Could your family history research use a bit of a rev-up? A DNA test will spice things up a bit and get you following up some of those long-unfinished cousins' lines in your tree!
Do you have a family mystery or brickwall to solve, or want to track down missing relatives? Or are you simply curious as to what all the excitement is about and want to see what your DNA reveals?
DNA testing for family history
DNA research and technology has advanced incredibly in recent years, and the price of tests has dropped dramatically, making basic DNA tests for genealogy very simple, more accessible and affordable.
Best results are achieved when DNA testing is used in combination with genealogical research, to help you work out how your DNA matches are related.
Do you have a specific problem to solve? Would you like to confirm a family relationship, disprove a connection, or find a biological parent, child or sibling? Are you interested in finding cousins to share your research? Do you want to see if persons sharing your surname are related? Would you like to discover your ancient origins? Or is your interest based on general curiosity?
Who do I test?
You can now DNA test any family member or relative - females and males!
If you have a specific research goal in mind, you need to choose the most suitable test type and the right family member(s) to test, as each test type uses a different part of the DNA.
If you have no specific goal in mind, you can choose one or more tests appropriate to your gender and family circumstances.
A Family Finder (atDNA) test is ideal for any age or gender, and can find matches from all ancestral lines going back about 7 generations (eg. parents, children, siblings, close relatives, cousins from 1st to 6th or more, on all branches).
Basic DNA test types
- Y-DNA - y-chromosome DNA tests the direct paternal/male line. Only males have Y-DNA, inherited from their fathers, their father's father, etc, so only males can test for it. A Y-DNA test can help determine if you descend from the same male as another person who has tested, but generally not 'how' or where on your tree you match.
- mtDNA - mitochondrial DNA tests the direct maternal/female line. Everyone has mtDNA, inherited from their mothers, their mother's mothers, etc, so anyone can test for it. Males cannot pass it on to their children. A mtDNA test can determine if you descend from a common female ancestor, but not necessarily 'how' or where on your tree you share that ancestor.
- atDNA - autosomal DNA tests all family lines. Everyone inherits atDNA, from each of their ancestral lines, so anyone can be tested. Matches can be found on all lines up to 5th and 6th cousins, and often further back.
Relationships are estimated based on the percentage of shared DNA, eg. 50% for a parent, child or sibling; 25% for a grandparent, aunt/uncle, half-sibling, double-first-cousin; 12.5% for a great-grandparent, first cousin, great aunt/uncle, half-aunt/uncle, half-nephew/niece, and so on. Refer to the relationship percentage charts at ISOGG for easy reference.
Senior generations are particularly good candidates, as the concentration of their DNA is likely to be stronger than your own when compared to potential matches in common. Testing cousins is also very useful, as it can help isolate the branches you share matches on.
- X-DNA - X-chromosome results are included for your matches in the Family Finder atDNA test. The X-chromosome is one of the two sex chromosomes that determines gender. Females have XX (an X from each parent) and males have XY (an X from their mother and a Y from their father). The inheritance patterns of the X-chromosome mean that any X-matches can be narrowed down to particular lines of your family tree, and males and females can inherit significantly different percentages of the X-chromosome from the same generation.
DNA Testing Companies
There are several testing companies available. I recommend Family Tree DNA for Australians.
They specialise in genealogy tests only, sell all major test types, sell kits outside the US, don't require ongoing subscriptions, and now have the largest database (over 1 million tests1). Their customer service is very good (although rarely needed), they provide user-friendly tools to analyse your results, and ordering tests for Australia & the UK is fast and simple.
You can compare products, prices and features of testing companies using the comparison chart on the International Society of Genetic Genealogy's website.
How to order a DNA kit
Ordering a DNA kit from Family Tree DNA is very simple.
Follow the step-by-step instructions with screen prints, in How to order a Family Tree DNA test.
How to test your DNA
Some people are initially hesitant about testing, worrying that it requires some sort of barbaric or invasive procedure, but fear not - a simple cheek swab is all it involves.
See What does a Family Tree DNA test kit look like and how do I use it? for step-by-step instructions.
Your myFTDNA account
Within moments of ordering your DNA kit from Family Tree DNA online, you will receive a confirmation email containing your Kit Number and a password to log into your new myFTDNA account.
While you are waiting a few weeks for your kit to arrive in the mail, you can log in to your account and accomplish a few important tasks:
- Update your personal profile: add a second email address if you did not do so during ordering; check your email settings; complete beneficiary information; upload a profile photo
- Upload your GEDCOM file to FTDNA's Interactive Family Tree
- Enter your list of ancestral surnames
- Enter your Most Distant Ancestors, both paternal and maternal
- Check your order status from the link on your home page
- Investigate project groups that you may consider joining
View your DNA results
Family Tree DNA will send you an email when your results are released, and an email notifying you of your first matches. Use your kit number and password to log in to your myFTDNA account and view your results. Various views and tools are provided to help analyse your matches.
- Matches & Search Options; X-Matches; Advanced Matching; Chromosome Browser; Download Raw Data; Known Relationships; myOrigins; Matrix
- Matches & Search Options; Advanced Matching; Ancestral Origins; Haplogroup Origins; Haplotree & SNPs; Matches Maps; Migration Maps; SNP Map; Standard Y-STR Results; Printable Certificates
- Matches; Advanced Matching; Ancestral Origins; Haplogroup Origins; Matches Maps; Migration maps; Results; Printable Certificates
Join Project Groups
Family Tree DNA hosts and supports many project groups that you can join.
Not all projects are found using the search box, so visit the Projects link from the top of the home page, and scroll down to select the first letter of each project name from the various project group lists.
- Surname projects - Y-DNA tests only, for variations of thousands of different surnames
- Geographical projects - eg. Ireland mtDNA, Ireland Y-DNA
- Dual/Multi projects - eg. Australian Convicts, Australian Settlers, British Isles, Irish Families
- Haplogroup projects - Y-DNA, mtDNA
Each project page will provide a link that takes you to the project group website, which containts further details, goals, joining requirements, member numbers, results, etc.
If you can't find a project that interests you, you can apply to administer your own project.
Check other databases
DNA raw data results can be uploaded to websites which allow you to compare your results with people who have tested using other companies.
- ySearch - a Y-DNA public database offered by Family Tree DNA - www.ysearch.org
- mitoSearch - a mtDNA public database offered by Family Tree DNA - www.mitosearch.org
- Gedmatch - enables comparison of Family Finder results & GEDCOMs - www.gedmatch.com
If you have previously tested your autosomal DNA with AncestryDNA or 23andMe (V3), you can transfer your results into Family Tree DNA's autosomal database for free and see limited details of your top 20 matches. You then have the option to either pay US$39 to unlock them, or refer 4 people to unlock them for free. See FTDNA's Autosomal Transfer program for details.
Organise your email
Very soon you will start to receive emails from your matches and send enquiries to others.
I strongly recommend keeping your emails well-organised so you can easily find them again as you work through your family connections.
Refer to Genetic Genealogy Links & Resources for a list of interesting blogs, websites, books, webinars, Facebook and other support groups. Take advantage of the extensive knowledge of the genetic genealogy community to get the most out of your DNA testing projects.