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Getting Started with DNA Testing

by | Aug 7, 2020 | Search

There are a few significant first steps to an adoption search. Getting your adoption records/original birth certificate is the biggest and first step. Getting onto and searching adoption registries is another important step. For some really lucky people, their search may even end there. But for most of us it is crucial to get onto as many DNA databases as possible so that you can access your biological relatives on each of them.

There are two main reasons for this:

    1. To aid you in discovering and finding the biological relative(s) you are looking for.
    2. To provide irrefutable evidence of your connection once you are ready to reach out to them.

It is one thing to find your relatives on a list of matches. Reaching out and ‘proving your claim’ however, requires (and should require) as much solid evidence as you can gather. When I reached out to my maternal family, I had a DNA match with the sister I contacted, I had my adoption records, and I also had my birth name, which they knew. The strength of all of that evidence made me completely confident that I had found and connected with the right people, and in turn, left no doubt in their minds that I am indeed related to them.

Sometimes, the information on adoption records is false, sometimes no one knows the child’s birth name, sometimes people will deny your connection to them, but you cannot argue with DNA.

And so I ask you: if you are searching, and you have not yet done DNA testing, what are you waiting for?


About DNA Testing

Before you jump online to order a test. There are a few things to discuss concerning the different kinds of DNA tests that are available.

There are three kinds of DNA tests available:

  1. Autosomal (atDNA). This is the most common type of test available. All of the major testing companies offer this test. Autosomal tests will find direct and indirect DNA matches on both your maternal and paternal sides. Without a bit of work on your part however, you won’t know who is on which side. Autosomal DNA is mostly accurate up to 5 generations. To accurately go back further you would usually use mitochondrial or Y-DNA tests.
  2. Mitochondrial (mtDNA). Mitochondrial DNA traces matrilineal ancestry. It is passed down from mother to daughter. It can be tested for in males and females, but males need to understand that although the mitochondrial chromosome is passed down to them from their mothers, it stops with them. It continues only through females. This is the test to use if you are stuck with your autosomal results and are having trouble distinguishing matrilineal ancestors or relationships.
  3. Y-DNA. Only males inherit the Y-chromosome. It is in fact, what makes them male. Unlike mtDNA, only males can do this test. MtDNA is present in males, so they can do a mtDNA test to dig into their matrilineal heritage, but if that male’s daughter were to do the test, it would show the lineage from the daughter’s mother, not the father’s mother. Females do not have the Y-chromosome at all, so there would be nothing to test. In the same way, if the female’s son were to take a Y-DNA test it would show the ancestry of his father, not the female’s father. Y-DNA is the test to use if you are having trouble sorting out patrilineal ancestors and relationships.

The best course of action is the Autosomal DNA test. Not only does it cast the widest net, but it is by orders of magnitude, the most popular DNA test. This means that there will be far more potential DNA matches in your results to work with. AND you get matches from both your matrilineal and patrilineal branches.


Which Test Should I Get?

There are a lot of testing companies springing up all over the world. Which one to choose?! For the purposes of an adoption search, the main criteria has to be the size of that company’s database of people who have done a DNA test. We need as many potential matches as possible. Based on that criteria, here are the big four:

AncestryDNA. The benefit of AncestryDNA is their massive customer base (better chance of finding a close relative), the ability to make an online family tree, and the massive records databases you can access to help you find people and verify your finds.

23andMe. Another big DNA testing company.  This is the one I used first, but only because a friend recommended it to me.  At the time I hadn’t heard of any other services. The only drawback to this service is that it currently doesn’t let you build useful trees.  But there is a massive pool of people who have tested with them who might be a relative.

MyHeritage. Very similar to Ancestry but not quite as big. You can still build a tree, compare it with other trees on MyHeritage, and access certain records and databases.  I should stress that MyHeritage and Ancestry have different collections of records and they both have a LOT. Until recently they let you upload your DNA data from other services for free, I believe that they charge for this now.

FamilyTreeDNA. The only company in this list to offer all three types of DNA tests and the ability to create and match trees.

Of these, Ancestry has the biggest database, of over 15 million people, 23andMe is the next largest with just over 10 million, and MyHeritage has a database of around 3 million. FamilyTreeDNA is part of this list because while their database is significantly smaller; over 1 million in size, they are the only one of the four that does mtDNA and Y-DNA testing.

What to do, then?

The short answer here is do the Ancestry test first. What do I mean by first? I mean that you should do as many of the tests as possible, but it can get expensive. So I also want to offer you a longer answer which contains a crafty plan.


The DNA Testing Plan

Of the four, two of these companies currently allow you to upload tests from other companies: MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA. So this narrows our choice to one between 23andMe and Ancestry. For our purposes, Ancestry has two major advantages over 23andMe; the larger database, and the ability to build and compare family trees. We will be diving deeply into the importance of trees and having access to other people’s trees in a future article.

So my recommendation is to do the AncestryDNA test, work through your results using your matches and your tree and then, if needed, take your DNA from that test and upload it to MyHeritage and work through your results and tree there (you can also upload your Ancestry tree to MyHeritage as a gedcom file so that you don’t have to build it again from scratch). You can do the same at FamilyTreeDNA, but MyHeritage has the larger database.

At this point you can also upload your DNA to a website called GedMatch, which allows the uploading and comparing of tests from any of the big companies. They also have a bunch of great tools to help you work with your matches. GedMatch is free, but some of the more advanced tools require a very reasonable monthly fee.

Up to this point, you have still paid for only one test. But if you are still stuck, now you can pay for the 23andMe test. You will need the trees you have built on Ancestry and MyHeritage to help sort out who these new matches are and how they connect to you.


What if, after all of that, you are still stuck?

Firstly, have patience. There are new tests and potential new matches being added to all of these databases constantly. It could be just a matter of time before the match that breaks it all open appears in your list.

It’s also crucially important to discover what an invaluable resource all of those cousins on your matches list really are.

It could also be the time now, for you to consider either the Y-DNA test or the mtDNA test, which you will find at FamilyTreeDNA.

And finally, there is also the option of reaching out to experienced searchers or genealogists for assistance.


A Word About Privacy

There are, and will most likely always be, serious concerns about what these companies are doing with your DNA. My advice would be to read their terms and conditions as carefully as you can.

I find it comforting that many of the companies offer you some control over your sample. You have the option of telling them to dispose of your sample once it is processed, and you have the option to participate, or not, in research.

Here’s the thing though. I had to weigh the uncertainty of what they will do with my DNA, with how valuable it is to me to have access to their database of people who are biologically related to me. The first time I opened up a DNA match page and saw my matches was also the first time in my life that I had seen honest to goodness blood relatives. For me, it was hardly a decision at all. I was 35 years into my search, there was no way I was going to give up at that point. In hindsight, it was DNA which finally allowed my search to be successful.

That is how I made my decision, you will have to make your own.


Feature Image by gagnonm1993 from Pixabay  


Written by Derek Grimm

Derek was adopted at birth in Calgary, Canada. He began his 35 year journey in his late teens little realising how long it would take before finally piercing the veil and making contact with both sides of his birth family. The experience he has gained through the years of his search, the successes, and the lessons he learned from the mistakes he made form the backbone of the Search Find Become course.

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