There is an innate desire for most people to understand their origins. So much so that for many genealogists, DNA testing is a viable alternative to begin when the paper trail ends. But does it really work?
It partly depends on who you ask. A few years ago, the practice was criticized by some genealogists when it first began, most notably the deputy editor of Ancestors magazine. She was skeptical after three different companies delivered varied results.
However, such skepticism has subsided over the years as early entrants in DNA testing have built larger databases over the last ten years. It is increasingly possible to narrow specific DNA tests to provide a direction for people interested in delving deeper into their family histories. Even more important for enthusiasts, it can also help them revive leads or raise questions that no one thought to ask.
The benefits are obvious. People who have tried to trace their ancestry know that eventually most genealogical paper trail research runs cold. Where DNA testing sometimes helps is in uncovering links that the researcher or hobbyist never knew existed.
In fact, some companies claim that DNA tests can trace some ancestral lines from the time they migrated out of Africa, about 100,000 to 170,000 years ago. This enables the companies to create a variety of visual reports, ranging from likely migration patterns to where a group of people might have settled for an extended period of time (what most would consider their ancestors).
Conversely, DNA testing can sometimes be misleading if the match links to populations that have a similar genetic makeup. There are several stumbling blocks for DNA testers, including mass migrations that create the illusion some family members are from a specific part of the United States, some overlapping similarities between European and Indian families, and some ancestral groupings (haplogroups) that are common.
There are also occurrences where such tests reveal hidden adoptions, mistaken paternity, and unexpected mutations. And some genomics experts claim the margin of error is as high as 15 percent. So the most worthwhile use of DNA testing for genealogy purposes is if you treat it as a fun experience, if you have a missing link due to an unknown relative or are searching for places to restart your research, or if you want to give someone a rare and unique gift for the holidays by prepaying for their test (they will have to send in a sample and wait for the results).
A quick overview of DNA testing and three service providers.
There are three common samplings that genealogy-oriented DNA testing companies test for: autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA. Before purchasing a test kit from any company, you should understand the difference between these tests and also look at their sample reports so you are not disappointed, which will help you make the best possible choice.
In general, autosomal DNA tests are generally conducted by looking at 22 autosomal chromosomes and then matching them to the company’s database. mtDNA traces the direct maternal line to determine ethnic and geographical data (for men and women). Y-DNA tests (for men only) evaluate the Y chromosome to determine the ethnic and geographical data of a paternal line (and can affirm or disprove genealogical data).
The paternal (Y-DNA) test is the most detailed because DNA passes largely unchanged from a father to son, sometimes over the course of thousands of years (women have to recruit a father or brother to accurately have the same results). The maternal tests (mtDNA) can be used to trace maternal lineage to ancient origins, but not prove a relation (although it can rule some out). Both men and women can take a maternal test.
Family Tree DNA. Originally started by geneticists and anthropologists (lead by Bennett Greenspan), Family Tree DNA has one of the most comprehensive offerings, with a broad range of tests and options that start at about $170. The least expensive test looks for 37-marker matches that are highly likely to be related within the past 8 generations (for men). It also provides insight into the most recent ancestral origins and deep ancestral origins based on haplogroups. The mid-range test also looks closely at an additional 12-marker matches that are highly likely to be related within 29 generations. This test also makes autosomal matches within 5 generations plus recent ancestral origins, and percentage of ancestral makeup (for men). It also offers packages that include autosomal and mtDNA testing.
DNA Tribes. Founded in 2006, DNA Tribes tests for both maternal and paternal ancestors and compares the DNA to a global database of 1,000 world ethnic groups and 39 regions. The tests range from about $130 to $300, testing between 15 and 27 markers. Both males and females can take the same test because the company focuses on autosomal genetic material to provide its genetic portrait. It compares the results from the DNA to a genetic survey taken around the world. The company does not estimate a percentage of admixture calculations but rather the frequencies measured in hundreds of world population samples.
GeneTree. After James LeVoy Sorenson founded rhe Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which collected more than 100,000 DNA samples around the world, he started GeneTree to provide a way for the public to use these databases in 2007. With services starting at $15 (if you already have DNA results from another lab) to about $180, GeneTree offers two separate tests, one for mtDNA (maternal) and Y-DNA (paternal) for men only, which tests 46 markers and compares it to a Y-DNA haplogroup prediction. The results take some time (about two months) and are posted (privately) online for review. It also offers an array of specialty tests.
These brief summaries are in no way meant to constitute a review of any service (but we may review them in the future). They’re simply meant to provide some basic information on different approaches being used by various DNA genealogy testing companies and we encourage you to visit their websites to compare offerings.
Celebrating Legacy is taking an interest in such services because it can help families ground their genealogical searches and provide a starting point for future generations. Clearly, the best way to preserve a family legacy, one with a robust and detailed account of ancestors, is to start in the present so people can understand who you and your family are today, even if they are looking back five generations from now.