The ideal genetic genealogy interface creates a seamless transition between genetics technology and genealogical research findings. Most currently available tools are either DNA technology without much genealogy, or genealogy without much DNA technology. AncestryDNA is really pioneering the genetic and genealogical integration with its newest AncestryDNA product update.
The goal of genetic genealogy is to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as yet unknown ancestors. DNA was never meant to replace traditional research methods, nor has it ever claimed that ability. Rather, it is meant to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as-yet unknown ancestors.
I admit, I dream of a future technology so precise that it pinpoints the locations of ancestors and defines our exact relationships to others. While we are not there yet, many have experienced a genetic test’s power to obliterate previously-held beliefs about relationship and heritage, and create new intricate and personal relationships where before there were only blank spaces. In this sense, genetic genealogy can be viewed as a kind of police force of the genealogy world, righting wrongs and taking names. But I digress.
For now, the ideal must remain a seamless transition between genetics technology and traditional research results, so that the two so completely complement each other that we can’t see where one stops and the other begins. Yet the two worlds are often separated by a chasm of misunderstanding and just plain ignorance. Of the three testing companies, two are making mediocre efforts at best to try to help you incorporate your genetics into your genealogy. They are basically dishing out a serving of genetics, offering a vending machine of genealogy snacks and calling it a full meal.
With one exception.
AncestryDNA has put genetic and genealogical integration at the forefront of its product. They are the only company making a serious effort to integrate your genetics and your genealogy. To be successful, they need two things: tons of people and their genealogy. The more people test, the better the database becomes. Not just in terms of the matches you find, but also in terms of statistics and the power that numbers have to solve complex problems, like relatedness.
So, how do they get more people interested in genetic genealogy?
This reminds me of my early days at Relative Genetics, one of the first genetic genealogy companies. I was fresh out of college and tasked with training our CEO, CFO, QA director, and marketing director about what exactly it was that we did as a genetic genealogy company. None of these men had any experience in genetics or genealogy. In those meetings as we were trying to figure out ways to grow our company in an unknown industry, I felt like I was the constant downer to the party. As a scientist I had been trained that there are no absolutes. Whenever we talk about outcomes it is always in terms of “most likely” or “less likely” and to never, ever say “always.” So when they would get excited about an idea and propose wording for an ad campaign, I was always reining them in.
After reading a recent announcement by AncestryDNA, I feel like their marketing department had a meeting on the day their scientific advisor was out sick and without his or her corralling, they started a stampede.
Which, of course, was exactly what they wanted.
In their press release, Ancestry’s Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA said, “It is effectively a shortcut through time—you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past.”
Which is exactly what people want to hear, especially non-genealogists who are curious about their past, but don’t have the tools or know-how or interest in doing the actual genealogy work.
But is it true? Is genetic genealogy a short cut through time?
“Absolutely,” says the marketing team.
“Sometimes, and that depends on factor A, and factor B and situation C and…” say the scientists.
And they are both right. The trick is to hear them both as you review these kinds of new advances in genetic genealogy.
What makes the “absolutely” true is that one of the dreams of genetic genealogy is to use the DNA of living people today to actually reconstruct the genetics of our ancestors. So that their actual DNA profile is known. Then it will be easy to identify their descendants as we will be able to see immediately what part of our DNA came from which of our ancestors. Ancestry has demonstrated their ability to do this in a large scale study of the descendants of a 19th-century American and his two successive wives.
Now, time for the “Sometimes.” This full genome reconstruction hasn’t been done yet for your grandparents, or great grandparents. Right now the best we can do is use your DNA to link you to living individuals, then rely on your traditional genealogy to help you find your common ancestor. Ancestry is trying to help you do that using their DNA circles, and now with their New Ancestor Discoveries.
Remember that to be included in a DNA circle you have to have a “ticket” to the party, meaning both your genetics and your genealogy match with at least two other people in the database and a circle is created around the host of the party, who is your common ancestor.
With New Ancestor Discoveries, we are letting those with just a genetic ticket into the party. Meaning that if you share DNA with two or more people in a DNA Circle, the host of that circle is named as an ancestor who might be on your pedigree chart.
Did you notice how I said “might?” That this newly discovered ancestor MIGHT be in your pedigree chart?
As an idea, New Ancestor Discoveries is VERY EXCITING, don’t you think? To be able to find out using both genetics and genealogy that a particular person living 100 years ago might just be the one who belongs in that blaring blank space on your pedigree chart? And it will be. But right now, Ancestry needs to work out some bugs, starting with a stronger acknowledgement that the ancestor listed in the Discoveries is by no means an absolute, but just a hint.
In coming posts I will share with you how I am using the New Ancestry Discoveries to discover more about my genealogy, even if it isn’t exactly in the way Ancestry intended. For now, learn more by reading my recent posts: from the left side of the Genealogy Gems home page, search on the category “DNA.”
And click here to visit my website and learn more about how I can help you navigate the exciting world of genetic genealogy.
Slave traders in Senegal. “Marchands d’esclaves de Gorée-Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur mg 8526” by Rama – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click to see image online.
Did you hear what has been discovered about the remains of three Caribbean slaves found on the island of St. Martin? Scientific techniques identified them as two males and one female, all between 25 and 40 years of age, who were buried around the mid-to-late-1600s.
But where were they from? It took DNA to help answer that question, with a process very similar to that used to identify our ethnic origins in DNA testing today.
First, scientists had to retrieve DNA from the sun-bleached, humidity-soaked remains. Their first stop: the teeth. Traditional DNA extraction and analysis methods failed, but results were found with a new method called whole genome capture. You can think of this method like unleashing an army of vigilantes on your DNA, each one tasked with bringing back a particular portion for analysis. While this method was far more successful, it still was only able to find 7% of the DNA of the best sample.
Second, they needed a reference population: a group of Africans to compare these results to in order to find a match. There is such a group assembled, which contains 11 of the likely 50 population groups that contributed to the slave trade. Keep in mind that in Africa, especially at that time, populations were not defined by geography as much as language. So when you hear African populations defined, it is often according to their relationship to one very large language group in Africa, called Bantu. There are really two groups: those that are Bantu speakers, and those who are not.
Even with the incomplete DNA and the limited reference population, the group was able to determine that two of the slaves belonged to non-Bantu speaking tribes, likely in present day Ghana or Nigera, while the third was Bantu speaking, possibly from northern Cameroon.
Finding ancient samples such as these, and having technology enough to analyze them, if even just a small part, has huge implications for the future of genetic genealogy, and family history. These kinds of genetic techniques can help place you in a genealogical relationship with another person, where your traditional genealogical methods could not. Family history, the substance and story of your relationship, inevitably follows.
I think Fatimah Jackson, a biologist and anthropologist at Howard University, said it best. “It seems to me that, as a scientist, the best way to ‘honor’ these unfortunate individuals is to allow their story to be told,” she says. “The story of a few can illuminate the condition of the masses.” We may never know the names and specific life histories of this woman and two men any more than we already do. But DNA has gotten us closer to telling at least some of their story. Click here to read the scientific study.
Are you ready to let your genetics help tell your story? Learn more about DNA testing with my Getting Started in Genetic Genealogy Quick Guide, available now in the Genealogy Gems store. In fact, I have a whole series of Guides there on using DNA for genealogy. Check them all out!
If you’re ready for some one-on-one consulting to see what DNA can tell you about your family history, visit my website to learn more.
A direct-to-consumer genetic test, the first of its kind to be approved in the U.S., may become available through 23andMe, according to letters recently received by 23andMe customers. The FDA-approved test is designed to check to see if you are a carrier for Bloom Syndrome, a disease most common among those of Jewish heritage.
This is a huge step for 23andMe, which lost the ability to report health related information to its U.S. customers in November of 2013 and has been working to restore it ever since. Health testing for 23andMe customers is currently underway in Canada and the UK. This is the first big step toward restoring the health component of their testing to those of us in the U.S.
This kind of direct to consumer (DTC) testing is going to be a huge industry. For those of you with any experience getting a genetic test ordered and executed through your doctor’s office, you know this process can be lengthy, not to mention very expensive.
As more and more genetic tests are able to be offered directly to you via commercial companies, there will be more competition for this kind of test, meaning that there will be more research conducted into the cheapest way to produce this kind of test. Since these are the same kinds of procedures used for our genetic genealogy testing, more research and lower costs for DTC tests means cheaper genetic genealogy tests.
In further news, 23andMe announced their intention to enter the pharmaceutical industry and begin to develop medicines to address some of the diseases and conditions it has engineered genetic tests to identify. This is a good reminder that a company we have previously lumped with the other two purely genetic genealogy companies (Ancestry and Family Tree DNA) is very much a medically-minded company.
While 23andMe does provide information regarding your ancestral heritage and provides a list of genetic cousins, it is important to realize that this company’s interest in your family tree is focused more on your family’s ailments than its ancestors. (Click here to read a Forbes article about this development, and click here for more information about the laws that are in place to protect your genetic data, including health testing.)
Are you ready to get started with DNA testing for genealogy, or to get expert help in interpreting the tests you’ve already done? I can help! I’m “Your DNA Guide.” Consider starting with my series of genetic genealogy cheat sheets in the Genealogy Gems store:
- Getting Started
- Mitochondrial DNA
- YDNA, Autosomal DNA
- Using AncestryDNA
- Using FamilyTreeDNA
And visit my website to learn more my consulting services.
Recently, Norma wrote in with this question about getting DNA from a hair sample:
“My sister-in-law’s father passed away before she could have his DNA tested. She does have samples of his hair. She was wondering if there is a lab who would do DNA testing for genealogy using hair samples? FamilyTree DNA and 23 and Me both do not do testing on hair. There are no other male relatives that she is aware that could be tested. She is interested in the yDNA especially.”
I turned to Your DNA Guide at Genealogy Gems, Diahan Southard, and here’s her answer:
“Good question! This is a common concern for many. Unfortunately, cut hair (which I am assuming is what you have) does not contain the necessary material for DNA testing. If he had any teeth pulled that she had saved, that would be a good source. Even sometimes a razor will work.
But even if you could find a suitable sample, as you mentioned, the standard genealogical testing companies do not accept non-standard samples. There is a company who does, called Identigene, but the testing is expensive, and really won’t give you what need, which is access to a yDNA database to look for matches.
Your best route is to continue to look for a direct paternal descendant of the line of interest. If your friend’s dad didn’t have any brothers, then what about her grandfather? Are there any first cousins around? What you are looking for is a living male who has the surname you are interested in.
If you can’t find one, your friend can still explore the autosomal DNA test, which will tell her about her paternal side, just in a less direct manner.
Navigating the exhibit hall at RootsTech 2015 was often quite a feat! It was especially crowded around the booths for the two DNA testing companies represented, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com. There were people standing around swabbing their mouths, ready to see what their DNA can tell them about their family history.
This is exciting news for us. The more people that test, the more we can learn: collectively, as a genetic genealogy community, and personally, as we make connections with genetic cousins.
Further evidence that the genetic and genealogy communities are forming a tight bond is the announcement of a partnership by Family Tree DNA and FindMyPast. Currently the agreement is for discounted testing, but hopefully that will blossom into some badly needed genealogical tools for Family Tree DNA customers.
Ancestry was not about to be left out of the excitement! Among their other product updates announced this week that they will be enhancing their DNA Circles experience. Soon you will be a part of DNA circles that center around an ancestor that is not currently found in your pedigree chart (but maybe should be!).
Add that to the news a few months ago that MyHeritage will provide pedigree assistance to customers at testing company 23andMe, and we can surmise that genetics is now a permanent resident in genealogy. The 23andMe/My Heritage partnership will rely on pedigree data being added to MyHeritage by 23andMe customers, which will hopefully ultimately lead more people to post their genealogy online, which is very much lacking in the current offering by 23andMe.
Exciting times are ahead! Get tested–and learn to how use your results meaningfully in your genealogy research. If you need help, check out my DNA quick guides.
For some personal coaching, contact me through my website: YourDNAGuide.com.