DNA Testing: An Introduction

National DNA Day commemorates the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953. This year marks the 15th Anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project and is a day that many in the genealogy community look forward to. The DNA testing companies generally offer great discounts during the week, and it is a great opportunity to buy your first DNA test, or to stock up on kits to test family members.

I haven’t posted much on my blog about DNA. Let me be clear, I am NO expert! There are several blogs I follow from individuals who are experts and I frequently recommend them to those wanting more in-depth information on DNA analysis. I will link them at the end of this post.

I am often asked by friends and family who are not in the genealogy community about which company has the best test, and which one should they take. I often see people talking about DNA lacking even basic knowledge. Given these experiences, I thought I would use DNA Day as an opportunity to discuss the very basics of DNA testing.

DNA Vials

When asked by friends which is the best test to take, there is no easy answer. It very much depends on what a person is looking to learn from a test. Are they only interested in ethnic origins? Have they already started a family tree and are looking to verify information through DNA or looking to find cousins to help break down genealogical brick walls? Are they looking for biological family? Are they curious about health predispositions? There are many reasons someone might take a DNA test.

In order to determine which test fits the closest to what one is trying to learn, an understanding of the kinds of DNA is crucial. There are three main types of DNA:

DNA Types:

Autosomal- This DNA type tests both the maternal and paternal sides of your family, as you inherit half of your DNA from your mother and half from your father. This test will match you up to 5th or 6th cousins.

Mitochondrial (mtDNA)– This is the DNA that traces matrilineal descent, and is passed from mother to child. Men and women inherit this DNA from their mother.

Y-DNA– This DNA traces patrilineal descent and is passed from father to son. Females do not inherit a Y chromosome, so are not able to take this test.

Not every testing company offers a test for each kind of DNA. This is important know when deciding upon your testing goals.

Testing Companies:

Here are the main companies that offer DNA testing, and which types of DNA analysis they provide:

AncestryDNA–  This is an autosomal test only. Ancestry announced this week that they have reached 10 million testers! This means that if you are looking for cousins, you may have the greatest number of matches with the company who leads with the number of those tested. These tests are generally close to $99 full price, but frequently go on sale around holidays, including DNA Day! Right now they are $59!

AncestryDNA Image

This was the first test I tested with, and had my parents test with. As the administrator of their tests, I can see their ethnic origins and also their cousins matches. I can communicate with cousin matches though the Ancestry website. As I have built an extensive family tree in Ancestry, many matches I have will corroborate my research.

FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) – This company tests mitochondrial DNA, Y-DNA and also has a autosomal test they call FamilyFinder. I have tested my mtDNA, which gave me the Halpogroup, or ancient ethnic origin, from my mother’s mother and so on, back thousands of years. I have also tested my father and father in law’s Y-DNA. For my father’s test, I hoped to confirm the Garison lineage research back to Gerrit Jansen Van Oldenburg (GJVO) of New Amsterdam. I also joined a surname group of individuals researching the Garrison/Garison surname and found several that share GJVO as our common ancestor.

Ancient OriginsAdditionally, I have used the Y-DNA to try and break through the Wylie family mystery of determining who Ernest Wylie’s biological family might be. The Y-DNA test matched us at a 0 distance (closest possible) to four men with the same last surname, and all with the same common ancestor from Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630. While I haven’t been able to determine yet who Ernest’s biological parents are, I am SO much closer now that I have a surname and locations to look. I was also able to go back to my father in law’s AncestryDNA results and search for matches with that same surname. There were only three and were pretty far distance wise, but as more people test, I hope that more matches will occur.

FTDNA has various price points depending on which test you are ordering. Mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA tests tend to be more expensive as they are more exhaustive than an autosomal test. Mitochondrial tests are $199 regularly priced ($149 for DNA Day). Additionally, Y-DNA test prices are set by the number of markers tests.  Y-37 markers is $169 regularly priced (DNA Day price is $139). Y-67 makers is regularly $268 (DNA Day price is $209).  Y-37 markers is often recommended as the best entry point as it is less expensive than the Y-67. If you have a large number of Y-DNA matches with the Y-37 results, you can always pay to upgrade to the Y-67 at a later time.

As I mentioned, their autosomal test is called the FamilyFinder and is $79 regularly priced at $79 (DNA Day price is $49). Another great feature FTDNA offers for those who may have already taken an autosomal test with AncestryDNA, is a transfer of the raw data from AncestryDNA to FTDNA. It is free to transfer but there is a $19 charge to unlock all the FamilyFinder features. This is a great way to have two autosomal tests for less money. If you are looking for cousin matches, this is ideal so that you can broaden the scope of your search. Not everyone tests with every company, so you may have cousins out there you would not know about if you only tested with one company.


23 and Me  – This is also an autosomal test like AncestryDNA.  It will provide your ethnicity breakdown and cousin matches. What sets it apart from the other tests is the health component of that provides information on genetic variants that you could be a carrier for, and other variants that may predispose you to certain health risks. It also provides a report on your genetic traits. Some of these might include predicting your eye color, hair color, whether you have dimples or a cleft chin, and preference for sweet or salty foods. Please note that this test is NOT a diagnostic test, and should you happen to have an increased risk due to a variant being detected, this does NOT mean that you will acquire that illness or condition. Always consult with your physician regarding any health issues or concerns you may have.


I received my results this week and was interested to learn that I did not have elevated risks for most conditions they test for. I found their trait testing to be fun, it predicted that I have red hair and blue or green eyes which is accurate. It did miss the mark on a few of the other traits, but there are so many variables that is to be expected. I was most tickled to learn that I have more Neanderthal variants than 91% of their other customers!

MyHeritageDNA – Also an autosomal test, MyHeritage has really grown in the DNA market in the last few years. They also offer autosomal DNA transfers from other companies. Like FTDNA and 23 and Me, they have a chromosome browser where you can compare your DNA with others that you match with. This feature is especially helpful when you begin to delve more deeply into your genealogical research and are trying to determine which segments you share with matches and who you may have inherited them from. Many genealogical brick walls have been torn down this way. Like the other companies, you can also build trees in MyHeritage, and they have an extensive number of records to assist you in your research. Regular price for a MyHeritageDNA test is $99 (DNA Day price is $69).


At RootsTech 2018, I was in the audience when they announced a wonderful new initiative, DNA Quest. This is a pro bono initiative to reunite adoptees with their biological families. As I have several friends that are adopted and in a place in life where they are wanting to locate and learn about their biological families, I was exceedingly happy to learn about this project. Preference is given to those who cannot afford to purchase a test on their own. Applications are being accepted until April 30, 2018. If you are someone wanting to find your biological family, this may be a great opportunity!

LivingDNA – I was not familiar with this company until I saw their presentation at RootsTech. They believe theirs is the first truly global DNA test, attributing one’s ancestry to up to 80 worldwide regions. They’re also able to attribute ancestry to up to 21 regions of the British Isles. I am highly anticipating my results with this test as I have a high percentage of British ancestry, and this test is supposed to be able to give me a subregional breakdown of where in the UK my ancestors may have lived. Additionally, they are the only company to do 3 in 1 testing for one price, as they test autosomal as well as both the motherlines (mtDNA) and fatherliness (Y-DNA). The regular price of a LivingDNA test is $159 (DNA Day price is $79.99). If your genealogical research shows you have a large number of ancestors with British origins, this may be a test you will want to try.


Additional Thoughts

I hope this information was not too overwhelming! Learning about each company’s test and the main types of DNA is important to narrowing down which product is will be the most helpful in answering the questions you have about your ancestry.

DNA HelixMany people will only take a test out of curiosity about their ethnicity. They may be a little curious when they have cousin matches, but beyond that not do much with their test once they have the results. While that is certainly up to the individual to decide for themselves, please note that the DNA is only half of the story. The other half, and perhaps the most interesting half, is getting to learn about your ancestors on an individual basis. You won’t know that your 5th great grandmother was supposedly a spy in a petticoat during the American Revolution if you don’t build a family tree to go with your DNA test. You won’t learn that a great uncle was killed in an explosion in an oil pump fire at the age of 13. You may not learn that a great grandfather came from Syria to America on a ship in the early 1900’s and settled in a small southern Arkansas town. These are all experiences myself or a friend has had as they began discovering their family story.

Additionally, just because you may not inherit DNA from your Irish/German/Spanish/etc  3rd great grandfather, doesn’t mean you don’t have this ancestry. Because of recombination you just may not have inherited much of this DNA, if any, depending how far back it is in your family tree. Take some time to review DNA inheritance charts to see how much DNA a child inherits from each ancestor and see how that fits in the narrative of your family story. Even better, have your parents and other family members test so that you can expand upon the research.

Finally, when deciding to take a test be prepared to learn things that may disrupt family secrets. As DNA testing becomes more common and affordable, more and more people are testing, and more and more people are learning that there may be non-parental events in their family. Either a parent isn’t their biological parent, or you may have a half sibling that your parent hasn’t told anyone about. Families can be complicated, and if there is a family secret like this, it will be uncovered. One of my favorite blogs on this topic is by the Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell, The Truth Will Out.

There is certainly much more to the world of DNA that I haven’t touched on here. My hope is that I may have provided a very basic introduction of DNA testing so that you will be able to choose wisely, and also have resources to turn to once you have your results. If you purchase a test this week, I would love to hear about your results when you get them and how it aligns with your oral family history or an actual family tree. Please drop me a line on my “contact me” form and let me know what you thought of the experience. My hope is that this will be the beginning of a rewarding journey in discovering your family history.

As promised, here are the links to some of my favorite DNA bloggers/authors/lecturers. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of DNA experts, as you delve more into the world of DNA research, they will be excellent starting points for answering more of the in-depth questions you most likely will have.

CeCe Moore, Your Genetic Genealogist

Blaine Bettinger, The Genetic Genealogist

Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist

Roberta Estes, DNA Explained

Kitty Cooper, Kitty Cooper’s Blog

Cyndi Ingle, Cyndi’s List

As always, happy researching!

Copyright © 2015-2018 Beth Wylie and Life in the Past Lane. All rights reserved.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: