Tuesday 26 November 2019

DNA: Reviewing our Tests

Wherever you turn you are seeing more information about the use of the DNA tool. There can be little doubt that it will continue to be a major part of family history research. All of the major testing companies now offer advanced analyses and comparisons to larger populations of tested results.

I have commented here before about DNA test results I have come across in my own research: Sometimes DNA Works (8 May 2018); New Found Family: A DNA, Ancestry, Facebook success story (17 July 2018); DNA? Don’t forget traditional genealogical research methods (27 November 2018).

Lately I have heard more about spedific family matching techniques being employed by the testing companies. Blaine Bettinger, genealogical DNA guru, gave two talks recently at the Virtual Genealogical Association conference: Identifying Your DNA Matches’ Secret Identity and Using DNA Shared Matching for Success that hit home with me. Most of us love to put things in chart form so we can visualize relationships. That is what a family tree is, isn’t it? So being able to make charts showing DNA connections is a great boon to using the data and understanding what those minute traces of shared DNA mean.

All companies are presently offering Thanksgiving Day (US) and Christmas sales to purchase and upgrade tests. Some of them are certainly worth considering.

My wife and I were tested (mtDNA) at 23andMe. I have 1,260 relatives shown on their list. My wife has 1,257. That is a lot of people to look at. It is important that we find ways of reducing or simplifying, at least right now, how we can compare details of the data and see how we can expand our knowledge of our family trees. We both found cousins on the match lists, some of whom were known to us but several that were not. The tests have thus proven useful so far.

23andMe allows you to compare actual segments so you can see in a picture how directly you match. DNA of one of my first cousins, Donald Miller, was also tested here, as were many of his children and grandchildren. We can now see exactly where our shared segments are and how they may relate to others on the connections list. Many other cousins also tested at 12andMe and the list is growing. We already have lots of data to review.

23and Me also offers a family tree built with DNA matches called Your Family Tree. (Below is one for my wife.) It is still in Beta (testing) form, but already is a useful way of showing relationships. We have found some cousins are not quite right (e.g. they show a 2nd cousin of my wife who is actually a 3rd cousin, once removed), but I am sure they will be rectified as more data is input by each of us in our respective trees. Links demonstrate what family lines people are connected through. If they all answer our requests for more information, we could have a very robust family tree overall and many other stories.

I sent our 23andMe results to MyHeritage to compare with what they have in their database. At present they show I have seven extended family and 9,013 distant relatives sharing DNA; my wife has two extended family and 10,423 distant relatives. That is a lot of people to try to contact or check family trees with!

MyHeritage has developed a system called Theory of Family Relativity which shows family connections. Cute name! I wondered how it might work and if it was going to be useful. Each person who has family tree information and a DNA test, can be compared directly. The common ancestor connections are rated in terms of confidence.

I had my same cousin, Donald Miller, and a brother-in-law test their Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA. We were interested in seeing if we could find family connections past the 2nd great-grandfathers of both me and my wife. We presently face brick walls for each of them and one possible way around the problem may be in finding a DNA connection. Both individuals are deceased now, so having had their DNA tests in hand I hope will be immensely helpful in the future.

My cousin presently has no matches at 37 markers but 17 names at 25 markers; my brother-in-law has one at 37 markers and 35 at 25 markers. Unfortunately, none of the people I have contacted know their family history back far enough to be helpful. I have upgraded both tests now to 67 markers. Hopefully we can find better connections than presently are indicated.

I also tested my own Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA. I have 286 matches at the 37-marker level and 7,001 at the 25-marker level. Two of the names are variants of my surname which one would hope was of value. None of the people I have contacted can point to any common ancestor, though. Only a few have provided a family tree that I can check, but none of the names of their earliest known ancestor are familiar to me. We still have a way to go to see if the data is going to be valuable.

Ethnicity estimate results from all sources are still under review and consideration. They do not hold a lot of interest to me in terms of finding family members but are curious to look at.

At the recent MyHeritage conference in Amsterdam, James Tanner reported, “DNA testing has become established as an integral part of the world-wide genealogical community and MyHeritage.com is making major technological advances extending DNA testing from its current position as a genealogical research tool by expanding their DNA Health program.” I have seen similar comments from many genealogical writers and bloggers.

I am unsure about the merits of doing the health reports. I know it is useful for some people who have specific health problems they want to know more about. But I am concerned that this kind of data could fall into the wrong hands.

What we don’t know yet is where such data will lead in terms of personal privacy or possible intrusions into the lives of people who have been or will be tested. Many presently worry about how law enforcement agencies may use the data or whether they will be able to access private files in their search for criminals or, more likely, the relatives of possible criminals.

Can we be confident that insurance companies will not try to look at this data in an attempt to reduce or modify coverage on their policy-holders. Something to ponder!

My Plan for 2020:

1.      Review in detail the Y-DNA upgrades for my cousin and brother-in-law on FamilyTreeDNA.
2.      Review all connections shown on the 23andMe and MyHeritage lists – although maybe not all the thousands of them right away.
3.      Get caught up on reading & listening – blogs, articles, webinars, tutorials – so that I can make more sense of the tests we have done.