15 June 2013

Banking on Family Tree DNA

While there are dozens of companies that supply DNA tests to consumers for one reason or another, most genetic genealogists recognise or recommend only a handful. Top of that list has traditionally been Family Tree DNA. FTDNA was founded in 1999 and it's labs are used by other companies like DNA Ancestry, African DNA, iGenea, and even National Geographic. What this means is that it's the big fish in this pond. So is it the company for you?

In February of this year, I was seriously considering my testing options. I've already covered what mysteries I would like to solve and had come to the conclusion that genetic genealogy may be the only way I was ever going to get any clues. Then, like a divine sign, FTDNA reduced their 12 marker Y Chromosome test to $49! I had to get it. I begged my brother to take the test. Always supportive of my insanity, he was willing to be my guinea pig. What was I going to find out about him, he wondered. I had to be honest right off the bat.... I wasn't going to find out much. You see, when it comes to Y Chromosome tests, the more markers you test, the closer your relationship matches become. 12 markers would get us genetic matches within the last 29 generations. While I really wanted to find out about my great grandfather, I knew this test wouldn't do that. Well, I may end up finding a match to someone who is my 1st cousin, but the markers are too few to confirm such a close relationship. I would need the 37, 67, or 111 marker test to be sure. I wasn't ready to spend $170-360, so I was willing to just get a glimpse of what was possible.

So I paid my $50 and waited for my kit. I received it within a week, but had to pester my brother for almost two weeks to get him to stop eating, drinking or brushing his teeth for a minute so I could get him to give a viable cheek swab sample. Until you have to get someone else's DNA, you have no idea how hard it is to keep things out of their mouth! The kit comes with two cheek swab brushes, two vials, a bag and a release form so they can share your contact info with genetic matches. I sent the kit back, finally, and waited for my results. I say waited, but I mean "checked the site every morning, afternoon, evening and twice as much on weekends" for weeks. Mid-April I had the test results back and 125 matches. What did it all mean?

Not much, really. Like I said, I had paid for the 12 marker test. Because it is low in the number of markers checked, the common male ancestor could be centuries ago.... long before surnames were even invented. I got 125 matches and have not received any new hints since April. I did note that 27 of the matches had the same surname and that it was one of the possible surnames for my great grandfather. But in reality, this test was the genetic equivalent of a records index. I could see the names, but I couldn't look at the real facts and confirm the relationship. My goal was to find out more about our mysterious paternal line, and I do feel I accomplished that vague mission. While I cannot definitively connect the matches, there is enough new information to encourage me to work more on this line and possibly upgrade the test. FTDNA allows users to upload a GEDCOM to connect to their results. I perused a few of the trees on the matches that had chosen to do so and recognised some places if not names. Unfortunately, less than 20 had put in a tree, and most were very uninformative.

But was that all I learned? Not at all! At 12 markers, Family Tree DNA told me that my brother's Y Chromosome was R1b1. What is that? Remember the post on Y Chromosomes? Every time the chromosome develops an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), scientists give it a letter or a number in an alternating pattern to note where it lands in the tree of Y Chromosome Adam. So from the origin of the Y Chromosome in Africa, my paternal line comes from the R branch that developed 30,000 years ago in Western Eurasia. R1 turned towards Europe as R2 moved into Asia proper. R1b travelled into Western Europe about 25,000 years ago, while R1a went to East and Northern Europe about 10,000 years ago. When you click on the tab "Migration Maps", you get all this information as well as a very cool looking map that can tell you about this early history of your family. But the information for R1b stops at 25,000 years ago. I can't take the direct paternal line past 1927 with documents.... I may be missing a few generations to make the connection. The traditional way of speaking of haplogroups means that eventually the chain of letters and numbers becomes very long and confusing for some people, so the new school of genetic genealogists talk about the "terminal SNP" which is the last mutation on the list. The 12 marker test doesn't tell me what that is, but FTDNA "predicts" it is R-M269 (R1b1a2 in the old speak). If I upgrade the test, I could confirm this terminal SNP, which would help me go back to those matches and say "Hey! You have to be a close cousin because you have the same haplogroup! Wanna connect?"

Now what's all this talk showing up about upgrading my test? Well, FTDNA saves your sample so you can order an upgrade to more markers for the test you took, or a whole new test! FTDNA offers more than just Y Chromosome tests, remember? If I wanted to, I could order my brother's kit to be tested for their Family Finder (an autosomal test that connects you to cousins in their database just like AncestryDNA's autosomal test). I could order an mtDNA test to learn about my direct maternal line. Or I can upgrade the number of markers for the Y Chromosome test and get my matches confirmed to within the last 4 generations. (Hmmm, brother is 1, dad is 2, granddad 3.... hello great grandpa!). I can even order a full genome sequencing (if I'm made of money one day). And this is where the real benefit of FTDNA lies. Right now, they are still running the sale on the 12 marker Y Chromosome test. They've also added an introductory mtDNA test for the same price. Now, they won't break down your brick wall since they are so vague............ so why get one? To "bank" the sample, silly! You can always upgrade later when you can afford the more expensive tests. So get this test to just get a taste of what's out there. More importantly, get this test for any elderly relatives who may not live long enough for you to get around to the bigger tests! So who's on my list? My mother's paternal uncle is a good one. Since my grandfather is deceased, my great uncle is the best choice for an mtDNA test for their shared maternal line. If I could get my dad or one of his siblings to take the mtDNA test for their maternal line, that would also help me with some questions. And a male from my grandmother's maternal grandfather's family would tell me more about her grandfather (who I can not find before he immigrated to Scotland). I'm sure you can think of a relative who holds the genetic key to a mystery. One that is the last link to a direct maternal/paternal line (or at least the only one talking to you). Or maybe you have so many folks you want to test that the cost seems to overwhelm you. Have them take this test and then save your money for the upgrade when you are more flush. You can do the upgrade years down the road, so there's no reason to wait. Just head to a few genetic genealogy pages to see the stories of "I wish" to know how waiting any longer is a bad idea!

So I'm still learning about this company and exploring all the tools available to me now. I will say that I've enjoyed my experience so far and encourage others to take advantage of one or more of the tests on one or more of your relatives. While waiting for your results, upload a GEDCOM of your tree, watch the learning videos and read the FAQ. Join genetic genealogy discussion groups and get ready for an overload of information to come at you. FTDNA has lots of help topics and forums, use them! They also have surname studies and family group pages that deal with specific haplogroups and haplotypes and finding out how everyone who is genetically connected can confirm with real documentation. Because I'm still in the vague category of the 12 marker test, I've not delved too far into the groups, but they are amazing! Users of FTDNA are serious about genealogy and making connections, so you will find more people willing to respond to inquiries here rather than other companies that emphasise learning your ethnicity over connecting to other people.

The only con I really have about the site is that the FamilyFinder autosomal test is currently twice the price of AncestryDNA. And with third-party sites like Gedmatch.com accepting data from FTDNA, Ancestry and 23andMe, there's no reason to pay for the same test from all sites. You can even pay $50 to transfer your autosomal test from another company (sale price!) and use their database to connect with the testers who haven't currently transferred to Gedmatch. So paying them directly for the test isn't necessary, but it's your choice. And who knows? They could always reduce the price to better compete with the new kid in town. The current sales would suggest they're looking to stay big fish....

But you know what they say about fish in the sea....

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