2014: Most bang for DNA bucks

Making the most of your 2014 DNA testing dollars

In 2012, The Legal Genealogist led off a Sunday DNA blog by asking “how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck?”1

And then followed that up last year with an update after prices tumbled for autosomal DNA tests.2

dna.deals

And it’s time now for another update. Because the technological changes particularly at 23andMe mean the old recommendations don’t work any more.

We’re talking here principally about autosomal DNA tests. (Autosomal DNA testing, remember, is the kind of test that works across genders to locate relatives — cousins — from all parts of your family tree.3 That’s in contrast to YDNA testing, which only men can do and which looks at the direct paternal line,4 or mitochondrial DNA testing, which looks at the direct maternal line.5)

There are four possible autosomal DNA tests you can take — from Family Tree DNA, from 23andMe, from Ancestry DNA and even from National Geographic in its Geno 2.0 test with its scientific (rather than genealogical) emphasis.

All of which I have taken. Admittedly, I’m a DNA junkie. I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. There are real advantages to testing as widely as possible: you’re looking to find people who match you, and the key person who can help you break down your brick wall may have only tested with one company.

But since nobody is handing out DNA kits for free, the question remains… how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck? And the answer depends in part on what it is you want to find out through your DNA testing.

Every one of the genetic genealogy companies has its pros and its cons. A comparison chart explaining what features the companies do and don’t have is available in the Wiki for the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG). Prepared by Tim Janzen, a medical doctor with a deep understanding of autosomal DNA testing, the Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart provides a good overview.

Here’s my own take.

If you can only afford to test with one company (no change from 2013): If you’re serious about using DNA as a tool in your genealogy toolkit and you can only afford to test with one company, then the company to test with is Family Tree DNA. It has more to offer the genealogist than anybody else in terms of the number of serious genealogists who use it and the features and ease of use it offers. Contacting matches is easy and the amount of information provided about matches is the best in the business.

If your primary interest is in medical information (updated for 2014): If you really want to know about the medical secrets hidden in your DNA, you have to go to a third party utility right now. The dust-up between 23andMe and the federal Food and Drug Administration over the representations 23andMe was making about what autosomal results meant for health issues has brought those reports to a halt.6 So if this is what you want, your best bet is to test with any company you prefer for genealogy, and then run your raw data though a reporting system like Promethease.

If your primary interest is in the admixture data (updated for 2014): If your primary interest is in the numbers — what percentage European or African you are, the two most updated reports are the Ancestry Composition report from 23andMe and the Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry DNA. Family Tree DNA is still lagging behind on this but is in the process of updating its admixture analyses. But remember that the numbers are really just a guess. If you want to help everybody understand admixtures better for the future, and you can afford it, consider testing with National Geographic’s Geno 2.0. That’s where the real scientific work is being done and, if enough people test, the information we all get about deep ancestry should vastly improve. It’s not cheap — $199 for the test — and there’s not much useful genealogical information, so this is a commitment to science for tomorrow, not a test to do for genealogy today.

If the person you want to test is very old or very young (no change from 2013): Most of the time, how you test doesn’t matter. But if the person you want to test is older or younger, you may need to avoid a test that requires saliva, such as the tests from AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Older people sometimes can’t produce enough saliva to test and it’s impossible to tell a baby how to produce the kind of saliva needed. Family Tree DNA uses swabs rubbed on the inside of the cheek and that avoids this problem.

If you want to link your DNA results to your family tree (no change from 2013): The only company right now that links DNA results to your family tree and compares it to others’ family trees is AncestryDNA. When the tree information is right, it’s a wonderfully useful tool. It’s considerably less so when — as is common — the tree information is wrong, or your match doesn’t have a tree at Ancestry, or your match’s tree is private. There are as yet no tools at AncestryDNA to compare DNA when there is no tree match.

If you want to fish in all the ponds for the lowest price (updated for 2014): Of course, the best way to get all the matches you can possibly get it to test with all three major companies. These days, testing with all three is less expensive than it used to be to test with just one. But you can save yourself a little bit of money and get your results into all three databases this way:

Step 1. Test with AncestryDNA first. It’ll cost you $99. (The big change for 2014 is that you can no longer use 23andMe for this first step because its raw data today using its new V4 testing chip isn’t compatible with the Family Tree DNA system.)

Step 2. The minute you get your results from the first test, transfer your raw data to Family Tree DNA for $69. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your matches at the other company, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits.

Step 3. When you can afford it, test with 23andMe for another $99.

That puts you into all three pools for a total of $267 — less than what you used to pay for one such test in the past.


SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 May 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 July 2013).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Update: More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 July 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014).
  3. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
  4. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 5 Mar 2014.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 29 Oct 2013.
  6. See Judy G. Russell, “23andMe suspends health tests,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014).
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138 Responses to 2014: Most bang for DNA bucks

  1. Ruth Rawls says:

    Thank you for this! I always have a “take-away” from your posts!

  2. Theresa King Ager says:

    Don’t forget to recommend Gedmatch.com. This free service (donations encouraged, but not required) allows you to match with people from all of the companies that have also uploaded to Gedmatch. This way you can compare info when you can only afford 1 $99 test.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m a big fan of GedMatch and have written about it in the past — but remember that you can only compare to the results of others who’ve chosen to upload their results and that’s only a small fraction of the people who’ve tested with the other companies.

  3. Shirley Ann Rankin says:

    Hi Judy,
    I’ll be putting together a DNA testing display for our Genealogical Society at the end of this month. I would like to use this post as part of the display, if that’s possible.
    Thanks,
    Shirley

  4. Dave N says:

    “If your primary interest is in medical information”… Then you should test with 23andMe, and THEN use the raw resulting data with Promethease… 23andMe provides results for medically-significant markers that are omitted by the other companies. It does enter a less clear area, BUT inclusion of more markers that have medical implications should be a priority “if your primary interest is in medical information”…

    • Mary E Hall says:

      Good point. I believe FT DNA specifically tries NOT to obtain health rich SNPs and AncestryDNA, perhaps inadvertently, does pick some up.

      23andMe still targets and tests health rich SNPs even if they don’t provide health reports on them, at the moment.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good point that the other companies make a deliberate effort not to capture medical information.

  5. Lisa Lisson says:

    Judy, thank you for outlining this so thoroughly. I am on my way to becoming a “DNA junkie”, too and the cost has deterred me at times.

  6. Lynne Klemens says:

    Judy,
    I recently attended the Ancestry Day conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A representative from Ancestry.com there told me that I could plug my raw results from my son’s FTDNA YDNA test into Ancestry.com’s DNA test system for free. I’m considering this since my son had no matches for his Eastern European DNA with Family Tree DNA. Could this be correct? Free?
    Thanks.
    Lynne Klemens

    • Mary E Hall says:

      Yes, that’s true. You have to manually provide them but anyone can enter ONE set of yDNA STR values into Ancestry’s database. I think you have to have an Ancestry.com subscription, so it’s not entirely “free”.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, you can manually enter the markers from his YDNA test into the Ancestry pages. The database there isn’t all that big, but it’s worth taking advantage of.

  7. Linda Bridger says:

    I had a DNA test done on my husband for genealogy purposes. It really only traces the mothers side. I found it extremely vague. It showed he is of European decent which we probably all are.
    I did not get any information that was of any help from having the test done. Save your money.
    I had it done through Ancestry which I have been a member for 15 years and believe it is a wonderful site and very helpful but DNA only tells you about what percent of European and Scandinavian decent you are. Not a whole lot of help.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      DNA tests are only as good as the work you put into comparing your results with those of others against a solid paper trail, Linda. By themselves, they’re not going to tell you an awful lot.

      • Laura Davenport says:

        It sounds to me like Linda may have done only the mtDNA test, not the autosomal if it tests only for the maternal line. I think it’s really important that people read before they test, I still see people with the idea that the only testing of use in genealogy is yDNA which certainly has an important place still, but autosomal is the broadest and most versatile.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Ancestry isn’t doing mtDNA tests any more (both mtDNA and YDNA on the website as shown consistently as “out of stock”) so, if this test was recent, it was autosomal.

          • Laura Davenport says:

            Yes, I know mt/y aren’t available through Ancestry anymore. But it does sound as if she either had the mt done in the past or does not understand her DNA results at all if it’s autosomal. This is entirely possible as I know or have encountered many who cannot understand how DNA can be done on either sex because “everybody knows DNA can only be used for genealogy if it is done on a male”. Direct quote.

  8. Debi Austen says:

    I hate to sound stupid but I have a question – if I’ve received my results from ancestry.com, do I initiate sending the raw data to FTDNA through ancestry or Family Tree? What I really want to know is who do I pay? :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Not stupid at all! The payment is to FTDNA to make available all of its analysis for your data. At AncestryDNA, all you do is download the raw data. When you upload it to FTDNA, that’s when the payment takes place. There are directions for downloading the AncestryDNA raw data at Ancestry itself (http://dna.ancestry.com/atFAQ#raw-3) or, for example, in Roberta Estes’ DNAeXplained blog (here).

  9. jeannie says:

    Thx, you answered all my questions; it’s as if you were reading my mind. I just completed the Ancestry.com test and will surely download the raw data and send it along to Family Tree DNA. I too want to do them all but will go for the first 3 and then see if l can afford the National Geo one. Thanks for the info!

  10. Michael says:

    “DNA tests are only as good as the work you put into comparing your results with those of others against a solid paper trail.” Indeed, and since Ancestry.com is the only site where you can find those solid paper trails, I still don’t understand why it’s not your first choice for a “if you only test once”. The existence of poorly sourced trees and the absence of better tools doesn’t outweigh the importance of linking to paper trails in my mind. But perhaps I’m overgeneralizing from my vastly superior results at Ancestry compared to the other two sites. I’m pretty sure we’ll agree to disagree but I did want to put the counter-argument out there. Love this blog!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s not my first choice because I can’t verify the match, Michael. Yes, the match and I are cousins. In what line? On which side? I have no data to look at other than generally undocumented trees that are often filled with errors. That’s why I can’t make it my first choice “if you only test once.”

      • Michael says:

        Judy, for endogamous populations like mine, I don’t see any way to verify a match on Family Tree DNA (or 23andMe, or GEDMatch) with just tools but no family trees. 23andMe tries and fails pretty spectacularly, so it’s not just me. Maybe the choice for only test once is different in those situations.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Michael, the reality is that neither DNA nor the paper trail alone is the way to go: it’s always always always the two together.

          • Laura Davenport says:

            True, but as a person who has had a long career in the field of genetics and a long, but shorter career in the field of genealogy, I did the Ancestry test knowing it’s shortcomings (which I hope are on the mend)just because my trees are hosted at Ancestry.
            I did not test to blindly root out every possible living relative, but with certain goals aimed at solving specific problems in my own family tree. For me, this worked really well and was certainly worth the $99 even if that had been all I’d ever done. I did go on to upload to GedMatch although not so far to FTDNA.I come from a mixture of highly endogamous populations so seeing at the segment level the endogamy I can see in my genealogy was interesting, but really not critical to solving the mysteries I did the test for in the first place.
            The level of technical expertise of the tester is also important. The current Ancestry reports are on the “quick and dirty” side but not everyone is wired to ever understand segment comparisons, triangulations, chromosome browsers, the IBS/IBD distinction and on and on. Ancestry is playing to their audience. They may be underestimating many of them, but if people cannot understand what a very simple single “match” is at Ancestry they are overwhelmed and discouraged with detailed results. And, I’ve seen people overwhelmed and discouraged with their Ancestry results, not a clue as to what to do with them and completely missing the point that “you have two trees” and random DNA matches won’t build you a genealogical tree. These people fare poorly at places like FTDNA and GedMatch and often do not understand that some learning base is really a necessity at these places and even at Ancestry.
            If somebody says to me “I just can’t handle the numbers” or “what am I supposed to do with this list of people I’ve never heard of” and they are referring to their Ancestry match list I’m not going to suggest they test at all three companies or upload to FTDNA or GedMatch.

  11. Conrad Scott says:

    Thank You for the very interesting and informative web site. I was adopted in the 1950s. I know absolutely nothing about my birth parents. My wife has traced her genealogy through both parents to the first settlers of New Mexico. My teenage daughter and her first cousin both did DNA Tribes. They didn’t have many similar matches, although interestingly enough there was a hot spot on the map where my wife grew up in Southern Colorado/N New Mexico. My daughter wants me to take a test to figure out my ethnicity. I would like your recommendation for the most accurate test to determine this. I have no interest in actually finding long lost relatives, so the actual finding ancestors part doesn’t very much. Thanks

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Conrad, the problem is that the ethnicity tests are simply not good enough now (and may never be good enough) to tell you very much about your ethnicity beyond the continental level (Europe versus Africa versus Asia, etc.). Please see the post Admixture: not soup yet (posted 18 May 2014).

  12. Conrad Scott says:

    Thank You!

  13. Mike Cha says:

    The AncestryDNA $79 sale (well really $89 with shipping) led me here to figure out if it’s worthwhile to take my first DNA test. Thank you for this great info. My question is this, is there any benefit to getting the test for my immediate siblings? I’m male and I have both male & female siblings. How about my children (boys only)? Thanks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The AncestryDNA test is an autosomal DNA test. That means you and your siblings — male or female — are all equally good candidates. You and your siblings will each inherit 50% of your autosomal DNA from each of your parents — but it won’t be exactly the same 50%. So you will have matches to cousins who don’t match your siblings and they will have matches to cousins who don’t match you. For that reason, I recommend testing everyone you can afford to test. As for your sons, they will have matches to their mother’s side, which of course you will not have.

  14. Barbara says:

    hello, what an awesome and informative bl
    blog! My question is ive been suggested to apply for native American scholarships for grad school, but i have to have proof of the blood line. which test or website will have the best accuracy? also both of my parents are deseased,would their dna have helped my findings? ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’d have to check with the scholarship service and see (a) if it accepts DNA evidence (most do not, they require tribal recognition) and (b) if so, what company’s results it accepts. And remember that the ethnicity aspects of autosomal testing are the weakest of all and may not show what you hope even if you actually do have Native American ancestry.

    • Commonsense says:

      Please don’t do an Elizabeth Warren. There’s plenty of fullblood Native Americans who need those scholarships, and it’s disgraceful for “really white” thinbloods to take them all.

      If you really want to prove ancestry, find your birth certificates back to someone on the Dawes rolls. But don’t take the scholarship from some poor person on a reservation. They need it.

      • c says:

        Sorry, but you don’t even know the life or background of this person. How can you immediately write them off as someone unworthy of a scholarship, or wealthy enough to not need one? If they can prove sufficient Native American ancestry at the level required, then who can say applying for a scholarship is not right? That makes them Native American!
        Some people assume that 1) people who look European are “all white,” therefore dismissing any other heritage that their family possesses. Also, this is done to people whom people think “look” black; even if their background includes other heritage; people dismiss it based on appearances. This is wrong because individuals walking the planet today are ONLY alive due to the breeding of their ancestry, whatever mix they are. People should be able to recognize their varied backgrounds and feel validated in knowing where they came from. 2) most people who appear to be “white” are wealthy enough to not require scholarships, which is NOT the case.
        I could make several guesses as to the background of the previous poster: possibly a person who does not believe they have mixed heritage, or who is not mixed enough themselves to understand or even consider the perspective of a person of mixed heritage. If you are many things, you can still claim all of them Because they ARE ALL you.

        • Lyd says:

          This person does need to be an enrolled Tribal member to receive Native American scholarships. Each Tribe decides their own requirements for membership, some go by a certain blood quantum,others by whether you are a descendent of a person on the original membership rolls.

  15. JK says:

    I use dna to find possible male relatives some 14 generations ago. I have used 12 marker Ychrome test…. updated to 25 test and then 36. I can not see any benefit for more detailed testing since I am looking at possible connections back to the 1500s. I am basically trying to find where my ancestors came from in England and am hoping to find a relative back before my ancestor came over in 1600s. Is my logic correct. I do not see any benefit of the auto… whatever testing. Any real benefit to this later testing if you are not african american… ie likely slave ancestry.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      YDNA — the father to son to son form — doesn’t change much from generation to generation, so you might certainly get lucky and find someone who matches you who still lives in England or who descends from a well-documented English line. There’s no need to expand beyond 37 markers just yet. There are MANY reasons to do autosomal testing that have nothing to do with slave ancestry. Most of us have brick walls or challenges within four or five generations that can be overcome with the help of cousins identified through autosomal testing.

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  17. Gary says:

    I just got my DNA from ancestryDNA. You mentioned that once I received it I could transfer it to Family tree DNA for $69.00. How is this done?

  18. Mariella says:

    Wow, what a helpful post! I have a question that I hope you can help me with:

    I’m trying to learn more about my paternal grandmother. Rumor has it she was one-quarter Cherokee, from her mother. I am planning on doing a DNA test, for what it’s worth, but I was wondering if it would make sense to have my aunt (my great-grandmother’s direct female descendent) do a DNA test as well. She’s elderly, and I’m visiting her next week, so it’s the perfect opportunity to have her tested if that would be helpful. So my question is a) would it matter, and b) what test would be most helpful for that?

    Thank you so much for being such an invaluable resource!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Absolutely yes get the oldest living generation tested for autosomal DNA *and* get the direct female line descendant tested for mitochondrial DNA as well. The mtDNA has to be done through Family Tree DNA, so you might as well do autosomal testing there too, but I’d also do autosomal through 23andMe in this case since they have — at the moment at least — the best admixture analysis (trying to figure out where our ancestors came from in addition to who we match as cousins).

  19. Mariella says:

    Thank you so much for your speedy response! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to respond to all these questions (especially mine!). :-)

  20. Roo says:

    Is it better to join Ancestry.com first and build my family tree from what I know or should I do the DNA testing first? Then compare/input data?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no “better” here — do ‘em both! You can build your tree out while waiting for the results to come in.

  21. Janet says:

    Thank you so much for this information – it is very helpful for a beginner such as myself. I do need to ask for an opinion, however. I have run into walls while researching my father’s family and my grandfather’s family on my mother’s side. Since I am a member of Ancestry, I would like to do the DNA test myself & then upload to Family Tree, as recommended. However, I also was thinking about having my oldest brother’s son (all of my brothers are deceased) and the son of my mother’s brother tested to see what could be gleaned. If it makes sense to do this, would it be better to go through Ancestry and then upload to Family Tree or simply do the yDNA test through Family Tree? Thank you.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re always better off testing your family’s autosomal DNA as widely as possible, Janet, so if you can afford it, then yes test everyone at AncestryDNA, then transfer their raw data to Family Tree DNA (you would then have all three of you in both autosomal databases) and then test the two men at Family Tree DNA for their YDNA.

      • Janet says:

        Thank you so very much! I do appreciate it. I apologize for the double posting. When I checked for a response yesterday, it appeared that my question had not posted. When I re-posted, the original appeared so I do apologize for that.

  22. Mike Harland says:

    When it comes to ancestry composition if my wife and I each got tested could we assume that our daughters would be 1/2 of each of us?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Each of your daughters inherited 50% of her genes from you and 50% from your wife — but they could each have gotten a very different mix from each of you. Your genes were randomly jumbled and your wife’s were randomly jumbled with each child. So Daughter 1 might have gotten 25% (half of your half) from your father and 25% from your mother, while Daughter 2 might have gotten 40% from your father and 10% from your mother. So that could really throw the ancestry composition (ethnicity estimates) off between the two of them. That’s why I keep saying to forget the percentages. Do DNA testing to find cousins and break down brick walls, NOT to find out what percentage your ancestry composition is — because it really can’t tell you what the percentages are.

  23. Gary Snyder says:

    I would like to know which DNA test would be best to find any information about my male doners identity. And thank you for being so informative with your responses.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      For any male wanting to know about an unknown male parent, both a YDNA and an autosomal DNA test is the way to go. YDNA can only be tested through Family Tree DNA; autosomal DNA testing is done through 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA and you should test with all companies to get the greatest number of matches.

      • Gary Snyder says:

        I am the only person to test. So it appears that the YDNA is my first best place to look. Thank you!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          You’re the only person you know of. But if a cousin or nephew or brother or sister of the donor has done autosomal testing, that may show up in the database. That’s why autosomal testing should also be done. The YDNA is just your father’s father’s father’s line; autosomal is also your father’s mother’s father’s mother’s line. Lots more potential overall.

  24. Paul Gargis says:

    I recently learned that I was adopted from the hosp at the time of birth and now am attempting to verify who my Father is, I have found my Mother even though she has been gone for 64 years, I have tested at 23andme and at Family tree dna, my bio neices and nephews have tested as well, we are absolutley certain on my Mother, but not on my Father, I do not line up with my bio-brothers son at all, however I do have more in common with my sisters son, actually more than my my sisters daughter and my brothers daughter, is there a place that could check all of the results for us, do not think that we really understand the results at all, for instance the haplogroup numbers are totally different on FTDNA and 23and Me, if we can not interpert those numbers, what do we do now?

  25. Andreas G says:

    Geno 2.0 is currently selling at discounted price of $159 “for a limited time”

  26. Dywane Rucker says:

    I am trying to assist my wife and find out more about her ethnicity. She never met her dad. All her life she thought he was from Jordan but now learned he may have been from Egypt. She is just trying to find out more of her ethnicity from her dad’s side. This site has been very helpful, but I want to know what test should we use to get as much information about her ethnicity on her dad’s side. Is there one test that is more specific than another.
    Thanks for any assistance you can have.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There is no test that is going to be able to distinguish for certain at the level you’re looking for, I’m afraid. The best available test for ethnicity estimates is probably still 23andMe, but please understand they are just estimates, and nothing more. Repeat: just estimates and nothing more.

  27. Paul Labadie says:

    Thanks for the great Information. I want to do the AncestryNDA test, strictly for enthicity purposes. Do I HAVE TO sign up for a subscription to Ancestry.com to do the AncestryDNA test? What about 23andMe? And can I print out results on my printer? THANKS!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      No, you don’t need a subscription to see your ethnicity results. But remember that those are merely estimates and can be — to put it mildly — dead darned wrong. 23andMe does not have a subscription cost, nor does Family Tree DNA. I’ve never tried to print my results from AncestryDNA but any screen capture program should work.

      • Samuel F says:

        Does Ancestry still provide a pdf file of your DNA results, as they did when I took a Y-DNA c.2007? If so, you can save and print out your results on your own computer to your heart’s content.

  28. J.H. says:

    I am trying to decide which test to take; I can only afford one. I realize that you have probably answered this 50 times already, but here is my question: I am female. My mother is adopted (has never tried to locate biological family). My father is 100% Swedish (as far as we know). I am interested in finding out my ethnic origins, primarily. My mother looks like she could have come from anywhere between Sweden and Italy, and many points east of there. Which test would you recommend?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The problem with your question is that there isn’t any test that can give you a reliable, take-it-to-the-bank answer to the question of your ethnic origins on anything less than a continental level. DNA ethnicity estimates are really good at distinguishing between European and African, or between African and Asian. They are — to put it mildly — less than reliable at distinguishing between, say, Swedish and German, or German and French. Because these ethnicity tests are based on comparing the DNA of living people to the DNA of other living people, there’s a huge room for error, and it isn’t particularly likely that it’s ever going to get a whole lot better. That being said, if you’re willing to accept that what you’re getting isn’t gospel truth but is just some possible hints, the best available ethnicity estimates today are probably at 23andMe. By the same token, you can test with any company, take the raw data and run it through the multiple ethnicity calculators at Gedmatch and do your own basic analysis. In other words, choose your company for what you hope to learn from the genealogy, not from the ethnicity estimates.

  29. Jonis Blauch says:

    My daughters and I found your article very interesting and were wanting to proceed with your 1,2,3 steps. The trouble we are finding is that we are in Australia and AncestryDNA does not offer testing outside of the US at this time. Is there an alternative you could recommend to us?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Those in countries where AncestryDNA isn’t yet available have two options: (1) get someone in the US to use their address as the test kit address (I’m not recommending this, just saying it can be done…); or (2) test with Family Tree DNA for now and wait for AncestryDNA to get around to more international testing down the road.

  30. Lisa says:

    Hello,
    I appreciate this information as I am now interested in having the genetic testing done. I didn’t see this answered but may have missed it so, my apologies if so.
    I want to find out if our family has the MTHFR gene. I know that only raw data is being given out now from 23 and me with their problems. So does Ancestry give the raw data? Do they all? Then you need a Dr. to read it?

    I appreciate any info as this is all new to me.
    Lisa

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      All of the testing companies allow you to download raw data. You would have to check with each company to determine whether the raw data it collects includes this particular gene.

    • T. Bird says:

      I got this info from Ancestry and my sisters did form 23AndMe. We all put our raw data through Promethease for $5 charge – it reads raw data for any health risks/statistics associated with your particular genetic makeup. It is a bit hard to interpret. I also had a blood test ordered by my doctor and paid for by insurance, so I have one version of the mutation and my doctor prescribed Deplin. My insurance pays for it. Interestingly, my daughter was not tested but she also takes the medicine as the doctor said he doesn’t need to test to try Deplin and if it helps (with depression and also to make antidepression meds work better), then there is no need to order the blood test. FYI, I did not get a maternal haplogroup or %Neanderthal from Ancestry’s autosomal testing, but my sisters did with 23&Me for the same cost. On the other hand, I am not sure if they can upload their raw data to Family Tree DNA like I can with Ancestry’s raw data. These are all things to consider. I hope this is helpful. You could always check with the companies to make sure, but I just wanted to let you know what my family found out through DNA testing about this mutation.

  31. Nick says:

    Hello . I learned a lot from reading questions and answers. My question is in two parts. How is Jewish and Native American heritage ascertained ? From reading one post. If DNA ethnicity estimates are good at distinguishing people from whole continents. Not so much from country to country ? Are Jewish and Native American heritage just a guess ?

    And for the record. I just made the leap and ordered 23 and me . And may order other kits from other companies later on. I am Hispanic. And very confident in some Native American heritage. But have a gut feeling of Jewish heritage. Thank you for you time

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nick, all of these percentages are derived by comparing your DNA to the DNA of what is called a reference population (or, actually, a set of reference populations) — other people alive today who have been identified by the testing companies as representative of a particular region or ethnicity. So we have three issues in reliability: (1) how much DNA did you individually inherit from ancestors who may have been Native American or Ashkenazi Jewish or African? (2) how big is the reference population for that specific ethnicity? and (3) how accurate is the conclusion that the people in that reference population accurately reflect that region or ethnicity? Because we’re comparing living people to living people, it’s always something of a guess, and if you NA or Jewish ancestry is more than just a few generations back it may not be detectible anyway.

  32. Blair K says:

    Very helpful article! NIck’s question above brings up one important strength of 23andMe, with respect to ethnic origins. Their autosomal test includes an optional feature, where people can (anonymously) identify the “country of origin” (or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage) of all 4 grandparents. Cousin matches between two people of mixed origins don’t reveal much, of course, But having a number of matches to people who all report four grandparents from the same background can be important clues to ethnicity. I tested my mother, of full Slovenian ancestry but always had a vague “feeling” about Jewish heritage, and 23andMe confirms this, on the strength of the number of full Ashkenazi heritage matches she has in their database. Note that these are matches to single individuals, as opposed to comparing to the norms for a reference population, which aren’t too reliable. Thanks again for this informative article, which makes me realize I should transfer some of the results I have for my mother (23andMe) and myself (FTDNA.)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The ancestral background information can certainly provide hints. It’s when people try to use the ethnicity estimates as gospel that we run into trouble!

  33. T. Bird says:

    Hello and thanks for this – exactly what I was looking for! I’d like to share something by way of an update, especially for those cost conscious. Ancestry DNA ran a special for $79 at the end of the year (2014) and I have a feeling they will do that periodically and good chance at minimum in Dec for holiday/seasonal promotion. And also right now (Jan 2015) Family Tree DNA has lower price for transfer – it is $39

  34. Doug says:

    I tested a few years ago at 23andme (i.e. before v3). I was amazed to receive the result that my dna shows as 25% Ashkenazi. But my wife has done extensive genealogy on my family, and it is clear that this result is from my paternal side alone, making my paternal grandfather 100% Ashkenazi. The geneaology breaks down tho, as we cannot trace my grandfather’s origins, and the loss of 1890 census is a major barrier. Meanwhile on FTDNA I see there is a project for a Jewish group that includes my (probably made up) surname.

    So hoping to find a cousin with genealogical knowledge. Here is my question: I can’t upload my 23andme results because they are not v3. We have family trees on Ancestry, but my paternal side goes nowhere. Should I retest using the Ancestry autosomal and then do the transfer to FTDNA? Thanks!

  35. Andrea E. says:

    My husband does not know who his father is. We now have a son and we are interested in finding out his ancestry from that side of the family. Would the Y chromosome test be our best bet to find out information about possible matches and ethnic descent?. Does anyone have any recommendations? I am very new to this, I am starting to build a family tree and all this is so interesting.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Because the absent parent is the father, it makes sense for your husband to do both the YDNA test (to help identify his direct paternal line) and one or more of the autosomal tests. The YDNA test must be done with Family Tree DNA and you can add on Family Finder, or do an autosomal test at AncestryDNA and then transfer the results to Family Tree DNA to get the benefit of both databases.

  36. Linda Williamson says:

    I am thrilled to have stumbled onto your blog. Thank you so much for doing this! I am also something of a DNA genealogy junkie, having done some testing of both of my parents and myself on all 3 sites. My question is this: my father has dementia and is no longer able to give saliva samples. I did test him via 23andMe a couple of years ago successfully, as they had an alternative way to collect saliva that used a little sponge, and he was more easily able to participate then, too. I was also also was able to get a sample for y-dna testing at ftdna, since they use cheek swabs. But there is still a huge brick wall at dad’s paternal grandfather, and I would like to get access to Ancestry’s database of potential matches. (My mom has well over 200 “4th cousin or closer” matches on Ancestry.) Is there any way to upload data from the other two sites to Ancestry? Or an alternative way to collect saliva for an Ancestry test?
    Thank you again for doing this work!

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  38. Derrick says:

    Thanks, this information is very useful. The problem I’m having is trying to find someone who will test with me as far as taking the Y-DNA test. I don’t know most of my family…long story. I’m researching my parental line but I was told if you take the Y-DNA test along, the results has no true meaning if taking along. I’ve taken other DNA test but I haven’t had any luck. So now I’m wanting to take the Y-DNA test. What should I do? Please help!!!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Doing some basic reading about DNA, what it shows and how it works would help. You don’t necessarily need to test with someone else; you will be matched against everyone else who has tested with that testing company. So if you’re a Smith male, your YDNA might show which other Smith males you match (assuming others have tested) and point you in the right direction. There are surname projects and geographic region projects you can join after you get your YDNA tested as well. So if you want to take the YDNA test, do so. You don’t have to have someone else in your family test at the same time.

  39. More Confused says:

    I am a novice and have never submitted a DNA test before. I read your recommendations above and all replying post. The more I read online the more I get confused. Professionally I have designed computers all my life but I am still confused and can’t decide which test my wife and I should take for our purposes. Judy obviously you know your stuff and I value your opinion. I have three relationships in my genealogy trees that I want to prove by DNA. The lines from point A to B jumps back and forth between Paternal and Maternal. To what website can I give my three relationships examples and the person tell me which test I should take? There is a real possibility here that I am so ignorant of DNA that this question will confirm that fact.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are only three possible DNA tests for genetic genealogy: (1) the YDNA test which only works to test the direct paternal line of males (YDNA is handed down from father to son to son); (2) the mitochondrial (mtDNA) test which only works to test a direct maternal line (everyone has mtDNA but only daughters can pass it on, so this looks only at your mother’s mother’s mother’s line); and (3) autosomal DNA, which everyone has and which is inherited from both parents in a random mix. Since your relationship questions don’t go in a direct male line or a direct female line, your only choice is autosomal — and that works realistically only back to about 200-300 years before the generation tested. Because of the random mixing, not getting a match doesn’t prove you and a suspected cousin aren’t related; it can only prove the two of you didn’t inherit enough DNA in common to be called a match. When you do match, it’s part of the proof you’d rely on to prove your relationship — but it has to be used in combination with paper trail evidence to help prove how you’re related. Long story short, you’re looking at 23andMe (only one test and it’s only autosomal, though it will give you an estimate as to your YDNA and mtDNA haplogroups); AncestryDNA (only one test and it’s only autosomal); or the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA (autosomal, and can be combined with YDNA or mtDNA or both if you want).

  40. More Confused says:

    Thanks. Your prompt response is appreciated. I guess I have just got to pick something and get started. I can decide where to go next once I get in.

    Great site and I will be back

  41. Carolyn says:

    Judy, I have read through all of the questions and answers and have gathered the following information. My husband wants to look into his ethnic background. So are you saying that it is best to go through 23andme and do a YDNA. He is trying to find out, from looking at family pictures, if there are any Roman ancestry in his family.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      23andMe for the admixture percentages, yes, and YDNA through Family Tree DNA for the most detail on his direct paternal lineage. (But remember that I regard almost all of the admixture stuff as bordering on fiction, so this really isn’t a reason to do DNA testing in my view. I would never discourage anyone from doing the testing — it benefits us all — but I hate when people are disappointed.)

  42. Brenda says:

    Why is it that Ancestry DNA testing can be uploaded to Family Tree DNA but not way other way around? I’ve been a member of Ancestry for many years and see no reason why that sharing can’t go both ways. For those who don’t know Family Tree DNA is having a $59 special right now. Seems to me those of us paying for Ancestry should be offered a matching deal.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s a matter of the way the systems do, or don’t, work, Brenda. FTDNA is set up to incorporate the raw data from AncestryDNA and the V3 chip from 23andMe (pre-Nov 2013 tests). AncestryDNA isn’t set up to do that.

  43. Catalina says:

    Hi, I am wanting to buy a test for my dad for the purpose of finding out more about his father. Long story short, he doesn’t know anything about who his father is and would like to know more. We have no name or surname, so we are hoping to get the most comprehensive information about his ethnicity from a DNA test. Does he specifically need a Y-DNA test? Also, my dad is from Mexico, his mother is Mexican and we assume his father is/was Mexican but we aren’t sure. I don’t know if I misunderstood the information on the various websites, but I don’t see any that specifically show Mexican decent, I just see that they show North American as a whole, not specifically Mexican or Latin, so will our information likely not show specifically what we are looking for (assuming my paternal grandfather is in fact Mexican) What test or company would you recommend for this type of situation? I have looked at 23andME, Ancestry.com, National Geographic and Family Tree and just feel overwhelmed with trying to make the right decision. I appreciate your help. Thanks so much. I hope we can shed some light for my dad–it really hurts him to not know anything about who he is.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Catalina, none of the tests — repeat, none of the tests — are going to give you very specific ethnicity information about your father’s immediate ancestors that you can really rely on and take to the bank. I wish it were otherwise, but this is not the strong point of genetic genealogy DNA testing. Even the very best of the admixture analyses looks at what it expects the ancestry to have been 500-1000 years ago or longer. That being said, the best admixture analysis available is the one from 23andMe and it does break down below the continental level, but will not give you a country (like Mexico). Again, it may not be entirely accurate, but it’s the best available. In your shoes I certainly would do a YDNA test of at least 37 markers (available only through Family Tree DNA) and then join him to all the YDNA projects he fits into — that may help you identify a paternal line with more specificity.

  44. Catalina says:

    Sorry, one more question that I left off….What do the different markers on Family Tree DNA y-DNA test mean? Does the highest number measure different areas of the world? If so, how do we know which areas?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The numbers don’t specifically measure parts of the world (though they will help you determine a broad migration path for your paternal line back into ancient history). What they do is look at specific areas of the YDNA for repeated segments called Short Tandem Repeats — and count them up in those areas. The counts are then compared to those of other men who’ve tested to see how much they are alike (or different). The more alike they are, the more closely related they are to others who have tested.

  45. Kathy says:

    I have had my MTDNA and my brother’s MTDNA done through Family Tree DNA. Is there any advantage to having my daughter do the autosomnal testing and can it be used to match to the Y and MT DNA tests successfully? Is there an advantage to doing the autosomnal DNA at either Ancestry or 23AndMe?

    Thanks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Autosomal DNA is a horse of a different color from YDNA and mtDNA so, no, it won’t match up to those other tests at all. A person will have autosomal matches who don’t match for YDNA or mtDNA — and vice versa. Your mtDNA looked at a specific type of DNA you inherited solely from your mother (and your brother and your daughter share it) so it tells you about your mother’s mother’s mother’s line. Your brother’s YDNA test looked at the type of DNA he inherited solely from your father, so it tells you about your father’s father’s father’s line. Autosomal looks at a type of DNA a person inherits from both parents, jumbled up in each generation. What you inherited from your mother is a random mix of what she got from her parents; what you inherited from your father is a random mix of what he got from his parents. Because it’s a random mix, the mix you got is different from the mix your brother got. And because this mixing (called recombination) happens in every generation, you’re better off testing you and your daughter’s father than you are testing your daughter: you’ll get more matches to farther back generations. There are pluses and minuses to testing with any company, but to get the most matches (the most cousins to work with), I still recommend (see here) testing with AncestryDNA first to get the benefit of its database size, then transferring the raw data to Family Tree DNA, then if/when you can afford it testing with 23andMe.

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  47. Stacie says:

    Thank you for your article! I think I ‘get it’ now, but want to make sure:

    If I want to break through my father’s paternal brick wall, my best bet is to have my father and brother’s take yDNA tests and hope that others in that line have done so as well? Then for his mother’s line I need to ask my aunts to take the mtDNA test for her maternal line? And then for my grandmother’s paternal line, find direct males to take the yDNA test?

    I did the ‘mish-mash’ test a few years ago with no significant results [but thanks to your explanation, I now know why!]. Would the ‘mish-mash’ test bring more results if I had more family members take that test [knowing that we all have different combinations of the family dna]?

    Just want to make sure I have it right :) I’m glad the testing costs are coming down.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Close, Stacie. You only need to test your father or your brother for YDNA. Since your brother inherited all of his YDNA from your father, only one of them needs to test. And everyone has mtDNA, so your father does too, and since everyone inherits their mtDNA from their mothers, your father is carrying the same mtDNA as his mother, his maternal aunts, etc. So you can have just your father tested, and you will get everything you can get about your father’s father’s father’s direct paternal line (YDNA) and your father’s mother’s mother’s mother’s direct female line (mtDNA). Then yes, to get the info for your grandmother’s paternal line, any direct male descendant of her father (or grandfather) will do for YDNA.

      • Victor says:

        Hi Judy,

        I am in the same boat as Stacie. For me, there is no record of my father’s grandfather. No paperwork. No name. He may have been from a small village in northwest Spain. So I was thinking of having my Dad who is 85 years old take a YDNA. And while I am at it, have him take an mtDNA. Note: I am not really interesting in Ethnic Percentages, but rather family matches.

        I have a few questions:

        1. Should I also have him take the Autosomal? If he takes it, would it be more accurate to find paternal “cousins” than if I took it?

        2. FTDNA now has a 37 marker, 67 marker, and 111 marker test. What you you suggest? As technology advances, are more marker better for possible “future” matches?

        3. On my father’s maternal side I have been able to trace ancestors back to the 1800′s to a small town in northwest Spain. I have birth certificates. My concern is these DNA tests won’t be fruitful in finding matches because the ancestors are from Spain as opposed to the USA or Great Britain. Your opinion?

        Thank you for time.
        Victor

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Victor, there’s no downside to having him do the autosomal test as well, and a very real chance that he may match a cousin who might be able to help fill in the gaps in his family history. (In fact, I’d recommend the autosomal test before the mtDNA test since mtDNA is so stable his matches could be well beyond the range of genealogical time: a match could show a common ancestor thousands of years ago.) While you’re right that there are fewer Spaniards testing than Americans, both MyHeritage and findmypast have partnered with Family Tree DNA to offer DNA tests and there’s a chance that more and more Europeans and others from around the world will test in the future. So it’s less likely that it’ll work in your father’s case than if he had, say, colonial American ancestry — but still some chance is better than none. As far as how many markers, more is always better. If you can afford 111, do 111.

  48. Lost says:

    Does anyone know anything about dna spectrum? They offer different levels of kits. Thank you in advance for any information

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Although I know people who have ordered from them, I don’t know anyone who has received results from them. That may tell you something.

      • Lost says:

        I am a women that has never met my father. My mother does not know his ethnic background, is there a test I could take that would help me find out what I am?

  49. Kyancole says:

    Hello Judy,

    Let me first start by saying “Thank you,” for all of the useful information that you’ve provided. I have a question that’s a little unique. I am an African American physician, who unfortunately has no clue where my African roots originate from. Rumor in my family has it that my blood also contains Irish, French, and Cherokee ancestry… The Irish and French is said to have come from the history of slavery. Unfortunately, my family tree is quite bare due to our small family size and 3 of 4 grandparents having dementia, hence their inability to “pass down” any further knowledge of our family. I am currently on a trip to Uganda and I am really wanting to know more details about my African Ancestry. This is fueled by the fact that I’m “told” which part of Africa I look like I come from on a daily basis by the locals, who are trying to spark friendly conversation. My understanding (from reading various descriptions from the websites of the above mentioned popular testing sites) is that not many of these websites will tell me what country/countries in Africa my ancestry originated from. The last thing I want to do is to pay $$$ only to receive an analysis which will tell me that I have roots in “Africa” of “Northern Africa,” ect. After all, I am reminded of that everyday when I look in the mirror and I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me that. Lol.

    I want to know not only the composition of my admixture, but also identify which country (and even tribe) my African roots are from. I have come across 2 African American focused ancestry services, which seem to have the highest potential to provide me this information: AfricanAncestry.com and AfricanDna.com. I am also interested in the my23andMe information for future medical implications. Based on your knowledge of my desires, which steps would you recommend I take and with which companies? I plan to test myself, my father, and my maternal gfather; as I’m hoping that this will provide me with the most information possible, given the small amount of family members that I currently have living. Thank you again for providing this valuable service, I hope to hear from soon.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I wish there was a test good enough to give you what you want, but please read today’s blog. The testing is excellent at the continental level and for dome populations (even in Africa) where populations have not mingled. But it doesn’t do better than that.

  50. Sunset says:

    I took the test from DNA Consultants. It’s pretty informative. It gives you your top 20 European matches, and your top 50 World matches. You also get a map with your strong, weak, and non matches.They also give you a paragraph of your analysis and breaks down your ethnicity/race. You can also purchase add on and see if you are melungeon, have rare genes & etc.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I am more than just a little skeptical of anyone who claims that a single marker can prove beyond doubt any particular ethnicity. I can NOT recommend this company at all.

  51. Matthew Davies says:

    I haven’t tested yet. Is there anything on the horizon I should look out for like a new testing method or startup company? Do any current testers offer a future proof test where they reapply your DNA info to future analysis methods?

    Thanks!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t see anything hugely different on the immediate horizon and all companies try to reevaluate results when new analytical tools are available. More important is whether the company you choose banks unused DNA for future testing if more new tests come along.

  52. Dubh says:

    I was curious to know if your recommendation for which test to do in which order is still valid almosta year later? Was looking to hit all the ponds for as much info as I can get for a decent enough price.

  53. Patricia says:

    I was considering Family Tree DNA, to start, even though a bit more expensive. Thoughts?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Family Tree DNA is an excellent company, and where I do most of my testing. And it isn’t any more expensive than AncestryDNA or 23andMe if you are comparing test to test (AncestryDNA’s autosomal test is $99, 23andMe charges $99 and Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test is $99). But remember that you want as many matches as you can get, so testing with AncestryDNA first ($99) and then transferring your data to Family Tree DNA for its Family Finder database ($39 or free if you get four others to transfer theirs) will put you into BOTH databases for only a little more than testing with one. Then you can get your mtDNA tested at Family Tree DNA (the only company that does that testing for genealogy) down the road.

  54. Patricia says:

    Ok…So I don’t need to have the mt full sequence test, offered by Family Tree DNA, at this time?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Not to start with, no. While mtDNA is wonderful for some research questions (distinguishing whether you descend from wife #1 or wife #2 for example) it’s so stable that most of your matches may be well back before genealogical time frames and so it’s not as immediately useful for genealogy as autosomal testing is.

  55. Patricia says:

    You have clarified for me! Thank you for your help, Judy! I’m anxious to start!

  56. Kimberly Jones says:

    I’m in the same boat as some of you above. My paternal grandfather never knew his father. So I now know where I’m at on that. My question is this. To do your DNA test from my mothers side of the family can it be done from me or would I need to have my mother or one of my uncles to do it?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      To test strictly the maternal line (your mother’s mother’s mother’s line), you can test your own mitochondrial DNA; you and your mother will have identical (or nearly identical) results. But to add autosomal to the mix, you’re much better off testing an older generation, and testing your uncle will mean you could do his Y (your mother’s father’s line), his mtDNA (your and his mother’s mother’s mother’s line) and his autosomal.

  57. Lizetth Moffett says:

    What program if one at all could one use to find their biological father when there is no information about the missing person except the state they once resided in?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If you’re trying to find him by way of DNA, you want to test with every possible company. If you really mean a missing person (i.e., you know his identity and last known location and merely want to locate him), working with a forensic genealogist who researches living people for heir searches and the like is your best bet.

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