Which DNA test should I take?

By Rosemary Collins, 24 April 2017 - 1:57pm

Debbie Kennett, author of DNA and Social Networking, explains why DNA testing is increasingly important in family history research.

Chromosome mapping can be used to reconstruct the genomes of your ancestors
Chromosome mapping can be used to reconstruct the genomes of your ancestors (Credit: Getty)

DNA testing is a very important tool for the family historian. It can help to verify your family tree and provide helpful clues to inform the future direction of your research. It can also sometimes help to break down those long-standing brick walls.

DNA has the power to solve previously impossible cases. Foundlings, adoptees and donor-conceived individuals now have a very real chance of finding half-siblings and other close relations in the databases, which can lead to the identification of their biological parents.

If you have a match with a second cousin, it means that you share the same great grandparents. It’s then just a question of tracing the descendants to identify a suitable candidate who was in the right place at the right time.

Success stories are reported on a daily basis in America and we’re now starting to get reports from the UK as well. As the databases grow, we can expect to see many more unknown parentage cases solved.

DNA discoveries

As with traditional genealogical research, DNA testing can provide surprises so be prepared for the unexpected. You might uncover family secrets by matching with a cousin or a half-sibling that you didn’t know existed. Conversely a relation who is expected to share DNA with you might turn out not to be a genetic relative at all. In rare cases, people discover that their parents are not their biological parents. For a good overview of the ethical implications of DNA testing see the Genetic Genealogy Standards.

However, DNA testing is not a magic bullet and it won’t provide you with an instant family tree. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot take a DNA test to discover who you are and where you come from. The value of the test lies in the comparison process, so it’s important to test with a company that has a matching database.

DNA is best used in combination with genealogical records in order to form conclusions about relationships. The test itself is completely harmless; you just need to provide a cheek swab or a saliva sample.

The choice of test will depend on the questions that you want to answer, or you can just take a test for fun to see who you match in the databases. A DNA test can be considered as an investment and the value of the test will grow as more people join the databases and you get more matches.

There are three different types of test – autosomal DNA, Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA – all of which have specific applications. Sometimes a combination of different tests will be required to solve a particular problem. 

A scientist examines a DNA sequence using a magnifying glass
A scientist examines a DNA sequence using a magnifying glass (Credit: Getty)

 

Which DNA test should I take?

Family Tree DNA

familytreedna.com

Tests launched: May 2000 Y-DNA and mtDNA; February 2010 autosomal

DNA Products: Standalone autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. A range of Y-STR tests for genealogical matching. Various Y-SNP testing options for deep ancestry including the BigY next generation sequencing SNP discovery test

International availability: Worldwide

Cost of tests (in US dollars): Family Finder autosomal DNA test $79; 37-marker Y-STR test $169 ($149 when ordered through a project); SNP packs $99; BigY $575; mtDNAPlus $79; mtDNA full sequence test $199

Location: Kits despatched from the US (Houston, Texas) and processed in the US Autosomal

DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: Yes. Free access to matches. Additional tools and features such as the chromosome browser can be accessed by paying a fee of $19

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Yes

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: Yes

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: Yes

Database: Over 600,000 Y-DNA records and over 250,000 mtDNA records. The size of the Family Finder database has not been disclosed but is likely to be 500,000+

Subscription required to access additional features: No

Pros and cons 

FTDNA is the market leader for both Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, and has the world’s largest Y-DNA and mtDNA genealogical matching databases. They are the only company that allows complete integration of Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA test results for genealogical purposes. They host a wide variety of surname projects, haplogroup projects (Y-DNA and mtDNA), and geographical projects. Experienced and knowledgeable volunteer project administrators can often provide advice and help with the interpretation of results. They are not the first choice for autosomal DNA because of the smaller database but matches are more likely to be responsive and interested in genealogy.

AncestryDNA

ancestry.co.uk/dna

Test launched: May 2012 in the US, January 2015 in the UK and Ireland

Products: Single autosomal

DNA test International availability: Sold in 35 countries

Cost of test: £79

Shipping: £20. Includes return postage

Location: Kits despatched from Ireland but processed in the US

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: No

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: No

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: No

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: No

mtDNA matching: No

Database: Over 3 million as of January 2017

Subscription required to access additional features: Yes

Pros and cons

AncestryDNA has been responsible for taking DNA testing mainstream, and they now have the world’s largest autosomal DNA database. The test benefits from a number of innovative and sophisticated features such as shaky leaf DNA hints integrated with family trees, DNA Circles, Genetic Communities and New Ancestor Discoveries. A subscription is required to access some of these features and to view the full trees of your matches. The lack of a chromosome browser and matching segment data is a big disadvantage for advanced users who are interested in chromosome mapping. Many of the people now taking the AncestryDNA test are lured in by the biogeographical ancestry reports, but are not interested in communicating about genealogy. However, the test is encouraging an interest in genealogy in a subset of this market.

23andme

23andme.com

Test launched: 2007 for health and deep ancestry; cousin matching included from November 2009

Products: Single test covering autosomal DNA, Y-DNA SNPs and mtDNA. Includes health and trait reports

International availability: Sold in 56 countries. Health reports only available in selected countries and reports offered vary by country

Cost of test: £149

Shipping: £9.99. Includes return postage

Location: Kits despatched from the Netherlands but processed in the US

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: No

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Yes

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: No

Database: Over 1.2 million as of March 2016

Subscription required to access additional features: No

Pros and cons 

The 23andMe test is too expensive to be used for genealogy purposes in the UK, but is a good option if you want an overview of your genetic ancestry and a range of health and trait reports. Many of the people who have tested at 23andMe have done so for health purposes, so the response rate is poor and there are many anonymous matches. 

Living DNA

livingdna.com

Test launched: September 2016

Products: Single test covering autosomal DNA, Y-DNA SNPs and mtDNA

International availability: Worldwide

Cost of test: £120

Shipping: Free including return postage

Location: Kits despatched from the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. Testing is done in Denmark. All processing is done in Europe

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Coming soon

Autosomal transfers accepted: Coming soon but expect to pay a small fee

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Coming soon

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: Yes

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: Yes

mtDNA matching: No

Database size: New, small but growing

Subscription required to access additional features: No

Pros and cons

Living DNA offers the best biogeographical ancestry analysis on the market for people with British ancestry and they are the only company to offer regional breakdowns. With the inclusion of Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroup information, this is a good all-round test for someone who wants an overview of their genetic ancestry. The test cannot currently be used for genealogical matching, though an autosomal matching service is promised for the future. As a late entrant to the market, Living DNA will start with a smaller database though the test is more likely to appeal to people in the UK, especially those who feel safer keeping their DNA data in Europe.

My Heritage

www.myheritage.com/dna

Test launched: November 2016

Products: Single autosomal DNA test

International availability: Worldwide

Cost of test: £99 (introductory price £69 at time of writing)

Shipping: £12. Return postage not included

Location: The company is based in Israel. Kits are despatched from the US and processed in the US by Family Tree DNA. The interpretation of results is done by the MyHeritage science team

Autosomal DNA cousin matching: Yes

Autosomal transfers accepted: Yes, currently free

Chromosome browser and matching segment data provided: Not yet, but reportedly in development

Biogeographical ancestry analysis: Yes

Y-DNA haplogroups: No

Y-DNA STRs for genealogical matching: No

mtDNA haplogroups: No

mtDNA matching: No

Database size: New, small but growing

Subscription required to access additional features: Yes

Pros and cons

MyHeritage has good coverage in most European countries, and provides support in 42 languages. It has the potential to reach markets that are poorly covered by other DNA testing companies. MyHeritage currently has 85 million registered users so there is good potential for growth. Many MyHeritage customers have uploaded family trees, thus increasing the chance of finding a connection. MyHeritage is a late entrant to the autosomal market, and it remains to be seen how well the test will be received, and what features will be offered to differentiate them from the competition. The tree-building and matching facilities are restricted with the free MyHeritage service. Subscription options are available to access additional features such as the facility to include more than 250 people in your tree, the ability to search trees, smart matches and instant discoveries.

Case study

In my research into my Cruwys ancestors in Devon, I hit a brick wall trying to find William George Cruwys (born 1821), the brother of my great great grandfather, Thomas Cruwys (born 1831). William disappeared from English records after the 1841 census. I found a William of the right age in Prince Edward Island, Canada, but couldn’t find any records to confirm a link, though naming patterns provided a strong clue.

Frustratingly, the 1848 marriage certificate I obtained didn’t include the parents’ names. Y-DNA tests on my dad and a descendant of the Prince Edward family showed that the two lines were related though Y-DNA cannot pinpoint the date when two people share an ancestor.

However, a year later an autosomal DNA match popped up in the Family Tree DNA Family Finder database with a cousin in Canada. His ancestors were from Prince Edward Island, and he was the great great grandson of William Cruwys through a female line.

If our family trees were correct, he would be my dad’s third cousin once removed. The amount of DNA we shared was within the expected range for the presumed relationship, thus providing confirmation that the tree was correct.

The chromosome browser shows a comparison between my dad and his third cousin once removed. The three orange shapes on chromosomes 1, 3 and 11 are the segments of DNA that they share in common through descent from their mutual ancestors William Cruwys senior (1793-1846) and Margaret Eastmond (1792-1874), the parents of Thomas and William George.

 

Use a chromosome browser to identify shared DNA
Use a chromosome browser to identify shared DNA (Credit: Family Tree DNA)

Glossary

AUTOSOMAL DNA
DNA inherited on the autosomes: the 22 chromosomes which are not sex chromosomes. Inherited from both parents.

CHROMOSOME
A structure in a cell’s nucleus containing genetic material. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes: 22 autosome pairs and one pair of sex-chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes. Males have an X and a Y chromosome.

HAPLOGROUP
A group of people who descend from the same branch of the human family tree.

MITOCHONDRIAL DNA (mtDNA)
DNA found in mitochondria – the power houses in our cells. mtDNA, passed from mother to child, can trace the maternal line.

SHORT TANDEM REPEAT (STR)
A repeating pattern in a DNA sequence. The number of repeats at a specific location is reported as a marker value. Standard Y-STR tests report results for 37 markers.

SINGLE NUCLEOTIDE POLYMORPHISM 
Single base pair mutation in a DNA sequence. 

Y CHROMOSOME DNA (Y-DNA)
Y chromosome DNA is passed from father to son, and is used to trace the paternal line.

For more information, see the full International Society of Genetic Genealogy glossary here.

This article was published in the May 2017 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

 

 

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