16 September 2013

Disappointed in DNA test results?

Recently several friends have indicated how disappointed they are with their DNA test results. Most are referring to autosomal DNA tests, but some who get Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA tests feel the same way. I’m not sure why these researchers are disappointed; none have provided specific complaints.

Maybe, after watching CSI television shows, we have an unrealistic expectation for what a DNA test can do. It is probably also a result of the DNA testing companies not setting realistic expectations for their customers. Some of the phrases used in marketing any product can lead to expectations of more than can be delivered.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons for disappointment is that there was no specific research question to be addressed by the DNA findings. Taking a DNA test just because it is the hottest new thing in genealogy is a great way to contribute to the science, but can you really be disappointed in the findings if there was no question to be answered? DNA tests can provide very specific answers to some questions, clues to the answer to some questions, and can’t help with other questions at all.


To make a specific use of DNA test results you must know:

  • What is the focused research question?

  • Which DNA test can provide evidence to answer this question?

  • Who is alive in the right ancestral line and is willing to provide a DNA sample?

We can learn so much from most DNA tests, but it takes a lot of work to thoroughly analyze and understand the results. The results must be analyzed in the context of what we know from traditional research. The results must be analyzed in the context of what we learn about those with matching DNA and the probabilities for a relationship. And the results must be analyzed in the context of a specific research question to be answered.

Using DNA tests for genealogy is a matching game. Just seeing our DNA results alone tells very little about our family history. When we compare our family tree to the tree of those who have closely matching DNA we can find common ancestors. The ancestors won’t jump off the page at you and no technician will come running in with a piece of paper identifying the guilty person. The tech won't say, “this person is related through your second-great-grandfather on your father’s father’s line.” With many hours of work we may figure that out, but it won’t be immediately obvious.

If you don’t get many or any matches you may feel let down, but a DNA test is one of those things that "keeps on giving." You may have no close DNA matches at the time you test, but the testing company will usually compare you to everyone who tests in the future, too. Maybe the cousin that will break down your brick wall will test next week, next month, or next year. If you don’t test you will never know if that cousin has already tested and the answer you need is just waiting for you in the DNA database.

Taking the test and getting results back from a company is not the end of your genetic genealogy quest. It is the beginning. Be sure to rest while you wait for the test results to come back. You’ll be very busy analyzing the results if you want to learn useful information from those results.

Maybe genealogical researchers can better appreciate the process to make use of DNA test results in comparison to other kinds of research we do to determine who our ancestors are. This list shows some similarities between research using documentary evidence and DNA evidence.

What does the researcher provide to a record repository or a DNA testing company?

Land record or probate file:
A request for a specific record type for a person of a specific name within a specific time frame

DNA:
A DNA sample and, optionally, a pedigree chart and ancestral surname information

What does the clerk / DNA company do to “locate” your record?

Land record or probate file:
Check the specified index for the specified name during the specified time (once other current duties allow time to help with historical research)

DNA:
  • Send you a test kit (after payment is received) then wait for it to be returned
  • Extract the DNA from the biological material
  • Amplify the DNA to create enough to analyze
  • Optionally, freeze the left-over DNA for future use
  • Sequence the amplified DNA
  • Store the DNA result data into a database
  • Compare your DNA data to everyone else in the database (tens or hundreds of thousands of other DNA samples)

What does the clerk / DNA company do to report findings?

Land record or probate file:
Contact you THIS ONE TIME with a list of whether your person was found and how much it will cost to get a copy of the documents

DNA:
Contact you to let you know results are available online – not just one time but EVERY time new matches are found as new people test


What does the clerk / DNA company do to process findings?

Land record or probate file:
  • Photocopy or digitize the requested documents (after payment is received or authorized)
  • Send the documents to you (with NO analysis whatsoever) and without checking to see if there are other documents for this same person or his/her relatives or other documents for the same property or …


DNA: Provide you with
  • Results that may include the DNA marker name and value
  • A haplogroup if a Y-DNA or mtDNA test was taken
  • Historical information on the ancient migrations of the haplogroup
  • A list of others in the company database who have the same or similar DNA results
  • Access to ancestral information that was supplied by those with matching DNA
  • In some cases, tools to help you with further analysis of the matching DNA data
  • Customer service and FAQ lists to help you understand the results

What do YOU have to learn before you can make use of the reported findings?

Land record or probate file: You need to learn about
  • The difference in metes and bounds and the rectangular survey system
  • How to plat and locate land in each survey system
  • Colonial, federal, state, and military bounty land grant processes
  • Laws affecting land ownership and taxable property in effect at this time in this place
  • Probate and inheritance laws in effect at this time in this place
  • The history of the time and place as it may affect record availability (county boundaries, courthouse disasters, and so on)
  • How to read the handwriting of the time and place


DNA: You need to learn about
  • DNA inheritance patterns
  • SNPs and STRs and blocks of DNA and how to interpret them
  • Fast changing (or mutating) marker significance
  • How to effectively use tools provided by the company and by third parties
  • Statistical probabilities for DNA matches and what it means when you look at all those numbers


What do YOU do after you understand the background and have the record / data?

Land record or probate file:
  • Transcribe or abstract the information
  • Analyze the information in the document
  • Evaluate as evidence to support or disprove a genealogical research question
  • Correlate with other evidence you already have
  • Create a well-reasoned, coherently written conclusion OR form a research plan for the next steps to be done for further research on this question


DNA:
  • Review the findings and contact the matches in case they have ancestral information beyond what is provided on the company website
  • Analyze the DNA matches using tools provided by the company and/or third-party tools
  • Evaluate as evidence to support or disprove a genealogical research question
  • Correlate the DNA data between the matches
  • Correlate the DNA data with evidence from traditional research
  • Create a well-reasoned, coherently written conclusion OR form a research plan for the next steps to be done for further research on this question


Just like any other evidence you use to help answer a genealogical question, using DNA evidence requires work on your part. Or you can use a consultant to do the work for you: a relative or project administrator who is interested and has the time, or a consultant or researcher you hire to do the work for you. The same way you would hire a researcher to obtain and analyze record copies when you can't do it yourself.

You had to learn how to use the information found in deeds, census records, probate files, and all of the other records genealogists use every day. You will have to learn how to use DNA test results unless you plan to hire someone to do it for you.

None of us are born knowing how to do this kind of analysis. We have to learn, or we have to find someone else to do the analysis for us, or we are wasting our efforts. Genetic genealogy has the potential to solve many of our genealogical brick walls if it is used effectively. However, it is not a magic bullet to answer all your questions with little or no work on your part. Many of us find it fun and interesting to learn how to use DNA test results. Give it a try. Maybe you'll like it, too.

Check here for links to educational materials to learn how to use DNA for genealogical research. Or join us next year at The Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh where Your Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore, The Genetic Genealogist Blaine Bettinger, and I will be teaching Practical Genetic Genealogy.


To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Disappointed in DNA test results?," Deb's Delvings Blog, posted 16 September 2013 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

All images created by and © 2013, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL, All Rights Reserved

© 2013, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL, All Rights Reserved

6 comments:

  1. You really put it in perspective, Deb! Great post.

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  2. Thanks, Cathi. Like most truly useful research, it takes a lot of time to know what to do before you can devote all the time it takes to actually do it! I think many of us don't realize this when we order that first DNA test.

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  3. Straightforward, practical explanation for use of a DNA test as a tool to further our research! Thanks, Deb, for a great post.

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    1. Thanks, Nalexmanz. I learn something new every day about using DNA. And I can't wait to see what new discoveries are made in the coming years to make it easier for us to use.

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  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, Emily. I'm finally finding time to post several articles that have been on the back burner for some time.

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