Banking on DNA

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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20 Responses to Banking on DNA

  1. A strange co-incidence. I decided to take up the offer and completed the very easy online application.The confirmation from Family Tree appeared in my inbox and then this blog entry arrived as the very next e mail.
    I agree entirely with Judy this is to good an offer to refuse- the normal price is $169 so for $39 (which is about £25 for us Brits).
    The more people who take the test- the more useful information will be generated to individuals and the more collective information will help us understand out ancestors more fully.

  2. Jeff says:

    It is and it isn’t a matter of price. On the price alone, yes it is a no brainer. Unless you have a (or are the) willing direct male descendant, they could be giving away the tests for free and it wouldn’t make any difference. I am still working on finding my “victim”, um, I mean, willing DNA donor. :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Too true, Jeff… but this is a sale price, not an announced permanent price, so buying a kit or two in the expectation (or even hope) that you’ll find that “willing victim” is an option. It’s sure what I’m doing.

  3. I know my line back to Alsace-Lorraine in central Europe five-generations back. What more would I learn? Even for $39 dollars? A much more reasonable price, by the way. I hope FamilyTree DNA and others offer similar pricing… ;-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You could confirm your paper trail, Bill… and bank the DNA to do other types of testing in the future, like Family Finder testing.

  4. I was reading about this yesterday. I’m thinking about having my husband do the test. My father-in-law doesn’t know who his father is. He has a couple of names. I have a picture of my husband with his father and step grandfather. The picture was taken 5 years ago and I think the resemblance between the three of them is pretty amazing. My husband and father-in-law are supportive and interested in my family research. The remainder of my father-in-law’s family want no part of it. I was wondering if this would provide any useful information. Thank you for reviewing it.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no guarantee, Laurie, but it might well provide leads. If, for example, your husband’s closest matches were people with the surname of one of your candidates for his grandfather, it would sure warrant further testing. But let me suggest that you test your father-in-law and not your husband (or do both). The reason is that you may decide down the road to expand the test to autosomal DNA testing in the future, and for that type of testing you want the oldest generation to be tested. Testing your father-in-law would mean that you’d likely have a sample from that oldest generation banked for the future.

  5. I did the maternal and paternal tests that offers and spent a lot of money on it. There are lots of maternal matches and so far no paternal ones.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’ve tested with a number of companies, Elijah — the notion is to fish in different ponds to have the most possible matches. But FYI my brother has no close paternal matches either — likely because few Europeans have tested with the company where I had his test done.

  6. Lynn Palermo says:

    I was thinking the same as Bill, pretty sure I wouldn’t learn anything new but for $39.00 I should test my father who is nearing 80. What test would I need for my Mother’s paternal line? My mother is one of seven girls no male descendants.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I would definitely test your father, Lynn, if for no other reason than to bank his DNA for later autosomal testing.

      As for your Mom’s side… EEEP! All girls? No YDNA to be done there, I’m afraid. Your best bet with your mother, then, is autosomal DNA for her or any of her sisters — or go back a generation to your maternal grandfather and look for brothers and their male descendants or to HIS father and brothers and male descendants to get the YDNA.

  7. Alas, my father is deceased. Otherwise, I would do this. Must stick to mitochondrial or autosomal, I guess.

    : ((

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      A brother? An uncle (brother of your father) or nephew? A cousin (son/grandson etc. of your father’s uncle)? Those are all options, too.

  8. Jane Filmore says:

    Since I am just beginning to think about this – a couple of questions
    1. Would two brothers have the same DNA?
    2. Would the son of one man have the same DNA as the son of his father’s brother?

    Would DNA test would be necessary to confirm the paternity?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Brother 1 and brother 2 would have the same YDNA, although they could have small differences (there can be small changes from generation to generation so that two brothers might differ in, say, one of 67 markers). And yes, the son of brother 1 would have the same YDNA as brother 1 and brother 2, again with the possibility of a small change. So for YDNA purposes only, you only need to test one of the three.

  9. Ruy Cardoso says:

    Just a couple of comments (surprise!)…

    First, I assume that the haplogroup that comes out of this testing is a prediction based on the Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) used in this test, not the haplogroup as defined by Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). I have no idea how good the predictions are based on 12 markers, but if my assumption is correct, then it is important for people to remember that predictions and reality do not always correspond.

    Second, I’ve always understood the 12-marker test to be far more useful for eliminating possibilities rather than for confirming them. That’s true regardless of the price. You’ve indirectly touched on this in the post, but it could perhaps use a little more emphasis. Eliminating possibilities is, of course, worth paying something for, though maybe a lot of consumers wouldn’t feel that way. So many people buy these products without a real understanding of what they are good for and then end up disappointed.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It certainly isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of DNA testing, Ruy. And yes, it’s much better at ruling things out than ruling things in (as is mtDNA generally). But it’s a good way to get started.

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