DNA for genealogy: Where to test?

IMPORTANT: This is not a post about testing for paternity issues, etc.  The courts have very specific requirements for DNA testing to be used in legal hearings.  You can find out about that on the Get a DNA Test page of the government’s own website.

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Which companies offer autosomal DNA testing for genealogy?
Having spent the last few weeks introducing the topic of DNA testing for genealogy, the purpose of this post is to signpost you to the five main companies used for genetic genealogy testing by genealogists and family historians in the UK.  Other companies are available and if you come across them you can research and assess their benefits for yourself.  However from my knowledge, gained through personal experience and through membership of online discussion groups, these are the companies most genealogists currently use.  I have no connection with any of these companies other than as a user, and am receiving no benefit whatsoever for including any of them in this review.

If you’d like to take a DNA test to help with your family tree building, follow the links to each company, look at their websites including privacy statements and terms & conditions, and then make your decision.

You might also like to look at the following DNA Weekly Best Ancestry DNA Tests review, which is updated regularly.

I would also recommend joining an online discussion group, such as DNA Help for Genealogy on Facebook.  There, you’ll find people of all levels of understanding from complete beginner to advanced.  You can ask questions, including recommendations and preferences for the various testing companies as well as practical questions when your results are in.  Somewhere down the line you’ll find you can actually start to answer other people’s questions too. 🙂

Here are the five testing companies, linked to their websites:
Ancestry DNA
Family Tree DNA
Living DNA – UK based, partnered with FindMyPast
My Heritage DNA – my experience is that more European testers use this company
23 and Me

How do they differ?
I’ve put together this table showing features of each testing company that are considered important by genealogists.

Table showing features of five different DNA testing companies used by genealogists

Notes
When considering the differences between these five testing companies and the advantages or disadvantages of each it’s perhaps useful to bear in mind that two of the companies (Ancestry and MyHeritage) are primarily genealogy websites, providing tree-building, a huge number of record sets, and a DNA testing service that is increasingly dove-tailed into that.  One of the companies (Living DNA) has partnered exclusively with FindMyPast.  Together, these UK-focused companies have the potential to provide a similar ‘seamless’ service as for the previous two, with a lot of new developments in the pipeline.  The final two companies (Family Tree DNA or ‘FTDNA’ and 23andMe) are primarily DNA research and testing companies.  They have the facility for uploading or linking to family trees but have no record sets, etc that will help you to develop your trees.  However, their DNA features and tools are often more sophisticated.

Uploading to other sites: You will see that Ancestry and 23andMe do not permit uploads to their site, but the remaining three companies do.  Uploading will enable you to access the tester database but will not provide use of enhanced features of the test (e.g. Living’s 21 UK-based geographical origin locations feature).  Although uploading is free there will be a charge if you want to access additional tools.  If you’re looking for biological parents it will help you to have your data on all of these sites.

AutoCluster tool: This is a tool available on MyHeritage.  It groups together your DNA matches in colour-coded groups likely to be descended from the same common ancestor.

Ethnicities: A lot of people take a DNA test purely for the fun of seeing their ethnic origins breakdown.  Learning about your ethnicities is exciting but it’s only an estimate and still a work in progress.  From time to time as more people test or as algorithms are amended, your ethnicities estimate will change.

Chromosome browsers: This is a visual tool that enables you to see precisely where you and another person match.  You will be able to see which chromosomes, whereabouts on that chromosome, the length of segments and their start and end points.  It is really useful to have this information and once you’ve been able to allocate a segment to a specific common ancestor it will help with identifying whereabouts on your family tree new matches will connect.  I will do a post about this in autumn 2020.

Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial testing: This is covered in my previous blogpost on deep ancestral DNA testing.  You will see that of the companies included on the above table, only Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) offers testing for these types of DNA.  However, 23andMe and Living DNA provide Y-chromosome and mitochondrial haplogroups as part of the autosomal test.

Note about 23 and Me tests: Ancestry + Traits is the basic test, providing an insight into which of your traits (e.g. aversion to coriander, curly hair) can be traced to your ancestry.  Health + Ancestry test is more expensive, providing insights into your predisposition of developing certain health conditions.  It is not necessary for our family research purposes, but is there as an option should you want it.

GEDmatch: This is not a testing company, but a very useful website where you can upload your DNA test results regardless of which company you tested with.  It therefore provides you with a much wider pool of testers and potential DNA matches.  It is free to use although payment is required to access certain more advanced tools.  I will do a post about this in autumn 2020.

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This concludes my series of ‘introduction to DNA testing for genealogy’ posts.  I hope they have helped you to decide if DNA testing is for you and if so, what are the next steps you need to take to make it happen. Please note that every effort has been taken to ensure all the details provided are correct, but you should refer to the different companies’ websites before making any decisions.

We’ll now take a break from DNA testing but I do have more posts planned for the future that will help you to make practical use of your DNA results.  As mentioned above, these will include Chromosome browsers and GEDmatch, but a number of other DNA topics too.

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Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

DNA: Asking other family members to test

So far in this introduction to DNA for genealogy we’ve looked at what autosomal DNA is and how we use it in genealogical research, and we’ve looked at the very important issue of potentially unexpected results and the ethical considerations flowing from that. It was essential to cover the latter two issues before progressing to today’s topic: asking our nearest and dearest if they would be prepared to take a DNA test to help with our research.

A quick review of how we use autosomal DNA for genealogy
As previously discussed, the point of establishing how much of your autosomal DNA you share with a second cousin, fourth cousin, third cousin once removed, etc is not the joy of knowing how much DNA you share with this former stranger.  The point is that by finding someone you match at this estimated level you are being guided to the number of generations you need to go back to find your Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA). If the amount of shared autosomal DNA, expressed as ‘centiMorgans’ (cM) suggests you are roughly 3rd cousins, then you would expect to find your MRCA at roughly great great grandparent level.  As mentioned in previous posts, it may be one generation closer or one generation further back, but it will be thereabouts.  Armed with that information, you look at both your family trees to locate the common ancestor.  Then, having found your MRCA, and ensured all research is correct to that point on both trees:

  • you know your tree is correct to that point
  • you know you have a biological link to these ancestors (there are no events which would cause a break in the biological link)
  • should you come across another DNA cousin who matches the two of you, you have a pretty good idea where to look for this new match.

It isn’t always as straightforward as this.  You or your new cousins might not have got as far back as that in your tree building.  As mentioned in my previous post on unexpected results, one of you might have no tree at all, as a result of adoption or unknown paternity.  There are also other issues that might complicate this which I’ll cover in a later post.  But for now, at this introductory level, we’ll stick with a basic scenario with everything going smoothly.  The important point is that, knowing where you and your new cousins share common ancestry, you can start to allocate them to a particular branch of your tree, and work on the basis that other testers who also match the three of you will also link to you on that branch.  Bearing in mind that we each have sixteen great great grandparents and 32 GGG grandparents, this will save you a lot of unneccesary work.

Why would we ask another family member to test?
When we ask a specific, known family member to test, we use their results in the same way: It helps us to sort more distant common matches into specific lines on our own tree.  However, since these are our close family members, and since every one of them will have inherited some DNA from our common ancestors that we didn’t, their test results will extend our ‘reach’.  Exactly how they will do this depends on their precise relationship to us.

Essentially the rule is:

  • Your direct line (parents, grandparents, etc) will produce stronger, better, DNA matches but limiting to an increasingly specific part of your tree with each older generation.
  • Your own siblings will have inherited much of the same DNA as you, but also a lot of different DNA.  Although their results will be of no use at all in guiding you to a specific part of your tree (because you have the same parents, grandparents, etc), the parts of their DNA you didn’t inherit will effectively provide you with more DNA matches.
  • Sibling of previous generations (your mother’s brother, your grandfather’s sister, etc) will combine the benefits of the first two categories, but the results will be a bit weaker than testing your direct line – which of course is often no longer possible.

Let’s look at each type of relationship in more detail.

Sibling
If you have one or more full siblings, you know that all of your DNA and all of their DNA comes from the same two people: your mother and father.  However although like you, your sibling will have received half their DNA from your mother and half from your father, unless you are identical twins they will not have received exactly the same DNA as you did.  (Key point: don’t bother asking your identical twin to test)

I can illustrate all this with reference to my own brother.

In my first post about autosomal DNA we looked at the Shared centiMorgan Project.  Click the image below to see it full size on Blaine T Bettinger’s website.

This shows that the average shared DNA with a full sibling is 2613cM, but it could be anything between 1613 and 3488.  My brother and I share 2616cM.  This is what proves we are full siblings.  What interests me, though, is all the bits of his DNA that I don’t share: they are the reason I asked him to take a test.  Since we are clearly full siblings, anyone who shares DNA with him is also my blood relative even if we haven’t inherited any of the same DNA.  Therefore I can use my brother’s DNA results and the trees of his matches as an extension of my own, to confirm and develop my own tree.  Their Most Recent Common Ancestors are my Most Recent Common Ancestors too.  It’s just that we haven’t inherited the same DNA from those ancestors.

If this is new to you you’ll be surprised at how many people can share a decent amount of DNA with one sibling and none at all with another.  After each other, the top matches for both my brother and me on Ancestry are:
A with whom I share 189cM but my brother shares only 102cM
B with whom I share 144cM but my brother shares 153cM
After them our next highest matches are completely different.
C with whom I share 51cM doesn’t show as a match to my brother.  In fact C is our 4th cousin two times over – we share two sets of 3xG grandparents.
Looking at our matches on MyHeritage, four of my brother’s top ten matches (all of them cM matches in the 50s) do not match me at all.

You can see how my brother’s results give me more information and more clues about my own ancestry.  If you have more than one sibling and they are all happy to take a DNA test to help with your research, so much the better!

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While full siblings give you extra ‘horizontal’ reach, every other close family member will help you in a different way: they help narrow down to one part of your tree where you and any DNA cousin you share actually match.  Siblings won’t do this because in terms of your direct lineage, everything is identical.

Parent
There are two advantages to having a parent’s DNA results:

  • First, since we inherit 50% of our DNA from each parent, it follows that we have only 50% of the DNA of each one.  This means that your parents’ DNA is closer to previous generations and will include the other 50% that didn’t pass to you.  You might show as a second cousin once removed to a match but your parent will be a full second cousin.  Because of all this, they will have more and better matches, with more shared centiMorgans.  As an example, one of my DNA cousins currently has 321 matches on Ancestry at 4th cousin or closer, whereas her mother has 511.  If her father were also still alive and willing to test, and supposing he had a similar number of matches, that would effectively transform their daughter’s 321 matches into about 1000 better ones.
  • Second, even if only one parent tests this will help you to narrow down any future match by 50%.  If you have your mother’s test results and your new DNA cousin doesn’t match your mother then your shared common ancestors are on your father’s side.  This will help save you a lot of time searching for your connection.

Grandparent
If you’re lucky enough to have a grandparent who is able and willing to take a DNA test for you the same applies as for your parents.  Not only will their results narrow down any matches to a specific quarter of your tree, but their DNA will be even closer to previous generations.  You may match another tester at fourth cousin level, but your grandparent will be a second cousin twice removed – a much stronger and clearer DNA match.

Key point: it always makes sense to test the oldest generation

Aunt or uncle
If you’re able to test a sibling of either parent this will enable you to narrow down any shared matches to one side of your tree or the other, just as your own parent’s test results would.  However, bearing in mind that siblings don’t inherit exactly the same DNA, your aunt or uncle would also extend the reach of your parent’s results horizontally, in the same way that your own sibling would for you.

Your aunt or uncle who is the half-sibling of your parent
This will have the same effect as a grandparent.  Since only one of your grandparents is the parent of your half-aunt or half-uncle, anyone matching the two of you has to be from that specific grandparent’s line.  However, for reasons outlined above, if you had the option to test your half-aunt/uncle or the actual grandparent who is that person’s parent, you should choose the grandparent.  This would provide the same information to help you narrow down matches to a specific quarter of your tree, but their match would be closer to past generations and therefore better.

Half sibling 
Your own half sibling’s test results will help in the same way as your shared parent’s results.  They will help you to narrow down a match to either your maternal or your paternal line.  However, for reasons outlined above, if a parent is still available and willing to test, their results will be better for you.

Cousin
Your cousin, being the child of your parent’s full sibling, will help you to narrow down shared matches to one side of your tree. On the one hand, your own parent will give you better information.  On the other hand, since your cousin’s parent’s DNA will not be identical to your own parent’s, they might extend your reach horizontally on this line, just as your own sibling would.  Even better, though, to test your actual aunt or uncle.

Slightly more distant relations, e.g. second cousin
In reality, unless you have a very close extended family, you are unlikely to pay for your second cousin to take a DNA test.  However, they might have tested of their own volition, and in the absence of any of the above family members, a second cousin’s results can be very helpful in narrowing a match down to a specific quarter of your tree.  You and they are the great grandchildren of the same couple, therefore any other tester who matches the two of you will probably be further back along that same line. 

Key point: Your own son or daughter’s test results will not help you
Your own child’s test results will not add anything to your DNA research, since they have inherited only 50% of your DNA and are obviously one generation further removed from all your ancestors.  On the other hand if they are interested in their ancestry, your own test results will help them to narrow down to one or other side of their tree, just as your own parents would help you.

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If all this was new to you I hope, by now, you have a basic understanding of how DNA testing can enhance your family research.  If you’re interested in taking a test, my next post will provide an overview of the five main testing companies.  After that, there will be more to say, but we’ll take a break from DNA for a while.

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Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

DNA testing: Ethical considerations

In my last post we looked at the possibility of unexpected information when we receive the results of our autosomal DNA test, and the importance of being fully aware of this as a possibility before we consent or ask others to consent to the test.  We noted that ‘unexpected results’ might take the form of finding our own parentage or descent from recent generations is not supported by the DNA.  Alternatively, the results might show that we are most definitely biologically linked to our parents and grandparents, but that someone else is too – someone of whom we had no knowledge.

Both findings can be upsetting at least and devastating at worst.  As a member of online genealogy groups, I occasionally see posts from distressed group members, formerly so excited to receive their DNA results but now trying to come to terms with the fact that ‘Dad’ is not really father, or ‘Granddad’ is not really grandfather.  What I say is this: the man you knew as your Dad is still your Dad.  The Granddad who loved you is still your Granddad.  You were meant to have this connection, even if biologically he’s not part of you.  But now you have another ancestral line to research too – one that might reveal other fascinating stories and might help you feel ‘complete’, even answer some questions you had about yourself, like where your dimples or your violet-blue eyes came from.  We might even call it your ‘nature’ tree and your ‘nurture’ tree: both have made you who you are.

Again, through online genealogy groups, I know of group members experiencing conflict within their own families regarding digging up the past and poking about in people’s lives.  My view is that if this is a hobby you love and from which you derive much pleasure and mental stimulation, then you should do it, but it’s important to do so in a way that respects the feelings and sensitivities of those who wish you wouldn’t.  Although no skeletons have been revealed in my own DNA testing, my documentary research has uncovered stories that I simply couldn’t have shared with my parents and grandparents.  In some cases the difference in sensitivities might be a generational thing: certain things were not discussed, were considered shameful and kept secret.  In other cases it might simply be a question of proximity to the subject of the story: the great grandfather who died long before we were born was our own parent’s grandfather, and may have been much loved and best left that way.  How much more sensitive, then, if the story relates to an extra-marital affair, the proof of which is now before you in the form of a match at second cousin.  It’s simply a matter of being sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of others.

On the other hand, in the case of an extra-marital affair – an illegitimate or adopted child – there are the needs of that person to consider too.  I said in my last post that I will always do what I can to help a good DNA match to track down their parents.  In one case the biological father turned out to be a (deceased) cousin of one of my parents – although there were several brothers in the family and without further DNA testing I can’t say which one.  In those circumstances I had no qualms about making available the name of the family to my ‘new’ second cousin.  It would in any case be available via other online trees.  It’s true that in those ‘Long Lost Family’ programmes on TV there is generally a happy ending of sorts.  Indeed, an acquaintance of mine was so happy to learn that a long-ago pre-marital relationship of her late father had produced a child, now to be welcomed into the family as a long-lost half-brother, that she circulated an email to everyone on her contacts list, with photographs of the new family group, highlighting the very strong family resemblance.

However, the reality isn’t always like that.  A biological mother who put her child up for adoption might have spent fifty years thinking of her lost child but it may be a secret she fully intends to take to her grave.  She may be ashamed to admit the truth to her family.  I know someone who, a few days after his mother’s death, discovered the birth certificate of his long-ago adopted half-sister in his mother’s handbag.  In life, she had never had the courage to tell her children, yet clearly that firstborn child had never been far from her thoughts, and she wanted her remaining children to know.

I’m aware that I’m writing about all this from the perspective of someone who has not experienced it.  For someone who is that child or perhaps their half-sibling, the reality is very different.  No one should feel like a ‘dirty little secret’.  This article, although US-based, deals with the issue from the viewpoint of test-takers who have learned they are the result of an affair, rape or sperm donation, and provides some information about secret groups on Facebook where those affected can gather and speak to others in their position.

You and I may not agree on the best way forward in these sensitive situations.  There is, indeed, no agreed ‘Code of Practice’ for how to proceed from this point forwards.  Since 2015 a set of Genetic Genealogy Standards have been in place, but these are intended to provide ethical and usage standards for the genealogical community to follow when purchasing, recommending, sharing, or writing about the results of DNA testing for ancestry.  They don’t specifically relate to how, or whether, to tell Aunt Maggie her late husband fathered a child ten years into their marriage.

Clearly, then, the implications of DNA testing are wide.  Whether we test only ourselves or a handful of other consenting family members too, the fact remains that the results – in terms of what is revealed through the people we match with – will reveal information not only about ourselves but could impact on other close family members who have not tested – who possibly would not have consented to a test even if we had asked them.  Nevertheless, the genie is now out of the bottle: as of 2018, more than 26 million worldwide had taken such a test and it is estimated that by the end of next year the figure may be approaching 100 million.

Our responsibility is to recognise all of the above, and to proceed with integrity and discretion.  It’s likely that we will all have different approaches to these ethical issues.  Yours may not be the same as mine, and in any case it makes sense to adjust our approach depending on the people involved.  But with all this in mind, I’ve put together this checkpoint of ethical considerations:

  • We must respect privacy and confidentiality.
  • We must recognise that not everyone will respond to stories with the same outlook as our own, and we must be sensitive to the specific needs and feelings of each.
  • Before asking another family member to test for us, we must ensure they are fully aware of the possibility of unexpected results.  (I’ll explain in my next post why it can be useful to ask family members to test.)  At the time of asking them to do so we should clarify if they would want to be informed of any unexpected results, and undertake to respect their wishes.
  • Even if the key players in this scenario are now deceased, their actions may have an impact on others who are still living.  Their needs must be taken into consideration too.
  • If we decide to tell others of unexpected findings – such as the discovery of a child or half-sibling, we must be discrete, operate on a need-to-know basis, and leave it to the person or people involved to decide if this new information is to be shared more widely.
  • We should let sleeping dogs lie: If I see evidence of misattributed parentage in another person’s tree (and there is definitely one who matches a person whose DNA I manage) I would never tell that person unless they got in touch to investigate the connection.

If you have never considered DNA testing to help with your family research, I hope this post and the previous two have helped you to think through the issues and decide if you want to do so.  The final two posts in this ‘whirlwind introduction’ to DNA testing will look at the benefits of asking other family members to test, and finally at which companies provide DNA testing for genealogy.

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Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links