Friday, October 15, 2010

Genealogy Lesson 5 - Genetic Genealogy & DNA Testing

This lesson might seem a little premature, since you are just starting out with genealogy.  However, I want to at least expose you to the concept of genetic genealogy.  I am sure you are browsing around the Internet and that you have or soon will encounter this subject.  Genetic genealogy can seem confusing, maybe a little bit scary, so I want to give you a crash course on the subject.
 
In a nut shell, you swab the inside of your mouth and mail those cheek cells to the testing company.  They extract your DNA, run a test on the sample, and provide you with a set of numbers in return.  Those numbers correlate to certain traits passed along by family lines over the centuries.  The more of these numbers match between two people, the more closely they are related.
 
The main goal of genealogical DNA testing is to find where a male line came from in the world.  Take my case for example, I now know that the Lett family almost certainly came from Scandinavia.  I would never have figured that out on my own!  Now my research on the Letts always leans toward connecting my line back to that area of the globe.
 
One major point to keep in mind...this type of DNA test only helps if you are male.  The genes in question are passed from father to son, just like their last name.  Therefore my genes and my last name came from my father and are both therefore the same. 
 
In the case of women, their test looks for genes passed from mother to daughter.  Mothers and daughters generally do not share the same last name after marriage.  You could therefore find out where your "maternal line" came from but that is much less helpful since the last name is not constant.  If a woman wanted to find out where her paternal family was from, she would need to get her brother or father to take the test.
 
I am absolutely watering down all that  genetic genealogy involves.  If you are interested, I would suggest reading up on the websites of the various testing companies.  Family Tree DNA is probably the largest, best-known and most respected testing company.  Ancestry.com also offers testing that is among the most affordable on the market.  I personally used Family Tree DNA but that was long before Ancestry.com started offering tests so I cannot say that one is better than the other.
 
If you really want to find where you ancestors were from, I strongly suggest that you consider performing one of these DNA tests, sooner rather than later in your research project, for two reasons.
  1. It takes several weeks for the results to come back.  The sooner you send your sample, the sooner you get results.
  2. The answers that you receive can lead your future research in the right direction.
Most testing companies will ask if you want to make your results public.  That basically means that, if anyone else matches your DNA, they will put the two of you in contact.  You might be introduced to someone that has an abundance of information on your family.  That could save you countless hours of research down the road.  I made my personal results public and have never had any problems with that decision. 
 
Let's face it, everyone wants to say that "I am German" or "I am Scandinavian."  If you take one of these DNA tests, at least you can probably say where your paternal family was from.  With that piece of information, you would then know both the starting and ending points of your family tree.  The fun part then becomes filling in the middle.

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