dna testing ancestry, genealogy

DNA Testing for Genealogy: Basics for Beginners

DNA testing for genealogy is commonly used to help gain a better understanding of our deep and recent roots, to verify or break down genealogical findings and family lore (ie “Do I have Native American ancestry?“) and to connect with unknown cousins who can help fill out the family tree.

Its popularity is not surprising. For many, genetic genealogy provides a way to combine modern science with the age-old study of family history in an unprecedented and thrilling way–never before have we been able to peek inside ourselves and reveal the secrets of our past as we can with today’s tools.

For those who are just beginning to explore their options, here are some quick details to get you off on the right foot.

An updated version of this article, with a detailed comparison guide on each DNA test option, is available here. 

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In very simple terms, there are three common methods of DNA testing for genealogical purposes:

mtDNA Tests: These type of tests look at the DNA found in our cell’s mitochondria. Mitochondria is located in the cytoplasm of the cell (surrounding and separate from the nucleus where most DNA is found) and is therefore only inherited from your mother. This means that an mtDNA test can help you understand the ancestry of your maternal line only. The nature of this test option also limits it to the understanding of deep ancestry (not so helpful for genealogists)–although the more detailed the test, the more accurate and specific your results become. The most commonly used tests for this purpose can be found through Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and they have a huge amount of helpful information on better understanding the science and genealogical significance of this method of genetic testing.

Y-DNA Tests: Y-DNA testing examines the Y chromosome passed only from father to son and can therefore be used to gain a better understanding of your paternal line. This can be a very interesting study for those focused on surname research, especially since the Y chromosome can give information about deep and recent roots. Because only men carry this chromosome women will need to test their father, brother or other male relation to use this test for genealogy purposes. Again, FTDNA is the leader in this type of testing and has a wealth of information, groups and forums to help.

Autosomal DNA Tests: These type of tests have become extremely popular over the last couple of years as prices have dropped and the amount and accuracy of the results has increased. Autosomal testing looks at information across the genome to provide clues to our personal ancestral history on a much broader scale than either mtDNA or Y-DNA testing can. While this type of genetic testing is an ever evolving science, you can expect to get a general breakdown of your ancestors’ geographical origins (your admixture) as well as connections with people who share your ancestry. This can be a unique and exciting way to tear down those brick walls and uncover branches of your family tree you never knew you had. For some, the results can be surprising and enlightening–for others, there can be a simple verification of already known information and even some disappointment in discovering nothing new.

Four companies offer autosomal genetic testing for genealogy:

Other than Geno 2.0, all of these companies offer the test for $99. Each service offers a geographic breakdown, connections with genetic cousins in their database, varying tools for helping you understand and apply your results and access to future updates. Which one you choose is up to you–they all have strengths and weaknesses to consider.

1. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder: One of the first to offer these types of tests, FTDNA is generally considered the leader in autosomal DNA testing for ancestry and provides some of the best tools available for genealogists. Their population finder section is currently a bit less specific than the other companies, but FTDNA Family Finder users are eagerly awaiting a much improved update to be released sometime in the next month. Find out about Family Finder here.

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2. 23andMe: Originally a medical testing company designed to provide people with genetic health insights, 23andMe no longer offers health testing and is instead focused entirely on providing genealogical data. They are one of the most commonly used companies for this purpose, have many powerful tools and provide a detailed admixture. Take a look at what they offer in more detail here.

3. Ancestry DNA: The newest player in the genetic genealogy field, Ancestry DNA is becoming quite popular for its detailed ancestry reports and ability to connect those results with the resources and information you are already using on Ancestry.com.

4. Geno 2.0: At $199 National Geographic’s Genographic Project is the most expensive of all of the choices and is also not designed specifically for genealogists. They do not offer a database of known relations and the data they provide is more general in nature. However, joining the project does provide a geographic ancestry breakdown as well as a report on how much Neanderthal you may have (fun!). It is an exciting scientific endeavor and definitely worth exploring and joining if you have the resources to do so. Find it here.

Whichever service you decide to choose, know that there is a wealth of information online about this subject. You can find a multitude of sites detailing personal results, offering helpful suggestions and providing support on your genetic genealogy journey. It is definitely a great time to get involved.

More places to find info on DNA testing for ancestry:

— A great, unbiased starting point for information on DNA testing for genealogy purposes is Wikipedia or the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG).

— We also highly recommend CeCe Moore’s site, Your Genetic Genealogist, for more information on genetic testing for genealogy. She is the leading expert in this field and her posts are always intelligent and easy to read.

— ISOGG also has a very helpful chart that lays out the particulars of each of the autosomal testing options. Check it out for many more details on these tests–such as how samples are gained, the number of regions tested by each company and more.

— Once you have chosen a test and received your autosomal results there is still a great deal more fun to be had. Independent tools and websites created by scientists and enthusiasts allow you to take the raw data provided from FTDNA, 23andMe and Ancestry DNA and explore them in astounding detail–giving you a wide variety of new admixtures, phasing options, chromosome browsers, SNP tools and connections with family across the world. Gedmatch is our favorite because they have so many wonderful and meticulously updated tools from a variety of sources. Easily upload your raw data and run your results for free (if you love the tools, don’t forget to donate and uncover even more options.)

— For more info about what you can do with your raw DNA data once you download it from one of the above testing companies, check out this fantastic article from The Genetic Genealogist. This site also has a huge amount of wonderful information for any beginning or advanced genetic genealogist.

— We also recommend this helpful article from the Legal Genealogist–it includes great information on the pluses and minuses of each test, as well as a cost analysis and tips for saving some bucks.

Image Credit: Library of Congress, “…at work in the micropalenontological laboratory with binocular microscope using special lamps for horizontal illumination.” Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, 1942

Have you done DNA testing for genealogy? Which company did you choose?

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