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Fish in all the ponds

There isn’t a week that goes by that the question doesn’t come in to The Legal Genealogist.

“I am adopted,” the question begins. Or, perhaps, “I don’t know who one of my parents is.”

And, the question continues, “can DNA testing really help?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

In the vast majority of cases, it won’t be easy. It isn’t a panacea. Oh, there is the occasional case where a person takes a DNA test, goes to bed one night, and wakes up the next morning to find a match identified as a parent or a half-sibling.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. The general rule is that it’s going to take a lot of hard work just to understand what the DNA results are telling us, and even more hard work to make them give up the clues that we need to identify our target in an unknown parentage case. In almost every case, it takes careful, methodical, painstaking work to match paper trail evidence with DNA clues.

Many adoptees go months, even years, after taking a DNA test before getting that critical match that starts making the pieces fall into place. They spend a lot of time chasing rabbits down into holes the turn out to be dead ends. It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to lose hope. Because what it truly is, is not easy.

That being said, it’s also one of the most powerful tools available today to identify and locate family members in unknown parentage cases. Where the paper trail runs out, DNA is often the only tool that has any hope of shining a light on the path.

And that of course leads to the rest of the question: “what DNA test should I take to try to identify my biological family and biological roots?”

And there’s only one possible answer to that question:

Take every DNA test you can afford to take that might shed light on the particular question you have.

There are three basic types of DNA tests: YDNA, the kind of DNA that only men have and that’s passed from father to son to son basically unchanged through the generations;1 mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, a kind of DNA we all have that’s passed down from a mother to all of her children but that only her daughters can pass on to their children, again largely unchanged through the generations;2 and autosomal DNA, the kind of DNA we all inherit from both of our parents, that changes not only in every generation but every time a child is created (which is why siblings don’t have identical autosomal DNA).3

YDNA testing can be done by any male who’s trying to identify his direct paternal line: his father’s father’s father’s father’s line. This kind of testing can often help identify a particular surname that’s worth a closer look, or rule in or rule out particular candidates for that direct paternal line.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing can be done by anyone who’s trying to identify a direct maternal line: a mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s line. This kind of testing can rule in or rule out particular candidates for that direct maternal line.

Both of those kinds of tests – YDNA testing and mtDNA testing – are done only by Family Tree DNA, a company out of Houston. Both tests have their limitations but can be very powerful and help prove or disprove particular theories.

Autosomal DNA testing is done by several companies, among them AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and now MyHeritage as the new kid on the block.

And that raises the question: “what autosomal company should I test with?”

And there’s only one possible answer to that question:

Take every autosomal DNA test you can afford to take.

Here’s the deal.

When you’re adopted, you have two issues: (1) you want to identify family members — if not immediate family, then those closely enough related to help identify immediate family; and (2) you’re racing the clock because you want to identify them while they — and you — are still living.

So while the rest of us can sometimes afford to take a leisurely approach to DNA testing — testing the waters, so to speak, as we dip our toes into the various DNA database pools — adoptees have to dive in.

Think of it this way:

• DNA testing is like fishing for cousins. Cousins who share our genetic heritage, who share some ancestors with us, and who may be sitting out there with the answers to some of our most vexing genealogical questions.

• Our own DNA tests are the bait that we use to try to catch the cousin who has the information we need: for those of us with intact families, the cousin who has the family Bible, the cousin who has the photograph of those second or third great grandparents, the cousin who has that fourth great grandmother’s maiden name. For adoptees, it’s the cousin who can lead us to our biological families.

• The databases of the DNA testing companies are the ponds we can fish in.

• And the cousins — well, the cousins may be in any one of the ponds.

I can’t stress that last point enough.

pondsIt’s not enough to say that AncestryDNA or 23andMe has the biggest database of people who have tested — although that’s probably true. (The exact numbers aren’t public, so it isn’t possible to say which one is the biggest at any given moment; we just know that 23andMe crossed a million in 2015 and AncestryDNA crossed two million in 2016.4)

And it’s not enough to say that Family Tree DNA has the most dedicated genealogists as users or the best analytical tools for genetic genealogy — although that’s probably true too.5

If the person you need to connect with has tested with Company A and you’ve only tested with Companies B and C, the simple fact is that you lose.

Fortunately, the price of DNA testing has dropped to the point where testing with all three major genetic genealogy companies is in reach for most folks: you can test with all of the companies for less today than it cost to test with one when autosomal DNA testing first became available.

So… here’s the best way to proceed:

Step 1. Test with AncestryDNA for $99 (US pricing, occasionally a bit less on sale). Start here because it’s the easiest way to get into what’s probably biggest pool of people who’ve tested. (To see full matching data and the family trees of your matches, you have to pay a $49 annual subscription fee if you’re not already an Ancestry subscriber. You don’t need to pay that to test and get your raw data, but you will have to pay it to see everything AncestryDNA has to offer.)

Step 2. The minute you get your results from AncestryDNA — provided that the transfer system for new tests is up and running — transfer your raw data to Family Tree DNA. This puts you into another pool, this time of more active genealogists and with good analytical tools. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your matches at AncestryDNA, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits. You can do this for free but remember: “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The information you get with a free transfer is very limited, so either get four other people to transfer in their data or pay the $39 fee and unlock the information right away. The transfer system has been down for some time because AncestryDNA changed its test platform and that made its results incompatible with the Family Tree DNA database. Family Tree DNA is working on fixing that, but if you can’t wait, it’s not all that much more expensive to just go ahead and test with Family Tree DNA to get into its database — just $79, compared to the $39 transfer fee.

Step 3. When you can afford it, test with 23andMe for another $99 (U.S. pricing, Ancestry-only option), and with MyHeritage for $79 (U.S. pricing). These are last on the list because (a) 23andMe is really geared to health, not ancestry, and has had its share of problems over the years; and (b) MyHeritage is new, and doesn’t have an established track record yet. Both, however, may be critical for those with recent European ancestry, since both have appeal in the international and especially European market and, again, they may just be the company where that important match has tested.

To get the maximum exposure for your DNA, to have the best chance of finding that key cousin, fish in all the ponds.


  1. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 4 Dec 2016.
  2. See ibid., “Mitochondrial DNA tests,” rev. 3 Jan 2017.
  3. See ibid., “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 19 Sep 2016.
  4. See AnneW, “Power of One Million,” 23andMeBlog, posted 18 June 2015 ( : accessed 7 Jan 2017). Also, Anna Swayne, “2 Million People Strong,” Ancestry blog, posted 22 June 2016 ( : accessed 7 Jan 2017).
  5. This is, of course, a matter of opinion on the tools. But hey… this is my blog, so my opinion rules.
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