I’ve seen the term sibling used many different ways, sometimes incorrectly.
When referring to their own siblings, people usually use the term brother or sister, regardless of whether they are talking about a full, half or step-sibling. It’s a term of heart or description. It’s often genealogists who are focused on which type of sibling. As far as I’m concerned, my brother is my brother, regardless of which type of brother. But in terms of genetics, and genealogy, there’s a huge difference. How we feel about our sibling(s) and how we are biologically related are two different things.
Let’s cover the various types of siblingship and how to determine which type is which.
- Full Siblings – Share both parents
- Half-Siblings – Share only one parent
- Three-Quarter Siblings – It’s complicated
- Adopted Siblings
- Step-Siblings – Share no biological parent
- Twins – Fraternal and Identical
Full siblings share both parents and share approximately 50% of their DNA with each other.
You can tell if you are full siblings with a match in various ways.
- You share the same fairly close matches on both parents’ sides. For example, aunts or uncles or their descendants.
Why do I say close matches? You could share one parent and another more distant relative on the other parent’s side. Matching with close relatives like aunts, uncles or first cousins at the appropriate level is an excellent indicator unless your parents or grandparents are available for testing. If you are comparing to grandparents, be sure to confirm matches to BOTH grandparents on each side.
- Full siblings will share in the ballpark of 2600 cM, according to DNAPainter’s Shared cM Tool.
Keep in mind that you can share more or less DNA, hence the range. It’s also worth noting that some people who reported themselves as full siblings in the Shared cM project were probably half siblings and didn’t realize it.
- Full siblings will share a significant amount of fully identical regions (FIR) of DNA with each other, meaning they share DNA at the same DNA address from both parents, as illustrated above. Shared DNA with each other inherited from Mom and Dad are blocked in green. The fully identical regions, shared with both parents, are bracketed in purple. You can’t make this determination at FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage or Ancestry, but you can at both 23andMe and GEDmatch.
At GEDmatch, the large fully green areas in the chromosome browser “graphics and positions” display indicates full siblings, where DNA is shared from both parents at that location.
I wrote about the details of how to view fully identical regions (FIR) versus half identical regions (HIR) in the article, DNA: In Search of…Full and Half-Siblings.
- If your parents/grandparents have tested, you and your full sibling will both match both parents/grandparents. Yes, I know this sounds intuitive, but sometimes it’s easy to miss the obvious.
At FamilyTreeDNA, you can use the matrix tool to see who matches each other in a group of people that you can select. In this case, both siblings are compared to the father, but if the father isn’t available, a close paternal relative could substitute. Remember that all people who are 2nd cousins or closer will match.
- At Ancestry, full siblings will be identified as either “brother” or “sister,” while half-siblings do not indicate siblingship. Half-siblings are called “close family” and a range of possible relationships is given. Yes, Ancestry, is looking under the hood at FIR/HIR regions. I have never seen a full sibling misidentified as anything else at Ancestry. Unfortunately, Ancestry does not give customers access to their matching chromosome segment location data.
- Y-DNA of males who are full siblings will match but may have some slight differences. Y-DNA alone cannot prove a specific relationship, with very rare exceptions, but can easily disprove a relationship if two males do not match. Y-DNA should be used in conjunction with autosomal DNA for specific relationship prediction when Y-DNA matches.
- Y-DNA testing is available only through FamilyTreeDNA, but high-level haplogroup-only estimates are available through 23andMe. Widely divergent haplogroups, such as E versus R, can be considered a confirmed non-match. Different haplogroups within the same base haplogroup, such as R, but obtained from different vendors or different testing levels may still be a match if they test at the Big Y-700 level at FamilyTreeDNA.
- Mitochondrial DNA, inherited matrilineally from the mother, will match for full siblings (barring unusual mutations such as heteroplasmies) but cannot be used in relationship verification other than to confirm nonmatches. For both Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA, it’s possible to have a lineage match that is not the result of a direct parental relationship.
- Mitochondrial DNA testing is available only through FamilyTreeDNA, but haplogroup-only estimates are included at 23andMe. Different base haplogroups such as H and J can be considered a non-match.
- A difference in ethnicity is NOT a reliable indicator of half versus full siblings.
Half-siblings share only one parent, but not both, and usually share about 25% of their DNA with each other.
You will share as much DNA with a half-sibling as you do some other close matches, so it’s not always possible for DNA testing companies to determine the exact relationship.
Referencing the MyHeritage cM Explainer tool, you can see that people who share 1700 cM of DNA could be related in several ways. I wrote about using the cM Explainer tool here.
Hints that you are only half-siblings include:
- At testing vendors, including Ancestry, a half-sibling will not be identified as a sibling but as another type of close match.
- If your parents or grandparents have tested, you will only match one parent or one set of grandparents or their descendants.
- You will not have shared matches on one parent’s side. If you know that specific, close relatives have tested on one parent’s side, and you don’t match them, but your other family members do, that’s a very big hint. Please note that you need more than one reference point, because it’s always possible that the other person has an unknown parentage situation.
- At 23andMe, you will not show fully identical regions (FIR).
- At GEDmatch, you will show only very minimal FIR.
Scattered, very small green FIR locations are normal based on random recombination. Long runs of green indicate that significant amounts of DNA was inherited from both parents. The example above is from half-siblings.
- At FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe, most men who share a mother will also share an X chromosome match since men only inherit their X chromosome from their mother. However, it is possible for the mother to give one son her entire X chromosome from her father, and give the other son her entire X chromosome from her mother. Therefore, two men who do share a mother but don’t have an X chromosome match could still be siblings. The X is not an entirely reliable relationship predictor. However, if two men share an entire X chromosome match, it’s very likely that they are siblings on their mother’s side, or that their mothers are very close relatives.
This gets a little more complicated.
Three-quarter siblings occur when one parent is the same, and the other parents are siblings to each other.
Let’s use a real-life example.
A couple marries and has children. The mother dies, and the father marries the mother’s sister and has additional children. Those children are actually less than full siblings, but more than half-siblings.
Conversely, a woman has children by two brothers and those children are three-quarter siblings.
These were common situations in earlier times when a man needed a female companion to raise children and women needed a male companion to work on the farm. Neither one could perform both childcare and the chores necessary to earn a living in an agricultural society, and your deceased spouse’s family members were already people you knew. They already loved your children too.
Neither of these situations is historically unusual, but both are very difficult to determine using genetics alone, even in the current generation.
Neither X-DNA nor mitochondrial DNA will be helpful, and Y-DNA will generally not be either.
Unfortunately, three-quarter siblings’ autosomal DNA will fall in the range of both half and full siblings, although not at the bottom of the half-sibling range, nor at the top of the full sibling range – but that leaves a lot of middle ground.
I’ve found it almost impossible to prove this scenario without prior knowledge, and equally as impossible to determine which of multiple brothers is the father unless there is a very strong half-sibling match in addition.
The DNA-Sci blog discusses this phenomenon, but I can’t utilize comparison screenshots according to their terms of service.
Clearly, what we need are more known three-quarter siblings to submit data to be studied in order to (possibly) facilitate easier determination, probably based on the percentage frequency distribution of FIR/HIR segments. Regardless, it’s never going to be 100% without secondary genealogical information.
Three-quarter siblings aren’t very common today, but they do exist. If you suspect something of this nature, really need the answer, and have exhausted all other possibilities, I recommend engaging a very experienced genetic genealogist with experience in this type of situation. However, given the random nature of recombination in humans, we may never be able to confirm using any methodology, with one possible exception.
There’s one possibility using Y-DNA if the parents in question are two brothers. If one brother has a Y-DNA SNP mutation that the other does not have, and this can be verified by testing either the brothers who are father candidates or their other known sons via the Big Y-700 test – the father of the siblings could then be identified by this SNP mutation as well. Yes, it’s a long shot.
Three-quarter sibling situations are very challenging.
Step-siblings, on the other hand, are easy.
Step-siblings don’t share either parent, so their DNA will not match to each other unless their parents are somehow related to each other. Please note that this means either of their parents, not just the parents who marry each other.
One child’s parent marries the other child’s parent, resulting in a blended family. The children then become step-siblings to each other.
The terms step-sibling and half-sibling are often used interchangeably, and they are definitely NOT the same.
Adopted siblings may not know they are adopted and believe, until DNA testing, that they are biological siblings.
Sometimes adopted siblings are either half-siblings or are otherwise related to each other but may not be related to either of their adoptive parents. Conversely, adopted siblings, one or both, may be related to one of their adoptive parents.
The same full and half-sibling relationship genetic clues apply to adopted siblings, as well as the tools and techniques in the In Search of Unknown Family series of articles.
Donor-conceived siblings could be:
- Half-siblings if the donor is the same father but a different mother.
- Half-siblings if they share an egg donor but not a father.
- Full siblings if they are full biological siblings to each other, meaning both donors are the same but not related to the woman into whom the fertilized egg was implanted, nor to her partner, their legal parents.
- Not biologically related to each other or either legal parent.
- Biologically related to one or both legal parents when a family member is either an egg or sperm donor.
Did I cover all of the possible scenarios? The essence is that we literally know nothing and should assume nothing.
I have known of situations where the brother (or brothers) of the father was the sperm donor, so the resulting child or children appear to be full or three-quarters siblings to each other. They are related to their legal father who is the mother’s partner. In other words, in this situation, the mother’s husband was infertile, and his brother(s) donated sperm resulting in multiple births. The children from this family who were conceived through different brothers and had very close (half-sibling) matches to their “uncles'” children were very confused until they spoke with their parents about their DNA results.
The same techniques to ascertain relationships would be used with donor-conceived situations. Additionally, if it appears that a biological relationship exists, but it’s not a full or half-sibling relationship, I recommend utilizing other techniques described in the In Search of Unknown Family series.
Twins or Multiple Birth Siblings
Two types of twin or multiple birth scenarios exist outside of assisted fertilization.
Fraternal twins – With fraternal or dizygotic twins, two eggs are fertilized independently by separate sperm. Just view this as one pregnancy with two siblings occupying the same space for the same 9 months of gestation. Fraternal twins can be male, female or one of each sex.
Fraternal twins are simply siblings that happen to gestate together and will match in the same way that full siblings match.
Please note that it’s possible for two of a woman’s eggs to be fertilized at different times during the same ovulation cycle, potentially by different men, resulting in twins who are actually half-siblings.
A difference in ethnicity is NOT a reliable indicator of fraternal or identical twins. Submitting your own DNA twice often results in slightly different ethnicity results.
Identical twins – Identical or monozygotic twins occur when one egg is fertilized by one sperm and then divides into multiple embryos that develop into different children. Those children are genetically identical since they were both developed from the same egg and sperm.
Two of the most famous identical twins are astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly.
Identical twins are the same sex and will look the same because they have the same DNA, except for epigenetic changes, but of course external factors such as haircuts, clothes and weight can make identical twins physically distinguishable from each other.
DNA testing companies will either identify identical twins as “self,” “identical twin” or “parent/child” due to the highest possible shared cM count plus fully matching FIR regions.
For identical twins, checking the FIR versus HIR is a positive identification as indicated above at GEDmatch with completely solid green FIR regions. Do not assume twins that look alike are identical twins.
Whoever thought there would be so many kinds of siblings!
If you observe the need to educate about either sibling terminology or DNA identification methodologies, feel free to share this article. When identifying relationships, never assume anything, and verify everything through multiple avenues.
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