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.
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31 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.

  7. Edwina Dorset says:

    I have recently sorted through my late parents paperwork and memorabilia, and found an envelope that contained my brothers baby curls that my mother cut in August 1958.
    My brother died 9th May 1967 and I have no other living ‘male’ relative that the ‘Y’ Chromosome could be tested on for my father’s line.
    Is it possible for a DNA Test to be taken from these curls? They have been kept in side an envelope, which was then kept inside another larger envelope.
    I have already taken a mitochondrial DNA test for my mothers line, but if there was any possible chance of obtaining DNA for my Fathers line I would be delighted.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It is very difficult to get testable DNA from a hair shaft (as opposed to the root). You can contact Family Tree DNA through the contact page at its website and see what they would quote in terms of likelihood and price, but understand it won’t be a sure thing.

  8. Polly Smith says:

    I have a “hair book” from the 1850s. It does appear that they used these much the same as an autograph book was in the early 1900s. The hair I have is tiny braided locks of about 30 different people, some relatives and probably some friends. The names are fairly hard to read. I really don’t know what use they really are except as a curiosity according to what I have read here.

  9. Jen W says:

    Maybe because I am reading this late at night, I’m a little confused. Do I understand correctly that it is possible, but difficult and limited, to extract DNA from a hair shaft? I have my own hair from when I was a kid, and might have a curl from my father. I also have my daughter’s hair from 30 years ago.

    My interest is a little different and may not warrant a significant expense, but I am interesting in comparing with my hair from 50 years ago with my hair now to see what has changed in my genes. We know that the environment can alter genes, and this interests me. It might also be interesting to compare my hair with my daughters- in which case we have early shafts for each of us, as well as can get current with follicles. My primary interest though, again, is really to see how my own genes might have changed.

    I am female.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I will, in the meantime, see about pricing out there! Thanks for your well-written, informative blog entry. Will have to read some more!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There can be no doubt — from the language of the SMGF website announcement — that the bad (and mostly erroneous) publicity surrounding the Usry case caused the entire genetic community to lose a major and important asset. It will do nothing to protect individual privacy to take this database down. It’s just such a sad loss.

  10. Haywood Djablomi says:

    Very good analysis Judy! Love your point of view on this follicle info!!

  11. Tristan Begg says:

    I need to make a serious correction to this post. The statement that ‘a hair shaft simply doesn’t contain nuclear DNA’ is patently false. Hair contains highly degraded nuclear DNA that is actually very compatible with modern sequencing methods, all the more so considering that thanks to the ease with which hair can be decontaminated, it is capable of yielding near pure endogenous extracts. During keratinization, two important processes occur affecting both nuDNA and mtDNA preservation: organelles are destroyed, including the cell nucleus but possible excluding mitochondria, and a keratinocyte-specific endonuclease DNASE1L2 is expressed, with the level of expression varying between individuals. This endonuclease cuts nuclear DNA into tiny fragments, rarely in excess of 80 base pairs in length. Nuclear DNA content in hair therefore varies between individuals as a result of the extent to which this endonuclease is expressed. The most conservative statement that can be made based on modern research, is that around 12% of all people have no amplifiable nuclear DNA in their hair above 82 base pairs in size, using 3cm of hair. The rest are estimated to have anywhere between 100pg and 550pg of nuclear DNA per 3cm of hair (that equates to between 16 and 91 diploid nuclear genomes in 3cm of hair). We can expect that most DNA fragments in hair therefore fall well below 82 base pairs in length, but that with sufficient quantities of hair, high-coverage nuclear genomes can be sequenced in at least 88% of all cases, if sufficient quantities of hair are available. Unfortunately, no library-based quantitation study has ever been performed on hair, meaning that in reality, we do not know the true extent of nuDNA survival in hair (all present studies are in essence under-estimates due to biases against small DNA fragments both in extraction and purification stages, and also in analytical phases like PCR amplification). But we know more than enough to refute the absurd statement that no nuclear DNA survives in hair. The average nuclear DNA fragment sizes from the two ancient human nuclear genomes thus far derived from hair are 55 base pairs, and 69 base pairs, with one of the genomes having around 20-fold coverage (fairly good quality, particularly considering the inefficiency of the extraction/purification methods then in use, as well as the harsh bleach decontamination protocol used).

    A more accurate or relevant statement is that PCR amplification of large amplicons in hair, as is typically used in forensic contexts, is incredibly poorly suited for hair. The majority of people here are essentially interested in ancestry related information based on SNP calling, which theoretically would not be a problem with DNA from hair, though sequencing costs may be around $1000.

    So please, do not despair. You can sequence nuclear genomes from hair. And do hold your breath, some very important nuclear genomes are likely to begin surfacing from historical locks around the world.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Fair enough, based on very recent studies. But let’s be serious here. As you say: “in reality, we do not know the true extent of nuDNA survival in hair” and the only time this kind of analysis can be done is (a) very expensive and (b) only when there are, in your words, “sufficient quantities of hair.” In other words, don’t bank on it — not yet, perhaps not in your lifetime.

  12. Michelle says:

    Hi guys :) I’ve been reading posts for a while and would really appreciate a point in the right direction. I’m trying to trace genetic ancestry and all I have left to work with is my fathers hair brush. What I’m interested in is a potential confirmation of American Indian heritage; daddy’s hair was really long and there’s quite a few in the brush. Can someone please recommend a specific company most able to run some tests Please! Thanks for reading, Michelle

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Testing hair requires three things realistically: (a) some luck that the hair includes the root and not just the shaft since the root offers the best chance of getting a decent DNA sample; (b) a whole lot of money because you’re going to have to find a private commercial DNA lab that’s willing to do this — the genetic genealogy companies don’t; and (c) a huge amount of luck even if you find that private lab, since many hair samples, even with roots, don’t produce enough for true analysis. If your Native American ancestry is less than 200 years (4-5 generations back), you’re much better off testing yourself with one of the genetic genealogy companies.

  13. Freda says:

    Can a lock of my sisters hair and a lock of mine tell me if we have the same mother

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If a specialized testing company can succeed in extracting mitochondrial DNA from the hair, then it is possible. Be aware however that none of the genealogy companies will do this sort of testing; you’ll need to find a private lab and be prepared for a substantial cost. It’s not something you should even consider if the people themselves can be tested (at much much lower cost).

  14. Jacalyn Callaway-Ford says:

    My mother just pasted 2/21/16. I took DNA and from her cheeks, placed in a zip lock bag from hospital. I then refrigerated it. Is it still viable. Where to test?.

  15. Jacalyn Callaway-Ford says:

    My understanding of the above posts is that the the foot long, 1″diameter hair of Great Grandmother fair w/o cuticle would not give Sufficient DNA results.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no genetic genealogy company that would test it anyway: this kind of testing is done only by expensive specialty labs that would not guarantee results.

  16. Just Curious says:

    Most hair items i.e. wigs, extensions, weaves etc. use human hair. However the hair is subjected to an acid wash to remove the cuticle layer of the shaft to prevent tangles. Would hairs from these items still be suitable for mitochondrial DNA even with the most outer layer stripped?

    Thank you for your time.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’d have to ask a specialty lab for help with that one — there are no genetic genealogy companies that do hair testing.

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