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. This test currently costs $199.
  • Y DNA test (for males only) that informs you about your direct paternal (surname) line (only) at Family Tree DNA. This test begins at $169 for 37 markers.
  • Family Finder, an autosomal test that provides ethnicity estimates and cousin matching at Family Tree DNA. This test currently costs $89.
  • 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.) This test currently costs $99, plus a subscription for full access.
  • 23andMe Ancestry Service test, an autosomal test that provides ethnicity estimates and cousin matching. The genealogy version of this test costs $99, the medical+genealogy version costs $199.

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 $89. 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 $89 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 $49 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 $49. 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 $49 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 $49 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!

Update: Vendor prices updated June 22, 2017.

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Standard Disclosure

This standard disclosure will now appear at the bottom of every article in compliance with the FTC Guidelines.

Hot links are provided to Family Tree DNA, where appropriate. If you wish to purchase one of their products, and you click through one of the links in an article to Family Tree DNA, or on the sidebar of this blog, I receive a small contribution if you make a purchase. Clicking through the link does not affect the price you pay. This affiliate relationship helps to keep this publication, with more than 850 articles about all aspects of genetic genealogy, free for everyone.

I do not accept sponsorship for this blog, nor do I write paid articles, nor do I accept contributions of any type from any vendor in order to review any product, etc. In fact, I pay a premium price to prevent ads from appearing on this blog.

When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received. In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

I will never link to a product about which I have reservations or qualms, either about the product or about the company offering the product. I only recommend products that I use myself and bring value to the genetic genealogy community. If you wonder why there aren’t more links, that’s why and that’s my commitment to you.

Thank you for your readership, your ongoing support and for purchasing through the affiliate link if you are interested in making a purchase at Family Tree DNA.

2016 Genetic Genealogy Retrospective

In past years, I’ve written a “best of” article about genetic genealogy happenings throughout the year. For several years, the genetic genealogy industry was relatively new, and there were lots of new tools being announced by the testing vendors and others as well.

This year is a bit different. I’ve noticed a leveling off – there have been very few announcements of new tools by vendors, with only a few exceptions.  I think genetic genealogy is maturing and has perhaps begun a new chapter.  Let’s take a look.

Vendors

Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA leads the pack this year with their new Phased Family Matches which utilizes close relatives, up to third cousins, to assign your matches to either maternal or paternal buckets, or both if the individual is related on both sides of your tree.

Both Buckets

They are the first and remain the only vendor to offer this kind of feature.

Phased FF2

Phased Family Matching is extremely useful in terms of identifying which side of your family tree your matches are from. This tool, in addition to Family Tree DNA’s nine other autosomal tools helps identify common ancestors by showing you who is related to whom.

Family Tree DNA has also added other features such as a revamped tree with the ability to connect DNA results to family members.  DNA results connected to the tree is the foundation for the new Phased Family Matching.

The new Ancient Origins feature, released in November, was developed collaboratively with Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona Hammer Lab.

Ancient European Origins is based on the full genome sequencing work now being performed in the academic realm on ancient remains. These European results fall into three primary groups of categories based on age and culture.  Customer’s DNA is compared to the ancient remains to determine how much of the customer’s European DNA came from which group.  This exciting new feature allows us to understand more about our ancestors, long before the advent of surnames and paper or parchment records. Ancient DNA is redefining what we know, or thought we knew, about population migration.

2016-ancient-origins

You can view Dr. Hammer’s presentation given at the Family Tree DNA Conference in conjunction with the announcement of the new Ancient Origins feature here.

Family Tree DNA maintains its leadership position among the three primary vendors relative to Y DNA testing, mtDNA testing and autosomal tools.

Ancestry

In May of 2016, Ancestry changed the chip utilized by their tests, removing about 300,000 of their previous 682,000 SNPs and replacing them with medically optimized SNPs. The rather immediate effect was that due to the chip incompatibility, Ancestry V2 test files created on the new chip cannot be uploaded to Family Tree DNA, but they can be uploaded to GedMatch.  Family Tree DNA is working on a resolution to this problem.

I tested on the new Ancestry V2 chip, and while there is a difference in how much matching DNA I share with my matches as compared to the V1 chip, it’s not as pronounced as I expected. There is no need for people who tested on the earlier chip to retest.

Unfortunately, Ancestry has remained steadfast in their refusal to implement a chromosome browser, instead focusing on sales by advertising the ethnicity “self-discovery” aspect of DNA testing.

Ancestry does have the largest autosomal data base but many people tested only for ethnicity, don’t have trees or have private trees.  In my case, about half of my matches fall into that category.

Ancestry maintains its leadership position relative to DNA tree matching, known as a Shared Ancestor Hint, identifying common ancestors in the trees of people whose DNA matches.

ancestry-common-ancestors

23andMe

23andMe struggled for most of the year to meet a November 2015 deadline, which is now more than a year past, to transition its customers to the 23andMe “New Experience” which includes a new customer interface. I was finally transitioned in September 2016, and the experience has been very frustrating and extremely disappointing, and that’s putting it mildly. Some customers, specifically international customers, are still not transitioned, nor is it clear if or when they will be.

I tested on the 23andMe older V3 chip as well as their newer V4 chip. After my transition to the New Experience, I compared the results of the two tests. The new security rules incorporated into the New Experience meant that I was only able to view about 25% of my matches (400 of 1651(V3) matches or 1700 (V4) matches). 23andMe has, in essence, relegated themselves into the non-player status for genetic genealogy, except perhaps for adoptees who need to swim in every pool – but only then as a last place candidate. And those adoptees had better pray that if they have a close match, that match falls into the 25% of their matches that are useful.

In December, 23andMe began providing segment information for ethnicity segments, except the parental phasing portion does not function accurately, calling into question the overall accuracy of the 23andme ethnicity information. Ironically, up until now, while 23andMe slipped in every other area, they had been viewed at the best, meaning most accurate, in terms of ethnicity estimates.

New Kids on the Block

MyHeritage

In May of 2016, MyHeritage began encouraging people who have tested at other vendors to upload their results. I was initially very hesitant, because aside from GedMatch that has a plethora of genetic genealogy tools, I have seen no benefit to the participant to upload their DNA anyplace, other than Family Tree DNA (available for V3 23andMe and V1 Ancestry only).

Any serious genealogist is going to test at least at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, both, and upload to GedMatch. My Heritage was “just another upload site” with no tools, not even matching initially.

However, in September, MyHeritage implemented matching, although they have had a series of what I hope are “startup issues,” with numerous invalid matches, apparently resulting from their usage of imputation.

Imputation is when a vendor infers what they think your DNA will look like in regions where other vendors test, and your vendor doesn’t. The best example would be the 300,000 or so Ancestry locations that are unique to the Ancestry V2 chip. Imputation would result in a vendor “inferring” or imputing your results for these 300,000 locations based on…well, we don’t exactly know based on what. But we do know it cannot be accurate.  It’s not your DNA.

In the midst of this, in October, 23andMe announced on their forum that they had severed a previous business relationship with MyHeritage where 23andMe allowed customers to link to MyHeritage trees in lieu of having customer trees directly on the 23andMe site.  This approach had been problematic because customers are only allowed 250 individuals in their tree for free, and anything above that requires a MyHeritage subscription.  Currently 23andMe has no tree capability.

It appears that MyHeritage refined their DNA matching routines at least somewhat, because many of the bogus matches were gone in November when they announced that their beta was complete and that they were going to sell their own autosomal DNA tests. However, matching issues have not disappeared or been entirely resolved.

While Family Tree DNA’s lab will be processing the MyHeritage autosomal tests, the results will NOT be automatically placed in the Family Tree DNA data base.

MyHeritage will be doing their own matching within their own database. There are no comparison tools, tree matching or ethnicity estimates today, but My Heritage says they will develop a chromosome browser and ethnicity estimates. However, it is NOT clear whether these will be available for free to individuals who have transferred their results into MyHeritage or if they will only be available to people who tested through MyHeritage.

2016-myheritage-matches

For the record, I have 28 matches today at MyHeritage.

2016-myheritage-second-match

I found that my second closest match at MyHeritage is also at Ancestry.

2016-myheritage-at-ancestry

At MyHeritage, they report that I match this individual on a total of 64.1 cM, across 7 segments, with the largest segment being 14.9 cM.

Ancestry reports this same match at 8.3 cM total across 1 segment, which of course means that the longest segment is also 8.3 cM.

Ancestry estimates the relationship as 5th to 8th cousin, and MyHeritage estimates it as 2nd to 4th.

While I think Ancestry’s Timber strips out too much DNA, there is clearly a HUGE difference in the reported results and the majority of this issue likely lies with the MyHeritage DNA imputation and matching routines.

I uploaded my Family Tree DNA autosomal file to MyHeritage, so MyHeritage is imputing at least 300,000 SNPs for me – almost half of the SNPs needed to match to Ancestry files.  They are probably imputing that many for my match’s file too, so that we have an equal number of SNPs for comparison.  Combined, this would mean that my match and I are comparing 382,000 actual SNPs that we both tested, and roughly 600,000 SNPs that we did not test and were imputed.  No wonder the MyHeritage numbers are so “off.”

My Heritage has a long way to go before they are a real player in this arena. However, My Heritage has potential, as they have a large subscriber base in Europe, where we desperately need additional testers – so I’m hopeful that they can attract additional genealogists that are willing to test from areas that are under-represented to date.

My Heritage got off to a bit of a rocky start by requiring users to relinquish the rights to their DNA, but then changed their terms in May, according to Judy Russell’s blog.

All vendors can change their terms at any time, in a positive or negative direction, so I would strongly encourage all individuals considering utilizing any testing company or upload service to closely read all the legal language, including Terms and Conditions and any links found in the Terms and Conditions.

Please note that MyHeritage is a subscription genealogy site, similar to Ancestry.  MyHeritage also owns Geni.com.  One site, MyHeritage, allows individual trees and the other, Geni, embraces the “one world tree” model.  For a comparison of the two, check out Judy Russell’s articles, here and here.  Geni has also embraced DNA by allowing uploads from Family Tree DNA of Y, mitochondrial and autosomal, but the benefits and possible benefits are much less clear.

If the MyHeritage story sounds like a confusing soap opera, it is.  Let’s hope that 2017 brings both clarity and improvements.

Living DNA

Living DNA is a company out of the British Isles with a new test that purports to provide you with a breakdown of your ethnicity and the locations of your ancestral lines within 21 regions in the British Isles.  Truthfully, I’m very skeptical, but open minded.

They have had my kit for several weeks now, and testing has yet to begin.  I’ll write about the results when I receive them.  So far, I don’t know of anyone who has received results.

2016-living-dna

Genos

I debated whether or not I should include Genos, because they are not a test for genealogy and are medically focused. However, I am including them because they have launched a new model for genetic testing wherein your full exome is tested, you receive the results along with information on the SNPs where mutations are found. You can then choose to be involved with research programs in the future, if you wish, or not.

That’s a vastly different model that the current approach taken by 23andMe and Ancestry where you relinquish your rights to the sale of your DNA when you sign up to test.  I like this new approach with complete transparency, allowing the customer to decide the fate of their DNA. I wrote about the Genos test and the results, here.

Third Parties

Individuals sometimes create and introduce new tools to assist genealogists with genetic genealogy and analysis.

I have covered these extensively over the years.

GedMatch, WikiTree, DNAGedcom.com and Kitty Cooper’s tools remain my favorites.

I love Kitty’s Ancestor Chromosome Mapper which maps the segments identified with your ancestors on your chromosomes. I just love seeing which ancestors’ DNA I carry on which chromosomes.  Somehow, this makes me feel closer to them.  They’re not really gone, because they still exist in me and other descendants as well.

Roberta's ancestor map2

In order to use Kitty’s tool, you’ll have to have mapped at least some of your autosomal DNA to ancestors.

The Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer written by Don Worth and available at DNAGedcom is still one of my favorite tools for quick, visual and easy to understand segment matching results.

ADSA Crumley cluster

GedMatch has offered a triangulation tool for some time now, but recently introduced a new Triangulation Groups tool.

2016-gedmatch-triangulation-groups

I have not utilized this tool extensively but it looks very interesting. Unfortunately, there is no explanation or help function available for what this tool is displaying or how to understand and interpret the results. Hopefully, that will be added soon, as I think it would be possible to misinterpret the output without educational material.

GedMatch also introduced their “Evil Twin” tool, which made me laugh when I saw the name.  Using parental phasing, you can phase your DNA to your parent or parents at GedMatch, creating kits that only have your mother’s half of your DNA, or your father’s half.  These phased kits allow you to see your matches that come from that parent, only.  However, the “Evil Twin” feature creates a kit made up of the DNA that you DIDN’T receive from that parent – so in essence it’s your other half, your evil twin – you know, that person who got blamed for everything you “didn’t do.”  In any case, this allows you to see the matches to the other half of your parent’s DNA that do not show up as your matches.

Truthfully, the Evil Twin tool is interesting, but since you have to have that parent’s DNA to phase against in the first place, it’s just as easy to look at your parent’s matches – at least for me.

Others offer unique tools that are a bit different.

DNAadoption.com offers tools, search and research techniques, especially for adoptees and those looking to identify a parent or grandparents, but perhaps even more important, they offer genetic genealogy classes including basic and introductory.

I send all adoptees in their direction, but I encourage everyone to utilize their classes.

WikiTree has continued to develop and enhance their DNA offerings.  While WikiTree is not a testing service nor do they offer autosomal data tools like Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, they do allow individuals to discover whether anyone in their ancestral line has tested their Y, mitochondrial or autosomal DNA.

Specifically, you can identify the haplogroup of any male or female ancestor if another individual from that direct lineage has tested and provided that information for that ancestor on WikiTree.  While I am generally not a fan of the “one world tree” types of implementations, I am a fan of WikiTree because of their far-sighted DNA comparisons, the fact that they actively engage their customers, they listen and they expend a significant amount of effort making sure they “get it right,” relative to DNA. Check out WikiTree’s article,  Putting DNA Results Into Action, for how to utilize their DNA Features.

2016-wikitree-peter-roberts

Thanks particularly to Chris Whitten at WikiTree and Peter Roberts for their tireless efforts.  WikiTree is the only vendor to offer the ability to discover the Y and mtDNA haplogroups of ancestors by searching trees.

All of the people creating the tools mentioned above, to the best of my knowledge, are primarily volunteers, although GedMatch does charge a small subscription service for their high end tools, including the triangulation and evil twin tools.  DNAGedcom does as well.  Wikitree generates some revenue for the site through ads on pages of non-members. DNAAdoption charges nominally for classes but they do have need-based scholarships. Kitty has a donation link on her website and all of these folks would gladly accept donations, I’m sure.  Websites and everything that goes along with them aren’t free.  Donations are a nice way to say thank you.

What Defined 2016

I have noticed two trends in the genetic genealogy industry in 2016, and they are intertwined – ethnicity and education.

First, there is an avalanche of new testers, many of whom are not genetic genealogists.

Why would one test if they weren’t a genetic genealogist?

The answer is simple…

Ethnicity.

Or more specifically, the targeted marketing of ethnicity.  Ethnicity testing looks like an easy, quick answer to a basic human question, and it sells kits.

Ethnicity

“Kim just wanted to know who she was.”

I have to tell you, these commercials absolutely make me CRINGE.

Yes, they do bring additional testers into the community, BUT carrying significantly misset expectations. If you’re wondering about WHY I would suggest that ethnicity results really cannot tell you “who you are,” check out this article about ethnicity estimates.

And yes, that’s what they are, estimates – very interesting estimates, but estimates just the same.  Estimates that provide important and valid hints and clues, but not definitive answers.

ESTIMATES.

Nothing more.

Estimates based on proprietary vendor algorithms that tend to be fairly accurate at the continental level, and not so much within continents – in particular, not terribly accurate within Europe. Not all of this can be laid a the vendor’s feet.  For example, DNA testing is illegal in France.  Not to mention, genetic genealogy and population genetics is still a new and emerging field.  We’re on the frontier, folks.

The ethnicity results one receives from the 3 major vendors (Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe) and the various tools at GedMatch don’t and won’t agree – because they use different reference populations, different matching routines, etc.  Not to mention people and populations move around and have moved around.

The next thing that happens, after these people receive their results, is that we find them on the Facebook groups asking questions like, “Why doesn’t my full blooded Native American grandmother show up?” and “I just got my Ancestry results back. What do I do?”  They mean that question quite literally.

I’m not making fun of these people, or light of the situation. Their level of frustration and confusion is evident. I feel sorry for them…but the genetic genealogy community and the rest of us are left with applying ointment and Band-Aids.  Truthfully, we’re out-numbered.

Because of the expectations, people who test today don’t realize that genetic testing is a TOOL, it’s not an ANSWER. It’s only part of the story. Oh, and did I mention, ethnicity is only an ESTIMATE!!!

But an estimate isn’t what these folks are expecting. They are expecting “the answer,” their own personal answer, which is very, very unfortunate, because eventually they are either unhappy or blissfully unaware.

Many become unhappy because they perceive the results to be in error without understanding anything about the technology or what information can reasonably be delivered, or they swallow “the answer” lock stock and barrel, again, without understanding anything about the technology.

Ethnicity is fun, it isn’t “bad” but the results need to be evaluated in context with other information, such as Y and mitochondrial haplogroups, genealogical records and ethnicity results from the other major testing companies.

Fortunately, we can recruit some of the ethnicity testers to become genealogists, but that requires education and encouragement. Let’s hope that those DNA ethnicity results light the fires of curiosity and that we can fan those flames!

Education

The genetic genealogy community desperately needs educational resources, in part as a result of the avalanche of new testers – approximately 1 million a year, and that estimate may be low. Thankfully, we do have several education options – but we can always use more.  Unfortunately, the learning curve is rather steep.

My blog offers just shy of 800 articles, all key word searchable, but one has to first find the blog and want to search and learn, as opposed to being handed “the answer.”

Of course, the “Help” link is always a good place to start as are these articles, DNA Testing for Genealogy 101 and Autosomal DNA Testing 101.  These two articles should be “must reads” for everyone who has DNA tested, or wants to, for that matter.  Tips and Tricks for Contact Success is another article that is immensely helpful to people just beginning to reach out.

In order to address the need for basic understanding of autosomal DNA principles, tools and how to utilize them, I began the “Concepts” series in February 2016. To date I offer the following 15 articles about genetic genealogy concepts. To be clear, DNA testing is only the genetic part of genetic genealogy, the genealogical research part being the second half of the equation.

The Concepts Series

Concepts – How Your Autosomal DNA Identifies Your Ancestors

Concepts – Identical By Descent, State, Population and Chance

Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’ Crab

Concepts – Parental Phasing

Concepts – Y DNA Matching and Connecting With Your Paternal Ancestor

Concepts – Downloading Autosomal Data From Family Tree DNA

Concepts – Managing Autosomal DNA Matches – Step 1 – Assigning Parental Sides

Concepts – Genetic Distance

Concepts – Relationship Predictions

Concepts – Match Groups and Triangulation

Concepts – Sorting Spreadsheets for Autosomal DNA

Concepts – Managing Autosomal DNA Matches – Step 2 – Updating Matching Spreadsheets, Bucketed Family Finder Matches and Pileups

Concepts – Why DNA Testing the Oldest Family Members Is Critically Important

Concepts – Undocumented Adoptions Versus Untested Y Lines

My blog isn’t the only resource of course.

Kelly Wheaton provides 19 free lessons in her Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy.

Other blogs I highly recommend include:

Excellent books in print that should be in every genetic genealogist’s library:

And of course, the ISOGG Wiki.

Online Conference Resources

The good news and bad news is that I’m constantly seeing a genetic genealogy seminar, webinar or symposium hosted by a group someplace that is online, and often free. When I see names I recognize as being reputable, I am delighted that there is so much available to people who want to learn.

And for the record, I think that includes everyone. Even professional genetic genealogists watch these sessions, because you just never know what wonderful tidbit you’re going to pick up.  Learning, in this fast moving field, is an everyday event.

The bad news is that I can’t keep track of everything available, so I don’t mean to slight any resource.  Please feel free to post additional resources in the comments.

You would be hard pressed to find any genealogy conference, anyplace, today that didn’t include at least a few sessions about genetic genealogy. However, genetic genealogy has come of age and has its own dedicated conferences.

Dr. Maurice Gleeson, the gentleman who coordinates Genetic Genealogy Ireland films the sessions at the conference and then makes them available, for free, on YouTube. This link provides a list of the various sessions from 2016 and past years as well. Well worth your time!  A big thank you to Maurice!!!

The 19 video series from the I4GG Conference this fall is now available for $99. This series is an excellent opportunity for genetic genealogy education.

As always, I encourage project administrators to attend the Family Tree DNA International Conference on Genetic Genealogy. The sessions are not filmed, but the slides are made available after the conference, courtesy of the presenters and Family Tree DNA. You can view the presentations from 2015 and 2016 at this link.

Jennifer Zinck attended the conference and published her excellent notes here and here, if you want to read what she had to say about the sessions she attended. Thankfully, she can type much faster and more accurately than I can! Thank you so much Jennifer.

If you’d like to read about the unique lifetime achievement awards presented at the conference this year to Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, the founders of Family Tree DNA, click here. They were quite surprised!  This article also documents the history of genetic genealogy from the beginning – a walk down memory lane.

The 13th annual Family Tree DNA conference which will be held November 10-12, 2017 at the Hyatt Regency North Houston. Registration is always limited due to facility size, so mark your calendars now, watch for the announcement and be sure to register in time.

Summary

2016 has been an extremely busy year. I think my blog has had more views, more comments and by far, more questions, than ever before.

I’ve noticed that the membership in the ISOGG Facebook group, dedicated to genetic genealogy, has increased by about 50% in the past year, from roughly 8,000 members to just under 12,000. Other social media groups have been formed as well, some focused on specific aspects of genetic genealogy, such as specific surnames, adoption search, Native American or African American heritage and research.

The genetic aspect of genealogy has become “normal” today, with most genealogists not only accepting DNA testing, but embracing the various tools and what they can do for us in terms of understanding our ancestors, tracking them, and verifying that they are indeed who we think they are.

I may have to explain the three basic kinds of DNA testing and how they are used today, but no longer do I have to explain THAT DNA testing for genealogy exists and that it’s legitimate.

I hope that each of us can become an ambassador for genetic genealogy, encouraging others to test, with appropriate expectations, and helping to educate, enlighten and encourage. After all, the more people who test and are excited about the results, the better for everyone else.

Genetic genealogy is and can only be a collaborative team sport.

Here’s wishing you many new cousins and discoveries in 2017.

Happy New Year!!!

New Pedigree View Tree at Family Tree DNA

Ask, and ye shall receive.

pedigree-view

It’s great when a vendor listens to what I’m sure probably wasn’t perceived as constructive criticism.

Family Tree DNA designed a new tree some time back, but with only a Family View.  Most genealogists utilize the Pedigree View, shown above, most often.  A few months ago, genetic genealogists asked Family Tree DNA to redesign the tree and include a pedigree view.  Today, the new tree view was added to everyone’s personal page!

The pedigree view is relevant for direct line ancestors.  This screen shot is of my own tree, but this view works for any of your matches who have trees attached as well.  You can see 4 generations of ancestors at once and click to expand to the next 4 generations with the right arrow at any end-of-line ancestor.  You can also scroll or click to make the tree larger or smaller.

pedigree-view-expanded

The Family View still works just fine, and if you want to see siblings or children of ancestors, other than your direct line, the Family View is what you’ll want to select.

family-view

Thank you, thank you, Family Tree DNA!!!  Both for listening and for the new Pedigree View tree.

Nine Autosomal Tools at Family Tree DNA

The introduction of the Phased Family Finder Matches has added a new way to view autosomal DNA results at Family Tree DNA and a powerful new tool to the genealogists toolbox.

The Phased Family Finder Matches are the 9th tool provided for autosomal test results by Family Tree DNA. Did you know where were 9?

Each of the different methodologies provides us with information in a unique way to assist in our relentless search for cousins, ancestors and our quests to break down brick walls.

That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that sometimes options are confusing, so I’d like to review each tool for viewing autosomal match information, including:

  • When to use each tool
  • How to use each tool
  • What the results mean to you
  • The unique benefits of each tool
  • The cautions and things you need to know about each tool including what they are not

The tools are:

  1. Regular Matching
  2. ICW (In Common With)
  3. Not ICW (Not In Common With)
  4. The Matrix
  5. Chromosome Browser
  6. Phased Family Matching
  7. Combined Advanced Matching
  8. MyOrigins Matching
  9. Spreadsheet Matching

You Have Options

Family Tree DNA provides their clients with options, for which I am eternally grateful. I don’t want any company deciding for me which matches are and are not important based on population phasing (as opposed to parental phasing), and then removing matches they feel are unimportant. For people who are not fully endogamous, but have endogamous lines, matches to those lines, which are valid matches, tend to get stripped away when a company employs population based phasing – and once those matches are gone, there is no recovery unless your match happens to transfer their results to either Family Tree DNA or GedMatch.

The great news is that the latest new option, Phased Family Matching, is focused on making easy visual comparisons of high quality parental matches which is especially useful for those who don’t want to dig deeply.

There are good options for everyone at all ranges of expertise, from beginners to those who like to work with spreadsheets and extract every teensy bit of information.

So let’s take a look at all of your matching options at Family Tree DNA. If you’re not taking advantage of all of them, you’re missing out. Each option is unique and offers something the other options don’t offer.

In case you’re curious, I’ll be bouncing back and forth between my kit, my mother’s kit and another family member’s kit because, based on their matches utilizing the various tools, different kits illustrate different points better.

Also, please note that you can click on any image to see a larger version.

Selecting Options

FF9 options

Your selection options for Family Finder are available on both your Dashboard page under the Family Finder heading, right in the middle of the page, and the dropdown myFTDNA menu, on the upper left, also under Family Finder.

Ok, let’s get started. 

#1 – Regular Matching

By regular matching, I’m referring to the matches you see when you click on the “Matches” tab on your main screen under Family Finder or in the dropdown box.

FF9 regular matching

Everyone uses this tool, but not everyone knows about the finer points of various options provided.

There’s a lot of information here folks. Are you systematically using this information to its full advantage?

Your matches are displayed in the highest match first order. All of the information we utilize regularly (or should) is present, including:

  • Relationship Range
  • Match Date
  • Shared CentiMorgans
  • Longest (shared) Block
  • X-Match
  • Known Relationship
  • Ancestral Surnames (double click to see entire list)
  • Notes
  • E-mail envelope icon
  • Family Tree
  • Parental “side” icon

The Expansion “+” at the right side of each match, shown below, shows us:

  • Tests Taken
  • mtDNA haplogroup
  • Y haplogroup

Clicking on your match’s profile (their picture) provides additional information, if they have provided that information:

  • Most distant maternal ancestor
  • Most distant paternal ancestor
  • Additional information in the “about me” field, sometimes including a website link

On the match page, you can search for matches either by their full name, first name, last name or click on the “Advanced Search” to search for ancestral surname. These search boxes can be found at the top right.

FF9 advanced search

The Advanced Search feature, underneath the search boxes at right, also provides you with the option of combining search criteria, by opening two drop down boxes at the top left of the screen.

FF9 search combo

Let’s say I want to see all of my matches on the X chromosome. I make that selection and the only people displayed as matches are those whom I match on the X chromosome.

You can see that in this case, there are 280 matches. If I have any Phased Family Matches, then you will see how many X matches I have on those tabs too.

The first selection box works in combination with the second selection box.

FF9 search combo 2

Now, let’s say I want to sort in Longest Block Order. That section sorts and displays the people who match me on the X chromosome in Longest Block Order.

FF9 longest block

Prerequisites

  • Take the Family Finder test or transfer your results from either 23andMe (V3 only) or Ancestry (V1 only, currently.)
  • Match must be over the matching threshold of 9cM if shared cM are less than 20, or, the longest block must be at least 7.69 cM if the total shared cM is 20 or greater.

Power Features

  • The ability to customize your view by combining search, match and sort criteria.

Cautions

  • It’s easy to forget that you’re ONLY working with X matches, for example, once you sort, and not all of your matches. Note the Reset Filter button above your matches which clears all of the sort and search criteria. Always reset, just to be on the safe side, before you initiate another sort.

FF9 reset filter

  • Please note that the search boxes and logic are in the process of being redesigned, per a conversation Michael Davila, Director of Product Development, on 7-20-2016. Currently, if you search for the name “Donald,” for example, and then do an “in common with” match to someone on the Donald match list, you’ll only see those individuals who are in common with “Donald,” meaning anyone without “Donald” as one of their names won’t show as a match. The logic will be revised shortly so that you will see everyone “in common with,” not just “Donald.” Just be aware of this today and don’t do an ICW with someone you’ve searched for in the search box until this is revised.

#2 – In Common With (ICW)

You can select anyone from your match list to see who you match in common with them.

This is an important feature because it gives me a very good clue as to who else may match me on that same genealogical line.

For example, cousin Donald is related on the paternal line. I can select Donald by clicking the box to the left of his profile which highlights his row in yellow. I can then select what I want to do with Don’s match.

FF9 ICW

You will see that Don is selected in the match selection box on the lower left, and the options for what I can do with Don are above the matches. Those options are:

  • Chromosome Browser
  • In Common With
  • Not in Common With

Let’s select “In Common With.”

Now, the matches displayed will ONLY be those that I match in common with Don, meaning that Donald and I both match these people.

FF9 ICW matches

As you can see, I’m displaying my matches in common with Don in longest block order. You can click on any of the header columns to display in reverse order.

There are a total of 82 matches in common with Don and of those, 50 are paternally assigned. We’ll talk about how parental “side” assignments happen in a minute.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches warrant further inspection and may (or may not) be from a common genealogical line.

Cautions

  • An ICW match does NOT mean that the matching individual IS from the same common line – only genealogical research can provide that information.
  • An ICW matches does NOT mean that these three people, you, your match and someone who matches both of you is triangulated – meaning matching on the same segment. Only individual matching with each other provides that information.
  • It’s easy to forget that you’re not working with your entire match list, but a subset. You can see that Donald’s name appears in the box at the upper left, along with the function you performed (ICW) and the display order if you’ve selected any options from the second box.

# 3 – Not In Common With

Now, let’s say I want to see all of my X matches that are not in common with my mother, who is in the data base, which of course suggests that they are either on my father’s side or identical by chance. My father is not in the data base, and given that he died in 1963, there is no chance of testing him.

Keep in mind though that because X matches aren’t displayed unless you have another qualifying autosomal segment, that they are more likely to be valid matches than if they were displayed without another matching segment that qualifies as a match.

For those who don’t know, X matches have a unique inheritance pattern which can yield great clues as to which side of your tree (if you’re a male), and which ancestors on various sides of your tree X matches MUST come from (males and females both.) I wrote about this here, along with some tools to help you work with X matches.

To utilize the “Not In Common With” feature, I would select my mother and then select the “Not In Common With” option, above the matches.

FF9 NICW

I would then sort the results to see the X matches by clicking on the top of the column for X-Match – or by any other column that I wanted to see.

FF9 NICW X

I have one very interesting not in common with match – and that’s with a Miller male that I would have assumed, based on the surname, was a match from my mother’s side. He’s obviously not, at least based on that X match. No assuming allowed!

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches warrant further inspection and may be from a common genealogical line – or are NOT in common with a particular person.

Cautions

  • Be sure to understand that “not in common with” means that you, the person you match and the list of people shown as a result of the “Not ICW” do not all match each other.  You DO match the person on your match list, but the list of “not in common with” matches are the people who DON’T match both of you.  Not in common with is the opposite of “in common with” where your match list does match you and the person you’re matching in common with.
  • The X and other chromosome matches may be inherited from different ancestors. Every matching segment needs to be analyzed separately.

#4 – The Matrix

Let’s say that I have a list of matches, perhaps a list of individuals that I found doing an ICW with my cousin, and I wonder if these people match each other. I can utilize the Matrix grid to see.

Going back to the ICW list with cousin Donald, let’s see if some of those people match each other on the Matrix.

Let’s pick 5 people.

I’m selecting Cheryl, Rex, Charles, Doug and Harold.

Margaret Lentz chart

I’m making these particular selections because I know that all of these people, except Harold, are related to my mother, Barbara, shown on the bottom row of the chart above.  This chart, borrowed from another article (William is not in this comparison), shows how Cheryl, Rex, Charles and Barbara who have all DNA tested are related to each other.  Some are related through the Miller line, some through the dual Lentz/Miller line, and some just from the Lentz line.  Doug is related through the Miller line only, and at least 4 generations upstream. Doug may also be related through multiple lines, but is not descended from the Lentz line.

The people I’ve selected for the matrix are not all related to each other, and they don’t all share one common ancestral line.

Harold is a wild card – I have no idea how he is related or who he is related to, so let’s see what we can determine.

FF9 Matrix choices

As you make selections on the Matrix page, up to 10 selections are added to the grid.

FF9 Matrix grid

You can see that Charles matches Cheryl and Harold.

You can see that Rex matches Charles and Cheryl and Harold.

You can see that Doug matches only Cheryl, but this isn’t surprising as the common line between Doug and the known cousins is at least 4 generations further back in time on the Miller line.

The known relationship are:

  • Don and Cheryl are siblings, descended from the Lentz/Miller.
  • Rex is a known cousin on the Miller/Lentz line
  • Charles is a known cousin on the Lentz line only
  • Doug is a known cousin on the Miller line only

Let me tell you what these matches indicate to me.

Given that Harold matches Rex and Charles and Cheryl, IF and that’s a very big IF, he descends from the same lines, then he would be related to both sides of this family, meaning both the Miller and Lentz lines.

  • He could be a downstream cousin after the Lentz and Miller lines married, meaning a descendant of Margaret Lentz and John David Miller, or other Miller/Lentz couples
  • He could be independently related to both lines upstream. They did intermarry.
  • He could be related to Charles or Rex through an entirely separate line that has nothing to do with Lentz or Miller.

So I have no exact answer, but this does tell me where to look. Maybe I could find additional known Lentz or Miller line descendants to add to the Matrix which would provide additional information.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can see at a glance which matches match each other as well.

Cautions

  • Matrix matches do NOT mean that these individuals match on the same segments, it just means they do match on some segment. A matrix match is not triangulation.
  • Matrix matches can easily be from different lines to different ancestors. For example, Harold could match each one of three individuals that he matches on different ancestral lines that have nothing to do with their common Lentz or Miller line.

#5 – Chromosome Browser

I want to know if the 5 individuals that I selected to compare in the Matrix match me on any of the same segments.

I’m going back to my ICW list with cousin Donald.

I’ve selected my 5 individuals by clicking the box to the left of their profiles, and I’m going to select the chromosome browser.

FF9 chromosome browser choices

The chromosome browser shows you where these individuals match you.

Overlapping segments mean the people who overlap all match you on that segment, but overlapping segments do NOT mean they also match each other on these same segments.

Translated, this means they could be matching you on different sides of your family or are identical by chance. Remember, you have two sides to your chromosome, a Mom’s side and a Dad’s side, which are intermingled, and some people will match you by chance. You can read more about this here.

The chromosome browser shows you THAT they match you – it doesn’t tell you HOW they match you or if they match each other.

FF9 chromosome browser view2

The default view shows matches of 5cM or greater. You can select different thresholds at the top of the comparison list.

You’ll notice that all 5 of these people match me, but that only two of them match me on overlapping segments, on chromosome 3. Among those 5 people, only those who match me on the same segments have the opportunity to triangulate.

This gives you the opportunity to ask those two individuals if they also match each other on this same chromosome. In this case, I have access to both of those kits, and I can tell you that they do match each other on those segments, so they do triangulate mathematically. Since I know the common ancestor between myself, Cheryl and Rex, I can assign this segment to John David Miller and Margaret Lentz. That, of course, is the goal of autosomal matching – to identify the common ancestor of the individuals who match.

You also have the option to download the results of this chromosome browser match into a spreadsheet. That’s the left-most download option at the top of the chromosomes. We’ll talk about how to utilize spreadsheets last.

The middle option, “view in a table” shows you these results, one pair of individuals at a time, in a table.

This is me compared to Rex. You will have a separate table for each one of the individuals as compared to you. You switch between them at the bottom right.

FF9 chromosome browser table2

The last download option at the furthest right is for your entire list of matches and where they match you on your chromosomes.

Prerequisites

  • None

Power Features

  • Can visually see where individuals and multiple people match you on your chromosomes, and where they overlap which suggests they may triangulate.

Cautions

  • When two people match you on the same chromosome segment, this does not mean that they also match each other on that segment. Matching on overlapping segments is not triangulation, although it’s the first step to triangulation.
  • For triangulation, you will need to contact your matches to determine if they also match each other on the same segment where they both match you. You may also be able to deduce some family matching based on other known individuals from the same line that you also match on that same segment, if your match matches them on that segment too.
  • The chromosome browser is limited to 5 people at a time, compared to you. By utilizing spreadsheet matching, you can see all of your matches on a particular segment, together.

#6 – Phased Family Matching

Phased Family Matching is the newest tool introduced by Family Tree DNA. I wrote about it here. The icons assigned to matches make it easy to see at a glance which side of your family, maternal or paternal, or both, a match derives from.

ff9 parental iconPhased Family Matching allows you to link the DNA results of qualified relatives to your tree and by doing so, Family Tree DNA assigns matches to maternal or paternal buckets, or sometimes, both, as shown in the icon above.

This phased matching utilizes both parental phasing in addition to a slightly higher threshold to assure that the matches they assign to parental sides can be done so with confidence. In order to be assigned a maternal or paternal icon, your match must match you and your qualifying relative at 9cM or greater on at least one of the same segments over the matching threshold. This is different than an ICW match, which only tells you that you do match, not how you match or that it’s on the same segment.

Qualifying relatives, at this time, are parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and first cousins. Additional relatives are planned in the near future.

Icons are ONLY placed based on phased match results that meet the criteria.

These icons are important because they indicate which side of your family a match is from with a great deal of precision and confidence – beyond that of regular matching.

This is best illustrated by an example.

Phased FF2

In this example, this individual has their father and mother both in the system. You can see that their father’s side is assigned a blue icon and their mother’s side is assigned a pink (red) icon. This means they match this person on only one side of their family.  A purple icon with both a male and female image means that this person is related to you on both sides of your family.  Full siblings, when both parents are in the system to phase against, would receive both icons.

This sibling is showing as matching them on both sides of their family, because both parents are available for phasing.

If only one parent was available, the father, for example, then the sibling would only shows the paternal icon. The maternal icon is NOT added by inference. In Phased Family Matching, nothing is added by inference – only by exact allele by allele matching on the same segment – which is the definition of parentally phased matching.

These icons are ONLY added as a result of a high quality phased matches at or above the phased match threshold of 9cM.

You can read more about the Family Matching System in the Family Tree DNA Learning Center, here.

Prerequisites

  • You must have tested (or transferred a kit) for a qualifying relative. At this time qualifying relatives parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.
  • You must have uploaded a GEDCOM file or created a tree.
  • You must link the DNA of qualifying kits to that person your tree. I provided instructions for how to do this in this article.
  • You must match at the normal matching threshold to be on the match list, AND then match at or above the Phased Family Match threshold in the way described to be assigned an icon.
  • You must match on at least one full segment at or above 9cM.

Power Features

  • Can visually see which side of your family an individual is related to. You can be confident this match is by descent because they are phased to your parent or qualifying family member.

Cautions

  • If someone does not have an icon assigned, it does NOT mean they are not related on that particular side of the family. It only means that the match is not strong enough to generate an icon.
  • If someone DOES match on a particular side of the family, you will still need to do additional matching and genealogy work to determine which ancestor they descend from.
  • If someone is assigned to one side of your family, it does NOT preclude the possibility that they have a smaller or weaker match to your other side of the family.
  • If you upload a new Gedcom file after linking DNA to people in your tree, you will overwrite your DNA links and will have to relink individuals.
  • Having an icon assigned indicates mathematical triangulation for the person who tested, their parents or close relative against whom they were phased and their match with the icon.  However, technically, it’s not triangulation in cases where very close relatives are involved.  For example, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings are too closely related to be considered the third leg of the triangulation stool.  First cousins, however, in my opinion, could be considered the third leg of the three needed for triangulation.  Of course when triangulation is involved, more than three is always better – the more the merrier and the more certain you can be that you have identified the correct ancestor, ancestral couple, or ancestral line to assign that particular triangulated segment to.

# 7 – Combined Advanced Matching

One of the comparison tools often missed by people is Combined Advanced Matching.

Combined matching is available through the “Tools and Apps” button, then select “Advanced Matching.”

Advanced Matching allows you to select various options in combination with each other.

For example, one of my favorites is to compare people within a project.

You can do this a number of ways.

In the case of my mother, I’ll select everyone she matches on the Family Finder test in the Miller-Brethren project. This is a very focused project with the goal of sorting the Miller families who were of the Brethren faith.

FF9 combined matching

You can see that she has several matches in that project.

You can select a variety of combinations, including any level of Y or mtDNA testing, Family Finder, X matching, projects and “last name begins with.”

One of the ways I utilize this feature often is within a surname project, for males in particular, I select one Y level of matching at a time, combined with Family Finder, “show only people I match on all tests” and then the project name. This is a quick way to determine whether someone matches someone on Family Finder that is also in a particular surname project. And when your surname is Smith, this tool is extremely valuable. This provides a least a hint as to the possible distance to a common ancestor between individuals.

Another favorite way to utilize this feature is for non-surname projects like the American Indian project. This is perfect for people who are hunting for others with Native roots that they match – and you can see their Y and mtDNA haplogroups as a bonus!

Prerequisites

  • Must have joined the particular project if you want to use the project match feature within that project.

Power Features

  • The ability to combine matching criteria across products.
  • The ability to match within projects.
  • The ability to specify partial surnames.

Cautions

  • If you match someone on both Family Finder and either Y or mtDNA haplogroups, this does NOT mean that your common Family Finder ancestor is on that haplogroup line. It might be a good place to begin looking. Check to see if you match on the Y or mtDNA products as well.
  • All matches have their haplogroup displayed, not just IF you also match that haplogroup, unless you’ve specified the Y or mtDNA options and then you would only see the people you match which would be in the same major haplogroup, although not always the same subgroup because not everyone tests at the same level.
  • Not all surname project administrators allow people who do not carry that surname in the present generation to join their projects.

# 8 – MyOrigins Matching

One tool missed by many is the MyOrigins matching by ethnicity. For many, especially if you have all European, for example, this tool isn’t terribly useful, but if you are of mixed heritage, this tool can be a wonderful source of information.

Your matches (who have authorized this type of matching) will be displayed, showing only if they match you on your major world categories.  Only your matching categories will show.  For example, if my match, Frances, also has African heritage and I do not, I won’t see Frances’s African percentage and vice versa.

FF9 myOrigins

In this example, the person who tested falls into the major categories of European and Middle Eastern. Their matches who fall into either of these same categories will be displayed in the Shared Origins box. You may not be terribly excited about this – unless you are mixed African, Asian, European and Native American – and you have “lost ancestors” you can’t find. In that case, you may be very excited to contact other matches with the same ethnic heritage.

When you first open your myOrigins page, you will be greeted with a choice to opt in (by clicking) or to opt out (by doing nothing) of allowing your ethnic matches to view the same ethnic groups you carry. Your matches will not be able to see your ethnic groups that they don’t have in common with you.

FF9 myorigins opt in

You can also access those options to view or change by clicking on Account Settings, Privacy and Sharing, and then you can view or change your selection under “My DNA Results.”

FF9 myorigins security

Prerequisites

  • Must authorize Shared Origins matching.

Power Features

  • The ability to discern who among your matches shares a particular ethnicity, and to what degree.

Cautions

  • Just because you share a particular ethnicity does NOT mean you match on the shared ethnic line. Your common ancestor with that person may be on an entirely unrelated line.

# 9 – Spreadsheet Matching

Family Tree DNA offers you the ability to download your entire list of matches, including the specific segments where your matches match you, to a spreadsheet.

This is the granddaddy of the tools and it’s a tool used by all serious genetic genealogists. It’s requires the most investment from you both in terms of understanding and work, but it also yields the most information.

The power of spreadsheet comparisons isn’t in the 5 people I pushed through to the chromosome browser, in and of themselves, but in the power of looking at the locations where all of your matches match you and known relatives on particular segments.

Utilizing the chromosome browser, we saw that chromosome 3 had an overlap match between Rex (green) and Cheryl (blue) as compared to my mother (background chromosome.)

FF9 chr 3

We see that same overlap between Cheryl and Rex when we download the match spreadsheet for those 5 people.

However, when we download all of my mother’s matches, we have a much more powerful view of that segment, below. The 2 segments we saw overlapping on the chromosome browser are shown in green. All of these people colored pink match my mother on some part of the 37cM segment she shares with Rex.

FF9 spreadsheet match

This small part of my master spreadsheet combines my own results, rows in white, with those of my mother, rows in pink.

In this case, I only match one of these individuals that mother also matches on the same segment – Rex. That’s fine. It just means that I didn’t receive the rest of that DNA from mother – meaning the portions of the segments that match Sam, Cheryl, Don, Christina and Sharon.

On the first two rows, I did receive part of that DNA from mother, 7.64 of the 37cMs that Rex matches to Mom at a threshold of 5cM.

We know that Cheryl, Don and Rex all share a common ancestor on mother’s father’s side three generations removed – meaning John David Miller and Margaret Lentz. By looking at Cheryl, Don and Rex’s matches as well, I know that several of her matches do triangulate with Cheryl, Don and/or Rex.

What I didn’t know was how Christina fit into the picture. She is a new match. Before the new Phased Family Matching, I would have had to go into each account, those of Rex, Cheryl and Don, all of which I manage, to be sure that Christina matched all of them individually in addition to Mom’s kit.

I don’t have to do that now, because I can utilize the phased Family Matching instead. The addition of the Family Matching tool has taken this from three additional steps, assuming I have access to all kits, which most people don’t, to one quick definitive step.

Cheryl and Don are both mother’s first cousins, so matches can be phased against them. I have linked both of them to mother’s kit so she how has several individuals who are phased to Don and Cheryl which generate paternal icons since Don and Cheryl are related to mother on her father’s side.

Now, instead of looking at all of the accounts individually, my first step is to see if Christina has a paternal icon, which, in this case, means she phased against either Don and/or Cheryl since those are the only two people linked to mother who qualify for phasing, today.

FF9 parental phased match

Look, Christina does have a paternal icon, so I can add “Dad” into the side column for Christine in the spreadsheet for mother’s matches AND I know Christina triangulates to Mom and either Cheryl or Don, which ever cousin she phased against.

FF9 Christina chr 3

I can see which cousin she phased against by looking at the chromosome browser and comparing mother against Cheryl, Don and Christina.  As it turns out, Christina, in green, above, phased against both Cheryl and Don whose results are in orange and blue.

It’s a great day in the neighborhood to be able to use these tools together.

Prerequisites

  • Must download matches spreadsheet through the chromosome browser, adding new matches to your spreadsheet as they occur.
  • Must have a familiarity with Excel or another spreadsheet.
  • Must learn about matching, match groups and triangulation.

Power Features

  • The ability to control the threshold you wish to work with. For matches over the match threshold, Family Tree DNA provides all segment matches to 1cM with a total of 500 SNPs.
  • The ability to see trends and groups together.
  • The ability to view kits from all of your matches for more powerful matching.
  • The ability to combine your results with those of a parent (or sibling if parents not available) to see joint matching where it occurs.

Cautions

  • There is a comparatively steep learning curve if you’re not familiar with using spreadsheets, but it’s well worth the effort if you are serious about proving ancestors through triangulation.

Summary

I’m extremely grateful for the full complement of tools available at Family Tree DNA.

They provide a range of solutions for users at all levels – people who just want to view their ethnicity or to utilize matches at the vendor site as well as those who want tools like a chromosome browser, projects, ICW, not ICW, the Matrix, ethnicity matching, combined advanced matching and chromosome browser downloads for those of us who want actual irrefutable proof.  No one has to use the more advanced tools, but they are there for those of us who want to utilize them.

I’m sorry, I’m not from Missouri, but I still want to see it for myself. I don’t want any vendor taking the “trust me” approach or doing me any favors by stripping out my data. I’m glad that Family Tree DNA gives us multiple options and doesn’t make one size fit all by using a large hammer and chisel.

The easier, more flexible and informative Family Tree DNA makes the tools, the easier it will be to convince people to test or download their data from other vendors. The more testers, the better our opportunity to find those elusive matches and through them, ancestors.

The Concepts Series

I’ve been writing a “Concepts” series of articles. Recent articles have been about how to utilize and work with autosomal matches on a spreadsheet.

You might want to read these Concepts articles if you’re serious about working with autosomal DNA.

Concepts – How Your Autosomal DNA Identifies Your Ancestors

Concepts – Identical by…Descent, State, Population and Chance

Concepts – CentiMorgans, SNPs and Pickin’ Crab

Concepts – Parental Phasing

Concepts – Downloading Autosomal Data from Family Tree DNA

Concepts – Managing Autosomal DNA Matches – Step 1 – Assigning Parental Sides

Please join me shortly for the next Concepts article – Step 2 – Who’s Related to Whom?

In the meantime:

  • Make full use of the autosomal tools available at Family Tree DNA.
  • Test additional relatives meaning parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, siblings, any cousin you can identify and talk into testing.
  • Take test kits to family reunions and holiday gatherings. No, I’m not kidding.
  • Don’t forget Y or mtDNA which can provide valuable tools to identify which line you might have in common, or to quickly eliminate some lines that you don’t have in common. Some cousins will carry valuable Y or mtDNA of your direct ancestral lines – and that DNA is full of valuable and unique information as well.
  • Link the DNA kits of those individuals you know to their place in your tree.
  • Transfer family kits from other vendors.

The more relatives you can identify and link in the system, the better your chances for meaningful matches, confirming ancestral relations, and solving puzzles.

Have fun!!!

Demystifying Ancestry’s Relationship Predictions Inspires New Relationship Estimator Tool

Today, I’m extremely pleased to bring you a wonderful guest article written by Karin Corbeil as spokesperson for a very fine group of researchers at www.dnaadoption.com.

I love it when citizen science really works, pushes the envelope, makes discoveries and then the scientists develop new tools!  This is a win-win for everyone in the genetic genealogy community – not just adoptees!  I want to say a very big thank you to this wonderful team for their fine work.

Take it away Karin….

As genetic genealogists we are always looking for a better “mousetrap”.  Tools and analyses that can better help us understand what we are actually looking at with our DNA results.  For adoptees and those with unknown ancestors it can be even more important.

When Ancestry came out with their “New Amount of Shared DNA” an explanation was necessary to understand what we were seeing.

We at DNAAdoption are asked to explain over and over again why your half-sibling was predicted as a 1st cousin, or that predicted Close Family – 1st cousin could actually be a half-nephew, or a predicted 3rd cousin could be a 4th cousin.  Ancestry doesn’t provide the detailed information needed to support their predicted relationship categories so providing the explanations was often a struggle.

We knew that you cannot draw or correlate any relationship inferences from either the total amount of shared DNA or the number of segments from the typical tools utilized by genetic genealogists because Ancestry’s totals will be lower and their segments will be broken into more pieces due to the removal of segments identified by the Timber algorithm as invalid matches.[1]

So in order to get a better reference to how predictions are set by Ancestry, we at DNAAdoption gathered data from 1,122 matches of different testers who had confirmed these matches as specific relationships. A collaborative effort was led by Richard Weiss of the DNAAdoption team.  Richard worked his magic with the data and the results are presented here.

A clip of the Pivot table from the data input:

Ancestry relationship table

The full data spreadsheet can be downloaded here:

Ancestry Predictions vs. Actual Relationships

Ancestry Predictions vs actual relationships

The most interesting thing about some of the prediction vs the actual relationships was seeing how more distant relationships can vary so greatly. Look at the 4th cousin prediction, for example. This varies from a half 1st cousin once removed to an 8th cousin once removed. (Obviously, this confirmed 8th cousin once removed probably has a persistent or intact segment that, due to the randomness of DNA down the generations, persisted for many generations). This makes it extremely difficult to assess any predicted relationship at the 4th cousin level. Even 1st, 2nd and 3rd cousin predictions had wide variances.

The only conclusion we can draw from this is to use Ancestry predictions with extreme caution.

With this data we were then able to take the numbers and add to our DNA Prediction Chart that we use in our DNA classes at DNAAdoption.

DNA Prediction Chart

DNA Prediction Chart 2

The full Excel spreadsheet can be downloaded here.

We then incorporated this data into our Relationship Estimator Tool created by Jon Masterson.

Jon explains, “This small program is intended to make the DNA Prediction Chart Spreadsheet a bit easier to use. It is based entirely on the data in this spreadsheet plus some interpolation of missing values. The algorithm to determine the most likely relationship(s) is very simple and based on summing the score of valid entries in the table for a given input. It is very much an experiment and test. It is likely to be less accurate with close relationships where there is missing data in the spreadsheet. You can also save the match information that you generate.”

First, download the zip file RelationshipEstimator.zip here.

Extract the files from the zip file and run the RelationshipEstimator.exe

relationship estimator

The following results are for the same person who has been confirmed as a 3rd cousin. The first set of data is from Gedmatch, the second set is from Ancestry. With this match the actual total cMs over 5 cMs are 122.9 with 5 segments; the same person shows Ancestry Shared DNA of 112 cMs with 7 segments.

For 23andMe/FTDNA/Gedmatch add the individual segment lengths in the first box using a slash “/” between each number.

At the “Source” box select 23andMe/FTDNA/Gedmatch, then click the “Process” button. Several possible estimated relationships will show.

Relationship estimator 2

For Ancestry, enter the total cMs, the # of segments.  At the “Source” box select “Ancestry”, then “Process”.

Relationship estimator 3

More information about this tool can be found here.

By seeing the larger variances with the Ancestry data (6 estimated relationships vs 3 for the actual Gedmatch data) we can only encourage those on Ancestry to upload your raw data file to Gedmatch. Of course, we still hope that one day Ancestry will release the full segment data in a chromosome browser.

We at DNAAdoption continue to try and provide analyses and tools, many times in cooperation with DNAGedcom, to give those searching for their roots better information. But we are “not for adoptees only” and provide this information for the genetic genealogy community as a whole.  We plan to add more data to these analyses in the near future.  We hope you will find it useful.

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Karin Corbeil (karincorbeil@gmail.com)

Diane Harman-Hoog (harmanhoog@gmail.com)

Richard Weiss (rnlweiss@gmail.com)

Jon Masterson (jon@scruffyduck.co.uk) 

[1] Roberta Estes, paraphrased from  https://dna-explained.com/2015/11/06/ancestrys-new-amount-of-shared-dna-what-does-it-really-mean/

SMGF Animations Reborn

SMGF Animations

For those of you who used to refer people to the Sorenson animations about how DNA works, before Ancestry “discontinued” the data base, the data base loss was a double whammy because the animations were gone, as well as the data.

These animations have resurfaced at the University of Utah Health Sciences page. I don’t know how they got there, but thank you and hurray!!!

Click here and take a tour!!!

Looking for and Contacting Birth Family Members

When I ran the article title DNA Testing Strategy for Adoptees and People with Uncertain Parentage, one commenter asked how one goes about putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and then how does one go about making contact?  What do you do, or say, to increase your likelihood of being successful?

I am probably the all-time worst person to answer this question, because I intensely dislike telephone conversations and especially in awkward situations.  My family has had a few of those awkward parentage situations, mostly having to do with my father and grandfather, both “ladies men,” and I’ve been both rejected and hung up on more than once – so you don’t want advice from me on this topic.

I turned to someone with a track record of success – not only in terms of putting together the convincing evidence about the missing parent – but in terms of preparation for contact, approach and actually making the contact.

Diane Harman-Hoog, with www.dnaadoption.com was kind enough to write this article.

DNAadoption page

Diane works with adoptees and others seeking their biological parents every day.  She is a retired technology professional, so transitioning her skills to a genetic genealogy puzzle was the perfect fit for Diane.  In addition to working with a team who has developed the specific search techniques, sometimes in spite of some of the vendors we have to work with, Diane has created an educational venue and teaches others the techniques and how to help themselves.

Diane is summing up a significant process here, in just a few paragraphs.  If you’d like to know more about these techniques, please visit http://www.dnaadoption.com and take a look at their class offerings.

Many people call Diane and the people at DNAAdoption search angels – that’s because they truly are.  Not only are they reuniting families, when the family wants to be reunited – but Diane and her team are providing the adoptee with a history, something they have never had.  Thank you so much Diane – for this article and for everything that you and the folks at DNAadoption do.

From Diane Harman-Hoog

We at DNAadoption are having a great deal of success with reuniting birth family members with adoptees and with others who have lost track of a father, for example.

One of the first things an adoptee should do is try to get their non-identifying birth information, if available, through their adoption agency.  Many times this alone can be used in a traditional search even without DNA.  If they have non-id that is older than 5 years, we recommend they apply for an update. We at www.DNAAdoption.com can help if they don’t know how to go about this process.

The DNA Search Process

The world was a lot easier before Ancestry decided to ignore what we all felt were hard and fast principles of the search – meaning providing the tester with chromosome match information – the chromosome number and start and stop locations of matching DNA. We collected chromosome data and “In Common With” genealogy data, ran them through our programs with resulting spreadsheets that group overlapping DNA into sets and then noted which people in that set were ICW with others in the set.

A definition or two is in order here. I prefer to tell students that ICW means blood related. Overlapping means any part of the chromosome segments that overlap, they do not have to be the same length.

Identification by Triangulation

We can have two people with starting and ending addresses on a particular chromosome which makes us think that they received the segment from the same ancestor. However, nature plays a little joke with us on that part, because there are two sides to the chromosome and each side has the same address sequence. On one side, the addresses increase going one way and on the other side, they increase going the other way.

When we identify people who look like they have overlapping chromosomes then if they are blood related with each other, then the segments came from the same ancestor. The very small segments are probably not indicative of family heredity but are environmentally caused genetic strings.

I use this example of blood related. You are blood related (ICW) with all your matches as you are the very bottom of the relationships and related to both sides. You maternal grandmother is probably not blood related or ICW with your paternal grandfather. In most cases, they come from different families.

In general, the longer the segment the closer the relationship, but when the prediction is closer than second cousins, we start to look at the total of all the segments over about 6 cM (centimorgans) that overlap.

Then we look for common ancestors using the trees of those two individuals. Next is triangulation where three people match on the same segment. That is because every one of your matches overlaps with your DNA segments and is always ICW with you. So two plus one gives us the three to triangulate.

In order to look for common ancestors on the trees, you need 3 things:

    • Overlapping DNA segments
    • ICW status between the same individuals
    • And some tree information from each party.

Expanding trees

We get as much of the tree that we can for each person and then we have to go to work expanding the existing tree. First the tree must go up in the traditional genealogical manner, you, your parents, your grandparents etc. You also treat any matching person the same way so you get a normal looking genealogical tree. If this is a 2nd cousin match, take the tree back to at least 3 generations past the great grandparents.

Then comes the really tedious part. You come back down the tree identifying all the offspring and all of their offspring down to the years where you would expect the grandparent or other unidentified person to be living. As you go down the tree (towards the present), you must also add each spouse for each of the offspring and go up their ancestry a ways to see if they might also be related. By the time you get down to the actual candidate of the father, you would hope to find that both his mother and father are related to DNA matches of yours.

The difficulty often comes from two directions, incomplete trees that you just cannot fill in and completing the most recent generations. At that point we have to rely on Google searches and obituaries to make the final identifications.

In essence, the DNA identifies who you are related to, triangulation identifies groups of people who share a common ancestor, and their trees will lead you to the identification of both that common ancestor and hopefully, your parent.

If this is a little sketchy, the full course takes 4 weeks and I am trying to summarize it here. Some searches only take a tree or two but I have also done ones that took 200 trees (and five years).

Ancestry

Then Ancestry came along and is refusing to give us the chromosome numbers. This is particularly bad for adoptees who rely upon those numbers to confirm or deny the relationships.

So we deal with it in this manner. We have a DNA software Client for ancestry called DNAGedcom from the DNAGedcom site. It reads your Ancestry DNA account and generates a match list of all your matches and an ancestors list of all the ancestors of those matches. A more recent addition is also an ICW list to show us which matches are ICW with which other matches.

Gedmatch

Whenever possible do everything you can to encourage these matches to download onto Gedmatch.

Another trick, after you transfer the kits to Gedmatch, is to use the report on Gedmatch, named “People who match one or both of 2 kits”. This report takes the gedmatch # of two individuals and measures them against each other. If I run it against my brother, Ken, and my maternal cousin, Jon, I will get three different lists. The first list is of kits that both Jon and Ken match. Since our mother and Jon’s mother are sisters, then we can assume that these are maternal matches for both Jon and Ken. The second list shows kits that only Jon matches, that would be from his father’s side of the family and the third list shows only kits that Ken matches so that would be cousins that Ken matches who are not maternal but from our father’s side.

It must be understood that using DNA analysis is not an exact science but a learned art as DNA inheritance can be capricious. We are working with probabilities and averages here. We cannot say that there are 169 cM of DNA shared, so the match is a second cousin, but rather, the match might be a second cousin.

Now we play the odds. We match ancestors from the ancestors list and as a start call them Common Ancestors.  So if both Ancestry trees have Pierre LeBlanc born in 1769  in Louisiana and both Pierre’s have the same parents we call them common ancestors until proven otherwise. The odds are actually fairly high if the two families are ICW with each other.

We cannot just say that a child of Pierre LeBlanc is absolutely in Jon’s direct line but we will expand the trees and trace individuals down. If they eventually start lining up with other DNA match descendants we will accept that it is direct line. However, of course NPEs are always a concern and there is no way to completely protect from that eventuality.

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Contact Time

As you continue the search now, with live people, do not use the word “adoption” until you are certain of the relationship with the person you are speaking to. This includes people like a librarian, as well as possible relatives. Some people feel strongly about not assisting adoptees in finding a birth family. One of my clients let it slip to a first cousin. That was the end of the relationship. We really needed information that cousin had.

So now we have built trees down and have three males who were in the correct vicinity at the correct time for conception. Each of these males has one line descending from a DNA match, but only one has the other parent also descending from a DNA match!

Our tree has developed to include possible common ancestors from all three tests and gedmatch.

We try to obtain up-to-date contact information which in these days of cell phones is harder to get than it used to be.

The only person we encourage to make contact is the adoptee or another birth family member who is looking. None of us will do it for them. If contact is refused then at least they have talked to the person once.

Whether we are down to the exact level or perhaps only to a cousin or aunt or uncle, we advise proceeding with caution. We advise the contact to be made on the basis of DNA information and asking for help with a family tree. A lot of detective work goes on before a phone call is made to confirm the suspicions – at least as much as possible. We check where people were at that time, or did a woman have a child born at a time that would mean that this child could not have been hers. What was their life like?  Do most facts line up with the non-ID information? It is possible that the non-ID is fictional but we assume that most of it is right until we prove otherwise.

Making the Call

If a man is calling the person we are pretty sure is his birth mother, the conversation will go something like this. ”I am looking to fill in some members of my family tree and DNA testing shows that we might be related. I am quite sure I am related to the Woolworth line from talking to other matches. I want to be sure you have my contact information in case you think of something that might help me after we talk, email is –, my phone number is –. I was born on October 1, 1963 in Syracuse NY. Does that mean anything to you?  (Hoping for a positive indication.) Yes I was adopted, My adoption papers are hard to read, but my birth name might have been Dennis. The state has given me a little information about my birth mother, she was 26 and in secretarial school. Her mother was 56 and her father deceased. She had a sister and two brothers.”

Hopefully by then she is in tears.  Most birth mothers have been praying to be found. If she is unhappy then he should give her some time. He has provided contact information for himself. Also he should send her a little card afterward, thanking her for her time and provide a picture of himself and his family, along with his contact information.

Good luck to you all.

Diane Harman-Hoog

You can contact Diane at harmanhoog@gmail.com