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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Use Your DNA to Find Your Ancestry

Family DNA to Find Your Ancestry

Commercial websites make it easy to discover your ethnic roots, common ancestors and family migration routes, and connect with relatives.

John received an online message from a fellow AncestryDNA website user who turned out to be the second cousin once removed from his father. The cousin told him about an 1860 census for the family, and John and his family were able to discover other family members tracing back to a family in France.

Two women who were adoptees used 23andMe, another genetic DNA website, to discover their genetic past. After Winnie took the DNA genealogy test, she was matched with a genetic relative who turned out to be her half nephew. Additional testing confirmed that his mother was Winnie's half sister, and Winnie found herself with a new family. As an adoptee, Megan didn't know anything about her biological parents or family history. Although she had assumed she was Hispanic, the reports of her DNA testing showed she is part Irish, part Scandinavian and part African, with some Native American ancestry as well.

Blaine Betteringer, of the Genetic Genealogist, was able to find a second cousin, three times removed and still living, who shared stories about their common ancestors, a family of Irish immigrants, and particularly about Blaine’s grandfather’s generation’s 11 children. “Every one of these connections enriches our understanding of the past, and helps keep alive ancestors that live on only in their memories,” says Betteringer.

Reasons to Take the Test

In an effort to scientifically determine their ancestry, millions of people around the world have taken a genetic DNA test. The results of the test can be used to:

  • Find out if others with the same surname share a common ancestor.

  • Provide clues about your ethnic origin.

  • Find your historic country of origin.

  • Discover relatives you didn’t know existed.

  • Prove or disprove your family-tree research.

  • Show the migration routes of your paternal ancestors.

  • Find out to which of over 200 populations you are genetically most similar.

  • Discover what proportions of your ancestry come from the seven continental level groups, including African, Asian, European or Native American descent.

The more people who take these tests and contribute their results to a larger database, the more family connections will be possible.

Three Genetic Markers

Most genetic DNA testing companies use a swab from your cheek that provides a sampling of your DNA, your unique genetic fingerprint. There are three genetic markers on your DNA that can provide clues to your ancestry: one from your father, another from your mother and a third from both sides of the family (from familysearch).

Y-DNA testing. Information stored in the Y chromosome (Ycs) is passed from father to son over centuries. Analysis of this genetic information can help determine whether you share a common paternal ancestor with another person alive today. Based on the number of genetic markers shared on the Ycs with another person, you can also estimate how many generations in the past your common paternal ancestor lived.

MTDNA testing. We inherit mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) exclusively from our mothers, and this marker follows an unbroken maternal line. It can help in verifying the existence of a common maternal ancestor or in studying the ancient origins of our maternal line. MtDNA lineages can be grouped together in a large mtDNA tree. Each branch of this tree may have a specific geographic distribution that might help someone locate their maternal line’s country or region of origin.

Autosomal DNA testing. Autosomal DNA does not follow a clear and straight path of inheritance, like the Ycs and mtDNA. However, this information is helpful in identifying cousins within the last five generations or the ethnic origins of your family tree.

Three Main Testing Services

Because different people test with different companies, many of which maintain their own databases, you will achieve the greatest chance of useful matches by either being tested by or sharing your DNA results with as many companies as possible.

Other Resources

Besides the three commercial websites that provide easy access to information about your DNA, there are free sites that offer lots of information about ancestry and DNA.

International Society of Genetic Genealogists. Founded in 2005, the society’s mission is to educate about genetic genealogy and to offer a network for genealogists. It offers resources for beginners as well as a wiki for others to contribute information.

World Families Network. Check out this website to determine if a DNA project is underway for your surname. It provides free websites to display test results, family pedigrees and shared information, as well as forums for family discussions.

Your Genetic Genealogist. This site is intended for the non-scientist and includes recommendations for DNA testing services and links to articles on the topic. The author is an independent professional genetic genealogist and television consultant currently working as the adviser for the PBS television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

FamilySearch. This Mormon site offers basic information about genetic DNA testing, as well as many links to other resources.

Three testing services dominate the field:

AncestryDNA. A part of, one of the original genealogy websites, AncestryDNA claims to have the world’s largest consumer DNA database, with more than 1.5 million people. You can supplement your DNA tests with’s billions of historical records and millions of family trees. The cost is $99 for a DNA test kit, which looks only for autosomal markers.

Family Tree DNA. Unlike AncestryDNA, Family Tree does all three tests. The Y-DNA lets you join a surname project, and when paired with the mtDNA test, the results help you find recent and distant relatives on your father’s and mother’s side, confirm paternal and maternal relationships, and trace paternal and maternal ancestors’ migration routes. The tests also provide a list of people in its database who share a common direct ancestor with you: for paternal, going back 25 generations, or maternal, within 52 generations.

Its autosomal test, Family Finder, helps you find and connect with recent relatives on both sides of the family within five generations and can also give you a breakdown of your ethnic makeup by percentage.

Family Tree provides the names and emails of matches, an estimate of how closely related they are to you and any genealogical information they have uploaded. Sharing this information is optional.

Costs for Family Tree range from $99 to $350, depending on the test and its depth.

23 and Me. 23 and Me claims to be the “only genetic service available directly to you that includes reports that meet FDA standards.” Unlike the other two services, it also tests for your health, so you can find out if you have a marker that will pass on a genetic trait to your children. To analyze your DNA, 23 and Me uses U.S. laboratories that are certified to meet the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) standards. You’ll receive more than 60 personalized genetic reports, including ancestry (using the autosomal test) and whether you are a “carrier” for a genetic variation for conditions including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. Wellness reports tell you how your DNA relates to your caffeine consumption, lactose digestion and your muscle type. Cost for its test is $199.


"What Can DNA Testing do to Help You Find Your Ancestors?,” Jan. 13, 2014, FamilySearch Blog

"Tracing Your Ancestry Through DNA,”

"Sorting out the DNA Tests Available for Genealogy,”

"Hiring a DNA Testing Company,” FamilySearch

"Genetic Genealogy,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy

Blog posting provided by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors