DNA tests are now an important tool for family history. They allow you to contact your 'matches' (people who might be close or distant relatives whose DNA matches yours). Some testing companies also give you powerful tools to analyse your results. My DNA tests have put me in touch with many relatives, ranging from 2nd cousins to (amazingly) a 6th cousin, who have shared information and helped me to confirm theories and fill gaps in my family tree. This page has my personal tips about DNA tests, and links to recommended reading. Links open in a new window.
I have done all of these tests - and you can too, because they use autosomal DNA, which is passed down through both male and female lines:
- 'Family Finder' test at Family Tree DNA. Advantages include (1) contacting your matches is easy and free; (2) the sample is stored, and you can also request additional tests (mitochondrial DNA and, for males, Y-DNA); (3) there are good tools for analysing your results. For example, when you upload a family tree that includes family members who have tested, and link each person's DNA results to that individual in your tree, the Family Matching feature may show whether other 'unknown' matches are connected through the paternal or maternal side of your tree.
If you have previously tested with another company, you can transfer your results to FamilyTreeDNA.
- Ancestry DNA test. Ancestry claims to have the largest customer database, so I tested there as well as at Family Tree DNA.
- Living DNA test. Unlike the others, this allows you to break down your British / Irish ancestry within the last few hundred years into any of the 21 regions shown under 'Great Britain and Ireland' in the list of worldwide regions. My results have given me useful clues (eg, which counties to focus on when I'm researching my brick-wall ancestors).
This image shows my results at LivingDNA. Most of their predictions fit beautifully with what I know about my ancestry, but Cornwall and Lincolnshire are unexpected, so I may find my 'brick-wall' ancestors there.
If you would like access to LivingDNA's Family Networks service, and have had an ancestry DNA test elsewhere, they can accept an uploaded file that has been produced by AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritageDNA, 23andMe, Gene by Gene, or Geno 2.0 (National Geographic). See this explanation.
- I also uploaded my raw data (free of charge) to:
- Gedmatch (which will find relatives who have tested with different companies), and
- My Heritage DNA. Thank goodness I transferred my raw data to this site! An unknown distant relative in Germany, whose results are only at My Heritage, sent me a copy of my great-grandparents' marriage entry in a German church book.
- Test older relatives as well as yourself. Some of my 4th cousins share enough DNA with my uncle to be listed as a match with him, but not with me.
- Test siblings. Because of the random way in which autosomal DNA is passed on, sometimes only one sibling will be detected as a match to a distant cousin. (My sister matches Barrie, our 4th cousin once removed, but I don't, because Barrie and I don't share a large enough DNA segment.)
- The more relatives you test, the easier it will be to figure out where your other (initially unknown) matches fit into your family tree.
- If you did the Ancestry DNA test AFTER May 2016, you should also do the 'Family Finder' test at Family Tree DNA. If you don't, you'll miss up to 80% of your matches. (That tip came from Roberta Estes.)
- If you did the Ancestry DNA test BEFORE May 2016, do an autosomal transfer to Family Tree DNA. This transfer (which uploads your raw data) is free, and you will then find additional matches.
- Before you contact your matches, read the advice in Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.
- Link at least a partial family tree (your direct ancestors and their siblings) to your DNA results at each site. For example, see How to upload a GEDCOM file to FamilyTreeDNA.
- Check your account settings at each testing company.
Recommended Reading about DNA
- (NEW & highly recommended) The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, 2nd edition, 2019, by Blaine T. Bettinger. It's available from The Book Depository (my favourite online bookshop, with free shipping worldwide). This plain-English guide explains what DNA tests are available, with up-to-date pros and cons of the major testing companies. It also explains how to interpret DNA test results and ethnicity, and how to use third-party tools to analyse your data.
- DNA Testing for Genealogy - Getting Started, Part Three explains autosomal DNA and its uses for genealogy (but see also the book described above).
- Sharing Large Segments With a Match Does Not Validate Small Segments Shared With That Match (by Blaine Bettinger).
- Still Not Soup explains all the things DNA testing can help with, and the limitations of ethnicity percentages.
- Why we can misinterpret DNA results unless we have extra information (eg, about identical twins or a stem cell transplant).
- Up, Over and Down (by Judy Russell) clearly explains a strategy for targeted testing of Y-DNA (males) and mitochondrial DNA.
- Why doesn't a Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA match also show up in your list of autosomal matches?
Saving money on DNA tests
DNA testing companies periodically offer discounts. I often mention them on Genealogy Discounts and Freebies, and on my genealogy page on Facebook and in my newsletter.
Image by jscreationzs (freedigitalphotos.net)