LESSON 2: Which DNA Test
The recommendations in this lesson are somewhat general so specific situations may modify them. If you haven’t tested yet I would suggest lowering your expectations a few notches. Direct to consumer genetic testing for genealogical purposes has made tremendous strides in the past few years but it still is not able to deliver exactly what people want. I will explain the terminology and methodology in future lessons but when you are starting out you want to know what test to take and perhaps where to take, so consider this a brief overview.
Which atDNA test is best is a difficult question it depends on your goals, your comfort with technology and how many hours you are willing to put into it.
Each company has its strengths and weaknesses. As a general testing strategy I currently recommend testing at Ancestry & transferring to FTDNA ($19) first. Next steps would be adding 23andme and MyHeritage. For men a YDNA 37 Marker Test at FTDNA is highly recommended. Note: Links to more recommendations at bottom of page.
DNA TESTING REALITIES
- Y-DNA can predict a man’s likely surname, but not necessarily who his father is
- atDNA can lead to recent relatives (close to 4th-8th cousins) but for some with more recent immigrant ancestry they may remain elusive with few close matches The predictions for relationship are ranges may vary (this is not a problem with the companies algorithms it is just a statistical reality)The ancestral origins portions of DNA testing is approximate and may yield broad categories as in “Africa” or “Northern European” but not specify tribe or countries
- DNA testing for genealogy can be expensive and time-consuming
- DNA testing can be very rewarding– as in verifying your paper tree reflects your DNA
- For adoptees, learning more about your ancestry or discovering relatives which “might” lead to closer family cannot be underestimated
- DNA testing may reveal unknown ancestry or ancestors, including inaccuracies in the paper records
Anyone considering a DNA test should be prepared for an unexpected result. DNA simply reports what is there and doesn’t care what we think or want. Perhaps you have a well documented lineage and are positive you will connect with “Patriarch X.” Or perhaps you are certain of your native American ancestry and your testing reveals none or perhaps something you did not expect.You may be shocked to discover you aren’t who you thought you were. You may find that your Y-DNA does not match that of any others bearing your surname. A “Non-Paternal Event” or Not Parentage Expected(NPE) may have caused a shift in your tree or as my friend Jean calls it something in your tree just went “sideways.” Another term not as commonly used is “misattributed paternity.” Whatever term we use it means the same thing. Somewhere along the line the person that was supposed to be the parent was not and someone else’s DNA is reflected in all of the line’s descendants. DNA can be full of surprises! Just be forewarned if you aren’t ready for the truth, do NOT take a DNA test! Please see “Dealing With the Unexpected Result” for more information on possible causes of an NPE (Not Parentage Expected).
Up front I have no financial association with any of the companies and not all genetic genealogists will agree on these recommendations. I have personally tested at all Five major companies: AncestryDNA, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, Living DNA, My Heritage as well as Full Genomes Corporation, YSEQ.org and DNATribes (now defunct). I believe they all have their place in the genealogist’s toolbox. Choice and competition is good for the consumer. Where you test is a matter of preference, purpose and money. Some Genetic genealogists have a favorite company, I however, am an equal opportunity tester: I use all suppliers if they give me something I want and at a price I can afford.
All companies supply the tester with an email acknowledgement of kit purchase, receipt of returned kit and notification of test completion. It may come as a surprise to some that you do not receive paper results. They are all delivered online. It is therefore important to take note of kit numbers, log in names and passwords. Particularly if the person testing is elderly, and many may wish to share this information with a family member. At Family Tree DNA there is a place to register beneficiary information. Since they keep samples at least 25 years I highly recommend filling out this part of your profile.
AUTOSOMAL or atDNA TEST
Autosomal DNA can be just as successful as YDNA but it took enough testers to make this possible. Current database size at AncestryDNA exceeds 18 million testers. atDNA tests are known by various names at the different companies these are the most popular DNA tests for genealogical purposes: “Family Finder” at FTDNA and simply the “Ancestry DNA” test at ANCESTRY and the only test available at 23andMe.com, Living DNA and MyHeritage DNA.
Autosomal DNA is inherited from our ancestors across the whole breadth of one’s family tree. Going back to our illustration in Lesson One this would mean all of the great-grandparents along the top would be included in our atDNA test and reaching three to six generations beyond our great-grandparents or more. The further we go back the less likely any specific ancestor will be represented in our atDNA.
If you are looking to confirm various parts of your family tree or have a brick wall that you are looking to break through atDNA “may” be your answer. It is also the only avenue available to many adoptees. Male adoptees can use a Y-DNA test to help identify the surname of their biological fathers but female adoptees will need to use atDNA and hope they make a connection somewhere on their male line that may lead forward to their fathers. All adoptees can use an atDNA test for finding ancestors and if you are lucky close relatives. There are two scenarios in which atDNA can prove extremely valuable for finding or verifying family. One is if you are lucky enough to get a high level match, like a parent, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, half sibling or first or second cousin. The other is if you have a very extensive family tree and can make a connection via common ancestors and shared DNA.
YSTR MARKER TEST
The easiest test to evaluate is the Y-STR marker test. This test is only for males. It is usually the first Y test one takes although some may opt for the more inclusive Big Y700.
Females can test a father, brother or paternal male first cousin (bearing the surname of your father). This test is available at Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and at YSeq.net. ANCESTRY has discontinued their mtDNA and Y-DNA tests and has shifted emphasis to their atDNA test. FTDNA is the world’s leader in Y-DNA testing and has a huge number of surname projects. YSEQ is run by former FTDNA staff Astrid and Thomas Krahn, the advantage with YSEQ is cost and turnaround time. The advantage with FTDNA is the large database for comparisons, more user friendly interface and larger projects.
Y-DNA tests connect men with their father’s father’s father’s line or male surname line, also referred to as the patrilineal line (i.e. JONES, SMITH etc). At a more advanced Level there are several more options for YDNA testing which will be discussed in Lesson 14 and lesson 15. If your interest is in proving your relationship to a surname or discovering your father’s surname or if you are adopted (and are male) this might be your first choice for a DNA test.
The Y-DNA tests are available in different marker quantities from 37 to 111-markers at FTDNA and current costs from $119-249. We will get into what markers are and how they work in a future lesson. For most people a Y37-marker test is the best place to start. If funds are limited or 18 markers at YESQ (Alpha) for $58 YSEQ or 37 Marker test (Alpha & Beta) is currently $85. At the other end of the spectrum the 111-marker test is generally not recommended except for those participating in a surname project where more markers may prove helpful in defining branches of a given progenitor’s descendant tree. An alternative to individual Y Testing is to use Next Generation Sequencing and have the complete Y done. (See Lesson 15) for more information. These complete or nearly complete Y tests can include YSTRS YSNPS and mtDNA (Full Genomes Corp Elite Y).
YDNA SNP TEST otherwise known as a Y Haplotype Test which leads to a Haplogroup designation
These tests are becoming relevant for recent genealogy as well as deep ancestry of one’s paternal line.In general they used to look back thousands rather than hundreds of years. This is changing with the advent of deeper and broader Y testing (see Lesson 15). From the earliest human to everyone living today, each haplogroup traces from the smallest twigs of the human family back to the branches and then to the trunk and human origins.
STATIC SNP PANEL TESTS
Basic YDNA SNPS are included at 23andMe in its basic form with their atDNA test (the only test they offer).
As of 2018 Both FTDNA and YSEQ.org offer SNP panels. They can be very broad as in helping to determine your placement with a Haplogroup is R1-M343 Backbone Test at FTDNA or as specific as the FGC 22503 panel at YSEQ.org These tests can very in price from about $65-$250.
NEXT GENERATION SEQUENCING Looks to discover all available YSNPS, including new discoveries on a dynamic platform
The best available is the complete sequence from Full Genomes Corporation FGC called Elite Y ($425). It maps all SNPS and STRS available 99+%, as well as a man’s mtDNA through current Next Generation Sequencing. And its More comprehensive Whole Genome Long Read ($1150). Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) offers the Big Y 700 ($449) which maps between 60-80% of the Y Chromosome. And finally YSEQ.net offers Whole Genome Sequences beginning at $599. Please see Lesson 15 for more discussion.
Mitochondrial DNA mtDNA Test which includes your mtDNA Haplogroup
This test is included in results from 23andme and Living DNA in its rudimentary form. However if you are seriously interested in pursuing your mtDNA I would recommend the Full Sequence from FTDNA for $159 (Sometimes on sale for $139) This test is the least likely of the three to be genealogically useful and is not generally recommended for beginners. Since this DNA survives pretty much intact there will be many sharing the same mtDNA and finding a match will have many challenges as women’s surnames change at each generation. It is mostly recommended as a deep ancestry test for those wishing to know more about their matrilineal origins. With Full Sequence mtDNA and more people testing this test may become more and more useful genealogically. I would be remiss if I did not mention that mtDNA full sequence tests can uncover medically relevant mutations. Please see mtDNA resources in Lesson 11 for more information.
How long does it take to get results?
That depends on the lab and test but in general 6-8 weeks although ANCESTRY has consistently had a 2-3 week turn around once received. If retesting Y STRs panels is necessary (for Y-DNA only) because of ambiguous results it may take longer. All results do not come in at once for Y tests so it may take 8 weeks overall. Once your kit is received and logged in (and this seems to take unusually long at some times at some labs) you might get a result in 3-6 weeks and full results (for Y-DNA) in 6-12 weeks in usual situations. Almost everyone gets Y-DNA in batches rather than all at once. Autosomal are generally completed all at once (or within a couple of days for all services to be on-line once the first results are posted.) For advanced tests like Full Genomes Sequencing 3-6 months is not unusual. Please check out the DNA Geek’s article on How Long will it Take?
Does everyone in my family need to be tested?
No. Assuming that you are reasonably sure of your father, grandfather etc. One member of your family is all that is necessary. The most useful results at this point will be from many different individuals. We see a slightly different genetic signature when comparing descendants from different sons of a common progenitor. However it is possible to see differences occasionally between brothers or father and son so if you chose to test more than one don’t be surprised if they are not a perfect match.
Yes. Since each person inherits different segments from their parents each person’s DNA will be different and the overlapping segments of different family members are extremely useful. So the more the merrier. If you are trying to stretch your money always go with earlier generations to be tested: Parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles. The reasoning is two-fold; first, the oldest members of your family may not be here in a few years and second, their DNA will retain more of the previous generation’s which may be lost by the time it gets to you.
No. All children will inherit the same mtDNA from their mother. First cousins whose mothers are sisters will also share the same mtDNA
Best for: Americans, especially those with colonial ancestry, those who are not tech savvy, those that do not want to send invitations or keep spreadsheets of matches, those who already subscribe to ANCESTRY, those who know their grandparents and those with expansive trees. Also good for African Americans looking for hints of their nativity in Africa and who want to work in concert with ANCESTRY enslaved persons related research materials. Ancestry is heavily weighted toward traditional genealogists. It has proven very helpful to many Adoptees and those with brick walls “if” you get a close match. The current regular price is $59.
Pros: Simple interface, best family trees, excellent ethnicity predictions (the industry’s best for those with African ancestry), genealogically minded participants, phased results (more on this in future lessons but this allows a higher degree of accuracy in matching), good response rate from genetic matches and perhaps the best chance of making genealogical connections. Excellent for those with Colonial Ancestry. In 2016 29 countries were added to its sales territory and this should eventually improve results for those outside of the US, Canada, UK and NZ. ThruLines and Matching Ancestor Hints are excellent. As of 2020 by Far the largest database of testers at over 18 million.
Cons: No information on matching segments, lacks advanced tools and chromosome mapping, subscription necessary for genealogical information. $49 subscription to DNA INSIGHTs for full use of tools if not currently an ANCESTRY subscriber you must call for this subscription. Difficult for those with endogamous ancestry or high degrees of pedigree collapse. Does not include mtDNA or YDNA Haplogroups
Best for: Those who are somewhat tech savvy, those who want to track segments and don’t mind keeping spreadsheets. Those that like solving complex puzzles. If there is a surname or locale specific project at FTDNA for which you qualify it may be particularly helpful. Very good for those that want to do all their DNA testing under one roof. Excellent for those wishing to combine Y or mtDNA with their atDNA research. Falls in between ANCESTRY and 23and me in its focus on Genealogy. Has the advantage over 23andme in that all tools can be used with all those that you match without cumbersome invites and acceptances. Email addresses of matches are visible. Current Regular Price is $79.
Pros: Genealogically minded customers, chromosome browser, advanced tools including matches in common with and not in common with and the Matrix where up to 10 matches can be compared simultaneously to see who matches who, the ability to combine with other DNA tests, join projects, clunky but usable trees, ancestral origins were updated in 2014 but lag behind ANCESTRY & 23andme, banks samples for at least 25 years (which is very important with older adults whose DNA you may want in the future), least expensive for overseas shipping and uses a swab kit which is easier for those with limited saliva production. They also include assigned beneficiaries so your DNA research can be continued. Excellent for those with Jewish ancestry.
Cons: Smaller database and mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups not included must be ordered and paid for separately but more extensive than that offered by the other companies. The accuracy of their ancestral breakdown is not robust. May not be the best choice for African Americans with majority African background.
Best for: For those wanting the fullest compliment of tools for doing family atDNA studies. Very good ethnicicy/ancestral origins. Gives you your rough mtDNA and YDNA (for males). It tests lots of medically relevant SNPS so can be good for uploading to Promethease. Or paying the additional amount (499) to unlock the medical reports.
Pros: Chromosome Browser. Second largest database. Lots of great tools. Very good ethnicity/ancestral origins.
Cons: Not very genealogically minded. Poor track record with genealogy community and listening to customers. Mediocre match response.
Best for: Those with Recent European Ancestry as this company is located in Israel and caters to the European market. Regular $79 (sale $49) I have found it particularly helpful with Scandinavia matches.
Pros: Great tools, ability to Filter matches by ethnicity. Has Theory of Relativity. Genealogy Minded customers. Free uploads to view matches (other tools additional charge)
Cons: Does not include mtDNA or YDNA Haplogroups
Best for: Those that want to be in all places. Has recently added matching but the database is small/
Pros: Nice Graphics. Includes rudimenatary YDNA and mtDNA Haplogroups
Cons: Small database, unusual ethnicity results.
Which DNA Testing Company Should I Use by Louise Coakely (including pricing and information outside the US)
ISOGG List of DNA Testing companies see the comparison charts.
Genetic Genealogy University of Utah short video. Highly recommend! There’s lots more of these too.
FTDNA’s FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)–great resource, lots of good material for your “Cheat Cheat File”
Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved