Low-cost DNA home-testing kits have changed the landscape for genealogists.
Now anyone with an interest in their family history can add genetic information to their arsenal of research tools.
The whole point of family history is finding out what happened between the dates of birth and death. Researching your ancestor’s shop often draws on the same resources: census, directories, probate and court records.
And while there’s lots of good, clear information about exactly what can and can’t be achieved through genetic genealogy, it’s an area that is rife with marketing hyperbole. These websites are a good place to start for DNA testing and advice.
This is the market leader in terms of autosomal DNA testing. And if you do decide to join the fray, your own genetic fingerprint will be added to what is now the world’s largest consumer DNA database. In terms of usability and understanding the results, Ancestry’s offering has been designed with genealogists in mind, with an interface that allows easy integration with your tree, plus Common Ancestor/Shared Match tools. New features and updates have appeared over the past 12 months, including greater detail for UK ethnicity results, and in February the company unveiled ‘MyTreeTags’ (including DNA-category labels that can be attached to people in your tree) and ‘ThruLines’ (showing common ancestors that may connect you to your DNA matches).
2. Cruwys News
At first glance a blog about the Cruwys/Cruse one-name study, this is where author, blogger and genetic-genealogy expert Debbie Kennett surveys, tests, fact-checks, challenges and explores the fast-changing landscape of DNA testing. One particularly eye-opening entry from May 2015 describes her conflicting autosomal DNA results received when testing with Ancestry, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA. Meanwhile her most recent post at time of writing delves into the US Department of Justice’s new policy on forensic DNA analysis. An honorary research associate at University College London, Debbie is also a regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.
3. DNA Painter
This is one of several third-party tools that can help you dig deeper into your DNA test results. It’s essentially a simple visual aid to help you to interpret autosomal DNA results – specifically which ancestors gave you different segments of your DNA. That may sound mystifying at first, so it’s certainly a place where a friendly guide is required. There’s a short ‘webinar’ on the subject and you can watch genealogist Blaine Bettinger of discuss the tool. I’d also recommend exploring the case studies and FAQ pages before you try it out.
4. Guild of One-Name Studies
Genetics and one-name studies are natural bedfellows, and the guild’s introduction to this subject provides all sorts of free articles, links and members-only benefits. These include useful tips aimed at beginners, alongside advice and information for more seasoned researchers. Guild members can purchase DNA test kits at reduced prices, which could be worth considering if you’re planning the full-range of tests. The ‘DNA for Family History’ link leads to seven standalone PDF articles, while the ‘DNA Experiences’ link leads to case studies and articles relating to specific surname DNA projects, where members share their goals, approaches and discoveries.
FamilyTreeDNA was founded nearly 20 years ago, and while Ancestry is king of autosomal testing, FamilyTreeDNA remains the market leader for both Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, offering the largest Y-DNA and mtDNA genealogical-matching databases. The website and results can appear outdated compared with its competitors, and the pricing system is a little confusing, but the company can boast volunteer-run surname, haplogroup and geographical projects. This collaborative approach, coupled with a test that can identify whether a relative is from your mother’s or father’s side, provides the service with its unique selling point.
6. Expert’s choice: ISOGG
Chosen by Graham S Holton, editor of Tracing Your Ancestors Using DNA (2019):
“The International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) is a non-profit organisation that is free to join and provides the main online resource for those interested in the study of genetic genealogy.
“An important section of the website is the ISOGG Wiki, which is described as ‘a free genetic genealogy encyclopedia’. This includes a wide range of articles contributed by experts.
“If you have a specific question on genetic genealogy or a topic you want to investigate further, this should be your first port of call. Here you will find not only authoritative information, but also many references to articles for further details. These range from user-friendly blog posts, to academic articles by geneticists. There is also a glossary explaining the many technical terms found in this field.
“Another useful section contains charts comparing the different tests (autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA) offered by the testing companies, with specifications and prices, although since this is such a fast-developing field, it is important to check the companies’ websites for any new developments.
“Finally, for those interested in in-depth analysis using SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms – the most common type of genetic variation among people), I should highlight the SNP indexes – the BY SNP index (SNPs named by FamilyTreeDNA), FT SNP index (Big Y-700 SNPs named by FamilyTreeDNA) and FGC SNP index (SNPs named by Full Genomes Corporation). These give the name, position on the Y-chromosome and the mutation of each SNP listed. ”
23andMe’s bias is towards offering health and genetic-trait reports; the basic test costs £149. It has just expandedits total genetic region count to include several hundred new populations in South Asian, Western Asian and North African regions.
8. DNA Lectures
This YouTube channel has 53 lectures recorded at the much-missed WDYTYA? Live shows.
This brief overview of the subject has guides to the market-leading firms, plus an FAQs section.
Its partnership with LivingDNA has been a focus for Findmypast this year. LivingDNA is more expensive than some, but offers value through combined autosomal, Y-DNA and mtDNA testing.
This genomics database received lots of coverage in 2018 after it was used to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case in the USA.
This fascinating article by an anthropological geneticist summarises some of the fantastical claims made in the DNA-testing market.
Genetic Genealogist Blaine Bettinger dissects trends and tools.
The company improved its offering for DNA matches this year by adding the ‘Theory of Family Relativity’ and ‘AutoClusters’.