Ancestor DNA Testing

DNA

You've probably already experienced some of the amazing things technology has done for the study of family history, but you may not have heard of genealogical DNA testing. There are three different types of genealogy DNA tests, each with unique advantages and disadvantages. In short, genealogical DNA testing can help you establish connections, find lost relatives, and solve some of the mysteries in your family tree.

Using DNA Testing to Supplement Your Research

generations

You probably learned the basics of DNA in your high school biology class. Every species has a set number of chromosomes, which contain all the information necessary to make up the organism. In humans, there are 23 pairs of chromosomes, including the X or Y sex chromosomes that determine gender. These chromosomes offer important clues about your family history.

According to Stephen Baloglu, director of marketing for Ancestry.com, there are a number of ways your genealogy research can benefit from DNA testing.

"DNA testing is another way to discover a piece of one's family history puzzle," says Baloglu. "Depending on a person's goals, the DNA test can supplement his or her research in a variety of ways, including locating new relatives, confirming existing information in the family tree, and determining genetic ethnicity."

How to Perform DNA Tests

To begin, you'll order the test kit from a company that offers the type of test you want to do. The kit will come with instructions for collecting your sample, but typically, sample collection involves performing a cheek swab or collecting saliva. You'll then return the sample to the company. After processing, you'll receive your results via email or regular mail.

Types of DNA Testing

Today, genealogists have the opportunity to learn about family history through three different types of DNA tests: mitochondrial DNA testing, Y-chromosome testing, and autosomal DNA testing. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and not all tests are appropriate for all people.

Test Approximate Cost Who Can Test? Best for Learning About...
Mitochondrial DNA test $200-$400 Women and men Distant maternal ancestry and ethnicity
Y-chromosome DNA test $100-$200 Men only Family relationships and origins on the male line
Autosomal DNA test $130-$300 Women and men Family relationships and general ethnicity

Mitochondrial DNA Testing

mitochondria
Cross section of a mitochondrion

Traditional DNA testing looks at the information contained in the nucleus, but mitochondrial DNA testing examines the genetic material in the mitochondria themselves. Wondering what this means for you? In a way, mitochondrial DNA is a clue about the identity of your ancient female relatives.

Your mitochondrial DNA comes from your mother and from her mother before that. While men have their mother's mitochondrial DNA, they do not pass this information on to their children. Instead, the children inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mothers. This test allows genealogists to find out information about their ancient maternal ancestors.

What You Can Find Out

Testing your mitochondrial DNA will give you some interesting insights about your ancestry, but it will not provide you with names or dates. This type of testing is considered more of a "deep ancestry" tool. Mitochondrial DNA testing:

  • Can tell you where some of your oldest ancestors lived, giving you insight into your ethnic background.
  • May give insight as to the general migration patterns of your ancestors.
  • Can also be used to prove an individual is not part of your maternal family line. If that person, or one of his or her descendent, has different mitochondrial DNA results, you'll know the individual is not related.

Advantages of this Method

There are a couple of reasons you may want to try out a mitochondrial DNA test:

  • The test is quick and easy, and collecting the sample doesn't hurt.
  • Unlike most other DNA tests, this is an effective way to disprove a suspected maternal link.
  • This is the only test that offers specific ethnic information on your direct maternal line.

Disadvantages of this Method

The primary disadvantage of the mitochondrial DNA testing is that it doesn't provide the detailed information about family relationships that other tests can provide. It won't help you find cousins or establish other family relationships. Aside from disproving the theory of a common female ancestor, it won't help you fill in the blanks in your family tree. It also only provides the ancient ethnicity of your oldest direct female ancestor. While this is interesting, it doesn't offer a lot of genetic information about your entire family.

Companies Offering Mitochondrial DNA Testing

A number of companies offer mitochondrial DNA test kits:

  • DNA Diagnostics Center - This test is simple to conduct, and results take about two or three weeks. The company has an excellent reputation for accurate testing. This test kit costs just under $400.
  • AncestryDNA Maternal Lineage Test - This test, offered by Ancestry.com, is reliable and easy to conduct. The price for testing is just under $200.
  • AncestrybyDNA - With this test company, you send in your cheek swab kit and receive a detailed PDF with your test results. The maternal line test is about $200.

Y-Chromosome DNA Testing

y chromosome

The Y chromosome passes from father to son in an almost unchanged state, so shared markers indicate a common patrilineal ancestry. However, a match cannot determine the degree to which two people are related. Y-DNA testing allows you to fill in some of the details of the paternal line in your family tree.

It's important to note that only men can take a Y-DNA test, since women don't carry a Y chromosome.

What You Can Find Out

Y-DNA testing can help you find common ancestors with other men sharing the same DNA markers. This can help you establish whether you are related, and capitalize on one another's research. You can also learn the origin and migration path your male ancestors took, as well as get a general sense of when these migrations occurred.

Advantages of this Method

There are several reasons you may want to consider getting a Y-DNA test:

  • This is one of the least expensive DNA tests for genealogists, typically costing between $100 and $200.
  • The test allows you to zero in on the male line, which can sometimes present a dead end for genealogists.
  • Since surnames typically pass from father to son, just like the Y-chromosome, you can trace the history of your surname using this test.
  • The test is painless and easy to perform.

Disadvantages of this Method

The biggest disadvantage of Y-chromosome DNA testing is that only men can take the test. This means that female genealogists will need to find a male relative who can take the test for them.

Additionally, you only learn about the direct male line with this type of genealogy test. It does not provide any information about branches in your tree or any of your female ancestors.

Companies Offering Y-Chromosome DNA Testing

You can order a Y-DNA test kit from these companies:

  • Genetic Genealogy - This company offers two different Y-DNA test kits; customers choose one based on the level of detailed information you'd like to obtain. Prices range from about $120 to about $200.
  • Oxford Ancestors - This British company provides several different Y-DNA tests, ranging in price from about £200 to over £400.
  • AncestrybyDNA - This company offers a paternal lineage test for about $100. Your test results come in PDF form, and include a lineage map.

Autosomal DNA Testing

genetic testing

Autosomal DNA testing is a fairly recent development in the field of genetic genealogy. You can use autosomal DNA testing to compare the information contained in your 22 autosomal chromosomes (excluding the X and Y chromosomes) against other people in a database. This type of DNA testing is offered by a number of companies, including the genealogy giant Ancestry.com.

"Using advanced DNA testing technology, improved scientific data analysis and new research tools, allows AncestryDNA to provide more information about genetic ethnicity, as well as match people with potential new relatives who have also had their DNA analyzed," says Baloglu. "Autosomal DNA testing provides a comprehensive view into family history and is different than the male-only Y-DNA test and mitochondrial DNA test (which tests a very small portion of DNA that is inherited solely from the mother.)"

What You Can Find Out

Autosomal DNA testing can help you find relatives who may share a common ancestor. This test compares common strands of DNA to determine family relationships. This, in turn, can lead you to discover common ancestors and answer some of the mysteries in your family tree.

"Matching to new relatives is simple and powerful, says Baloglu. "So far, we have found over 100,000 shared ancestors across people within the database."

You can also find out a general breakdown of your ethnicity, letting you know how many of your ancestors came from each part of the world.

Advantages of this Method

This relative-matching process is one of the major advantages of autosomal DNA testing, but there are a number of other reasons to try it too:

  • Both men and women can take an autosomal DNA test, since everyone has 22 autosomal chromosomes.
  • This test is painless and simple, usually consisting of a cheek swab or saliva sample.
  • Increasing availability has led to a price decrease, and this test is now much more affordable than it once was. Expect to pay $100 to $300, depending on the company you choose.

Disadvantages of this Method

The primary disadvantage of autosomal DNA testing is that although you will find new cousins, you won't know which line they share with you. At this time, the test typically provides results up to fifth cousins, but it doesn't tell you if those cousins are on your father's side or your mother's side. Autosomal DNA is a good choice for broad-reaching results, but it won't allow you to zero in on a specific genetic line.

It's also important to remember that the detail of your results will depend on the number of people sharing your genetic code within the company's database. A large database makes it easier to find matches.

Companies Offering Autosomal DNA Testing

Several companies offer this type of genetic test for genealogy research:

  • AncestryDNA - This test by Ancestry.com offers the unique ability to connect records and family trees to your autosomal DNA test results. You can find other members who share your DNA and have important family history information you may be missing. You'll also see your results on an interactive map of the world. This test is offered for $129 to Ancestry.com members.
  • 23andMe - With more than 150,000 members, this service offers some great opportunities to connect with distant relatives. You can see your ancestry displayed on a pie chart. This test costs about $300.
  • Family Tree DNA - Another great option, the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA offers similar results. This test costs $289.

Important Considerations Regarding DNA Testing

male generations

Before you sign up for a DNA test to supplement your genealogy research, it's important to keep a few considerations in mind. The more you know about the process and results, the better you'll be able to prepare yourself and your family for any answers you may receive.

Mistakes Can Happen

DNA testing does not have industry standards set, and therefore mistakes do occur and can be a problem. These mistakes are rare, but they can cause problems with family relationships and throw off your genealogy research. The American Society of Human Genetics has expressed concern about this issue.

Protect Your Privacy

Due to lack of industry standards DNA testing can be used in an unauthorized manner to uncover personal information. Be sure you examine a company's privacy policy before taking a test.

Even if you determine that a company has a fair privacy policy, this may not be enough for some individuals in your family. Many people are very sensitive about DNA testing and do not wish to participate in this type of research. This can be a problem if you are a woman in search of a male relative to help with Y-DNA testing.

Know What You Can't Learn

It's important to understand what you can't learn from DNA testing. This includes the names of individuals in your tree, appearance characteristics like hair color or eye color, cause of death or family diseases, or important family dates.

Understand About Adoption

Today, adoption is widely accepted. In the past, however, it was common for people to adopt infants in secret. The results of your DNA testing can be complicated if it is discovered that someone is not biologically part of the family.

Be Prepared for Surprises

Occasionally, people have conducted DNA tests for genealogical research and discovered that incorrect father is listed on a subject's birth certificate. It's important that you are mentally prepared for this type of event.

Offering a Clue

Although it doesn't contain all the answers, your DNA can offer a clue to help with your family history research.

"Your DNA contains a wealth of information about your family and its origins," says Baloglu. "DNA testing is another tool you can use to learn more about your genetic makeup and ethnic origins."

Ancestor DNA Testing