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Genetic Genealogy & Family Tree Research, Part 1

If you have ever thought about using genetic genealogy (DNA) to aid in your family tree research, Part 1 of this two-part article presents some basic DNA questions and answers in non-technical layman's language. It's DNA 101, no previous experience required.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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If you have thought about using genetic genealogy (DNA) to aid in your family tree research and if, like me, your background and education leans more toward the humanities than science, then this article is for you. Only a bit of technical jargon, I promise, and in this first part, some questions I had before making the decision to participate in DNA testing. While it is not possible in one short article to cover all DNA testing "pros & cons," the following will may answer some of your own basic DNA questions:

(1) How can DNA testing help me in my family tree research?

DNA testing for genealogical research is just one tool — a quite recent one — and will not answer all your family tree questions. It is an option to consider when your paper trails are cold, and its results may provide a clue or link that might never be discovered by more traditional research methods.

(2) Do I have to give a blood sample for DNA testing?

Absolutely not! A DNA sample simply involves swabbing the inside of your cheek with what looks like a giant q-tip.

(3) Is it true that only males can participate in a DNA study?

It is true that tracing a particular surname can only be done by comparing the DNA of males with the same last name. Why? You may vaguely remember from high school biology class that females have only XX chromosomes and males have XY chromosomes. Well, the Y-DNA is what is needed in making surname comparisons. Therefore, participants in a surname study must be all males with the same last name, and a DNA match indicates the two matched participants share a common ancestor with that same surname.

Surname projects are the most common use of DNA testing to try and break down those family tree "brick walls" we all have. If you are female and want to begin a surname project, your job is to convince a male relative with your original surname to participate.

Women can participate in DNA testing, however — just not in surname projects studies. While male DNA is most commonly referred to as Y-DNA and passed only from father to son, female DNA is called mitochondrial DNA (also known as mtDNA) and is passed only from mother to child (either sex). So while males have Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA; females, on the other hand, have only mitochondrial DNA. DNA matches for females also means you and the person with whom you matched share a common ancestor, but is less specific than Y-DNA. Matched female DNA participants may have a wide variety of last names, making it somewhat more challenging to find a mutual family connection.

(4) How expensive is DNA testing?

Companies I have researched charge a range of $100 to $300 for basic Y-DNA testing for males (12 markers) and mitochondrial testing for females and males, so it pays to compare. Most companies also allow you to later upgrade your Y-DNA male markers to 25, 37 or even 67 markers — or your mitochondrial DNA, for an additional fee. The advantage for males in having more markers matching another participant is that it narrows the generations time frame to their most recent common ancestor.

While DNA testing does have a cost involved, it is usually less expensive, for example, than a research trip. An Internet search will bring up the major DNA companies where you can compare prices.

(5) What about protecting my privacy and confidentiality?

This is a legitimate concern when considering DNA testing. The DNA companies I researched all had in-depth policies posted regarding their commitments to protecting your privacy and confidentiality. Make sure the company you choose adheres to all applicable state and federal privacy regulations and guidelines.

Part 2 of this article includes an overview of National Geographic's five-year, worldwide Genographic DNA Project, in which my brother and I participated, as well as personal successes using genetic genealogy DNA.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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