Friday, 19 May 2017

23andMe Transition arrives in UK & Ireland

Some time ago, 23andMe transitioned their US customers to a new website format, whilst those of us in Europe remained with the old format. That was quite some time ago! But just this week, I have received an email informing me that I will be transitioned to the new format in June 2017. 

Below is the email I received. Of note, all Health Reports will be archived as pdf documents. I received mine before the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) put the extended hold on 23andMe's Health Reports, so I have 63 reports on physical traits, 53 on carrier status for inherited conditions, 25 on drug response, and 122 on health risks for a variety of medical conditions including Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's. 

The first bullet point talks about "Ethnicity" but on my screen it is described as "Ancestry" - click on your name (top right), then Edit Profile, & you will see it directly under the Ancestry Information heading. Click on Update.

You can also enter or update your ethnicity by clicking on the green button above (in the email you receive). Of particular note, if you manage several kits, after filling out the survey for your first kit, be sure to switch profiles and complete the survey for each one of your kits.

The new 23andMe experience is discussed on their international webpages here, and additional information for European customers is available on this link here and is abstracted below.

Some of the key features that stand out for me include:
  • some Health Reports may be available (depending on which chip was used - you can find this information on your Download Raw Data page in the Profile box toward the end of the page)
  • the maximum number of matches has increased to 2000
  • linking to online trees is allowed, even if they are with other companies (saves you the hassle of having to upload a gedcom ... which anyway is no longer available with the new experience)
  • when defining haplogroup subclades, they have switched from the old terminology (e.g. R1b1a) to the new one (e.g. I-M253)
  • any connections you currently share with your matches will be maintained in the new experience

One of the best additional features of the new experience will be the Relatives in Common feature. This is similar to the Shared Matches feature on Ancestry and the ICW (In Common With) Matches feature on FamilyTreeDNA.

Maurice Gleeson
May 2017

Thursday, 20 April 2017

7-Day Sale till 27 April 2017

National DNA Day is April 25.
Celebrate with us! 

FamilyTreeDNA are having a 7-Day Sale to celebrate National DNA Day (which marks the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953). It runs from April 20th until April 27th 2017. The promotion ends at 11:59 pm Central Time on Thursday, April 27th (which is 5:59 am on April 28th in Britain & Ireland). Please note that all Items must be paid for by that time, including items 
ordered though the invoice system (Bill Me Later)

Below are the items that are on Sale. Of particular note are the Family Finder test for a mere $59 (55 euro, £46), the Y-DNA-37 test for $129 (121 euro, £101), and the SNP Packs for an unbelievably low price of $89 (83 euro, £70).
If you want to dip your toe in the genepool, now is the time - do the Family Finder test. It will give you your ethnic makeup estimates and connect you with cousins on all of your ancestral lines.

If you have thought about researching your surname, or buying a Y-DNA test for a relative, now is the time!

And if you have been advised to upgrade to a SNP Pack, they have never been cheaper and you should take advantage of this limited 7-day offer.

Happy DNA Day!
Maurice Gleeson
April 2017

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Getting the Most out of your Y-DNA test (from FamilyTreeDNA)

The advice below pertains mainly to people who have tested their Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA, but some of the general principles apply to everybody, no matter which test you have done or which company you have tested with.

There are a few essential actions you should take to get the most out of your DNA test. You may not be able to do all of them all at once, so come back to this page often and check it out again to see if there is anything else you could be doing to maximise the value you get from your DNA test.

You may wish to share the link to this page with anyone else who might be interested in doing a DNA test so that they can see what they will get if they do.

Make yourself visible to your cousins

If no one can see you, you won't be able to connect with your cousins. So try to make yourself as visible as possible (or as visible as you feel comfortable with).

1) Prepare your surname's Ancestral Line (from you up to your surname's MDKA). This is the single most important piece of information that you can share. You will need this in your collaborations with other project members. In addition, many projects have a facility for posting this information somewhere on the project-related webpages. For example, in our Gleason/Gleeson DNA Project, these will go up on our Patriarchs & Matriarchs Page on the blog or the Patriarchs Page on the WFN website. This will potentially help other people to connect with you. It would help if you could provide it in the following format:
1) James GLEESON b c1835 Shallee, Co. Tipperary, d 12 Nov 1879 Longstone, Co. Tipperary, m 13 Apr 1860 Maria COYLE, Silvermines, Co. Tipperary
2) Morty GLEESON ...
3) John GLEESON ...
4) Abigail GLEESON … but not including dates for a) births <100 years ago, b) marriages <75 years ago, or c) deaths <50 years ago
Researcher: (insert your initials here)
Your email address
DNA Kits: (insert your DNA kit numbers)
Link to online tree:

2) Use your kit number and password to Log in to your personal webpage and explore it. There are a lot of bits & pieces of information you can include on your personal webpage that will optimise your chances of successful collaboration with your DNA matches. And knowing what your DNA results can tell you will help you get the most out of them.

3) You should add your MDKA information (Most Distant Known Ancestor) including dates & locations for both birth and death. The format we recommend is the same as the one above, but you may have to abbreviate it as only a certain number of letters are allowed in this field. Location of birth is the most important piece of information. Here is an example:
James GLEESON b1835 Shallee, Tipp, d1879 Longstone, Tipp
To add this information, simply click on your name in the top right of your homepage - Account Settings - Genealogy - Most Distant Ancestors ... I have posted instructions on how to do this on the following link ...

4) Fill out your MDKA Profile. In essence, this is your Brick Wall. And the more information you can give about it, the better the chance of breaking through it. There are lots of clues and circumstantial evidence from documentary data that may help you identify a possible connection with other members of the group.  This applies to all project members but is most relevant to members with Irish ancestry given that the records tend to peter out about 1800. Check out the MDKA Profile page of the Gleeson DNA Project for instructions on how to complete the profile for your own MDKA. You can also view an example of it here.

5) Add your Ancestral Surnames (click on your name in the top right - Account Settings - Genealogy - Surnames). I suggest to put SURNAMES in capital letters and Locations in normal text, as this makes the surnames "jump out" and easier for the reader to scan through.

6) Upload your Family Tree as a GEDCOM file so that you have a version of your family tree on your FTDNA webpages.   This is particularly important if you have done a Family Finder test (autosomal DNA). You can also add your Family Tree manually if it is easier for you. And if you have a Family Tree online, leave a link to it in the About Me section of your Personal Profile. Click here for specific instructions on uploading a Gedcom file -

7) Optimise your Privacy settings so that your potential cousins can see your results:
  • Hover over your Name in the top right
  • Click on Account Settings, then the Privacy & Sharing tab at the end of the menu bar above
  • Then simply change the settings under My DNA Results by clicking on the words "Project Members" at the end, and on the next screen checking the box beside "Make my mtDNA & Y-DNA data public". Then press Save.

Before the change
After the change

Check out Project-related Resources

There are a lot of resources that are particularly relevant for Surname DNA Projects and you should check out and use these as you feel appropriate.

8) Join the relevant Surname Project. There are over 9200 of them at FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA). You can either search for it via Google (simply type in: FTDNA & your surname) or you can search for it via the FTDNA Search page. Once you have joined, the Project Administrator should look at your results (within a week or so) and assign you to a particular group within the project. You can also email the Admin if you have any questions. Their email address is usually on the Home Page of the project.

9) If you join a surname project, check out the various pages of the project website - they usually have a lot of useful information that will help you understand your results. See the Gleason / Gleeson DNA Project blog as an example.

10) Join the relevant Haplogroup projects
Your results will reveal your haplogroup (your branch of the human Y-DNA tree and/or human mtDNA tree). Once your results arrive, make sure you join all the relevant projects as these will assist in the further analysis of your data and in particular your deep ancestry (where in the world your particular ancestors originated several thousand years ago). The projects are run by volunteer project administrators and they are a rich source for advice, guidance, and support. Frequently there is an associated mailing list or Facebook group you can join to keep abreast of up-to-date developments (this is a fast-moving field).

As an example, relevant Y-DNA haplogroup projects for each of the Gleason Lineages identified thus far include the following:

If your haplogroup project is not listed here, you can see if there is a specific project for your haplogroup on this list:

11) Join the relevant Geographical Projects
As an example, relevant Y-DNA geographical projects for each of the Gleason Lineages identified thus far include the following:
There may be other geographical projects that are relevant to your ancestral line and you can find them on this list:

Check out General Resources

There is a lot of information out there about genetic genealogy in general and it can be a bit confusing knowing where to find it. Below is a selection of our "best bits".

12) FTDNA have a lot of useful information in their Learning Centre. Be sure to check out the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions).

13) The ISOGG wiki is a great place to start looking for general information about any topic related to genetic genealogy, including your particular type of test.

14) Read Kelly Wheaton's beginners’ guide to genetic genealogy:

15) Download and read the e-book from the resources tab on your myFTDNA homepage.

16) There are a variety of different YouTube videos on genetic genealogy which have been prepared by ISOGG members and Project Administrators.
17) Sign up to the relevant genetic genealogy mailing lists, forums and Facebook groups. These can be great sources of help if you have a specific question. See the list here:
I particularly recommend:

18) Read blogs written by experienced genetic genealogists. See this list of genetic genealogy blogs:

19) Read the relevant articles about your specific DNA-test ...

Y-DNA - traces your father's father's father's line
Y-DNA basics:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) - traces your mother's mother's mother's line
mtDNA testing for advanced users:

These two pages are relevant if you have taken the full mitochondrial sequence (FMS) test:
mtDNA scientific collaboration:

Autosomal DNA (atDNA) - traces all your ancestral lines
Understanding Family Finder results:
Understanding Population Finder results:

Please let me know if any of these links are broken or cease working.

Maurice Gleeson
Jan 2017

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Instructions for Doing a DNA Test

If you are not sure which DNA test is best for you, you should read this first.

When ordering the standard Y-DNA-37 test from FTDNA, always join a project first in order to avail of the $20 discount (the $169 cost gets reduced to $149). This could either be a surname project or a geographic project. For example, go to the Silvermines DNA Project and click on JOIN in the photo and follow the instructions to buy the test. If you have an additional Coupon Code, enter this in the "Enter Coupon Code" box (& hit Apply) before you click on the green Proceed to Checkout button.

When you get your FTDNA test kit, make sure you fill out all the forms correctly. The form is fairly straightforward but it is easy to leave something out. Be sure to check you have done the following:
  1. Put in your full name (maiden name is preferable for women, for genealogical reasons)
  2. Write your email twice - in upper case and lower case letters. This helps the lab staff read it correctly and helps minimise the risk of their emails to you going to the wrong address or bouncing.
  3. Be sure that you have put in the 5 pieces of information about your credit card, namely: the long number (16 digits), the short number on the back (3 digits), the expiry date, your name, your address. People often forget one or more of these! Alternatively you can pay by PayPal.
  4. Take a photo of the form or make a note to your kit number and the test you ordered and the date you ordered it.
  5. Sign the green consent form - you won't get the full benefit of your results otherwise.

Below is Brad Larkin's excellent video on how to swab (this does not apply to the 23andMe test or the AncestryDNA test as these require saliva samples rather than cheek swabs). The most important considerations are to fast for 1-2 hours before doing the swabbing (so we don't get any food in the sample) and to swab the inside of the cheek for 45-60 seconds (to ensure we get enough cheek cells on the cotton head of the swab). Repeat this procedure for the second sample (for example, using one cheek first for the first sample, and the other one for the second).

Dislodging the head of the swab into the test tube can be a bit tricky so take your time, do it slowly, and apply constant but gentle pressure. Take your time with this.

You will need to buy a padded envelope to post the kit back to the lab and you can easily pick one up at the post office. Get one with bubble wrap on the inside to ensure the plastic test tubes are safe.

The address for posting back to the FTDNA Lab in Houston, Texas is at the bottom of the white form. It is as follows:
FamilyTreeDNA, 1445 North Loop West, Suite 820 Houston, Texas 77008, USA

Postage is a few pounds/euro/dollars. There is no need for a customs form, but if the Post Office insists, be sure to put down "Genealogy kit" and NOT "DNA kit" (these are not considered biological samples) as this will delay it unnecessarily through Customs in the US.

Here is an alternative video about swabbing ... with music! This video is about the Geno 2.0 test kit from National Genographic (but the same principles apply to the test kits from FamilyTreeDNA and LivingDNA).

Maurice Gleeson
Nov 2016

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Should I upgrade my Y-DNA test to 67 or 111 markers?

If you have done a Y-DNA-37 test with FamilyTreeDNA, you may be wondering if there is any point in testing a higher number of markers (67 or 111) and what would be the benefit of such testing. Is it worth doing it? And if so, why?

Well the answer is yes, but only under certain circumstances. Outside of these circumstances you might be better spending your hard-earned cash on a different DNA test ... or on your favourite ice-cream.

Here are the main reasons for upgrading to Y-DNA-67 or Y-DNA-111:
  1. No or few matches at 37 markers
  2. Lots of matches at 37 markers
  3. To assist the Project Administrator with difficulties in placing you in a group
  4. To more precisely estimate how closely two specific people are related
  5. To help the PA identify the branching pattern within a genetic group 
We will look at each of them in turn, but before we do let's mention a few key considerations about Y-DNA testing in general, how matches are identified, and some of the pitfalls involved in the process.

Some general considerations

I choose 37 markers as the starting point because most people interested in surname research will have tested to this level. Not everyone will however, and some people (especially transfers from the National Genographic Project) will only have tested to 12 markers. Neither of these are particularly useful for surname research (with rare exceptions) so I will only be addressing upgrading from 37 markers to 67 or 111.

Secondly, it is important to be aware of FTDNA's threshold criteria for declaring a match and listing them in your Matches List. These thresholds are based on Genetic Distance (GD) and are illustrated in the table below (see FTDNA's FAQ page and Privacy Policy page).  Having a GD of 4/37 means that the two individuals being compared are 4 steps away from an exact match (which would usually be expressed as 0/37, or sometimes 37/37).

The thresholds for declaring a match can be summarised as: having a GD at or below 1/12, 2/25, 4/37, 7/67, and 10/111. Each threshold value roughly equates to about 10% of the total number of markers. 

It is important to be aware that some people who fall within these thresholds will not be related to you within "a genealogical timeframe" (which we will take to be about the last 1000 years or so). Similarly, some people who fall outside these thresholds WILL be related to you "within a genealogical timeframe".

Also, it is important to appreciate that these thresholds are arbitrary. They are designed to maximise the number of true positives (high sensitivity) and minimise the number of false positives (high specificity). However, some true positives will escape being caught and some false positives will sneak through. And one or the other scenario may affect some people more than others. The question is: how do you recognise this? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Your chances of being able to do this are substantially increased by joining the appropriate surname and haplogroup projects and liaising with the Project Administrators because they have better oversight of the totality of the data within a genetic group and also have additional tools that they can use to better define how closely you are related to other people.

Interpreting Genetic Distance is just as arbitrary as defining a threshold for "declaring a match" and our thinking on this subject is likely to change over time. The table below is derived from FTDNA FAQ pages relating to Genetic Distance at 12, 25, 37, 67, and 111 markers respectively. Match Thresholds are highlighted in yellow.

There is some apparent inconsistency at the 111 marker level when comparing the Match Threshold (>/=10) to the interpretation of Genetic Distance (Not Related). If two people with a GD of 10/111 are Not Related, why declare them as a match?

Furthermore, with the advent of SNP testing and our increasing experience from surname and haplogroup projects, there is now strong evidence that these interpretations can be wildly wrong. Even two same-surname individuals with a GD of >10/37 could be related within a genealogical timeframe (Farrell DNA Project, group R1b-GF2). The interpretations above should therefore be used only as a guide.

So now let's look at the specific scenarios where it might be worthwhile upgrading. What follows expands on the advice already given by FTDNA in its FAQ pages.

Scenario 1:  No or few matches at 37 markers

If you have (say) no matches at the 37 marker level, it could be because someone has a Genetic Distance to you of (say) 5/37 ... in other words, there are 5 differences between you both in the first 37 markers. However the threshold for "declaring a match" is 4/37, and so neither of you will appear in the other's Matches List.

But if you both upgrade to 67 markers, and there are no further differences between you on markers 38 thru 67, then the number of differences remains at 5 and the Genetic Distance is written as 5/67, which is above the threshold for declaring a match and thus you will each appear in the other's Matches List.

In short, upgrading to 67 markers has revealed an additional match that was "hidden" at the 37 marker level.

The same scenario may also apply at the 111 marker level. But the big caveat is you can only compare yourself with other people who have upgraded to at least the same marker level. You cannot detect more matches by upgrading to 67 markers if everyone else is still at 37 markers. Of the 238,000 people with Y-DNA-37 data in the FTDNA database, only 33% of them have Y-DNA-111 data.

There are several reasons for why you may have no or few matches:
  • you may be the first person with your Y-DNA signature to do the test
  • your DNA signature may be very rare because you are the last of your line, or few people with that particular signature are left in the world
  • you may have unusual mutations which have moved you away from the rest of your group

Scenario 2:  Lots of matches at 37 markers 

If you have lots of matches at 37 markers, either your Y-DNA signature is very common in the population or you are a victim of Convergence. This is where, just by chance, people have a similar genetic profile to you that makes them fall within the matching threshold, but the common ancestor is 1000's of years ago rather than 100's of years ago. 

Upgrading to higher marker levels will help weed out many of these Convergent matches but may not eliminate them completely. Convergence has been observed with a GD of 3/111 in the Stewart DNA Project (see this YouTube video from 28:50 onwards).

Scenario 3:  To assist the Project Administrator with difficulties in placing you in a group

Sometimes it can be difficult to allocate project members to a specific genetic group within a surname project, for example if the GD is borderline (e.g. 5/37) and/or the member has a surname variant that may or may not be related (e.g Farrell and Harrell).

In these circumstances upgrading to a higher level of markers may provide additional supportive evidence for grouping you in a specific group (e.g. if the GD remained the same at 67 markers, namely 5/67, then this would be stronger evidence for including you in a specific group).

This scenario may be particularly relevant to you if you are in the Ungrouped category in a surname project. If so, ask your Project Administrator if upgrading to 67 or 111 markers would help him or her with the grouping process. 

Scenario 4:  To more precisely estimate how closely two specific people are related

Upgrading to 67 or 111 markers can help provide supportive data of a very close relationship on the direct male line. However, this should probably be done in conjunction with autosomal DNA testing (and even mtDNA testing) as the Y-DNA-111 test on its own is not conclusive.

FTDNA says that over 50% of exact matches at 111 markers (GD = 0/111) are first cousins. Similarly, over half of matches with a GD of 1/111 are 2nd cousins or closer, 2/111 are 4th cousins or closer, 3/111 are 5th cousins or closer, and so on (see full Table here). 

In short, upgrading to 111 markers will give you a better estimate of how close you are related to someone else but will not define it precisely. There will still be quite a broad range around the "best guess". In order to get a more precise estimate of which ancestor on a direct male line is the common ancestor between two people, it may be necessary to do autosomal DNA testing to estimate the degree of kinship, or to additionally test specific selected cousins of one or both matches, in order to triangulate with atDNA testing, or even mtDNA testing (the latter technique was used to identify WWI soldiers found in Fromelles).

Scenario 5:  To help the PA identify the branching pattern within a genetic group

As surname projects mature, some Project Administrators may take on the task of better defining the branching pattern within certain genetic groups within the project. I am attempting this in the Gleason/Gleeson DNA Project (you can see more about it in this YouTube video).

This process of building a Mutation History Tree (or cladogram or phylogram) is not easy and requires a lot of work. It is best done with 111 STR marker data combined with SNP data (e.g. via the Big Y test). In the future, the number of STRs available to test may increase to 500 or more (e.g. via YFULL) and testing out to 500 markers may become the preferred option. Furthermore, this process requires that many people within a genetic group have this data available.  It is thus quite a costly undertaking for group members.

However, defining the branching pattern within a genetic group brings several specific potential benefits. It can more accurately define how long ago different branches of the family broke away from each other, and how closely specific individuals within a family are related. This can be very useful for both historical studies of the family and the personal genealogical research of individual members. It can also indicate where Back Mutations and Parallel Mutations occurred within a particular genetic group, and this furthers our understanding of the nature of these mutations which usually remain hidden.


So if you think you fall into one of the above categories, consider upgrading your Y-DNA-37 results to the 67 or 111 marker level. You can do it in a step-wise fashion as there is (usually) no extra cost in doing it this way rather than upgrading to the highest level all at once.  And this potentially saves you money because all your questions may be answered by simply upgrading to 67 markers only.

If you do not fall into one of the above categories, you may benefit more from some other test, such as Y-SNP testing or autosomal DNA testing. It all depends on the questions you want answered.

Defining the genealogical questions clearly in your own head will enable you to better arrive at the optimal testing strategy to answer your questions.

Maurice Gleeson
June 2016

Monday, 16 May 2016

Y-DNA matches with Different Surnames

Why do I have Y-DNA matches that don't have the same surname as me? 

This is a common question that is asked when people first get their Y-DNA results. And there are several explanations for it. The Y-DNA test only compares Y chromosome DNA to other Y chromosome DNA. A “match” between two men usually means one of three Scenarios (bear in mind there are exceptions to every general rule):

Scenario 1. 
The two men are related via a common ancestor who lived some time since the appearance of surnames (e.g. within the last 1000 years or so in Britain & Ireland). And there are several sub-scenarios in this situation:
a) the two men have the same surname - in which case, they are probably related via a common ancestor (who bore that same surname) some time within the last c.1000 years. This is the scenario we are most interested in and forms the basis of surname studies.
b) the two men have different surnames - in which case an NPE may be present i.e. Non-Paternity Event (or Not the Parent Expected). In other words, both men have a common ancestor within the last c.1000 years, but the surname on ONE of their lines (we don’t know which one) has changed over the years because of a secret adoption, or infidelity, or illegitimacy, etc. Postscript: as mentioned in the Comments below, there are many other possible causes for "surname discontinuity". For example, some families adopted new surnames after emigrating to the US, changing the name to perhaps sound more English. And of course some societies adopted inherited surnames quite late (e.g. Turkey in 1934) or not at all (e.g. Iceland, Tibet).
Scenario 2. 
The two men are related before the appearance of surnames (e.g. pre-1000 AD) - in this scenario, the two men will have different surnames (with rare exceptions). This scenario can arise where there has been very little mutation in the DNA over the course of the last c.1000 years or so. Or where there has been a degree of Convergence (see below).

Scenario 3. 
The two men are related but much further back then they look. This is because of Convergence, where the two genetic profiles were identical 10,000 years ago (for example), but then mutate away from each other gradually over the millennia, and then (by chance) start mutating back towards each other so that it looks like the common ancestor is closer than he is (say 500 years ago rather than 10,000 years ago). Convergence is still being studied and not a huge amount is known about how commonly it is encountered. It is likely that it is more common in some haplogroup subclades than in others.

So in the situation where a man matches a man with a different surname, these are either cases of Scenario 1b (NPE) or Scenario 2 (pre-surname match) or Scenario 3 (Convergence). How can you distinguish between these three scenarios? Not easily, but there are certain clues that can help.

If one of the men matches other people with his surname, then it is less likely that his particular surname is the result of an NPE. And if the other man matches nobody with his surname (and there are people with his surname in the FTDNA database that he could potentially match), then the likelihood that an NPE has occurred somewhere along that man's direct male line is higher. On the other hand, if both men match others with their surname, then perhaps this is a case of Convergence.

If the two men have tested to 37 markers (or higher) and are exact matches, then this makes Scenario 1b more likely (i.e. an NPE has occurred somewhere in the past). The likelihood increases if there is an exact match at 67 markers or 111 markers. And on the contrary, the less close the match is (say 4/37 or 3/37), then the more likely this is a case of Scenario 2 (pre-surname match) or Scenario 3 (Convergence).

Looking at the terminal SNP results of a man's matches may give a clue as to which of the three scenarios is most likely to be present. You can examine the terminal SNPs of a man's matches (at the 111 marker level down to the 25 marker level) and see which SNPs are most common among his matches. Then by plotting these SNPs on the haplotree* you can get some indication whether or not there is evidence of Convergence (i.e. the SNPs fall onto different branches of the haplotree) or no evidence of Convergence (all of the SNPs fall onto the same branch of the haplotree). If there is no evidence of Convergence, then this makes Scenarios 1b or Scenario 2 more likely.  In the example below, the terminal SNPs of a man's matches all fall below SNP L226, suggesting that he and his matches all sit on the L226 branch of the haplotree. However, there may be some Convergence further downstream, as two of his matches sit on different branches below SNP FGC5628.

Performing additional downstream SNP testing (e.g. a SNP Pack or Big Y test) will help differentiate between the three scenarios. Here is what you might expect:
Scenario 1b (NPE) - the two men sit on the same downstream branch that is associated with the surname of one of them. The age of the common SNP might be somewhere in the last 1000-2000 years.
Scenario 2 (pre-surname match) - the two men sit on the same branch upstream (i.e. representative of a major subclade of the haplogroup, say L226). The age of the common SNP might be somewhere in the last 2000-8000 years.
Scenario 3 (Convergence) - the two men sit on completely different (i.e. very distantly related) branches of the haplotree and the common SNP is (say) >8000 years old.
If a recent NPE is suspected, autosomal DNA testing can help establish if the two men are closely related (i.e. within the past 5 generations or so).

Using these techniques will help distinguish between the three possible scenarios but in many cases there is unlikely to be a single definitive test that will give you the answer. The best you might be able to hope for is that taking all the evidence together, the balance of probabilities points toward a particular scenario as being the most likely.

Example: Plotting terminal SNP results of a man's matches shows that they all fall below SNP L226
(i.e. no evidence of Convergence before SNP FGC5628)
(click to enlarge)

*I use FTDNA's but you can use others too - ISOGG, the Big Tree, or YFULL's tree

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Which DNA Test is Best for Me?

People frequently ask the question: which DNA test should I do? Well the response is simple: The test that is best for you very much depends on the sort of questions that you would like answers to.

Below is a selection of the typical kind of questions that people ask about DNA testing and some brief answers to them. Be sure to explore the links for more information. Hopefully this will help you understand what each type of test can do and that in turn will help you decide which one is best for you.

How many types of DNA test are there?

There are 3 main tests you could do, and you could test one of several members of your family - it depends on what questions you would like answered:
  • Y-DNA traces your father’s father’s father’s line
  • mtDNA (mito or mitochondrial) traces your mother’s mother’s mother’s line
  • and atDNA (autosomal) traces ALL your ancestral lines and gives you your ethnic makeup.
Note that Y-DNA and mtDNA will only give you information about one ancestral line each, whereas atDNA gives you information on all your ancestral lines (but only has a reach of about 300 years, compared to 200,000 years with the other two types of test). You may wish to look at this YouTube video I made explaining the three types of test in more detail and giving examples of their application to genealogy.

Here’s a few examples of questions you might want answers to and the best test to address each one:

How do I find out about my ethnic origins?
  • atDNA will tell you roughly what percentage of your DNA is from Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. It will also give you rough estimates on a sub-regional level (e.g. "Central Europe" or "France/Germany") but is unlikely to identify a particular country. Currently this ethnic admixture test (also known as biogeographical analysis) only gives crude estimates and will continue to be refined over time. Still, it makes for a pretty picture which the kids can print out and take to school.
  • the general opinion among genetic genealogists is that 23andme gives the best genetic ethnicity estimates, followed by Ancestry, and then FamilyTreeDNA.  None of the tests are accurate enough currently to pinpoint ancestral homelands but they might point you in the right direction. Check out this blog post for more info - Making the best of what's not so good by Judy G Russell, The Legal Genealogist, 22 February 2015.
  • both Y-DNA and mtDNA will tell you where that one particular ancestral line originated (eg Western Europe). And because both go back about 200,000 years to Africa, they will also give you the crude migration routes those particular ancestors took. More nice pictures for the kids school projects.

How do I find out more about my surname and where it came from?
  • do the Y-DNA test. And test the oldest generation, so that would be your father, uncle, or grandfather. If you are male, your Y-DNA should be exactly the same as your father's Y-DNA and your grandfathers, etc all the way back on the direct male line.
  • ... unless there has been an NPE along the way. NPE stands for Non-Paternity Event  or Not the Parent Expected. Common causes are secret adoptions, infidelity within marriage, and illegitimacy. These happen in about 1% of cases per generation.
  • Start off with the Y-DNA -37 test from FamilyTreeDNA and be sure to join any relevant surname or haplogroup projects. You can find these by doing a search for your name on the FamilyTreeDNA website and it will give you a selection of relevant projects for you to join.
  • After reviewing the results of your Y-DNA-37 test, ask the Admins of projects you have joined for advice on what additional testing might be warranted. This could mean upgrading to 67 or 111 markers, or it could mean doing SNP marker testing. The Project Admins will advise.
  • If you want to explore your mother's surname, test her brother. He is the one who inherited the Y-DNA that goes with that surname.
  • You can research ANY surname in your family as long as you test the appropriate male cousin who bears that particular surname.

How do I connect with genetic cousins?
  • Y-DNA will connect you with genetic cousins with whom you share the same surname.
  • mtDNA will connect you with cousins on your mother’s mother’s mother’s line but this is the least useful of all 3 tests - because mtDNA mutates so slowly, even an exact match could mean a common ancestor several thousand years ago (rather than several hundred years ago in the case of Y-DNA).
  • atDNA will connect you with about 500-1000 cousins you never knew existed (if you have European ancestry). It gives you the most "bang for your buck". Most of them will be distant cousins, but you may spot a few familiar names in your list of matches. The majority will be unknown cousins who are related to you via unknown ancestors beyond your ancestral Brick Walls, or they will be "false positive matches" (particularly if the amount of DNA they share with you is small). You will have hours of fun (and I mean hours) trying to figure out how they are connected. This test has “Retirement Plan” written all over it. But there are two important questions to address:
    • who to test?
    • and which company to test with?

Who do I test?
  • Anyone. Anyone can do a DNA test. But it’s always a good idea to test the oldest members of the family first, for two reasons:
    • they will not always be around
    • they have more DNA from particular ancestors than you do
  • Your mother for example would be a generation further back than you, and thus she will have twice the number of matches on your maternal side of the family compared to you … because she has twice as much “DNA from the maternal side of the family” - each generation loses 50% of the DNA from that side of the family, because only half of it is passed on from parent to child. So your Dad would only have (roughly) 25% of his DNA from his grandfather, you would have only 12.5%, and your son would have only 6.25%. The percentage inherited from any one specific ancestor roughly halves with each generation.
  • Testing yourself and a parent helps you isolate which side of the family your matches are from. So if you tested yourself and your Dad for example, any matches you both share in common have to be from his side of the family; and any matches that you have but he doesn’t, have to be from your mum’s side. Of course you could also test your mum to answer this same question, if she is still with us. 
  • FamilyTreeDNA store the DNA samples for 25 years free of charge so this serves as a genetic legacy for future generations - could be important as the science of genetic genealogy progresses (and it has only been around for 15 years or so).

Which company should I test with and how much does it cost?
  • there are 3 companies - FamilyTreeDNA23andme, and Each have their pros and cons.
  • Re Y-DNA: if you want to research your surname, then only FamilyTreeDNA offer an infrastructure for surname research. You would have to test with them if you wanted to join the Farrell DNA Project (for example). 23andme will tell you what Y-DNA haplogroup you belong to (useful for knowing your crude migration path out of Africa) but that’s it.
  • Re mtDNA: only FamilyTreeDNA and 23andme offer this test, but not Ancestry. It is of little use for genealogy. 23andme have it as part of their single test (you get Y-DNA, mtDNA, and atDNA all in one test) and FamilyTreeDNA offer it as a separate test. I would start with the mtDNAplus test because it is cheaper ($69) and may give you all the information you need.
  • Re atDNA: whichever company you test with, you should upload your atDNA data to Gedmatch (for free). Anyone can do this and it allows you to compare your data with that of people who have tested with other companies and who have uploaded their data to the Gedmatch website. This allows you to fish in 3 genepools instead of 1 (only partial pools in this instance because not everyone uploads their results to Gedmatch). Also, if you test with Ancestry, you should upload your data to FamilyTreeDNA (for $39) so you are fishing in 2 genepools instead of 1 (complete genepools in this instance).
    • 23andme will give you a medical risk assessment as well as a ton of genetic cousins. However the medical component was suspended in the US by the FDA and only partially restored in 2015. You may get a more comprehensive range of medical data if you order the test via their outlets in Canada, the UK, Ireland, & Australia but you would need to ask them about this as the situation is likely to change. Also, you may have to use a friend with a Canadian address (for example) as a middleman if you are ordering from outside the US (Canada in this example).
    • 23andme give you all 3 DNA tests (Y, mt, and autosomal) for $199 in the US. It is more expensive than the other companies, and the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests give only limited results.
    • Ancestry just give you atDNA (no Y or mtDNA), usually for $99 although it can be $79 in their frequent Sales. There is very limited product support, no tools (such as a chromosome browser), and if you want to explore the results further you will need to upload to Gedmatch/FamilyTreeDNA. Also, no further testing is possible. The big advantage of Ancestry is that you can link your DNA results to your family tree and that will potentially allow you to compare your DNA with everyone else on Ancestry who has also done so. And many but not all have family trees ... so it can make finding the common ancestor a lot easier.
    • FTDNA (FamilyTreeDNA) store your sample for 25 years. Further testing can be done on the sample whenever you want (e.g. Y-DNA or mtDNA, or any future tests). Their atDNA test (called Family Finder) is $99, Y-DNA is $149 (for 37 markers; $129 if you buy it via a surname project) and mtDNA is $69 ($199 for the FMS full sequence).
    • I have tested with all 3 companies. I like FamilyTreeDNA the best and have had most success with them (i.e. my closest matches are on FamilyTreeDNA . My guess is that if you have Irish ancestry you will find most of your close matches on FamilyTreeDNA  If you have US colonial ancestry, you will probably find most of your matches on Ancestry. 
    • The most cost-effective option for atDNA would be to test with Ancestry ($99), then transfer your results for $39 to FamilyTreeDNA, and upload them for free to Gedmatch. The cheapest option outside the US is FTDNA ($99).
    • There are also some other neat websites that offer additional third party functionality that are very useful, DNAgedcom offers some tools and I particularly like Don Worth’s ADSA spreadsheet but historically it has only worked with FamilyTreeDNA results. They are developing it for Ancestry and 23andme.

So which test is best for you? Probably the atDNA test from FamilyTreeDNA or Ancestry if you are interested in general genealogy, or the Y-DNA-37 test from FamilyTreeDNA if you are specifically interested in exploring a particular surname.

Maurice Gleeson
April 2016