…is a DNA test kit
So… if that’s you this year, if what you really want for Christmas is a DNA test kit … which one do you get?
If The Legal Genealogist could get everybody who has asked that question in the last few weeks to pony up just $5 a head to the Preserve the Pensions fund, we’d be way ahead in digitizing those War of 1812 pensions.
But because I can’t begin to answer a kazillion questions one by one that all ask the same thing, I’m going to review what I would do, if what I really wanted for Christmas was a DNA test kit.1
Before I do, though, let’s review the basics:
YDNA is the type of DNA found in the male gender-determinative Y chromosome that only men have.2 It gets passed from a man only to his sons and from his sons only to his grandsons and from his grandsons only to his great grandsons and so on, with few changes down the generations.3
Mitochondrial DNA — mtDNA — is the kind of DNA we all have that serves as the energy producer for the cells in our bodies.4 It gets passed from a mother to all of her children — male and female — but only her daughters can pass it on to her grandchildren and so on, also with few changes down the generations.5
And autosomal DNA is the kind of DNA we all inherit from both of our parents6 in a mix that changes, in a random pattern, in every generation in a process called recombination.7 It’s really useful for finding cousins who share some portion of DNA with us with whom we can then share research efforts.8
So… what test this Christmas?9
If your budget tops out around $70: Choose the most critical male test candidate from a line where you have questions that a YDNA test may be able to solve — the last living son of a son of a son, for example — and bank his DNA with a 12-marker YDNA test from Family Tree DNA. It’s $59 (plus $9.95 shipping).
You won’t find this 12-marker test on the products page. You can only get it by ordering through a surname project (for example, the Smith or Jones surname project) — and there’s a search page for all surname projects at the Family Tree DNA website here. And if you can’t find a surname project, then you can order through the “Project Pending” Group Project and you can still get the test for that $59 price plus shipping.
Now, don’t expect to do a lot with this one test: 12 markers really isn’t enough to work with genealogically. But what you’ve done by ordering that test is guard against irreparable loss: there will almost always be a whole bunch of DNA left over and banked for the time when you can afford to do more testing — either more YDNA markers, or YDNA plus autosomal.
If your budget is around $80: Choose the most critical female test candidate from a line where you have questions that an mtDNA test may be able to solve — the last living daughter of a daughter of a daughter — and bank her DNA with an mtDNA-plus test from Family Tree DNA. It’s $69 (plus $9.95 shipping).
As with the lowest-level YDNA test, this low-level mitochondrial DNA test really isn’t enough to work with genealogically. But — as with that YDNA test — ordering this test will bank a whole bunch of DNA for the time when you can afford to do more testing — either the full mitochondrial sequence or autosomal testing.
If your budget is around $100: If you don’t have a really pressing question that YDNA or mtDNA might answer, or if your most pressing question is one where you could use some help from as-yet-unknown cousins, opt for an autosomal DNA test. There are two available right now, on sale, for this price point: at both AncestryDNA and at Family Tree DNA, it’s $89 plus $9.95 shipping if you’re in the US.
There are pluses and minuses to each company. A big plus if you test with AncestryDNA is that any family tree you have online at Ancestry gets matched up to anyone else who’s DNA-tested there and has a tree, so you get hints to where your common ancestor may be. You’ll also be able to transfer the raw data (a text file) over to Family Tree DNA and get into that database for only an additional $39. A big minus is that you have to maintain at least a DNA insights subscription (currently $49 a year) or you won’t get all of the benefits of the matching system at Ancestry. You also can’t do YDNA or mtDNA testing there.
A big plus at Family Tree DNA is that it’s one-stop-shopping and one-time-fee based. You can do all of the testing of all three types of DNA in one place and, once you pay for the test, there aren’t any additional costs. It also offers excellent tools for analyzing your results. A big minus is that you won’t get the automatic tree-matching so figuring out where you and a DNA cousin match may require more work.
If your budget is around $140: You want to get that autosomal test done and get into both the AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA databases. So start by testing with AncestryDNA for that $89 price plus $9.95 shipping. The minute you get your results, download the raw data (it’s just a file that you’ll be able to download to your computer) and then upload it over at Family Tree DNA. It’s called an autosomal transfer in the product list, and though there’s a free version most of the data is locked in that version. So either get four other people to transfer their data (in which case yours is unlocked for free) or pony up the $39 and get it unlocked immediately. That puts you into two terrific pools of potential DNA cousins.
If your budget is around $150 and you’re mostly into genealogy: Instead of doing the YDNA 12-marker test to bank DNA against the day when you can afford to do more markers, go right ahead, choose the most critical male test candidate from a line where you have questions that a YDNA test may be able to solve — that last living son of a son of a son — and order a 37-marker YDNA test from Family Tree DNA. It’s on sale right now for $139 (plus $9.95 shipping).
At the 37-marker level, there’s a lot of good genealogical evidence that comes from a YDNA test: decent matching is possible at that level (at 12 markers, some men match just about the whole world, but by 37 markers, it starts to get into manageable numbers), and YDNA testing can help confirm — or call into question — a surname. It’s a great test for testing theories and the sale price makes it hard to beat. Plus, if you know folks who’ve already tested with Family Tree DNA, they may be willing to part with a coupon to bring the sale price down even more.
If your budget is around $150 and you’re a science geek: If you really want to be on the cutting edge of citizen science, for $149.95 with free standard shipping, you can test with National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 Next Generation Genographic Project. It will tell you your mtDNA haplogroup (where in the human family tree your direct maternal line began) and, if you’re male, your YDNA haplogroup (where in the human family tree your direct paternal line began). It’ll give you some insights into your deep ancestral origins. It’s not terribly useful for genealogy by itself, but it really is a whole lot of fun. In addition, very soon you’ll be able to transfer the data from that Geno 2.0 Next Generation test to Family Tree DNA through the autosomal transfer and then you will be able to use the data to help find and work with cousins.
If money is no object: I’m single, reasonably healthy and have all my own teeth. No? Oh, all right. Seriously, if money is no object, do ’em all. Get YDNA tests for a direct male-line descendant of every ancestral line you know of. Get autosomal DNA tests for everybody you can, and without fail test every single solitary family member you can afford to test who’s in a generation older than your own. Your parents or your aunts and uncles are better test candidates than you are. If you have living grandparents, get them tested immediately if not sooner. Go ahead and get full mitochondrial sequences done for your maternal lines. Give the Geno 2.0 Next Generation project your DNA to help out with citizen science.
Bottom line: you can’t take your money with you … but your relatives can die and take their DNA to the grave and, with it, the best chance you may have to answer some of your most difficult family history mysteries.
Go ahead. Get a DNA test kit — or a bunch of ’em — for Christmas.10
Image: Remix from OpenClipArt.org (Christmas ribbon by uwesch and Christmas Ornament by algotruneman).
- What I really want for Christmas is a documented direct-male-line descendant of any one of the men named Faure who emigrated to Manakin Town, Virginia, in 1700, arriving on the ship, the Mary and Ann. Just one. Surnamed Faure or Fore or Ford. Come on, there has to be one out there who has a rock solid paper trail back to Manakin Town… ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome,” rev. 27 Nov 2015. ↩
- Ibid., “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 13 Aug 2015. ↩
- “What is mitochondrial DNA?,” Genetics Home Reference Handbook, National Library of Medicine, US Department of Health (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook : accessed 12 Dec 2015). ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA tests,” rev. 15 Nov 2015. ↩
- Ibid., “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 6 Nov 2015. ↩
- Ibid., “Recombination,” rev. 25 Aug 2015. ↩
- See Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43. ↩
- And of course, in the spirit of ecumenicalism, I would note that you can gift a DNA kit whether you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah or Kwanzaa or no religious or ethnic type of celebration at all. You can gift it just because you’re alive and can afford it. So when I use the term “Christmas” here, read it as inclusive, okay? ↩
- Or just because you’re alive and can afford it. Just do it. ↩