Friday, April 15, 2011

In Honor of DNA Day: Why I Won't Give Up On Autosomal DNA Testing for Genealogy

Many genealogists who tested with 23andMe for ancestry purposes have expressed their frustration with the low response rate of Relative Finder. Many of us have also experienced difficulty finding our common ancestors with our predicted cousins who do respond. I have a well-researched, fairly full family tree going back a number of generations on many branches and even I, as a big proponent of this service, have to admit it has been slow going.  However, I will not give up on autosomal testing for genealogy and here is why:

We are all at the forefront of this emerging science. It will take time to sort out its best uses, but I already see glimmers of its potential. Those of us who have been able to test a substantial number of our relatives are already discovering useful information and emerging patterns. In my opinion, focused family studies are the future of autosomal genetic genealogy. I am confident that there will be a time when we will have successful projects for ancestral individuals/couples and are able to identify probable descendants of these people who had no previous knowledge of this part of their ancestry. Trail blazers like Tim Janzen with his Youngman Family study, Wayne Kauffman with his Anabaptist Project, David Faux with his Young Family study and Whit Athey with his phasing project are already showing us what can be accomplished.

Biogeographical ancestry analyses like 23andMe's Ancestry Painting and FTDNA's Population Finder will become more specific and meaningful in the future. The reference population samples will be greatly improved in time, thus allowing all of us to determine what region of the world specific portions of our DNA originated.

I have already had success with discovering unknown Ashkenazi ancestry through my paternal line. I may never know exactly which ancestor is responsible for that stretch of my 7th Chromosome, but I believe that there is a good chance that, eventually, it will become discoverable.

It is true that my overall response rate on Relative Finder is low, but with over 500 predicted relatives in my account and each of the other numerous profiles that I handle, I have more than enough acceptances to happily work with for many, many months. Of these, I have already found the common ancestor with a number of my matches. This will only improve with more people in the database. If I sustain my current acceptance rate of ~20%, as the database grows, I should have a tremendous number of "success stories" to report.

I find it fascinating to have the opportunity to discover which stretches of my DNA are from specific great grandparents. Researching genealogy has always made me feel closer to my ancestors, but there is something very satisfying and meaningful to KNOWING that I have little bits of them inside me.

This is a classic case of choosing to see the glass half-empty or half-full. I can understand how some have already become frustrated with the limited set of tools we currently have for working with this data, but I will not be one of them. As for me, I will wring every drop of meaning out of each and every ancestry DNA tool that is offered to me with appreciation. This is what I have been waiting for ever since I first read about genetic genealogy back in 2002. I hoped it would happen and now it is here. I can be patient a little while longer, but I won't sit back and wait for others to figure it out for me. I want to be among the individuals who help to realize this great potential, discovering what autosomal DNA can tell us about ourselves and our ancestors.

Stay tuned...


  1. I have about an 80% contact rate for FF matches on FTDNA, but I'm only 2 for 20 on 23andMe. And both those already had public profiles. I don't think a significant portion of 23andMe's userbase is even interested in genealogy.

  2. @MNFH- Yes, FTDNA does have a substantially higher percentage of customers who are interested in genealogy, since they are the pioneers of genetic genealogy and that is their sole focus. However, I have found many people who are interested in genealogy at 23andMe too. It is a numbers game. If you have only contacted 20 people there so far, then odds are you won't have found many with family trees. I have contacted hundreds of people, so I have a found a significant amount of people with whom to compare family trees.

  3. CeCe, you are right about this being the early days of the application of autosomal DNA to family history. 23andMe first offered its Relative Finder to the general public in February, 2010 and FTDNA followed two months later with Family Finder. Although some of us were fortunate enough to get earlier access as beta testers, this tool has only been in use for just over one year.

    It is not the magic solution to all our problems with difficult family trees. It certainly does not diminish the need for thorough document research. In fact it may expose the need for and motivate us to do more traditional research. However, it can be a very useful tool to test some hypotheses that we have been unable to resolve by other means. My cup is also half full.

  4. Thanks for this very refreshing post.

    I haven't been able to work out any of my matches yet. I didn't take the tests to solve family tree problems or because I needed more connections - I'm still finding plenty by other means. Like you, I find the idea of being able to pinpoint parts of my DNA to particular people fascinating. I did it more as an experiment and learning experience. My cup is half-full, but a top-up is appreciated!

  5. I very much enjoy doing research. As many, it reminds me that my ancestors were real people. Just the other day I looked at a census for my grandparents. In it, I saw a child whom I knew would pass away only 7 years later. It reminded me to enjoy all times of my life and reminded me of the pain my grandparents went through.

    It also reminded me how lucky many of us with good strong records have it. There are many people out there who aren't so lucky and have only their DNA to help them pull together their history. That missing link or NPE can be a show stopper, but those of us who have good records need to contribute to the technology so that it can get better and better so those without will one day be able to take advantage of this and one day learn more about their past.

  6. Hi CeCe! I won't give up on atDNA either. I have exhausted all other means for now until more census records become available. I am encouraged to hear that you have made some paper connections. I am patiently awaiting the day that an unknown cousin of mine decides to get tested and knock down my brick wall. :)

  7. Good Job CeCe. Information is Power, and the DNA while providing old information in regards to one's ancestry back 5 to 10 generations ago does show up one's Geographic origins or links well. Illegitimate births and poor parish records can stuff things up well and truely and there are more than just a few for me to contend with. But the DNA has helped break through some of those barriers so I am not giving up.

  8. Nice article CeCe. I agree that more breakthroughs are to come with time and growth.

    For those concerned with the FTDNA vs 23andMe arguement, many pros and cons for both, but difficult to disregard 23andMe's database being 10x larger and still growing faster. For those that have used both, currently no advantage for FTDNA in terms of actually identifying relationships while simply higher probability of finding a more closely related match in the larger database (whether you'll be able to commuincate with that closer match is a concern, but just one of many pros and cons for both)

  9. CeCe,

    I admire your optimism and if you don't mind will borrow a little and keep it right here in my vest pocket.

    While I've learned much about genetic genealogy in the year since I tested at 23andme (and much more to learn), I just recently I said to myself: "Hmm, all this time and I still haven't really learned much on the genealogy side here."

    I think I am going to have to hit the cousin lottery and find a responsive 4th or less cousin with a LOT of genealogy info AND I have to help the process by getting my paper-based genealogy further down the line. (Especially past my Irish side great-grandparent brick wall. Via my Rootsweb tree I was just found by a double-2nd cousin in Prague with info on my Czech side back to the late 1700s!)

    But, it has been fun. Between Relative & Ancestry Finder I've got a lot of data to play with and I agree it is early days - one day we'll hit some critical mass that will really open things up.