I’ve been a DNA “nerd” for some years now (hopefully it doesn’t show too much on the outside). I was one of the “early adopters” of DNA testing at 23andMe, one of the first companies to offer affordable DNA tests to the general public, including health reporting as well as ancestral and ethnicity reports. At the time I was intrigued by health reporting and less interested in the applications to genealogy. I discovered many “fun facts” within the 23andme “Traits” and “Wellness” reports such as:
- My muscle fiber composition means I am more likely to be good sprinter/power athlete (or was, I suppose. If only I had known that in my teens/twenties I would have tried harder!)
- I have a 75% genetic likelihood of being able to smell “that smell” when you pee after eating asparagus (I had no idea that was genetic – I just assumed everyone could do that).
- I have more “Neanderthal variants” than 93% of 23andMe customers (not entirely sure what this means, other than the obvious, that Neanderthals intermingled with our ancestors approximately 40,000 years ago).
In 2013 23andMe lost their license to conduct health reporting as they failed to file some paperwork with the FDA in a timely fashion. Fast forward to 2017 and they have that capability back, and have in fact split their testing into 2 separate areas. You can test your DNA for Ancestral insights only ($99) or Health and Ancestry ($199). Other sites such as Ancestry.com will sell you a DNA test kit for around $79 – $99 (they often have a “sale” on – over Black Friday in 2016 they sold over half a million kits in the pre-Christmas rush).
So why do people choose to do DNA testing for genealogical purposes?
Many people are enthralled by the idea of discovering their ethnicity. The 3 major testing companies (Ancestry.com, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA) all provide an ethnicity “estimate” as part of their DNA reporting. It’s important to remember that these are estimates. I’ve read accounts of some customers taking this way too seriously when the ethnicity estimates do not match up with their paper trail, i.e. “If 2 of my grandparents are German and the other 2 are Italian why am I not 50% German and 50% Italian?” The simple answer is that we all inherit DNA randomly from our ancestors. A more complete answer that I like to offer up to people who ask “Who should I test with” comes from a great blogger, Judy Russell, who is able to point out with great clarity why ethnicity estimates are more like ethnicity “guesstimates”. You can read Judy’s remarks about ethnicity estimates here:
And take a look at my (quite dull) ethnicity estimate below:
Brick walls and missing ancestors
Brick walls are common in genealogical research for several reasons. The paper trail peters out, people move around to unknown places or change names. I have 2 relatives on one family I work with who were born “out of wedlock” for want of a better term. There are birth certificates but a father is not named, nor has a name ever been known within the family. For the past few years genealogists like myself have been working with DNA to try and trace these unknown relatives. It’s complicated, slow work a lot of the time. But it does eventually yield results. All three of the testing companies have databases that are skewed in favor of families with moderate to deep American roots right now. DNA testing for genealogy has been popular in the US for several years and Ancestry.com has only recently started to offer testing kits in Europe, Canada and Australia. This will change over time as more Europeans test with these sites. Success in finding “missing” ancestors also depends on who has already tested and is in the database of your chosen site.
Kinhistories and DNA
Kinhistories can offer advice on why, how and who to test if you are interested in using DNA results in your genealogical search. Please contact me through the website contact page if you would like to know more.