royal tradition, Ericolo lost his head and Francesco exiled, if only because he was Ericolo’s brother. Did Francesco really travel to England? The only evidence for this is the writing in the back of the painting, the existence of which is unconfirmed. Essentially the same story is told by Charles Estes in his book:

“.. Francesco Esteuse (born c.1440), the illegitimate son of Leonnello d’Este. Francesco was living in Burgundy. In the time of Duke Borso he came to Ferrara, and at Borso’s death was declared rebellious by Ercole because of efforts made by his brother, Ericolo, to seize power. Francesco returned to Burgundy and was heard of no more from that time (1471). As the time coincided with that when Edward conquered [sic] England with the aid of Burgundy, it was possible that Francesco followed Edward and after Edward’s victory made England his home.”

I checked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art who indicated no such notation on the painting and provided additional information showing that it’s likely that Francesco died in Burgundy.

If Francesco was the progenitor of the Estes family of Kent, who were mariners, the family in one generation, in essence, in one fell swoop, went from royalty to peasantry in Kent.  Nicholas was born in 1495 and two other Estes men, Richard and Thomas, found nearby, born about the same time.  Extremely unlikely, but not impossible.

The d’Este family of Italy was said by Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to originate from the Roman Attii family, which migrated from Rome to Este to defend Italy against Goths. However there is no evidence to support this hypothesis.

The names of the early members of the family indicate that a Frankish origin is much more likely. The first known member of the house was Margrave Adalbert of Mainz, known only as father of Oberto I, Count palatine of Italy, who died around 975. Oberto’s grandson Albert Azzo II, Margrave of Milan (996–1097) built a castle at Este, near Padua, below, and named himself after it.

Este Castle

The city of Mainz is the capital of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. It was the capital of the Electorate of Mainz at the time of the Holy Roman Empire which began in 962. In antiquity Mainz was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire; it was founded as a military post by the Romans in the late 1st century BC and became the provincial capital of Germania Superior.

Mainz Germany

The city is located on the river Rhine at its confluence with the Main opposite Wiesbaden, in the western part of the Frankfurt Rhine-Main.  The painting above shows Mainz looking toward the Rhine, across the old part of the city, in 1890.

There is absolutely no question that the Romans occupied Mainz as the remnants of architectural structures such as Roman City gates from the 4th century and Roman aqueducts (below) permeate the landscape yet today.

Mainz Roman aquaducts

The town of Frankfurt was adjacent Mainz and the name of Frankfurt on Main is derived from the Franconofurd of the Germanic tribe of the Franks plus Furt, meaning ford,  where the river was shallow enough to be crossed by wading. The Alemanni and Franks lived there and by 794 Charlemagne presided over an imperial assembly and church synod, at which Franconofurd (-furt -vurd) was first mentioned.

The Franks and the Alemanni were both Germanic tribes.  The Alemanni were found in what is today German Swabis and Baden, French Alsace, German-speaking Switzerland and Austrian Voralberg.  Their name means “all men” as they were a Germanic confederation tribe.  One historian, Walafrid Strabo, a monk of the Abbey of St Gall wrote in the 9th century that only foreigners called the Alemanni by that name, that they called themselves the Suebi.

This map shows the approximate location of the original Frankish tribes in the third century.

Frankish Tribes 3rd Century

“Carte des peuples francs (IIIe siècle)” by Odejea – Own work, d’après : Patrick Peron, Laurence Charlotte Feiffer, Les Francs (tome 1 – A la conquête de la Gaule), Armand Collon Editeur, Paris, 1987, isbn 2-200-37070-6. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Franks, who eventually conquered the Alemanni, were found predominately in northeastern Europe in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands along the lower and middle Rhine, extending into what is now France.

Another source claims that the Italian d’Este family roots were found as the Marquis of Sicily, affiliated with Lombardy, which was ruled by the Lombards. If this is true, the Lombards were also descendants of the Suebi, having originated in Scandinavia, and the Franks defeated the Lombards as well, so either way, the DNA would appear in the same locale.

Lombard Migration

“Lombard Migration” by Castagna – Own elaboration from Image: Europe satellite orthographic.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Relative to the Estes family of Kent, if they do descend from the d’Este family of Italy, based on this information, their Y DNA should look like and correlate with that of either Italians or Germanic tribes such as the Franks and the Suebi.

Aside from answering this origins question that has burned for years, what other types of information might we learn from Big Y testing?

  • Does the Estes family have any mutations that are unique? In other words, specific SNP mutations have evolved in the Estes family and would, in combination with other SNPs and STRs, identify us uniquely. Someday, in hundreds of years, as we have many descendants, these individual SNPs found only in our family line will define our own haplogroup.
  • What other families are the closest to the Estes family?
  • When and where did we “split” with those other families? Does their family history help define or identify ours?
  • Can SNP mutations in combination with STR mutations help identify specific lineages within the Estes family? This is particularly important for people who don’t know which ancestral line they descend from.

These same questions would be relevant for any family interested in doing a Big Y DNA study.

The Estes family is fortunate that we have several people who are interested in the deep history of the family, and were willing to pay for the Big Y test, along with the full 111 marker Y STR tests to facilitate our research and understanding.

The Estes family is first found in Kent, England in 1495 with Nicholas whose name was spelled variably, as were all names at that time.  Estes is spelled in many ways such as Ewstas, Eustace, Estes, Eastes, Estice and more.  I am using Estes for consistency.

I have created a pedigree chart of sorts to show the descent of the Estes Big Y testers.

Estes pedigree

Robert Estes and Anne Woodward had two sons, Silvester and Robert, who have descendants Big Y testing today.

Silvester had two sons, Richard and Abraham who have descendants who have Y DNA tested, but only Abraham’s descendants have taken the Big Y test.  Robert had son Matthew whose descendant also took the Big Y test.  Note that Abraham and Matthew are shown in green which indicates that they immigrated to America.  Richard, in blue, between Abraham and Matthew did not immigrate and his descendants did not take the Big Y test.

Of Abraham’s sons, we have Y DNA tested descendants from 7 sons, but only descendants of 5 sons are participating in the Big Y project.  We are uncertain of the direct lineage of kit 199378 as noted by the ? with Elisha’s name in his ancestry.  We know positively from his DNA results that he is biologically an Estes, but he could be descended from a different son.

We are also very fortunate that we have been able through several volunteers and professional genealogists to document the Estes line reliably both back in time into Kent and forward in time to current through several lines.

The Estes DNA project is somewhat unique in the fact that we have 10, 11 and 12 generations to work with in each line.  Our closest participants are 7th cousins and our furthest, 10th cousins once removed.  We have a total of 65 separate DNA transmission events that have occurred, counting each birth in each line as one transmission event, introducing the possibility of either STR mutations or new SNPS in each new generation.

STR mutations show up in the traditional 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker panels.  SNP mutations  show up in the Big Y report as either SNPs or Novel Variants which is a newly discovered SNP that has not yet been assigned an official SNP name, assuming is isn’t just a family occurrence.

Let’s look at the STR markers first.

All of our participants except one extended to 111 markers and that individual tested at 67.  Of the 111 markers, 97 marker locations have identical marker values in all participants, so have no mutations in any line since our common ancestor lived.  Of course, this means that our common ancestor carried this same value at this DNA location.

I created a virtual Estes ancestor, in green, below, by utilizing the most common values of the descendants and compared everyone against that ancestor.  Of course, this is a bit skewed because we have several descendants of Silvester’s line through Abraham and only one descendant of Robert through Matthew.

Estes ancestral Y

The reconstructed or triangulated ancestral value is shown in green, at the top, and the results that don’t match that value are highlighted.  I can’t show all 111 markers here, but enough that you get the idea.  You can see all of the Estes STR test results on the Estes DNA project page.

Comparing against the recreated ancestor, Matthew’s descendant, kit 166011, only has 7 mutations difference from our recreated Estes Y ancestor.  At 111 markers, this averages out to about one STR mutation every 1.5-2 generations.

The chart below shows Matthew’s descendant kit, 166011, compared to all of Abraham’s descendants.  Matthew’s descendant, of course, is the kit furthest genealogically from Abraham’s descendants.

The number in the intersecting cells shows the number of mutations at both 67 and 111 markers compared to kit 166011.

Kit Numbers 9993 13805 244708 366707 199378
166011 at 67 6 6 6 6 5
166011 at 111 10 10 11 11 No test

When compared to each other, and not the ancestral values, kits 244708 and 366707 are not shown as matches to kit 166011 at 111 markers at Family Tree DNA, but are at 67 markers.  When possible, I match participants to a recreated ancestor (on my spreadsheet) as opposed to matching to each other within a surname project, because it gives us a common starting point, providing a more realistic picture of how the DNA mutated to be what it is today in each line.

The Kent Estes Y DNA falls within haplogroup R-L21.  From Eupedia, here’s a map of where haplogroup R-L21 is found.

R-L21

L21 is known for being Celtic, not Germanic, meaning not the same as Franks and Suebi.  Scholars are not unified in their interpretation of the maximum influence of the Celts.  Some show no influence at all in Italy, some show a slight eastern coastal influence and this genetic maps shows a Sicilian influence.

However, because nothing in genealogy can every be straightforward, and people are always migrating from place to place, there is one known exception.

According to Barry Cunliffe’s book, “The Celts, a Very Short Introduction”, in 391 BC Celts “who had their homes beyond the Alps streamed through the passes in great strength and seized the territory that lay between the Appennine mountains and the Alps” according to Diodorus Siculus. The Po Valley and the rest of northern Italy (known to the Romans as Cisalpine Gaul) was inhabited by Celtic-speakers.  While Este is somewhat north of this region, Este history indicates that there were fights with the Celts and then assimilation to some extent, so all is not entirely black and white.

The descendants of these invading Celts, having inhabited Italy for approximately 2500 years would be expected, today, to have some defining mutations that would differentiate them from their more northern European kinsmen and they would form a cluster or subgroup, perhaps a sub-haplogroup.

However, if the d’Este family was from the Mainz region of Germany, then Celtic influence in the Po Valley is irrelevant to their Y DNA.  Unfortunately, because this history is cast in warm jello, at best, we need to consider all possibilities.

The various haplogroup project administrators are working very hard to analyze all of the Big Y results within their haplogroup projects and to make sense of them.  By making sense of them, I mean in regards to the haplogroup and haplotree as a whole, not as individuals.  The point of individual testing is to provide information that citizen scientists can utilize to flesh out the haplotree, which in turn fleshes out the history of our ancestors.  So it’s a symbiotic relationship.

The Y DNA haplotree has gone from about 800 branches to 12,000 branches with the announcement of the Genographic 2.0 test in July of 2012 to over 35,000 SNPs that the Big Y is compared against.  And that doesn’t count the thousands of new SNPs discovered and yet unnamed and unplaced on the tree.

This scientific onslaught has been termed the “SNP tsumani” and it truly is.  It’s one of those wonderful, terrible, events – simply because there is so much good information it overwhelms us.  Fortunately, the force of the tsunami is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the haplotree is broken into haplogroups and subgroups and many volunteer administrators are working feverishly to assemble the results in a reasonable manner, determining what is a leaf, a twig and a branch of the tree.

Mike Walsh is one of the administrators who maintains the L21 project and tree and has been extremely helpful in this process, providing both guidance and analysis.  The project administrators have access to the results of all of the project participants, something individuals don’t have, so the project administrator’s assistance and perspective is invaluable.  We’d be lost without them

Mike has created an extended tree of the R-L21 haplogroup

R-L21 tree crop

The Estes men are here, in the DF49 group indicated by the red arrow.

The Estes men have tested positive for SNPs which include:

  • L21
  • DF13
  • DF49

Downstream, meaning closer in time to us, the haplogroup DF49 project administrator, Peter M. Op den Velde Boots, has created a tree rooted from the DF49 mutation.

I’m pleased to say that we are on that tree as well, towards the right hand side.  The ZP SNPs on this tree are placeholder names created by the administrator so he could create a tree until an official name is issued for Z SNP locations.

DF49 tree crop2

The interesting thing is that Mike Walsh had predicted that both the Estes and a few other surnames would fall into a common subgroup based on our unusual values at three different STR markers:

  • 460<=10
  • 413=23,24
  • 534>=17

Surnames that fell into Mike’s cluster based on Y STR marker values include:

  • Gallagher (Ireland)
  • Churchville (Ireland)
  • Killeen/Killian (Ireland)
  • Hall (England)
  • Mahon (Ireland)
  • Estes (England)

We’re seeing a lot of Irish names, and Ireland was settled by Celtic people.

Initially, the Estes men matched each other fairly closely, but had many differences from any other individuals who had tested.  I have bolded the Matthew descendant kit that is the furthest from the other men who descend from Abraham.

SNP Differences With Other Estes Men

John 244708 Edward 13805 Garmon 9993 Emory III366707 Howard 166011 Dennis 199378
John 244708 x 1 (Z2001) 0 2 (Z2001, F1314) 1 (Z2001) 2 (Z2001, PF682)
Edward 13805 1 (Z2001) x 0 1 (F1314) 0 0
Garmon 9993 0 0 x 1 (F1314) 0 0
Emory III 366707 2 (Z2001, F1314) 1 (F1314) 1 (F1314) x 1 (F1314) 1 (F1314)
Howard 166011 1 (Z2001) 0 0 1 (F1314) x 0
Dennis 199378 2 (Z2001, PF682) 0 0 1 (F1314) 0 x

SNPs are haplogroup subgroup defining mutations.  SNPs with a number assigned, as shown above, prefixed by a capital letter, means that the SNP has been registered and the originating letter indicates the lab in which it was found.  SNPs discovered in Big Y testing are prefixed by BY for example.

Not all SNPs with numbers assigned have been placed on the haplogroup tree, nor will they all be placed on the tree.  Some may be determined to be private or personal SNPs or not widespread enough to be of general interest.  One certainly doesn’t want the tree to become so subdivided that family members with the same surname and known ancestor wind up in different haplogroups, appearing to not be related.  Or maybe we have to redefine how we think of a haplogroup.

Case in point, these men with known, proven common Estes ancestors have differences on three SNPs, shown in the columns, below.

Estes Men Unique SNP Mutations

Z2001 F1314 PF682
John 244708 Yes No Yes
Garmon 9993 ? No ?
Edward 13805 No No ?
Emory III 366707 No Yes ?
Dennis 199378 No No No
Howard 166011 No No ?

What does this mean?

This means that John has developed two SNP mutations that none of the other Estes men have, unless some of the men with no-callls at that location, indicated by a ?, have that mutation.  The common ancestor of all of the Estes participants except Howard is Abraham Estes, so SNP Z2001 and PF682 have occurred in John’s line someplace since Abraham.

PF682 is quite interesting in that two Estes men, both descendants of Abraham did have results for this location, one with an ancestral value (Dennis) and one with a derived, or mutated, value (John.)  What is so interesting is that the four other men had ambiguous or unclear results at this location. In this case, I would simply disregard this SNP entirely since the results of reading this location seem to be unreliable.

Emory III, also a descendant of Abraham has developed a mutation at location F1314.

In these cases, these SNPs would fall into the category of line marker mutations that are found in that family’s line, but not in the other Estes lines.  These are similar to STR line marker mutations as well.

The next type of SNP mutation reported in the Big Y results are called Novel Variants.  Novel Variants are SNPs that haven’t yet been named, because they have just recently been discovered in the past few months in the testing process.  The Big Y test compares everyone against a data base of 36,288 known SNPs.  The balance of mutations found, called novel variants, are discoveries in the testing process.

Shared Novel Variants Between Estes Men

John 244708 Edward 13805 Garmon 9993 Emory III 366707 Howard 166011 Dennis 199378
John 244708 x 88 84 89 89 84
Edward 13805 88 x 84 88 89 85
Garmon 9993 84 84 x 83 84 81
Emory III 366707 89 88 83 x 89 87
Howard 166011 89 89 84 89 x 86
Dennis 199378 84 85 81 87 86 x

In essence, the Estes family has 30 differences from the DF49 base.  Translated, that means that in essence, our Estes family line broke away from the DF49 parent haplogroup about twice as long ago as the infamous M222 subclade named after Niall of the Nine Hostages.  So, our ancestor was the ancestor of Niall of the Nine Hostages too, some 4000 years or so ago.

Finally, a Gallagher male tested, and the Gallagher and Estes families share a block of DNA that no one else shares that is comprised of 18 different individual mutations.  As these things go, this is a huge number.

The numbers below are “addresses” on the Y chromosome because SNP names have not yet been assigned.  The first letter listed is the ancestral value and the second is the mutated value found in the Estes/Gallagher combined group.

  • 07457863-C-T
  • 07618400-G-A
  • 07738519-G-A
  • 07956143-A-G
  • 08432298-A-G
  • 14005952-AATAAATAA-A
  • 14029772-C-T
  • 15436998-C-T
  • 15549360-A-C
  • 16286264-C-T
  • 17833232-TT-T
  • 18417378-G-A
  • 18638729-A-G
  • 19402586-G-A
  • 22115259-T-C
  • 22445270-G-A
  • 22445271-A-G
  • 23560522-G-A

This DNA will very likely define a new subclade of haplogroup R and has been submitted to obtain SNP names for these mutation locations for the Estes/Gallagher subclade.  Unfortunately, they will not call it the Estes/Gallagher subclade, but we can for now:)

The Estes line still shares another dozen SNPs between themselves that are not yet shared by any other surname.  At this point, those are considered family SNPs, but if others test and those SNPs are found outside the Estes family, they too will receive SNP names and become a new subclade.

So how long ago did all of this happen?  When did we split, genetically, from the people who would become the Gallaghers?

The estimates for the number of average years per SNP creation vary, but range from 110 to 170.  Utilizing this range, when comparing how long ago the Gallagher and the Estes family shared a common ancestor, we find that our common ancestor lived between 1320 and 2040 years ago.  What we don’t know is whether that ancestor lived on continental Europe or in the British Isles.  Certainly, this was before the adoption of surnames.

Another interesting aspect of this testing is that the Estes and Gallagher families don’t match above 12 markers, but they do match at 12 markers with one mutation difference.  If the Estes and Gallagher participants weren’t in the same haplogroup project, they wouldn’t even see this match since they do have 1 difference at 12 markers and only exact 12 marker matches are shown outside of projects.  This shows that sometimes very basic STR testing can reach far back in time if (multiple) mutations haven’t occurred in those first 12 markers.

I was interested to check the TIP calculator to see how closely in terms of generations the calculator expected the common ancestor to be at the 50th percentile, meaning the point at which the common ancestors is equally as likely to be earlier as later.  The calculator indicated that 17 generations was at the 50th percentile, so about 425 to 510 years ago, allowing 25-30 years per generation.  At 24 generations, or 600-720 years, which is as far as the calculator reaches, the likelihood of a common ancestor was still only at 68% and the TIP calculator would reach the 100th percentile at about the 34th generation, or 850-1020 years – if it reached that far.

It’s interesting to compare the results of the two tools.  Both agree that the common ancestor is far back in time, and extrapolating now, very likely before the advent or surnames.  The SNP estimate of 1320-2040 does not overlap with the STR estimate of 850-1020 – although in all fairness, a 12 marker TIP estimate is expecting a lot in terms of this kind of extrapolation.

After the Gallagher and Estes lines split, probably between 1300 and 2000 years ago, or between 700AD and the time of Christ, did the Estes men then find their way to Italy by the year 900 when the d’Este family is unquestionably found in Italy, and back again to Europe before we find Nicholas in Kent in 1495AD?  It’s possible, but quite unlikely.  We also have found absolutely no DNA, either utilizing STR markers or SNPs that suggest any connection with any line in or near Italy.

The Estes line is and was unquestionably L21, a haplogroup closely allied with the Celts for the past 4,000 to 5,000 years, with no indication of an Italian branch.  Unless very unexpected new data arises, I think the Estes family can put the d’Este family story away, at least as far as cold storage – unless new data arises in the form of a proven male Y-line d’Este descendant testing or matching Italian L21 DNA participants.

As it turns out, the DNA was simply the final blow to the d’Este story.  As I worked with English and European historical records, and in particular records of wealthy nobles and lesser nobles, I came to realize that children were an asset of the families to be married off for political and social favor.  This sounds terrible by today’s cultural standards, but by the standards of the times in which our ancestors were living, politically advantageously arranged marriages were the best way to provide for your children’s well-being as well as your own.  What this means to us is that no royal d’Este family member would ever have fallen into the working, peasant class.  Even if they weren’t loved or even liked, they were still valuable and would simply have been married off far away.  Our Estes family was a group of hard-working mariners in Deal, certainly not nobility.  And now we know, they were Celts in Europe before they were Deal mariners.

Our more realistic claim to royalty, albeit very distant, lies in the fact that our ancestors were also the ancestors of the Irish King, Niall of the Nine Hostages, King of Tara who died about the year 405 and was the progenitor of the Ui Neill family that dominated Ireland from the 6th to the 10th centuries.  Niall of the Nine Hostages and his descendants were very prolific, with about 3 million people being descendants.  This means that the Estes family is distant cousins to just about everyone.  It indeed, is a very small world, made smaller by the connections we can now make via DNA.

celtic tree

2014 Y Tree Released by Family Tree DNA

On April 25th, DNA Day and Arbor Day, Family Tree DNA updated and released their 2014 Y haplotree created in partnership with the Genographic project.  This has been a massive project, expanding the tree from about 850 SNPs to over 6200, of which about 1200 are “terminal,” meaning the end of a branch, and the rest being proven to be duplicates.

If you’re a newbie, this would be a good place perhaps to read about what a haplogroup is and the new Y naming convention which replaces the well-known group names like R1b1a2 with the SNP shorthand version of the same haplogroup name, R-M269.  From this time forward, the haplogroups will be known by their SNP names and the longhand version is obsolete, although you will always see it in older documents, articles and papers.  In fact, this entire tree has been made possible by SNP testing by both academic organizations and consumers.  To understand the difference between regular STR marker testing and SNP testing, click here.

I’ve divided this article into two parts.  The first part is the “what did they do and why” part and the second is the “what does it mean to you” portion.

This tree update has been widely anticipated for some time now.  We knew that Family Tree DNA was calibrating the tree in partnership with the Genographic project, but we didn’t know what else would be included until the tree was released.

What Did Family Tree DNA Do, and Why?

Janine Cloud, the liaison at Family Tree DNA for Project Administrators has provided some information as to the big picture.

“First, we’re committed to the next iteration of the tree and it will be more comprehensive, but we’re going to be really careful about the data we use from other sources. It HAS to be from raw data, not interpreted data. Second, I’ve italicized what I think is really the mission statement for all the work that’s been done on this tree and that will be done in the future.”

Janine interviewed Elliott Greenspan of Family Tree DNA about the new tree, and here are some of the salient points from that discussion.

“This year we’re committing to launching another tree. This tree will be more comprehensive, utilizing data from external sources: known Sanger data, as well as data such as Big Y, and if we have direct access to the raw data to make the proof (from large companies, such as the Chromo2) or a publication, or something of that nature. That is our intention that it be added into the data.

We’re definitely committed to update at least once per year. Our intention is to use data from other sources, as well as any SNPs we can, but it must be well-vetted. NGS and SNP technology inherently has errors. You must curate for those errors otherwise you’re just putting slop out to customers. There are some SNPs that may bind to the X chromosome that you didn’t know. There are some low coverages that you didn’t know.

With technology such as this you’re able to overcome the urge to test only what you’re likely to be positive for, and instead use the shotgun method and test everything. This allows us to make the discovery that SNPs are not nearly as stable as we thought, and they have a larger potential use in that sense.

Not only does the raw data need to be vetted but it needs to make sense.  Using Geno 2.0, I only accepted samples that had the highest call rate, not just because it was the best quality but because it was the most data. I don’t want to be looking at data where I’m missing potential information A, or I may become confused by potential information B.  That is something that will bog us down. When you’re looking at large data sets, I’d much rather throw out 20% of them because they’re going to take 90% of the time than to do my best to get 1 extra SNP on the tree or 1 extra branch modified, that is not worth all of our time and effort. What is, is figuring out what the broader scope of people are, because that is how you break down origins. Figuring one single branch for one group of three people is not truly interesting until it’s 50 people, because 50 people is a population. Three people may be a family unit.  You have to have enough people to determine relevance. That’s why using large datasets and using complete datasets are very, very important.

I want it to be the most accurate tree it can be, but I also want it to be interesting. That’s the key. Historical relevance is what we’re to discover. Anthropological relevance. It’s not just who has the largest tree, it’s who can make the most sense out of what you have is important.”

Thanks to both Janine and Elliott for providing this information.

What is Provided in the Update?

The genetic genealogy community was hopeful that the new 2014 tree would be comprehensive, meaning that it would include not only the Genographic SNPs, but ones from Walk the Y, perhaps some Chromo2, Full Genomes results and the Big Y.  Perhaps we were being overly optimistic, especially given the huge influx of new SNPs, the SNP tsunami as we call it, over the past few months.  Family Tree DNA clearly had to put a stake in the sand and draw the line someplace.  So, what is actually included, how did they select the SNPs for the new tree and how does this integrate with the Genographic information?  This information was provided by Family Tree DNA.

Family Tree DNA created the 2014 Y-DNA Haplotree in partnership with the National Geographic Genographic Project using the proprietary GenoChip. Launched publicly in late 2012, the chip tests approximately 10,000 Y-DNA SNPs that had not, at the time, been phylogenetically classified.

The team used the first 50,000 male samples with the highest quality results to determine SNP positions. Using only tests with the highest possible “call rate” meant more available data, since those samples had the highest percentage of SNPs that produced results, or “calls.”

In some cases, SNPs that were on the 2010 Y-DNA Haplotree didn’t work well on the GenoChip, so the team used Sanger sequencing on anonymous samples to test those SNPs and to confirm ambiguous locations.

For example, if it wasn’t clear if a clade was a brother (parallel) clade, or a downstream clade, they tested for it.

The scope of the project did not include going farther than SNPs currently on the GenoChip in order to base the tree on the most data available at the time, with the cutoff for inclusion being about November of 2013.

Where data were clearly missing or underrepresented, the team curated additional data from the chip where it was available in later samples. For example, there were very few Haplogroup M samples in the original dataset of 50,000, so to ensure coverage, the team went through eligible Geno 2.0 samples submitted after November, 2013, to pull additional Haplogroup M data. That additional research was not necessary on, for example, the robust Haplogroup R dataset, for which they had a significant number of samples.

Family Tree DNA, again in partnership with the Genographic Project, is committed to releasing at least one update to the tree this year. The next iteration will be more comprehensive, including data from external sources such as known Sanger data, Big Y testing, and publications. If the team gets direct access to raw data from other large companies’ tests, then that information will be included as well. We are also committed to at least one update per year in the future.

Known SNPs will not intentionally be renamed. Their original names will be used since they represent the original discoverers of the SNP. If there are two names, one will be chosen to be displayed and the additional name will be available in the additional data, but the team is taking care not to make synonymous SNPs seems as if they are two separate SNPs. Some examples of that may exist initially, but as more SNPs are vetted, and as the team learns more, those examples will be removed.

In addition, positions or markers within STRs, as they are discovered, or large insertion/deletion events inside homopolymers, potentially may also be curated from additional data because the event cannot accurately be proven. A homopolymer is a sequence of identical bases, such as AAAAAAAAA or TTTTTTTTT. In such cases it’s impossible to tell which of the bases the insertion is, or if/where one was deleted. With technology such as Next Generation Sequencing, trying to get SNPs in regions such as STRs or homopolymers doesn’t make sense because we’re discovering non-ambiguous SNPs that define the same branches, so we can use the non-ambiguous SNPs instead.

Some SNPs from the 2010 tree have been intentionally removed. In some cases, those were SNPs for which the team never saw a positive result, so while it may be a legitimate SNP, even haplogroup defining, it was outside of the current scope of the tree. In other cases, the SNP was found in so many locations that it could cause the orientation of the tree to be drawn in more than one way. If the SNP could legitimately be positioned in more than one haplogroup, the team deemed that SNP to not be haplogroup defining, but rather a high polymorphic location.

To that end, SNPs no longer have .1, .2, or .3 designations. For example, J-L147.1 is simply J-L147, and I-147.2 is simply I-147.  Those SNPs are positioned in the same place, but back-end programming will assign the appropriate haplogroup using other available information such as additional SNPs tested or haplogroup origins listed. If other SNPs have been tested and can unambiguously prove the location of the multi-locus SNP for the sample, then that data is used. If not, matching haplogroup origin information is used.

We will also move to shorthand haplogroup designations exclusively. Since we’re committing to at least one iteration of the tree per year, using longhand that could change with each update would be too confusing.  For example, Haplogroup O used to have three branches: O1, O2, and O3. A SNP was discovered that combined O1 and O2, so they became O1a and O1b.

There are over 1200 branches on the 2014 Y Haplogroup tree, as compared to about 400 on the 2010 tree. Those branches contain over 6200 SNPs, so we’ve chosen to display select SNPs as “active” with an adjacent “More” button to show the synonymous SNPs if you choose.

In addition to the Family Tree DNA updates, any sample tested with the Genographic Project’s Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry Kit, then transferred to FTDNA will automatically be re-synched on the Geno side. The Genographic Project is currently integrating the new data into their system and will announce on their website when the process is complete in the coming weeks.  At that time, all Geno 2.0 participants’ results will be updated accordingly and will be accessible via the Genographic Project website.

In summary:

  • Created in partnership with National Geographic’s Genographic Project
  • Used GenoChip containing ~10,000 previously unclassified Y-SNPs
  • Some of those SNPs came from Walk Through the Y and the 1000 Genome Project
  • Used first 50,000 high-quality male Geno 2.0 samples
  • Verified positions from 2010 YCC by Sanger sequencing additional anonymous samples
  • Filled in data on rare haplogroups using later Geno 2.0 samples

Statistics

  • Expanded from approximately 400 to over 1200 terminal branches
  • Increased from around 850 SNPs to over 6200 SNPs
  • Cut-off date for inclusion for most haplogroups was November 2013

Total number of SNPs broken down by haplogroup

A 406 DE 16 IJ 29 LT 12 P 81
B 69 E 1028 IJK 2 M 17 Q 198
BT 8 F 90 J 707 N 168 R 724
C 371 G 401 K 11 NO 16 S 5
CT 64 H 18 K(xLT) 1 O 936 T 148
D 208 I 455 L 129

myFTDNA Interface

  • Existing customers receive free update to predictions and confirmed branches based on existing SNP test results.
  • Haplogroup badge updated if new terminal branch is available
  • Updated haplotree design displays new SNPs and branches for your haplogroup
  • Branch names now listed in shorthand using terminal SNPs
  • For SNPs with more than one name, in most cases the original name for SNP was used, with synonymous SNPs listed when you click “More…”
  • No longer using SNP names with .1, .2, .3 suffixes. Back-end programming will place SNP in correct haplogroup using available data.
  • SNPs recommended for additional testing are pre-populated in the cart for your convenience. Just click to remove those you don’t want to test.
  • SNPs recommended for additional testing are based on 37-marker haplogroup origins data where possible, 25- or 12-marker data where 37 markers weren’t available.
  • Once you’ve tested additional SNPs, that information will be used to automatically recommend additional SNPs for you if they’re available.
  • If you remove those prepopulated SNPs from the cart, but want to re-add them, just refresh your page or close the page and return.
  • Only one SNP per branch can be ordered at one time – synonymous SNPs can possibly ordered from the Advanced Orders section on the Upgrade Order page.
  • Tests taken have moved to the bottom of the haplogroup page.

Coming attractions

  • Group Administrator Pages will have longhand removed.
  • At least one update to the tree to be released this year.
  • Update will include: data from Big Y, relevant publications, other companies’ tests from raw data.
  • We’ll set up a system for those who have tested with other big data companies to contribute their raw data file to future versions of the tree.
  • We’re committed to releasing at least one update per year.
  • The Genographic Project is currently integrating the new data into their system and will announce on their website when the process is complete in the coming weeks. At that time, all Geno 2.0 participants’ results will be updated accordingly and accessible via the Genographic Project website.

What Does This Mean to You?

Your Badge

On your welcome page, your badges are listed.  Your badge previously would have included the longhand form of the haplogroup, such as R1b1a2, but now it shows R-M269.

2014 y 1

Please note that badges are not yet showing on all participants pages.  If yours aren’t yet showing, clicking on the Haplotree and SNP page under the YDNA option on the blue options bar where your more detailed information is shown, below.

Your Haplogroup Name

Your haplogroup is now noted only as the SNP designation, R-M269, not the older longhand names.

2014 y 2 v2

Haplogroup R is a huge haplogroup, so you’ll need to scroll down to see your confirmed or predicted haplogroup, shown in green below.

2014 y 3

Redesigned Page

The redesigned haplotree page includes an option to order SNPs downstream of your confirmed or predicted haplogroup.  This refines your haplogroup and helps isolate your branch on the tree.  You may or may not want to do this.  In some cases, this does help your genealogy, especially in cases where you’re dealing with haplogroup R.  For the most part, haplogroups are more historical in nature.  For example, they will help you determine whether your ancestors are Native American, African, Anglo Saxon or maybe Viking.  Haplogroups help us reach back before the advent of surnames.

The new page shows which SNPs are available for you to order from the SNPs on the tree today, shown above, in blue to the right of the SNP branch.

SNPs not on the Tree

Not all known SNPs are on the tree.  Like I said, a line in the sand had to be drawn.  There are SNPs, many recently discovered, that are not on the tree.

To put this in perspective, the new tree incorporates 6200 SNPs (up from 850), but the Big Y “pool” of known SNPs against which Family Tree DNA is comparing those results was 36,562 when the first results were initially released at the end of February.

If you have taken advanced SNP testing, such as the Walk the Y, the Big Y, or tested individual SNPs, your terminal SNP may not be on the tree, which means that your terminal SNP shown on your page, such as R-M269 above, MAY NOT BE ACCURATE in light of that testing.  Why?  Because these newly discovered SNPs are not yet on the tree. This only affects people who have done advanced testing which means it does not affect most people.

Ordering SNPs

You can order relevant SNPs for your haplogroup on the tree by clicking on the “Add” button beside the SNP.

You can order SNPs not on the tree by clicking on the “Advanced Order Form” link available at the bottom of the haplotree page.

2014 y 4

If you’re not sure of what you want to do, or why, you might want to touch bases with your project administrators.  Depending on your testing goal, it might be much more advantageous, both scientifically and financially, for you to take either the Geno2 test or the Big Y.

At this point, in light of some of the issues with the new release, I would suggest maybe holding tight for a bit in terms of ordering new SNPs unless you’re positive that your haplogroup is correct and that the SNP selection you want to order would actually be beneficial to you.

Words of Caution

This are some bugs in this massive update.  You might want to check your haplogroup assignment to be sure it is reflected accurately based on any SNP testing you have had done, of course, excepting the very advanced tests mentioned above.

If you discover something that is inaccurate or questionable, please notify Family Tree DNA.  This is especially relevant for project administrators who are familiar with family groups and know that people who are in the same surname group should share a common base haplogroup, although some people who have taken further SNP testing will be shown with a downstream haplogroup, further down that particular branch of the tree.

What kind of result might you find suspicious or questionable?  For example, if in your surname project, your matching surname cousins are all listed at R-M269 and you were too previously, but now you’re suddenly in a different haplogroup, like E, there is clearly an error.

Any suspected or confirmed errors should be reported to Family Tree DNA.

They have made it very easy by providing a “Feedback” button on the top of the page and there is a “Y tree” option in the dropdown box.

2014 y 5

For administrators providing reports that involve more than one participant, please send to Groups@familytreedna.com and include the kit numbers, the participants names and the nature of the issue.

Additional Information

Family Tree DNA provides a free webinar that can be viewed about the 2014 Y Tree release.  You can see all of the webinars that are archived and available for viewing at:  https://www.familytreedna.com/learn/ftdna/webinars/

What’s Next?

The Genographic Project is in the process of updating to the same tree so their results can be synchronized with the 2014 tree.  A date for this has not yet been released.

Family Tree DNA has committed to at least one more update this year.

I know that this update was massive and required extensive reprogramming that affected almost every aspect of their webpage.  If you think about it, nearly every page had to be updated from the main page to the order page.  The tree is the backbone of everything.  I want to thank the Family Tree DNA and Genograpic combined team for their efforts and Bennett Greenspan for making sure this did happen, just as he committed to do in November at the last conference.

Like everyone else, I want everything NOW, not tomorrow.  We’re all passionate about this hobby – although I think it is more of a life mission for many – and surpassed hobby status long ago.

I know there are issues with the tree and they frustrate me, like everyone else.  Those issues will be resolved.  Family Tree DNA is actively working on reported issues and many have already been fixed.

There is some amount of disappointment in the genetic genealogy community about the SNPs not included on the tree, especially the SNPs recently discovered in advanced tests like the Big Y.  Other trees, like the ISOGG tree, do in fact reflect many of these newly discovered SNPs.

There are a couple of major differences.  First, ISOGG has an virtual army of volunteers who are focused on maintaining this tree.  We are all very lucky that they do, and that Alice Fairhurst coordinates this effort and has done so now for many years.  I would be lost without the ISOGG tree.

However, when a change is made to the ISOGG tree, and there have been thousands of changes, adds and moves over the years, nothing else is affected.  No one’s personal page, no one’s personal tree, no projects, no maps, no matches and no order pages.  ISOGG has no “responsibility” to anyone – in other words – it’s widely known and accepted that they are a volunteer organization without clients.

Family Tree DNA, on the other hand has half a million (or so) paying customers.  Tree changes have a huge domino ripple effect there – not only on their customers’ personal pages, but to their entire website, projects, support and orders.  A change at Family Tree DNA is much more significant than on the ISOGG page – not to mention – they don’t have the same army of volunteers and they have to rely on the raw science, not interpretation, as they said in the information they provided.  A tree update at Family Tree DNA is a very different animal than updating a stand-alone tree, especially considering their collaboration with various scientific organizations, including the National Geographic Society.

I commend Family Tree DNA for this update and thank them for the update and the educational materials.  I’m also glad to see that they do indeed rely only on science, not interpretation.  Frustrating to the genetic genealogist in me?  Sure.  But in the long run, it’s worth it to be sure the results are accurate.

Could this release have been smoother and more accurate?  Certainly.  Hopefully this is the big speed bump and future releases will be much more graceful.  It’s easy to see why there aren’t any other companies providing this type of comprehensive testing.  It’s gone from an easy 12 marker “do we match” scenario to the forefront of pioneering population genetics.  And all within a decade.  It’s amazing that any company can keep up.

 

Haplogroup Comparisons Between Family Tree DNA and 23andMe

Recently, I’ve received a number of questions about comparing people and haplogroups between 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.  I can tell by the questions that a significant amount of confusion exists about the two, so I’d like to talk about both.  In you need a review of “What is a Haplogroup?”, click here.

Haplogroup information and comparisons between Family Tree DNA information and that at 23andMe is not apples and apples.  In essence, the haplogroups are not calculated in the same way, and the data at Family Tree DNA is much more extensive.  Understanding the differences is key to comparing and understanding results. Unfortunately, I think a lot of misinterpretation is happening due to misunderstanding of the essential elements of what each company offers, and what it means.

There are two basic kinds of tests to establish haplogroups, and a third way to estimate.

Let’s talk about mitochondrial DNA first.

Mitochondrial DNA

You have a very large jar of jellybeans.  This jar is your mitochondrial DNA.

jellybeans

In your jar, there are 16,569 mitochondrial DNA locations, or jellybeans, more or less.  Sometimes the jelly bean counter slips up and adds an extra jellybean when filling the jar, called an insertion, and sometimes they omit one, called a deletion.

Your jellybeans come in 4 colors/flavors, coincidentally, the same colors as the 4 DNA nucleotides that make up our double helix segments.  T for tangerine, A for apricot, C for chocolate and G for grape.

Each of the 16,569 jellybeans has its own location in the jar.  So, in the position of address 1, an apricot jellybean is always found there.  If the jellybean jar filler makes a mistake, and puts a grape jellybean there instead, that is called a mutation.  Mistakes do happen – and so do mutations.  In fact, we count on them.  Without mutations, genetic genealogy would be impossible because we would all be exactly the same.

When you purchase a mitochondrial DNA test from Family Tree DNA, you have in the past been able to purchase one of three mitochondrial testing levels.  Today, on the website, I see only the full sequence test for $199, which is a great value.

However, regardless of whether you purchase the full mitochondrial sequence test today, which tests all of your 16,569 locations, or the earlier HVR1 or HVR1+HVR2 tests, which tested a subset of about 10% of those locations called the HyperVariable Region, Family Tree DNA looks at each individual location and sees what kind of a jellybean is lodged there.  In position 1, if they find the normal apricot jellybean, they move on to position 2.  If they find any other kind of jellybean in position 1, other than apricot, which is supposed to be there, they record it as a mutation and record whether the mutation is a T,C or G.  So, Family Tree DNA reads every one of your mitochondrial DNA addresses individually.

Because they do read them individually, they can also discover insertions, where extra DNA is inserted, deletions, where some DNA dropped out of line, and an unusual conditions called a heteroplasmy which is a mutation in process where you carry some of two kinds of jellybean in that location – kind of a half and half 2 flavor jellybean.  We’ll talk about heteroplasmic mutations another time.

So, at Family Tree DNA, the results you see are actually what you carry at each of your individual 16,569 mitochondrial addresses.  Your results, an example shown below, are the mutations that were found.  “Normal” is not shown.  The letter following the location number, 16069T, for example, is the mutation found in that location.  In this case, normal is C.  In the RSRS model of showing mitochondrial DNA mutations, this location/mutation combination would be written as C16069T so that you can immediately see what is normal and then the mutated state.  You can click on the images to enlarge.

ftdna mito results

Family Tree DNA gives you the option to see your results either in the traditional CRS (Cambridge Reference Sequence) model, above, or the more current Reconstructed Sapiens Reference Sequence (RSRS) model.  I am showing the CRS version because that is the version utilized by 23andMe and I want to compare apples and apples.  You can read about the difference between the two versions here.

Defining Haplogroups

Haplogroups are defined by specific mutations at certain addresses.

For example, the following mutations, cumulatively, define haplogroup J1c2f.  Each branch is defined by its own mutation(s).

Haplogroup Required Mutations  
J C295T, T489C, A10398G!,   A12612G, G13708A, C16069T
J1 C462T, G3010A
J1c G185A, G228A,   T14798C
J1c2 A188G
J1c2f G9055A

You can see, below, that these results, shown above, do carry these mutations, which is how this individual was assigned to haplogroup J1c2f. You can read about how haplogroups are defined here.

ftdna J1c2f mutations

At 23andMe, they use chip based technology that scans only specifically programmed locations for specific values.  So, they would look at only the locations that would be haplogroup producing, and only those locations.  Better yet if there is one location that is utilized in haplogroup J1c2f that is predictive of ONLY J1c2f, they would select and use that location.

This same individual at 23andMe is classified as haplogroup J1c2, not J1c2f.  This could be a function of two things.  First, the probes might not cover that final location, 9055, and second, 23andMe may not be utilizing the same version of the mitochondrial haplotree as Family Tree DNA.

By clicking on the 23andMe option for “Ancestry Tools,” then “Haplogroup Tree Mutation Mapper,” you can see which mutations were tested with the probes to determine a haplogroup assignment.  23andMe information for this haplogroup is shown below.  This is not personal information, meaning it is not specific to you, except that you know you have mutations at these locations based on the fact that they have assigned you to the specific haplogroup defined by these mutations.  What 23andMe is showing in their chart is the ancestral value, which is the value you DON’T have.  So your jelly bean is not chocolate at location 295, it’s tangerine, apricot or grape.

Notice that 23andMe does not test for J1c2f.  In addition, 23andMe cannot pick up on insertions, deletions or heteroplasmies.  Normally, since they aren’t reading each one of your locations and providing you with that report, missing insertions and deletions doesn’t affect anything, BUT, if a deletion or insertion is haplogroup defining, they will miss this call.  Haplogroup K comes to mind.

J defining mutations

J1 defining mutations

J1c defining mutations

23andMe never looks at any locations in the jelly bean jar other than the ones to assign a haplogroup, in this case,17 locations.  Family Tree DNA reads every jelly bean in the jelly bean jar, all 16,569.  Different technology, different results.  You also receive your haplogroup at 23andMe as part of a $99 package, but of course the individual reading of your mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA is more accurate.  Which is best for you depends on your personal testing goals, so long as you accurately understand the differences and therefore how to interpret results.  A haplogroup match does not mean you’re a genealogy match.  More than one person has told me that they are haplogroup J1c, for example, at Family Tree DNA and they match someone at 23andMe on the same haplogroup, so they KNOW they have a common ancestor in the past few generations.  That’s an incorrect interpretation.  Let’s take a look at why.

Matches Between the Two

23andMe provides the tester with a list of the people who match them at the haplogroup level.  Most people don’t actually find this information, because it is buried on the “My Results,” then “Maternal Line” page, then scrolling down until your haplogroup is displayed on the right hand side with a box around it.

Those who do find this are confused because they interpret this to mean they are a match, as in a genealogical match, like at Family Tree DNA, or like when you match someone at either company autosomally.  This is NOT the case.

For example, other than known family members, this individual matches two other people classified as haplogroup J1c2.  How close of a match is this really?  How long ago do they share a common ancestor?

Taking a look at Doron Behar’s paper, “A “Copernican” Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root,” in the supplemental material we find that haplogroup J1c2 was born about 9762 years ago with a variance of plus or minus about 2010 years, so sometime between 7,752 and 11,772 years ago.  This means that these people are related sometime in the past, roughly, 10,000 years – maybe as little as 7000 years ago.  This is absolutely NOT the same as matching your individual 16,569 markers at Family Tree DNA.  Haplogroup matching only means you share a common ancestor many thousands of years ago.

For people who match each other on their individual mitochondrial DNA location markers, their haplotype, Family Tree DNA provides the following information in their FAQ:

    • Matching on HVR1 means that you have a 50% chance of sharing a common maternal ancestor within the last fifty-two generations. That is about 1,300 years.
    • Matching on HVR1 and HVR2 means that you have a 50% chance of sharing a common maternal ancestor within the last twenty-eight generations. That is about 700 years.
    • Matching exactly on the Mitochondrial DNA Full Sequence test brings your matches into more recent times. It means that you have a 50% chance of sharing a common maternal ancestor within the last 5 generations. That is about 125 years.

I actually think these numbers are a bit generous, especially on the full sequence.  We all know that obtaining mitochondrial DNA matches that we can trace are more difficult than with the Y chromosome matches.  Of course, the surname changing in mitochondrial lines every generation doesn’t help one bit and often causes us to “lose” maternal lines before we “lose” paternal lines.

Autosomal and Haplogroups, Together

As long as we’re mythbusting here – I want to make one other point.  I have heard people say, more than once, that an autosomal match isn’t valid “because the haplogroups don’t match.”  Of course, this tells me immediately that someone doesn’t understand either autosomal matching, which covers all of your ancestral lines, or haplogroups, which cover ONLY either your matrilineal, meaning mitochondrial, or patrilineal, meaning Y DNA, line.  Now, if you match autosomally AND share a common haplogroup as well, at 23andMe, that might be a hint of where to look for a common ancestor.  But it’s only a hint.

At Family Tree DNA, it’s more than a hint.  You can tell for sure by selecting the “Advanced Matching” option under Y-DNA, mtDNA or Family Finder and selecting the options for both Family Finder (autosomal) and the other type of DNA you are inquiring about.  The results of this query tell you if your markers for both of these tests (or whatever tests are selected) match with any individuals on your match list.

Advanced match options

Hint – for mitochondrial DNA, I never select “full sequence” or “all mtDNA” because I don’t want to miss someone who has only tested at the HVR1 level and also matches me autosomally.  I tend to try several combinations to make sure I cover every possibility, especially given that you may match someone at the full sequence level, which allows for mutations, that you don’t match at the HVR1 level.  Same situation for Y DNA as well.  Also note that you need to answer “yes” to “Show only people I match on all selected tests.”

Y-DNA at 23andMe

Y-DNA works pretty much the same at 23andMe as mitochondrial meaning they probe certain haplogroup-defining locations.  They do utilize a different Y tree than Family Tree DNA, so the haplogroup names may be somewhat different, but will still be in the same base haplogroup.  Like mitochondrial DNA, by utilizing the haplogroup mapper, you can see which probes are utilized to determine the haplogroup.  The normal SNP name is given directly after the rs number.  The rs number is the address of the DNA on the chromosome.  Y mutations are a bit different than the display for mitochondrial DNA.  While mitochondrial DNA at 23andMe shows you only the normal value, for Y DNA, they show you both the normal, or ancestral, value and the derived, or current, value as well.  So at SNP P44, grape is normal and you have apricot if you’ve been assigned to haplogroup C3.

C3 defining mutations

As we are all aware, many new haplogroups have been defined in the past several months, and continue to be discovered via the results of the Big Y and Full Y test results which are being returned on a daily basis.  Because 23andMe does not have the ability to change their probes without burning an entirely new chip, updates will not happen often.  In fact, their new V4 chip just introduced in December actually reduced the number of probes from 967,000 to 602,000, although CeCe Moore reported that the number of mtDNA and Y probes increased.

By way of comparison, the ISOGG tree is shown below.  Very recently C3 was renamed to C2, which isn’t really the point here.  You can see just how many haplogroups really exist below C3/C2 defined by SNP M217.  And if you think this is a lot, you should see haplogroup R – it goes on for days and days!

ISOGG C3-C2 cropped

How long ago do you share a common ancestor with that other person at 23andMe who is also assigned to haplogroup C3?  Well, we don’t have a handy dandy reference chart for Y DNA like we do for mitochondrial – partly because it’s a constantly moving target, but haplogroup C3 is about 12,000 years old, plus or minus about 5,000 years, and is found on both sides of the Bering Strait.  It is found in indigenous Native American populations along with Siberians and in some frequency, throughout all of Asia and in low frequencies, into Europe.

How do you find out more about your haplogroup, or if you really do match that other person who is C3?  Test at Family Tree DNA.  23andMe is not in the business of testing individual markers.  Their business focus is autosomal DNA and it’s various applications, medical and genealogical, and that’s it.

Y-DNA at Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, you can test STR markers at 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker levels.  Most people, today, begin with either 37 or 67 markers.

Of course, you receive your results in several ways at Family Tree DNA, Haplogroup Origins, Ancestral Origins, Matches Maps and Migration Maps, but what most people are most interested in are the individual matches to other people.  These STR markers are great for genealogical matching.  You can read about the difference between STR and SNP markers here.

When you take the Y test, Family Tree DNA also provides you with an estimated haplogroup.  That estimate has proven to be very accurate over the years.  They only estimate your haplogroup if you have a proven match to someone who has been SNP tested. Of course it’s not a deep haplogroup – in haplogroup R1b it will be something like R1b1a2.  So, while it’s not deep, it’s free and it’s accurate.  If they can’t predict your haplogroup using that criteria, they will test you for free.  It’s called their SNP assurance program and it has been in place for many years.  This is normally only necessary for unusual DNA, but, as a project administrator, I still see backbone tests being performed from time to time.

If you want to purchase SNP tests, in various formats, you can confirm your haplogroup and order deeper testing.

You can order individual SNP markers for about $39 each and do selective testing.  On the screen below you can see the SNPs available to purchase for haplogroup C3 a la carte.

FTDNA C3 SNPs

You can order the Geno 2.0 test for $199 and obtain a large number of SNPs tested, over 12,000, for the all-inclusive price.  New SNPs discovered since the release of their chip in July of 2012 won’t be included either, but you can then order those a la carte if you wish.

Or you can go all out and order the new Big Y for $695 where all of your Y jellybeans, all 13.5 million of them in your Y DNA jar are individually looked at and evaluated.  People who choose this new test are compared against a data base of more than 36,000 known SNPs and each person receives a list of “novel variants” which means individual SNPs never before discovered and not documented in the SNP data base of 36,000.

Don’t know which path to take?  I would suggest that you talk to the haplogroup project administrator for the haplogroup you fall into.  Need to know how to determine which project to join, and how to join? Click here.  Haplogroup project administrators are generally very knowledgeable and helpful.  Many of them are spearheading research into their haplogroup of interest and their knowledge of that haplogroup exceeds that of anyone else.  Of course you can also contact Family Tree DNA and ask for assistance, you can purchase a Quick Consult from me, and you can read this article about comparing your options.

STRs vs SNPs, Multiple DNA Personalities

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

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

STR

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

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

So far, so good.

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

Like Baseball – 4 Bases

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

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

TACG

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

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

Point Mutations

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

Indel example 1

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

Indel example 2

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

Indel example 3

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

Indel example 4

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

SNPs

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

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

STRs

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

STR example

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

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

The Monkey Wrench

And then I saw this:

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

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

L69 verbiage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUGO variant 1

In the L69 variant we have the following sequence.

HUGO variant 2

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

Let’s look at the L159 variant.

HUGO variant 3

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

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

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

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

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

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