DNA and the locks of hair

DNA from a lock of hair

Reader John Henning asks:

I’ve come across some locks of hair from my great-great grandmother that were in a scrapbook of my grandmothers (and actually from several of my grandmother’s friends from the 1920s/30s). This sharing of hair apparently was a ‘thing’ back then. Anyways — is there a benefit for having ancestors’ hair tested for DNA analyses? I am still very new to genealogy in general and even more green at the ins and outs of DNA.

It’s absolutely possible to get DNA from a sample of hair. Scientists have used hair from ancient and aboriginal remains1 and even from a woolly mammoth2 to obtain DNA for testing. But that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and test that lock of hair from your great-great grandmother, because hair poses some problems in terms of what DNA you can get.

Hair shaft and follicle

First and foremost, understand that there are two key parts of a hair for DNA purposes. If you look at the graphic shown here, you see that there’s a lot more to hair under the skin than there is in the part you can see. No matter how long the hair shaft is — the part that you can see — it has much less genetic information than the part that’s under the skin.

For DNA testing purposes, the part you really want is the hair follicle — and that’s the part that’s least likely to be included in a preserved lock of hair.

Here’s why.

There are essentially three types of DNA testing. The first is Y-DNA, testing the male-gender-linked Y chromosome for information that’s passed in a direct line from father to son to son.3 The second type is autosomal DNA (or atDNA), which tests DNA from all of the chromosomes except the gender-linked X and Y chromosomes, and that’s tested for information that can help link cousins across genders.4 And the third is mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA), which tests for information that’s passed in the direct female line, from mother to her children but can only be passed on by a daughter.5

Both Y-DNA testing and autosomal testing involve nuclear DNA (DNA from chromosomes inside the nucleus of a cell) while mtDNA involves the mitochondria, which exist outside of the cell nucleus.6 And a hair shaft simply doesn’t contain nuclear DNA.7 In other words, you can only do one of the three types of DNA testing on a lock of hair that doesn’t have a root or follicle attached, and that’s the mtDNA testing.

That’s problem number one — only one test you can do at all: the test for your great great grandmother’s maternal line (her mother and grandmother and so on back into time). Of all the types of DNA testing, that’s the one that’s typically least useful for genealogical purposes.8

Problem number two is the age of the sample. Now obviously if folks can test samples from a woolly mammoth — a wee bit older than any sample from anybody’s great great grandmother! — these hair locks may be tested successfully too. But remember that teams of scientists worked on those old samples, and you’re probably not in a position to pay the salaries of teams of scientists to do the types of forensic testing that may be required. So even if you decide to go ahead, remember that it may not be successful absent very expensive advanced testing.9

Problem number three is that finding a lab to do the test for you is a little more complicated that ordering a kit from Family Tree DNA or 23andMe. At this point, and certainly for the foreseeable future, none of the usual genealogy DNA test companies will do hair testing.

So you’re automatically going to be dealing with a commercial lab, and not every commercial lab will work with hair samples. They’re all going to want to know how much hair you have and how old it is before they’ll give you a quote,10 and you’re definitely going to want to shop around before settling on a lab to do the work. Asking around on the mail lists run by genetic genealogists would be a good way to start — there’s a DNA Newbie list for members of the International Society of Genetic Genealogists, for example, and it’s free to join.

Clearly, then, you’re going to want to carefully review whether you have another easier way to get the same information. Is there a person living now who’d be willing to do a current mtDNA test who is a descendant of your great great grandmother in a direct line (your great great grandmother to one of her daughters and on down to today)? Remember that every child has his or her mother’s mtDNA11 so the person tested can be male or female as long as that person’s mother descends in a direct female line from your great great grandmother.

If there is such a person, it’ll be easier and cheaper to simply test that person’s DNA. But if there isn’t such a person, then if you can afford it and if you’re are willing to take the risk of paying for a test that may not work, I’d at least consider it.

Good luck! Let us know how you make out!


Image source: Wikimedia commons, public domain image by Tsaitgaist

  1. David Perlman, “Hair DNA reveals 2 migration waves out of Africa,” San Francisco Chronicle online, 23 September 2011 (http://www.sfgate.com/ : accessed 2 Jun 2012).
  2. Melissa Lee Phillips, “Hair yields ancient DNA,” The Scientist (http://classic.the-scientist.com : accessed 2 Jun 2012).
  3. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 23 Jul 2011.
  4. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 8 Feb 2012.
  5. See “Understanding your mtDNA Results,” Family Tree DNA (http://www.familytreedna.com : accessed 2 Jun 2012.
  6. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 30 Jul 2010.
  7. Hair Analysis,” WebMD.com, 12 Apr 2010 (http://www.webmd.com : accessed 2 Jun 2012).
  8. See generally Oh, mama… a use for mtDNA, The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Feb 2012.
  9. How Can I Do a Hair DNA Test?,” Science on Stage: A Programme for European Science Teachers (http://www.scienceonstage.net : accessed 2 Jun 2012).
  10. See e.g. “Information about Non-Standard Samples for DNA Testing,” Easy DNA (http://www.hairdnatest.com : accessed 2 Jun 2012).
  11. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA Test,” rev. 23 Jul 2011.
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in DNA. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to DNA and the locks of hair

  1. Kathy says:

    Thank you for this information. I’ve been wondering the same thing. I have a lock of hair from a family Bible. My assumption is that it is from the late 1800s – cut from the hair of one of the girls in the family. No follicles. Old. And although I am descended from one of the girls in this family, it is her son in the next generation who is my ancestor.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kathy, it sure won’t give you the information you might hope for in that case. But if there’s no other way to get a maternal haplogroup for that particular family group and if it was important to get that info, it might be worth doing down the line — after you win the lottery!

  2. George Jones says:

    Here’s a New York Times 2007 article on this subject:

    It appears that FTDNA did at one time offer a service to extract DNA from hair. Does FTDNA still do that? How about other commercial labs?

    Here’s part of the article:
    Genetic testing companies encourage the use of cheek cells whenever possible, but that does not stop customers from dispatching DNA in a multitude of forms. For a premium, Family Tree DNA, a provider of the tests, has extracted genetic material from toothbrushes, hearing aids, nail clippings and postage stamps. (Hair remains tricky).

    The talismans come mostly from people trying to glean genealogical information on dead relatives. But they could also be purloined from the living, as the police do with suspects. The law views such DNA as “abandoned.”

    “If you won’t give me your DNA but I run after your cigarette butt and I don’t contaminate it, can we get your DNA?” said Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, which nearly doubled its kit sales last year. “The answer is yes.”

    But that does not mean genetic genealogy companies want to encourage the practice.

    Mr. Greenspan invited a bioethicist to speak at the company’s third annual genetic genealogy conference in Houston last fall. “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in broad daylight,” the speaker told the audience.

    The message did not resonate, according to several attendees.

    “We’re all like, ‘I’d pick up the cup in broad daylight,’ ” one recalled.

    For now, genetic genealogists are striking their own ethical balance

  3. CeCe Moore says:

    Thanks for the shout-out regarding the ISOGG DNA Newbie List, Judy!

  4. Anna says:

    I had my father tested a year or so ago. I knew his test results would not reflect the family name, but the results were a little shocking-he had an ‘exact match’ in a gentleman, a total stranger, who lives across the continent. I did hear from the ‘exact match,’ but he did not offer his genealogical information. I replied to his email but never heard from him (occasionally my email to people goes to their spam folder, which is what I think happened).

    However, through a bit of serendipity too bizarre to be believed, I happen to learn whose family he descends from, but I dont have enough information about them to determine which common ancestor we share.

    My questions:
    1) is there any way to determine from my dad’s DNA test results how many generations back he and his exact match share an ancestor?

    2) would my dad’s son and grandsons also be an exact match to my dad’s exact match? Would the exact match carry down through all their male descendants?

    This stuff gives me a headache.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Is there any way to determine from my dad’s DNA test results how many generations back he and his exact match share an ancestor?

      Not precisely, no. Not based just on those two tests (and I’m assuming here that the DNA test you did was the Y-DNA, male-only test). Testing more members of both families might help shed some light, but remember: Y-DNA can stay the same for many many generations. Just as an example, my uncle matches 67-for-67 markers with two others of the same surname and the common ancestor we’ve identified is likely to have died around 1700! You can definitely narrow the time frame with more extensive testing but it’s still going to be a matter of the odds in terms of just how far back the common ancestor is.

      would my dad’s son and grandsons also be an exact match to my dad’s exact match? Would the exact match carry down through all their male descendants?

      The Y-DNA of all of the male descendants of these two men will match each other (assuming no adoptions or other non-paternity events) but might not be exact matches because of the likelihood of small, inconsequential mutations from generation to generation. Your brother could easily be one marker away from your Dad, and your nephews could be one marker away from their father and so two markers away from your Dad, just as an example.

  5. Charles Watkins says:

    Greetings, ANNA should you read this by chance, would you mind sharing the lab you used to get a genetic profile of your fathers hair? A very interesting read by the way. I have an ancetral locket with hair from 1790s. Thank you Charles

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Charles, most labs CAN test hair — the problem is that the usual hair sample from something like a locket will only have a piece clipped from the person’s head. That part of the hair shaft doesn’t have the DNA you want — you need the hair root for that. Good luck to you.

  6. Emmy says:

    Keeping a lock of someone’s hair was at one time much akin to keeping their photo in your wallet. Also, there are some amazing hair wreathes to be seen in 19th Century Americana museums that served as funereal memorials or even genealogies, in a sense. DNA or not, something to be cherished as a keepsake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>