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Building a sturdy genetic genealogy house

If we want to build a sturdy house, we have to have a sound foundation.

It’s that sound foundation on which everything else is built: the walls, the floors, the roof all depend on having a sound foundation.

foundationSo when we set out to build a house, we know we need a firm understanding of what’s essential to a sound foundation. We educate ourselves in the basics of construction before we set out to lay that foundation. We don’t put in the plumbing first. We don’t wire the house for electricity. We learn the craft and lay a sound foundation.

Otherwise, we know, the first time the wind blows, the first time the rains come, our house is going to be in trouble.

And so it is in genealogy: we have to have a sound foundation for our conclusions about relationships if we want them to be sturdy and stand the test of time.

Nowhere is that more true than when we try to integrate into our research plans one of the newest tools available to modern genealogists –- DNA testing. Particularly because it can be so easily misunderstood, we owe it to ourselves, to our families, and to our fellow researchers to take the time to have that sound foundation in the concepts of DNA testing and their application to genealogical research.

Fortunately, there are some great resources out there when we first set out to understand DNA testing in genealogy. We don’t have to go it alone and we don’t have to guess at what the tests mean and how they’re used properly to further our genealogical research.

So here are some basic tools for basic education in DNA testing. These are for beginners, for all of us who got our first DNA test kits as holiday presents, for those of us struggling to understand the results now flooding in — and for those of us who thought we knew more than it turns out we really do know and need to go back and make sure our knowledge and our understanding rests on a sound and solid foundation.

First, to understand the different types of DNA, the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center has a great set of videos called an Introduction to Molecular Genealogy that we can watch at any time online. These one-to-two minute videos provide an introduction, an overview of the types of DNA, and then a closer look at autosomal DNA, X-chromosome DNA, Y chromosome DNA, and mitochondrial DNA.

These are in plain English, have a great graphical presentations of DNA inheritance, and are well worth the small amount of time needed to review. And we can go back and watch them over and over as many times as we need to firmly understand the differences between DNA types.

There are many more videos on the Learn Genetics site that are even more basic than these, in a section called Tour of Basic Genetics. There’s a video entitled “What Are DNA and Genes?” There’s one on “What is inheritance?” The whole site is worth a careful review.

Second, for a more detailed overview of DNA and genealogy, but still aimed at folks just getting started, there’s Kelly Wheaton’s Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy. Kelly is an administrator of two DNA projects, a member of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG), and a capable researcher and writer who explains complex concepts in English we can all understand.

Her 18-lesson guide starts with an overview of the types of DNA used by genetic genealogists and proceeds through specifics on the different types of tests and their use in genealogy. It’s a great resource and one we can come back to as often as we need to get our questions answered.

Third, there’s a new book by genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (reviewed here). It’s an absolute must-have for any new genetic genealogist’s library.

It’s available both in paperback and with a Kindle edition, on Amazon and other sites as well. Blaine is a genealogist, a scientist and a lawyer — and still can explain some of the most complicated concepts in plain English.

Fourth, there are online resources for newbies too. If you’re on Facebook, check out the DNA Newbie group. It’s a closed group, so you need to ask to join (but folks get added quickly), and there’s a lot of help available there — moderated so the discussion stays basically on target. If you’d rather get your help by email, check out the mail list called DNA-NEWBIES that’s available to any member of ISOGG. Membership is free, though donations are welcome. You can join online here, and then get information about the DNA-NEWBIES mail list here.

Before you do, though, take some time to read through the DNA Newbie FAQ –– a set of answers to frequently asked questions prepared by mail list administrator Kitty Cooper and sent out weekly on the mail list itself.

Sometimes the discussions seem well beyond the beginner level. So one of the very first questions in the FAQ is “I thought this was a newbies list but the discussions are way over my head?” That’s help we all need, all of us who feel overwhelmed when we’re starting out.

Fifth, ISOGG has a thorough and complete wiki covering a wide variety of topics on genetic genealogy. The ISOGG Wiki is a simply wonderful resource that can seem overwhelming because there’s so much information there.

Take your time — use only the parts of it you need right now. But know that it’s always there to provide great resources, help with a glossary for terms that are hard to understand, and so much more.

Finally, each of the DNA testing companies has its own help function and area on its website. You don’t have to have tested already to access the help sections of the testing company websites. Some are better than others; some are more dated than others. But they’re all worth taking some time and reading through.

You can find the help for AncestryDNA at its DNA help page. The help area for Family Tree DNA is at its Learning Center. You can find information and help for 23andMe at its Getting Started page. And there’s even some limited help for the new kid on the block, MyHeritage, at its DNA help center page.

These are just a few of the tools available online and off to help us truly understand DNA testing and its place in genealogical research.

All in all, it’s up to us to take the time to master the skills, understand the concepts, and learn to use the tools to build a sturdy genealogical house on a solid foundation.

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