So you’ve heard a little about genetic genealogy and those who are using the study of their DNA as a way to clarify their ethnic roots and maybe even find new relatives. What to do? Is this trend sweeping the family history world worth your time, effort and money? Where do you start?
The use of DNA testing in genealogy goes back more than 15 years, but only in recent years has it become widely used. Millions of people around the world have submitted DNA samples for analysis in order to learn more about their ancestors and origins. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a chemical found in the body’s cells that contains genetic information about an individual. DNA is shaped like a double-stranded helix, appearing almost like a stepladder that has been coiled or twisted. Each person’s DNA is inherited from their parents.
Genealogy DNA kits sold by companies including Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, and LivingDNA collect DNA samples using either saliva or a swab of the inside of the cheek. Specially equipped laboratories extract the DNA from cells collected by the kit, then use computer-driven devices to analyze the genetic information. Test kits generally cost $75 to $100, although Living DNA’s more detailed test runs about $160. Most of the entry-level DNA tests use autosomal DNA for analysis. Each human has 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes in their DNA. Since most of humans’ genetic material is identical, testing examines the differences, or variants.
One of the main things you can learn from an autosomal DNA test is potential genetic matches to siblings, cousins and other relatives. The labs compare the DNA of individuals in their database and return potential matches. These DNA services allow you to reach out to your potential matches, establish communication and exchange family tree information. In this way, the DNA gives you clues about blood relatives that can be confirmed through personal contact or further research.
Autosomal DNA testing also provides a glimpse of your geographical origins. Did your ancestors come from Africa, Asia or Western Europe? An admixture report helps to answer those questions. DNA vendors use their own proprietary databases and public databases to estimate admixture. Known as “Ancestry Composition,” “My Origins” or similar names, these reports break down ancestry by world region. Detail will vary. One of my reports estimated 53 percent British/Irish, 22 percent French/German, 18 percent Northwestern European and the rest a smattering of other locales.
Genetic genealogy offers insights that sometimes take a lifetime to learn via other research methods. Adoptees have found birth parents, siblings and cousins just by DNA matching provided by these kits. As they provide insight, they can also deliver surprises. You might find that old family tales about your heritage were inaccurate or exaggerated. Or that you have ethnic heritage you never would have guessed. DNA is a tool, that combined with traditional research, documents, family trees and oral history, can greatly advance family history.