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Sticking your toes in

Okay, so you’ve been dithering about whether or not to get into DNA testing for genealogy. And you’ve wondered why you should bother. And what you might learn. And if it would be worth the money.

That last question is officially a No Brainer.

Because Family Tree DNA has its “stick your toes in the DNA testing waters” 12-marker YDNA test kit on sale for $39.

Yep, for less than the cost of one month’s worth of your Starbucks fix, you can get started.

So let’s talk about this test and what it tells you and why you should go ahead and buy this kit. Or a LOT of these kits.

Because it’s found in the Y chromosome, YDNA is a kind of DNA that only men have and fathers pass only to their sons. So you can test your own DNA if you’re male. If you’re female, you have to test your father, husband, brother, son, uncle or male cousin. Let’s assume from here on out that when we say “you,” we’re talking about you personally (for men) or your father (for women). Testing your YDNA tells you about your direct paternal ancestry — your father’s father’s father’s father and so on back into time.1

If you go ahead and do this testing, you’ll find out what your YDNA haplogroup is. A haplogroup, remember, is “a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor on the direct paternal or maternal line. Haplogroups are assigned letters of the alphabet, and refinements consist of additional number and letter combinations.”2 Put more simply, YDNA haplogroups are “the major branches on the human paternal family tree.”3

This haplogroup information tells you something about your origins in the far distant past. For example, my brother tested with Family Tree DNA so I know that our father’s haplogroup was E-V13 — a haplogroup that’s found largely in Europe and then largely in the Balkans and some parts of Italy.4 My cousin Michael tests out as J-M172, which is “found mainly in the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus (Nasidze 2003), Anatolia, the Balkans, Italy, the Mediterranean littoral, and the Iranian plateau.”5 And my cousin Johnny tests out as I-M253, which has “a peak frequency of approximately 35% among the populations of southern Norway, southwestern Sweden, and Denmark.”6

You’ll also find out if anyone else who’s tested with Family Tree DNA matches you. Now at 12 markers, you’re not getting enough detail to say that you and a match are “tightly” or “very tightly” related. For that kind of confidence, you have to test to 37 or 67 or even 111 markers.7

But even with just 12 markers, you can find out whether the chance of being related or not to other men who’ve tested and who share the same (or a similar) surname is high or low, because you’ll find out your genetic distance from those other men. Genetic distance is a way of measuring how different two sets of DNA results are from each other.8

If you and the other man are a perfect match, then, Family Tree DNA explains: “A perfect 12/12 match between two men who share a common surname (or variant) means they likely share a common male ancestor within the genealogical time frame. The combination of these facts demonstrates their relatedness.” If you match 11 of the 12 markers, then you “may share a common male ancestor within the genealogical time frame. To ensure that the match is authentic, you should utilize additional markers.” A 10-for-12 match means you’re “unlikely to share a common male ancestor within the genealogical time frame.” And a 9-for-12 match “is too far off to be considered related within the genealogical time frame. It is unlikely but vaguely possible” that you might be — but you’re probably not.9

So one thing you might find out in these 12-marker results is that you do match others with the same name, helping you to be sure there hasn’t been a name change in your own family. This was important for me after I discovered my scoundrel 2nd great grandfather who kept getting indicted and skipping town. It was really good to know he hadn’t changed his name — it’s hard enough tracking him without having to worry about an undocumented name change!10 (Not matching may just mean others with the same surname haven’t tested yet, so don’t be too concerned if you don’t have surname matches just yet.)

And with a close or perfect match, of course, you have a lead: someone to contact to share information with and, perhaps, break down a brick wall. So that’s another benefit to testing.

But here’s the biggest reason of all to get yourself and/or your oldest living male relative to test: you’re banking your (and/or his) DNA to do more and different testing in the future — and you’re doing it for a measly $39 each.

You see, you’re going to get two swabs and two vials in the test kit. In the ordinary case, only one will be needed to do this 12-marker test. And Family Tree DNA will store the other one for as long as 25 years. Now an awful lot can happen in 25 years — or even 25 minutes. That oldest generation in your family could be gone … and any chance you might have to get autosomal (cousin-finding) testing done — with all of the genealogical information potentially locked up in their genes — will be gone with them.

Sure it’s possible that the sample might be too degraded to test well if you bank it for five or 10 or 25 years. But if your oldest generation relatives are in their 80s or 90s, well, if I had a nickel for every member of my family I’ve lost the chance to DNA test because I waited too long to ask, I’d be able to buy a lot more DNA test kits.

Think about it. Me? I’m buying several. Let’s see… there’s my Johnson line, my Jones line, the Pettypools, the Battles…


  1. ISOGG Wiki (, “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 21 Jan 2013.
  2. ISOGG Wiki (, “Haplogroup,” rev. 21 Jan 2013.
  3. What is a Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) haplogroup?,” FAQs, Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 26 Jan 2013).
  4. Haplowiki (, “E-V13,” rev. 4 Jan 2010.
  5. Wikipedia (, “Haplogroup J-M172 (Y-DNA),” rev. 19 Feb 2013.
  6. Wikipedia (, “Haplogroup I-M170 (Y-DNA): I-M253,” rev. 7 Feb 2013.
  7. See “What is the expected relationship with my match?,” FAQs: Understanding Results: Y-DNA Short Tandem Repeat (STR), Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 23 Feb 2013).
  8. Ibid., “What is genetic distance?.”
  9. Ibid., “If two men share a surname, how should the genetic distance at 12 Y-chromosome STR markers be interpreted?.”
  10. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Oh George… you stinker!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Jun 2012 ( : accessed 23 Feb 2013).
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