DNA testing tips: getting the most out of your genetic genealogy

photograph of tree in early spring

DNA Day is here and many have been snapping up DNA test kits on sale this week at FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.

Most probably test because they want to learn what the test will tell about their ethnic makeup. But for serious genealogists and family historians, testing opens the doors to exciting yet often bewildering territory.

Here are my top three tips for getting the most out of testing your autosomal DNA:

  • Tip 1  Once your results are in, upload your raw data to Gedmatch.
    Gedmatch is a site that provides free DNA analysis tools and allows one
    to match with others across four major testing companies.
  • Tip 2  Test others in your family, starting with the oldest members.
  • Tip 3 Make concrete goals rather than end goals for exploring your genetic genealogy.

When I first took the DNA plunge and entered the confusing new realm of genetic genealogical research, I felt a bit had.

But I’ve learned a lot over the past year. And I’m beginning to reap something of value from a bit of swabbed saliva and inner cheek tissue.

I quickly realized that in order to reap more reward from my foray into genetic genealogy, I needed to do two things:  revise my goals and test others in my family.

My original goals consisted of vague hopes to connect with matches in the second to third cousin range on my Jewish and Irish lines. However, I soon discovered that endogamy makes this a Herculean task.

Instead, I decided to focus my efforts on my one of my nearest brick wall ancestors. By doing this I not only had a concrete goal, but was also able to formulate a genetic genealogy plan o’ action.

My brick wall ancestor, Sarah E. Brown, is my third great-grandmother on my paternal grandmother’s branch of my family tree, through her mother’s side. Her maiden name is unknown, as are her origins. As many researchers well know, locating 19th century records in central Pennsylvania is often impossible. For Sarah, the paper trail has been cold for two decades.

So, I am turning to DNA testing in hopes of locating other descendants of her family line.

Experts strongly recommend testing the oldest generation of one’s family for good reason. We inherit exactly half our autosomal DNA from each parent, but each successive generation passes on just half of that half.  Simply put, the oldest generation carries significantly more of one’s ancestors’ DNA. (For a more in-depth explanation, please read Roberta Estes’ excellent article on the subject.)

Unfortunately, my Dad and Grandmom died years ago. This meant I needed to find other older family members who would be willing to test.

Right away, I was able to recruit my Aunt Lisa (my Dad’s only sibling and the oldest living member of his side of the family).  That helped me figure out better which matches came from my paternal line.

A few months later, my Grandmom’s first cousin through her maternal side, Shirley, also agreed to test. Her DNA test has proved to be of enormous value.

Testing two other family members has enabled me to triangulate the matches we have in common. In a short time, this has led to a few connections with more distant (second and third) cousins that have been further verified through good old-fashioned paper trail genealogical research. It also led to one heck of a discovery.

Through those matches, I am slowly figuring out which triangulated segments relate to particular branches of our family.

My great-grandmother, Lulu (née Reuter) Bender, just happened to be the eldest daughter in a tight-knit family of 14 children. I am very fortunate that some of my Grandmom’s youngest cousins are still living.

This week, two more of her maternal first cousins – Patti and Lowell – have decided to test.

We all share some DNA passed down from my grandmother’s maternal grandparents: her grandfather was of 100 percent German ancestry from mid-19th century Catholic immigrants. Her grandmother was half Pennsylvania-Dutch (so again, German… only Protestant and dating back to colonial America).

The other half is the mystery we are all trying to solve.

Initially, I thought Patti’s mother was of 100 percent Italian ancestry and got excited thinking that if she tested and had any matches that were not of German or Italian ancestry, then it would be easy to identify which matches connect to our brick wall ancestor.

However, her mother turned out to be half Irish descent… so it turns out each cousin’s non-Reuter parent and my own great-grandfather all have British Isles ancestry.

Identifying matches descended from our shared mystery ancestor will be more challenging than I hoped. But through triangulating all three cousins, plus my aunt and myself AND then seeing if those matches triangulate (or not) with the verified distant cousins on the Pennsylvania-Dutch and German branches – maybe we can figure out the probable connections to Sarah.

Because even if she is of British ancestry, as I suspect, my thinking is that it is unlikely that any of us will share matches in the second to fifth cousin range who are of British Isles descent (unless endogamy again comes into play, which I suppose is possible).

What might prove quite useful is a comparison of X chromosome matches. Since Lowell is male, he only inherited an X chromosome from his mother, who was my great-grandmother’s youngest sister. Being female, Patti will have inherited her X chromosomes from both parents. However, Patti ‘s father was my great-grandmother’s brother – so if her X chromosome matches triangulate with Lowell’s (and the rest of us), those matches will assuredly be from our Brown line as her father would have only inherited the X chromosome from his mother.

I can hardly wait for the test results to come in…

What I learned from my autosomal DNA test


imageMy autosomal DNA test results are in.

Some scraping of my inner cheek promised to give insight on my ethnic background and a chance to find folks somehow related to me.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises or revelations about my ethnic makeup. I’ve long known it’s roughly divided in quarters: Irish, Jewish, German and British. Genealogy has helped me figure just how for the latter two quarters.

The 50 percent I inherited from my grandfathers is easy enough to determine.

My maternal grandfather was an immigrant Jew, born in what was then Russia’s Pale Settlement (now Belarus).

My paternal grandfather was 100 percent Irish-American, his father’s parents having immigrated from County Kerry, Ireland and his mother’s parents immigrants from Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone.

I also have about a quarter each German and British ancestry from my grandmothers. But because they both have lines that date back to Colonial America as well recent immigrant ancestors, plus a few mysteries thrown in the mix, figuring out the distribution entailed much more research.

So, I was quite surprised to see my admixture results from FamilyTreeDNA reporting my ethnic makeup as follows:  67 percent European (45 percent British Isles and 22 percent Scandinavian), 31 percent Ashkenazi Diaspora and 3 percent Middle Eastern.

I was puzzled the most by the extra Jewish ancestry… I mean, shouldn’t I have only inherited a quarter of my DNA from my maternal Grandpa?  Was there an extra Jew (or line of Jews) way back in the family tree?

And where the heck were my German ancestors, whose lines I have had the most success in tracing back along the paper trail?

For nearly weeks now I’ve tried to learn more about this testing I had submitted to on a whim and discovered things I wish I had a better understanding of before I took the plunge into this new frontier of genealogical inquiry. It’s been an expensive lesson in buyer beware.

A few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Admixure results are only speculative. This I was actually pretty well aware of, but still found somewhat surprising in just how so.
  • While we absolutely inherit 50 percent of our DNA from each parent and should receive roughly 25 percent from each grandparent, things don’t always divide so evenly with each subsequent generation beyond our parents. Furthermore, one’s chromosomes don’t always inherit so equally, even in the most immediate (parent-child) relationship.
  • Endogamy will completely mess with your match results. Of this, too, I was already vaguely aware, but not at all prepared for just how skewed matches become with even just a fraction of ancestry from an endogamous population.

So even though I inherited none of my Grandpa’s swarthy looks (alas!), I apparently received quite a bit of his DNA when recombination occurred. To clarify, it seems I received chunks of unrecombined chromosomes (more on that below).

And as for my German ancestors, I was prepared to see something like 20-odd percent “Continental European” or similar broadly defined Western European group, but in the end those Scandinavian results and perhaps even some in the British Isles category could easily represent those lines thanks to migration.

Now, going into this misadventure I fully anticipated having to do a bit of work in order to figure out how I relate to any matches. I was also aware that trying to bust brick walls five generations back would be a difficult task, perhaps even impossible for those mystery ancestors much further back on my family tree.

But here’s the thing… though I have quite a number of matches within a second to fourth cousin (not close, but less-distant) range, none of them appear to be truly in that range thanks to endogamy. And that leaves me only with matches of fifth to (much more common) distant cousin range – almost all of whom appear to relate through our shared Jewish ancestry.

One of the hopes I had for atDNA testing was to match with less-distant (second to third) cousins who are related to me through my Jewish and Irish lines, as they are the branches of my family tree for which I have the least information. Some of the reason for that is just the difficult nature of Jewish and Irish genealogical research, due to lack of records.

But some of it is because both of my grandfathers left the tight-knit ethnic and religious fold of their families in order to both marry who they loved and broaden their horizons. That meant relatives, traditions and (most) stories were lost within one generation.

I’ve successfully gone back to my great-great grandparents on those sides of my pedigree, so I figured I had a decent shot at making the right ancestral connections between matching cousins. I really, really hoped to match with a second (or third) cousin who was better connected, whose immediate family had remained in the fold.

There are some intriguing longer segment matches between me and quite a number of folks who also have Ashkenazi ancestry, but its mostly on only one or two chromosomes which indicates the relationship is much further back than FTDNA predicts and what can be proven by the few (oh, so few) who have uploaded their GEDCOM family tree.

Because of FTDNA founder Bennett Greenspan’s interest in creating a census of the Jewish people and call to action through the Avotaynu project, it’s little wonder why the vast majority of my less-distant cousin FTDNA matches are Jews.

I don’t see this as necessarily a problem…  I think it’s great that Greenspan is getting the word out about the importance of testing the eldest generation while they are still here. And hopefully, the more folks get on board then the greater chance I have to someday make a connection. This applies to every genealogical DNA testing company.

I imagine it’s kind of like early home pregnancy tests. My Mom enjoys telling me how she tested twice when newly pregnant and twice got a negative result. Then one day she found herself at the GYN’s office for what she thought was a simple yeast infection and surprise, surprise… she was already a few months along with me. So maybe as the technology and public interest progress, the results will improve?

Still, a part of me wonders if I would’ve had more matches through my non-Jewish family lines had I gone with Ancestry or even 23andMe.

To remedy that, I uploaded my raw results to Gedmatch. I honestly don’t know why more folks don’t do so – it’s free. Yet, I constantly see recommendations to test with all three top genealogical DNA testing companies rather than choosing just one, then sharing and connecting through Gedmatch.

I went with FamilyTreeDNA because their terms of service and privacy policy are the best and the company is top ranked among serious genealogists – ones who have a fully documented/sourced family trees, which is a necessity if you’re going to make use of your DNA matches. Unlike Ancestry (whose TOS are frightening), there is no subscription required. But the drawback is FTDNA has the smallest database of the three top genealogical DNA testing companies.

In hindsight, I wish I had understood a little more about how extremely unlikely it would be to have matches that could be substantiated by an existing paper (or digital) trail.

So, some part of me feels seriously let down, perhaps even a bit duped, by the growing geneatology trend.

One has to remember that, while there may be a sincere passion for genealogy (which I do not doubt), Greenspan, and even Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are in the genetic testing biz… so, they’re making money off us with every cheek swab (or vial o’ spit). This part of me feels so damned disappointed that I just want to shake it all off as expensive lesson learned and only stick with the traditional genealogy tools.

But another part is doggedly determined to get somewhere, make some good use of this potential tool, holding out hope that somehow, someday closer matches that can actually be proven will be made – even though that diminishes as older generations die off. I mean, had autosomal testing been around when my grandparents were still alive how different might the results and this post have been?

It’s weird to think that my Mom, uncle and aunt are the oldest living generation for my family now – even crazier to realize that my younger brother is now the oldest male in our paternal line. In my fantasies, I would love to be able to somehow convince several distant cousins to test (the remaining few of my grandparent’s generation, some whom I only know of via research and have never contacted), as if that’s the key to success. But honestly, chances for matches with others that could lead to significant break-throughs would still be so slim it hardly justifies the cost.

Was the experience worth it? If it had been $50 or less, I’d say perhaps it was worth the wager on poor odds for a momentary thrill. But at the $89 price (or higher, depending on testing company), my answer is no.

I hope others have had more fruitful outcomes with their own testing. And, yes, I still do hope that one day that I may change my mind and consider this a wise expenditure.

 

Good read: NPR’s ‘DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are’

wintertree1A recently published NPR article ponders the connection between DNA and family history and appears to the be the first piece in what could be an intriguing ongoing series.

Writer Alva Noë makes the distinction between genetic, or DNA ancestors and pedigree ancestors, and touches on some important facts and thoughts to consider when it comes to utilizing consumer DNA testing as a tool for exploring one’s genealogy.

Particularly helpful, his article links to the University College London’s page on genetic ancestry testing, which has the most clear explanation of autosomal DNA testing I’ve thus far encountered.

But it’s the notion that with ancestry what’s most important is family, and that family is about relationships and not necessarily genetics, that resonates with me.

I am reminded of a quote introduced to me decades ago by my late Dad which reflected one of his core beliefs:
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” Richard Bach

And I think of my 20-month old son, who will never know either one of his biological grandfathers, but instead has formed a special bond with my stepdad – the man who will always be Grandpa to him.  Genes don’t tell the full story of family and sometimes we forget that in pursuit of our lineage.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

The DNA plunge

I’ve always been a bit curious about geneatology – using DNA to trace family lines.

When the technology first appeared to be gaining some traction, I was living in the Netherlands an ocean away from my family and pretty damn broke to boot. It seemed an indulgence for another day.

Especially since back then Y-DNA was the hot new thing in genealogy and I am female.

Sure, I’m curious as to what Y-DNA could reveal about my most ancient male ancestors. But my real interest in DNA testing is in its use as a tool to bust brick walls in my own research.

Y-DNA testing was super spendy then and so was mitochondrial DNA testing (still are).

Autosomal DNA testing wasn’t available then and I only recently gained an understanding of what it is and why it is best to test the oldest generation.

Sadly, I learned that too late to test my Grandmom.

When the holidays came around this time, I had an urge to nab one of the discount offers out there. I did some research on the top three companies offering DNA testing for genealogical purposes and decided to take the plunge with FamilyTreeDNA.

I’ve tested myself and I hope also to get my Mom to test as well.

My hope is that I’m not too distant from at least two brick wall paternal ancestors for some kind of break-through revelation. I hope for the same on my maternal Jewish line.

I am also mildly curious about what the results will conclude about my ethnic makeup, though I’m not expecting any surprises there.

Waiting for the test to arrive and now the even longer build up for the results has me feeling a bit like a kid anticipating Christmas. It’s kind of like the excitement in visiting Santa to tell him your wishes then having to wait a few weeks to see what he brings!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot of DNA-related stories and news items and I have to admit I’m seriously fascinated by the subject.

I’m particularly interested to know what effect endogamy will have on my DNA results, considering its prevalence in my family tree.

Time will tell…

Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.