Friday, May 26, 2017

A Beginner's Brief Guide to Using DNA for Genealogy

DNA is both an exciting frontier in genealogical research and a daunting one. The appeal of getting your "ethnicity breakdown" or finding genetic matches is exciting. It's also confusing. There's a lot of advice out there and some fantastic websites that give more in-depth explanations. But with all of that information coming at us, it can be a bit of an infoglut.

So here are some tips from my experiences thus far and links to posts that I think will help you figure out how DNA can help you.

1. Determine your goal & choose a test. 

It's important to first determine your reason for getting your DNA tested.

Do you want to:

  • Participate in a surname study?
  • Learn your "deep" heritage/ancestry?
  • Find out who your birth parents are?
  • Learn about potential health problems?
  • Break down a brick wall?

The answer(s) to these questions will determine which company is your best option to start.

For in-depth discussions of DNA and genetic genealogy, that aren't over one's head, I highly recommend the DNAeXplained blog. Roberta's post entitled Which DNA Test is Best? covers the question in detail.

2. Test with as many companies as you possibly can.

This is the first piece of advice many people offer and I agree with it. However, DNA testing can be expensive, so first consider your main goal and start there. You can always add additional tests later.

Here's my experience with both myself and family members, and different companies:

  • Surname study - we promote this option through the Bartlett Society. Why? Because like so many Mayflower, Little James and Anne passengers, the question of their origins remains. Testing the Y-DNA of men can help determine if and how they are related to other men of the same name. You can only do this with Y-DNA testing, available only through Family Tree DNA.
  • Deep heritage/ancestry - my maternal lineage is Italian and the furthest back I can go is my great-great grandmother, born in 1874. I was curious about going even deeper with that ethnicity, even if I am having issues going further back with traditional paper genealogy. So I had my mtDNA tested in 2006. The same as above applies - only Family Tree DNA offers mtDNA testing. You are unlikely to have "close" matches at this level of testing, however.
  • Adoption/birth parents - ah, this is a tricky one! I have no experience with this and in this case, I think gender plays a role. If you are male, then a Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA can connect you to other males with the same Y-DNA. If you are female, mtDNA testing is less likely to help you locate immediate relatives, so your best bet is autosomal DNA testing. Roberta Estes recommends autosomal testing for all adoptees, so I recommend you go to her Which DNA Test is Best? post if adoption is your genealogical challenge.
  • Health - some people want to know if they are predisposed to develop certain health problems. One of my aunts tested herself and her adult children with 23andMe, which is considered the leading DNA company for people testing for medical reasons. You are less likely to meet people interested in genealogy here and whether or not you want to test for medical reasons is a very personal decision.
  • Break down a brick wall - this is why I added the Family Tree DNA Family Finder, which is an autosomal DNA test, in 2013. People have also been singing the praises of AncestryDNA, which offers an autosomal test only. I have been hesitant to try it, due to the fact that a subscription to the site is needed to unlock full features. However, I've finally given in and added that test too as of this weekend. Why? Because not everyone is using Family Tree DNA or uploading their matches to (more about that shortly).

So there are some of the potential goals you might have in mind and what the various companies have to offer. If you can test with two or three companies, that's great!

Again, check out Roberta's post for in-depth analysis of the different services available.

3. Fill in your profile, most distant ancestors & family tree completely.

Most of us take a DNA test for genealogical reasons, which means we want our matches to find us, right? So do yourself - and your matches - a huge favor and fill out all the information you can on your dashboard.

With Family Tree DNA, this means filling out:

  • Your Profile (let people know who you are!)
  • Surnames you are researching (if you upload a GEDCOM, FTDNA will populate this for you with every surname in it)
  • Family tree (you can upload a GEDCOM)
  • Earliest known ancestor (both paternal and maternal)
Family Tree DNA profile and surnames

Family Tree DNA earliest known ancestors

I'm still early in the process with Ancestry DNA, but I've uploaded my photo and GEDCOM, and linked myself in my family tree. This will allow my matches to try to determine where we connect.

4. Ask your parents to test.

I know this is not possible for everyone. Parents could be deceased or unwilling to test. It's also an additional expense. But once you've tested, it is worth it to add at least one parent if you can. Testing both is even more helpful.

If your parents have already passed away, or are unable or unwilling to test, try reaching out to aunts and/or uncles. Who you test will depend on your goals, of course. If you are using autosomal testing to break down brick walls, having one or both parents test is immensely helpful.

When my mother tested on Ancestry DNA, that left me wondering how I could connect her to me without doing the same thing. I finally decided to do the Ancestry DNA test, while she added her results to Family Tree DNA (free to upload results; $19 to unlock all tools/features).

This was more useful than I realized and I wish I'd asked her to do it sooner, because it transformed my Family Tree DNA matches view in a very small but exciting way:

Family Tree DNA Family Finder Matches with Maternal relatives

How cool is that? Those pink icons next to the profile pictures did not exist until my mother added her DNA results and my Paternal/Maternal tabs were unclickable until now. Now I can click the Maternal tab and see the matches she and I share!

This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone who lacks an icon matches my father or is a paternal relative. But it helps me narrow down my search results as, in my case, my initial intent is to work on a specific paternal brick wall.

Long-time readers know about my brick wall, great-great grandma Emma, on my father's side of the family. I hoped maybe, just maybe, a descendant of a sibling, aunt or uncle of hers would test and, like magic, we would connect. Well, it's not quite that easy.

5. Upload your results to GEDMatch, Mitosearch & YSearch.

Because not everyone tests with the same service, GEDMatch offers you the ability to upload your DNA results and match to others who tested with different companies. They also have several tools to help you understand your matches. I recommend reading 10 Tips for Making the Most of from Young & Savvy Genealogists for some insights on using the tools there.

Also, if you've had mtDNA tested, upload your results to Mitosearch. The same goes for Y-DNA results - share them to YSearch. It's just another way to widen your match pool.

Remember to save your login information and kit numbers (I recommend a secure password service, such as Dashlane for this). It can be really easy to forget about Mitosearch and YSearch, and not check them for a while. I think I check each of them once or twice a year. Still, I'm glad to have my information out there, especially in the case of my ex-husband. I am the group administrator of the Hawksley DNA project, so obviously I have a interest in his Y-DNA matches. 

So get those results out there and maximize your opportunities to meet cousins! 

Of course, not everyone uploads their results to GEDMatch, Mitosearch or YSearch, which brings us back to the idea of testing with as many DNA companies as you can, if possible. The reason I finally added the Ancestry DNA test was because I realized I could be missing out on a match that might hold the "key" to breaking down my brick wall. The fact that my mother has already tested there was an additional enticement for me to finally do it.

6. Realize that estimates are just, well, estimates.

The 2nd to 4th cousin estimate, for example, can be a tad misleading. You may find you have to work your way back several more generations to make a connection. However, both Family Tree DNA and GEDMatch offer tools that can help you with this.

At Family Tree DNA, check out the "In Common With" tool, the Matrix and Chromosome browser.

GEDMatch's tools are extensive and take time to master, but I think the 10 Tips for Making the Most of post can help you understand some of them. That said, you don't need to be super knowledgeable about DNA to make the most of the matches. I am still a paper genealogist through and through. I just so happen to use DNA as an additional tool that can augment my research.

I also recommend the post on Triangulation at the DNAeXplained blog. It delves deeper into the tools you can use to narrow down matches and how they might relate to you, based on other family members you've had tested (by they parents, aunts, uncles and/or cousins).

Of course, you still need to do your legwork to find common ancestors, but it can be fun and well worth the hunt:

For a better overall understanding of autosomal DNA, check out Demystifying Autosomal DNA Matching at DNAeXplained. This post also gets into the importance of using a spreadsheet to track your matches, those you've managed to find a common ancestor with, and understanding the difference if identical by descent, identical by chance, and identical by population.

DNA is a fantastic tool and by defining your goals/reasons for using it, you have a better chance of making it work for you. Alas, it does not automatically give us all the answers. Some of the information is complex and goes over our heads. I know folks who are diving deep, mapping chromosomes! I don't intend to go that far, but I'm still using DNA as part of my research with these tips and tools.

I hope this cuts down on the information overwhelm and helps you take the process step by step. I definitely recommend adding the DNAeXplained blog to your reader, as Roberta offers really neat tips, advice and explanations. Her posts are incredibly helpful and I often find myself keeping specific posts of hers open on my screen while working through my matches in another tab.

Keep in mind, I am not an expert! This is just based on what I've encountered in using DNA, so I really encourage you to read a blog by someone who is an expert. :)

Oh, and if you match me on Family Tree DNA or (in another couple of months) Ancestry DNA, email me. I love hearing from my matches!


Copyright (c) 2017 Wendy L. Callahan


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I tried to simplify it as much as possible based on my layman's experience.

      There are some fantastic, authoritative blogs out there for people who want to dig deep and further their understanding of DNA and genetic genealogy, and I bow to them. :)