A word on the benefits of DNA testing, and how this can advance your genealogical research

DNA science is rapidly evolving, and for family genealogy, new testing panels, applied principles, and our understanding of practices, continue to emerge. In the last couple years, there as been an explosion in the popularity of DNA testing, especially in autosomal testing, making genetic-genealogy a new and popular form of social media. In this, the science has blessed us with methods of advancing our genealogy, in ways, as never before possible.

Autosomal DNA testing (aT-DNA) A strategy generally recommended is to first test your eldest family members, before testing yourself. If possible, you will want to do this on both sides of your family, both paternal and maternal, capturing their precious data while these loved-ones are still with us.

Also, by testing these eldest loved-ones, this will provide the deepest and widest breadth of matching DNA coverage, and by doing this with both sides of the family, it is much easier to determine where to research your matching cousins, and where they belong within the family tree.

In my own case, my father passed in 1980, so of course I was unable to test him, but fortunately I was blessed in testing his sister, my paternal aunt. I also feel very blessed to have tested my mother prior to her passing. For those serious about their genetic-genealogy, I would not wish the regrets of missed opportunity on anyone.

Another recommendation is to test as many close family members as possibly, formulating a strategy which best suits your research. This includes uncles and aunts, siblings, and children. Though we receive 50% of our DNA from each parent, our siblings do not receive the ‘same’ DNA from each parent. As such, when looking amongst the DNA results of close family members, you will notice significant differences in cousins matched. Though your close family members will share many of the same cousins, there will be a portion of matches which are not shared…..so again, testing other close family members addresses the breadth of DNA coverage.

So which company for DNA testing? To take advantage of their large matching database, I personally would begin with Ancestry, because they DO NOT allow the uploading of your DNA raw-data taken from other testing companies. I am not saying this, like it is a good thing…..it’s not in my opinion, and I think this unfortunate. BUT, if you first test with Ancestry, you can then take your raw DNA data from there, and upload this to all other companies or databases which allow such uploads, such as, FTDNA, MyHeritage, Geni, LivingDNA, GEDmatch, etc…..and of course, by uploading your raw-data to other websites, you will then have other database pools to find new DNA matches.

I do have a 23andMe account, and I have tested with them, and like Ancestry, they do not allow DNA raw-data uploads from other companies. Unlike Ancestry, I cannot suggest you begin with 23andMe, due to a smaller matching database, and very limited matching features. I also did not find much value with 23andMe from a genealogical perspective, but I suppose some may like their costlier option to the medical aspects to DNA research.

Like LivingDNA, 23andMe also markets and promotes their test as providing Y-DNA coverage, but this is limited and general in scope, and will NOT provide enough information to be meaningful for genetic genealogical research. For this, much more comprehensive Y-STR and Y-SNP NGS (Next Generation Sequencing) testing is required, such as those done by the labs of FTDNA or Full Genome Corporation.

Y-DNA testing (men only): This is a topic still in a growth phase, and like autosomal DNA testing, has seen a significant increase in popularity in the last couple years….but I think for many, this type of testing is often overlooked. I believe this is likely due, in-part, to the additional learning curve required, but above all, the expense. On a positive note here, with it’s growth in popularity, pricing has come down about 50% in just the last two years.

This type of testing will not be for everyone, but should be ‘a must’ in the genetic genealogist toolbox, or anyone desiring to breakthrough paternal brick-walls within their family tree. This form of DNA testing can also greatly enhance family group surname and DNA projects.

Like autosomal DNA testing, your success or ‘milage may vary’, as your matching will be dependent on the number of men previously tested within the databases.

In years past, Y-DNA testing was said to be ‘only’ for exploring ‘the deep ancestry’ of a paternal line, but today, it’s application extends a bit beyond this…..with clues to paternal ancestral origins and migrations, the discovery of Y-cousins and associations with other paternal lines, revealing NPE’s (non-parental events) within the paternal line, sorting-out whether or not speculated male ancestors belong in your family tree, and can breakthrough brick-walls, not possible in any other way.

As such, Y-DNA testing should not be viewed of lesser importance than autosomal testing, but rather, together, they can powerfully augment your strategy, and discovery.

For an idea of how this is applied, I recommend you view the 3-part video series, by John Cleary. This series is a bit dated by today’s standard, but these videos should be helpful in introducing the rudiments, principles, and process. Please follow the links below:

Using SNP Testing & STRs to Enhance a Genetic Genealogy Research Project – Part I

Using SNP Testing & STRs to Enhance a Genetic Genealogy Research Project – Part II

Using SNP Testing & STRs to Enhance a Genetic Genealogy Research Project – Part III

The two major players for Y-DNA testing are Family Tree DNA (FTDNA- which also does autosomal and mitochondrial-DNA test), and Full Genome Corporation (FGC). Of these two, my personal preference is FTDNA.

FGC’s comprehensive test is said to cover a more readable spectrum of the human genome, and thus, the possible discovery of more Y-SNP’s (Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms), but is more expensive, and it is hotly debated if this actually provides more benefit for genealogical purposes. To FTDNA’s credit, with their latest Big Y-700 test, this has somewhat closed the gap in this regard.

For anyone desiring to explore Y-DNA testing, at FTDNA you will be presented with several test options, STR (Short Tandem Repeats) marker test, to wit, you will have choices of testing 12, 25, 37, 67, and 111 markers….and then SNP (Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms) testing with options of a single-SNP test (test for one SNP only), a SNP Panel (which covers a small range of ‘known’ SNP’s, targeted at a specific haplogroup), and lastly, the all-encompassing Big Y-700 SNP test, FTDNA’s most asvanced test, which covers all readable Y-SNP’s, and this test also now includes all of the 111 STR markers mentioned above.

So, of all of these testing options, which should you take? This is an interesting question, and I am going to express a BOLD opinion here. Some will say, “Well, this depends on your goals, and what you intend to achieve with Y-DNA testing”.

I am always somewhat amused when I read or hear such as this, because, let’s face it, we are testing for ANSWERS! Many who wander into the depths of Y-DNA testing haven’t a clue to what to expect from such testing, but they do so anyway, hoping for ANSWERS! All too often, testing results come-in, leaving many scratching their heads with more questions, than answers.  You can read many examples of this in most every Y-DNA project.

This said, in my opinion, if one can afford it, TAKE THE BIG Y-700 SNP TEST, AND BE DONE WITH ALL Y-DNA TESTING! (at least until such time the science has evolved to more dynamic, effective, and informative testing)

YES,  this is expensive, but anything less, still leaves one left with questions….and without a full exploration of the Y-chromosome, the over-all picture is incomplete. Many begin with say, a Y-37 test, only to find they need to upgrade to 67 or 111 markers, and then eventually they realize, to advance their Y-research, a comprehensive SNP test is required.

In the end, they may find they have spent more money in the long-run, than had they just taken comprehensive testing from the begining…..and then there is also the loss of time factored with an incremental testing. It takes considerable time, sometimes months, awaiting these test results.

Let’s face it, it really boils-down to the cost. If FTDNA offered every testing option at a price of say, just $50, without a doubt, EVERYONE would opt for the the Big Y-700 SNP test, which again, now includes the important 111 STR markers. As the old adage says, ‘You get what you pay for’.

In this regard, FTDNA themselves, suggest a Y-37 test as a starting point, but I think this somewhat for marketing, as at 37 markers, not enough meaningful information is gleaned for genetic genealogy. This level of testing will only suggest hints or clues of relatedness, and hence, testing upgrades will be needed, and thus, more money spent.

This is NOT to say however, that low-level Y-37 test cannot be helpful. I use such test on a preliminary basis….when determining whether or not a man has a relatedness, and if I should continue further testing of this man.

In some ways, I feel this incremental STR testing offered by FTDNA, actually hinders the progress of genetic genealogy….because so many men are tested, at  so many different testing levels. Nonetheless, I do appreciate FTDNA, because after-all, where would we be without them. I am NOT suggesting this is an intented part to FTDNA’s marketing, but more the unintended consequence of such incremental STR test options. Imagine for a moment, that if all men were tested at the same comprehensive test levels, how much further along we could be in our Y-research….years, if not decades.

This said, and since the 111 STR markers are now included with the Big Y-700 SNP test, I relish the day when this becomes an affordable option for everyone.

Currently FTDNA offers this test at $649, however, if you watch for an FTDNA sale, I have seen this as low as $449. To give some perspective here, when I first began Y-testing, both STR’s and SNP’s could not be tested in a single test, and Y-111 and Big-Y then cost around $1200 per man.

More regarding STR test (Y-12 thru Y-111), it is important to understand the limitations. If you have matches within the database, these matches will mostly be very distantly related (a relatedness), and STR results alone, cannot determine if matches share a direct connection with the paternal line…..though the likelihood of clues to this, does somewhat increase with very close 67 and 111 marker matches.

STR testing results also cannot determine the haplogroup of the paternal line, which is crucially important information for both the testee, and the science…..wherein the paternal line can finally be defined…..the identifying SNP marker of the paternal line, so to speak.

Once FTDNA presents STR marker results, they may show a haplogroup, but this is only a ‘predicted‘ haplogroup, based on the STR’s and known haplogroups of men comprehensively tested within their database.

Even if you do not have STR marker matches within the database, you can still advance your research with SNP testing, and this is wherein, you begin to find clues which can define and confirm, paternal ancestral origins and identity.

When a Big-Y SNP test is taken, the results will identify known SNP’s which will place and position you amongst any one of the science’s phylogenic Y-SNP haplotrees. To simplify an understanding of these trees, look at these as a conventional family tree, but rather than the names of ancestors, these are built with identified and designated Y-SNP’s.

Herein,  if you share known and recorded SNP with other men, you will be grouped and matched with these other men, and this could reveal a paternal connection with various other surnames, or paternal lines. Keep in mind however, though drawing close to your paternal line, a single Big-Y test does not fully define or confirm the direct paternal line. For this, there is yet more work to be done here……

Defining the paternal line:  When examining SNP test results, you will likely have ‘unique & private‘ SNP’s, also known as ‘Unnamed Variants‘. At this point, as far as the science is concerned, generally, these will be SNP’s which are heretofore, unknown, and undesignated, and possible only unique to you, or your direct paternal line. It is in these, that your direct paternal line can become officially recognised or designated…..placing the paternal line ‘on-the-map’, so to speak.

Before the science can designate a defining haplogroup of a specific paternal line, this requires the SNP testing of two or more men, direct paternal cousins, whom are known to be from the same direct paternal line.  If these paternal cousins share ‘private & unique SNP’s‘ (Unnamed Variants),  a new Y-SNP designation or haplogroup is then born, thereby, bringing identity and confirmation to your direct paternal line.

In seeking direct paternal male cousins for testing, it is recommended you find distant cousins, preferably, at least 3rd to 5th cousins. This, in and of itself, can be quite a chore. In my own research, I began with my paternal MDKA, James Robinson, and worked the family tree of each of his descending ‘Robinson’ male lines, bringing this into the current timeframe. I also contacted and corresponded with other cousins to locate living male Robinson cousins, and also used autosomal DNA matching and trianglulation as a tool.

In closing here: This was not intended to be a primer on DNA science, or Genetic Genealogy, but rather, it is hoped my experience and understanding will help others to streamline this facet of their research.  Best Wishes & Cheers!