Friday, 20 February 2015

Genetic Genealogy at RootsTech and FGS 2015

When selecting my topic priorities among the diverse and tempting array of presentations at RootsTech and FGS 2015, I focused heavily on genetic genealogy. I’ve heard Australian presenter Kerry Farmer explain DNA at various times, which was a great foundation. I’ve also been trying to come to grips with the complexities of testing more and more in recent months. 

The RootsTech and FGS combined conference seemed like a great opportunity for furthering my learning – after all there’s nothing like “try, try again” when you’re dealing with a complex concept.

So which talks did I attend on this topic? The Syllabus had a synopsis of each of these talks so it’s possible for all attendees to check out the core content in advance. Unfortunately it’s only accessible by those who were registered for the conference(s). However, at present you can order the sound recording of any of the Federation of Genealogical Societies talks for $US10 – a lot cheaper than the trip to the US.

RT – Genetic Genealogy – the birth of the DNA revolution – Bennett Greenspan

RT – Exploring family stories with DNA from PBS’s “Finding your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr –CeCe Moore

RT - Getting started in Genetic Genealogy – Diahan Southard (video recorded by RootsTech and currently available online here)

FGS – Genetic Genealogy Standards – CeCe Moore

FGS – Determining Kinship with DNA – Angie Bush (an excellent talk which was recorded by FGS and available to download for $US10)

I walked away from these presentations feeling I was on the right track with the understanding levels I'd reached, but also that there was a great deal more yet to learn, especially about mapping and phasing. It’s always good to hear different presenters too, because sometimes you twig to the message better from one person’s style than another.

Apart from learning the building blocks of DNA, these were my take-home messages from the different speakers:

  • Have a plan for your DNA testing – work out what genealogical problem you want to resolve and which test is best suited for that task. I think I initially had unrealistic expectations of what the tests could achieve.
  • Spread your testing across relations from different branches as that will help with mapping your DNA.
  • Ensure you meet the ISOGG standards in terms of confidentiality of data you obtain, protecting privacy and obtaining informed consent from those you wish to test. I know I’ve been remiss in the latter part of this previously, so that will be something I’ll be focusing on.
  •  Why not test? If you are concerned that “big brother is watching” or you don’t feel comfortable with your data being online even when it’s only accessible to your matches. If this doesn’t bother you, then go for it.
  •   You need a really good understanding of cousin relationships since at each genealogical level you inherit different percentages of DNA.
  •  Each testing company (Ancestry, FamilyTree DNA and 23 and Me) has different strengths and weaknesses. The gurus tend to test with each of them, but most of us would find that too much an impost on our budgets, so pick and choose which suits you best.
  •  Increasingly the companies are providing the option to link with online family trees – not sure this is a step I want to take.
  •   Access to the full suite of DNA tools with Ancestry requires a subscription.
  •  Read, read and read some more: read as many blogs as you can, the ISOGG website, and relevant books. On the flight home I started in on this book by Emily Aulicino which I’d downloaded. Not sure it was a great combination with jetlag and long-flight-brain but it is very helpful and needs a LOT more thought. 

I'm sure I went into DNA testing several years ago without an appropriate understanding of what I could achieve...or more relevantly, what I might not achieve. As Angie Bush “DNA doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t tell the stories and it doesn't tell the 'why'”. We need traditional genealogy to match up with genetic genealogy.

My big tie-breaker was testing my mother’s DNA, giving me clear DNA links to my maternal line, through matrilineal DNA and also autosomal: by default the rest of my autosomal should be my father’s since my parents don’t come from an endogamous population. Further advantage came from a couple of known cousins testing in their own right, and being able to link into known genealogical links.

I have used Family Tree DNA for my family’s tests and have been happy with their product. However, at the talks I learned that Ancestry has had a boom in their autosomal testing in the past months and they are also moving into the United Kingdom and Ireland, which just might help with my research. Since the Ancestry test is not yet available in Australia I took the opportunity to do their test while in Salt Lake and post it back directly. After all I didn’t really need that rather nice black coat in Macy’s which cost about the same amount of money – sometimes genealogy is all about sacrifices.

Here are some genetic genealogy blogs/web pages you might find useful to further your own research:
DNA eX-plained: Genetic Genealogy by Roberta Estes
The Genetic Genealogist: Blaine Bettinger
Your DNA Guide: Diahan Southard

I wonder how many of us have tested our DNA with one of the genetic genealogy companies. Have you?


  1. I tested with AncestryDNA and uploaded my test results and Tree to two other places. There's still a lot I don't know about DNA but it has helped me proved two theories I had about maternal lines. You still need the research to get the most out of your DNA experience. And without a tree built out 7 or more generations, it can be frustrating.

    My only comment about not linking your tree to you AncestryDNA test results is this: unless you are a close cousin match that surprised me, I am going to ignore you because you've given me nothing to work with. I will click on your profile to see if you do have a tree but if you don't I move on quickly.

  2. Thanks for commenting Schalene. Great that you got results from your test and I agree the DNA does not stand alone and needs to be compared to traditional research findings. I don't have my tree online but I do,list family names and places.

  3. Over the years I've tested with several companies. I much prefer 23 and Me to Ancestry as it lets me compare much more closely. I do have my tree connected to my ancestry test. I have gotten several cousins to test so I can often see which line the distant cousins match. I haven't been able to place any new found cousin's on the tree. This is probably because slavery disrupts my knowledge with so many unknowns.

  4. Im with Ancestry 23&Me and FTDNA. I'm U5b1c2 Maternally. E1b1a7a Paternally. It's a lot of work as science was not my thing in my School days. Everything we are doing to me seems so Pioneer. I just keep working at it. I don't want my DNA to be lost with my Descendants. My 1st DNA test was actually with the Military back in the day. Who knew? What big of a deal it is now. You can't have one with out the other meaning your papertrail. Thanks for mentioning these points. Great Source of information.


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World Wide Genealogy Team