The Role of DNA in Genealogy

Feb 18

DNA Genealogy Services: Expanding the Scope of Ancestral Research

Within the last five years, a number of services have come on the market that are changing the relationship between DNA and genealogy. Traditionally, family history research was restricted to what written documents could tell us. But new services can give additional insights into the web of connections that make up our genealogical stories. Here’s a closer look at the different tests on the market, and how they can add to your quest to learn more about your family history.

How DNA testing works for genealogical research

DNA testing for genealogical research tests a subject’s DNA and compares specific segments of that DNA to comparative samples. The results are then compared to other living individuals’ DNA, as well as to specific ethnic group results. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, DNA tests can give you a wide range of genealogical insights. It’s important to know, however, that this testing is different than genetic testing for diseases or medical risks. These services focus specifically on helping answer questions such as whether you are descended from or related to a specific person, or if your genetic makeup includes similarities to populations from Switzerland or the Cherokee Nation.

The testing process

If you’re not familiar with DNA testing, the process is fairly simple. In most instances, once you purchase the service a DNA kit will be mailed to you. Many include a simple swab, similar to a Q-tip, that’s rubbed against the inside of your cheek. The swabs are then placed in a sterile tube and mailed back to the lab. Other services may use methods such as spit cups and mouthwash.

Samples are tested when they arrive at the laboratory. In terms of privacy concerns, some labs keep samples on file for future testing. Others dispose of samples after a set period of time. All labs will destroy samples at a customer’s request, and most reputable services have a standard process for making that request.

What is being tested

There are three types of genetic tests that are currently available for use in genealogical research. These include autosomal testing, mitochondrial DNA testing, and Y-chromosome testing. Without getting too technical, each type of testing yields a unique set of information. Autosomal testing is most frequently used in ethnic testing. These products will return a result that suggests your ancestors were of Italian, English, and Scottish descent, for example. Mitochondrial DNA goes deeper, testing the DNA that’s been passed along from mother to child. It can be conducted on a man or a woman, and show specific biological relationships through a common female ancestor, as well as information about geographic origins. Y-chromosome testing can only be conducted on males, and gives insight into a family’s paternal lineage. Understanding the underlying processes is useful because it can assist you in choosing the right testing product for your needs.

The kinds of genealogical questions DNA can help answer

Haplogroup research: National Geographic pioneered a project that uses matrilineal DNA to take a closer look at the early origins of specific groups, called Haplogroups. Through extensive research, it is believed that this DNA information can provide insights into the migration patterns of your earliest ancestors from Africa or the Middle East through Europe or other regions. If your interests extend to ancient history, the results can be intriguing.

Ethnicity: For many people whose families have been in the United States or Canada for an extended period of time, their ethnic makeup is murky at best. One individual may find that his or her ancestry includes people from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Latin America, Asia, and Native American tribes. Whether you’re trying to confirm family lore of a Wampanoag ancestor or just get a better picture of your ancestry, tests that offer insight into your ethnicity can be both fun and interesting to explore.

Living relative connections: Many of the specific tests on the market are designed with one function in mind: to help give you an idea if you’re related to a specific person. For example, if your DNA research leads you to the conclusion that a specific person might be an ancestor but the details are unclear, DNA testing can help. By comparing your results with a known descendent of theirs, you can usually definitively answer the question. DNA tests can be an important tool in resolving this kind of issue, and adding additional verification to what the paper records indicate.

Community-based genealogy: As genealogy sites have become more popular, a trend has arisen of community-based genealogy. As a field, professional genealogists tend to be a helpful bunch. Two people pursuing the same line can often share information, confirm suspicions, and open up new fields of inquiry. Sites with a community function often show whether you have genetic relatives that are also in the system and give you the opportunity to connect.

If you’re interested in learning more about DNA testing for genealogy, the following is a list of companies offering these services. It’s not comprehensive and we have a clear preference for Family Tree DNA.

Family Tree DNA

The Genographic Project

The decision of whether to use your DNA in your genealogical projects is highly personal. Many have privacy or personal concerns that lead them to not participate. Others find that the tests, which usually cost at least $100 to complete, may be unaffordable. That’s a completely acceptable decision, and good old-fashioned genealogical detective work can help you answer the same questions. But for people that are curious, there are a number of tools on the market that you can explore and get a different perspective on the unique blend of ancestors that make up your family history. Contact Price & Associates today for assistance with your most pressing genealogical questions.