Debbie Kennett explains how to get more out of your DNA family history research with FamilyTreeDNA, including testing your DNA on your male and female lines
The firm FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) began selling DNA tests direct to the consumer in 2000. The company started out offering Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) tests and mitochondrial (mtDNA) tests – the only two tests available in the early years. Y-DNA tracks the direct paternal line and mtDNA traces the direct maternal line. FTDNA is now the market leader for both Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, and the only company providing Y-DNA and mtDNA matching databases.
Autosomal DNA tests provide matches with genetic cousins on all our ancestral lines. This is the type of test offered by AncestryDNA which now dominates the market with a database of more than 20 million people. FTDNA’s autosomal DNA test is known as the Family Finder and the company has a database of about 1.5 million people. FTDNA launched its Family Finder test in February 2010 and for five years was the company of choice for those living in the UK. Even if you have already tested at Ancestry or elsewhere, it is worth adding your DNA to the FTDNA database to increase your matches.
Transferring your data
You can order a new test from FTDNA, but if you’ve already tested with another company then a cheaper option is to take advantage of the autosomal DNA transfer programme. Transfers are accepted from people who have tested with 23andMe, MyHeritage DNA and AncestryDNA, although only more recent kits are eligible. Matches and a few other basic features are free to view, but you will need to pay a transfer fee of $19 to access the extra features.
You can upload a GEDCOM file of your family tree and list the surnames you are researching. However, FTDNA’s site is harder to work with than Ancestry’s, and there is less integration between the matches and the trees. Importantly you don’t need to pay a subscription for continuing access to all of the features. Also, FTDNA has some features that are not available at AncestryDNA. The Chromosome Browser allows you to see which segments you share with your matches, and you can download the raw segment data for more advanced analyses. It is best to focus on the top matches sharing 30 cM or more, because smaller matches are often very distant or are likely to be false matches.
FTDNA has a biogeographical ancestry feature myOrigins which matches you to different reference populations. A Chromosome Painter view shows you how the geographical segments are distributed across your genome. These features work best for distinguishing ancestry at the continental level.
Using Y-DNA testing
If you’re male then you might also like to order a Y-DNA test from FTDNA to allow you to be matched with people who share your surname. Females can encourage their male relatives to take Y-DNA tests on their behalf. While autosomal DNA testing is best used for finding connections in the last five or six generations, Y-DNA testing can be used to find connections going back many hundreds of years and can also provide information about your deep ancestry. The 37-marker test for $119 is a good starting point, but more advanced researchers might like to splash out $449 on the Big Y-700 test which can determine your precise placement on FTDNA’s collective Y-DNA Tree of Mankind.
The mtDNA test ($119) is probably the least useful of the three tests, but can be interesting from a deep ancestry perspective. It can help if you are looking for connections on your matriline, although it is better for disproving rather than proving relationships.
Finally FTDNA has more than 10,000 projects based around surnames or geographical locations (countries or regions within a country). Although the surname projects are focused primarily on Y-DNA testing, many of them will also accept Family Finder results. If you join a project then you might benefit from expert advice and help from the volunteer project administrator. You can use the Advanced Matches tool to see who else you match in the project, and you can also use it to combine matches from different types of test. You can for example see if any of your Family Finder matches also match you on the Y-chromosome.
More like this
FamilyTreeDNA: Our favourite features
Advanced matches tool
Filter your matches by project or by type of test taken. Use it to see who else you match with in your favourite surname or geographical projects.
See which segments of DNA you have inherited from your ancestors. Here we are comparing a grandson with his maternal grandparents.
This tool allows you to trace the biogeographical origins of segments of DNA. In this example the Jewish DNA segments are clearly visible.
Join one of the many surname or geographical projects at FTDNA where you can get to know other people who share your research interests.
List the surnames you are researching, and if your Family Finder match shares your surname then it will appear in bold on the Matches page.
A Y-DNA test (males only) is useful for surname matching. The Big Y-700 test will determine your placement on the Y-DNA Tree of Mankind.
Debbie Kennett is an expert on genetic genealogy and writes the blog Cruwys News. She is the author of The Surnames Handbook and DNA and Social Networking: A Guide to Genealogy in the Twenty-First Century.