AncestryDNA: A Genetic Genealogy Journey

AncestryDNA

I have decided to take the next step in my genealogy journey. I took advantage of a spectacular Black Friday offer from Ancestry for 30% off their DNA test. Nearly 2 weeks ago, on November 30th, I received my kit in the mail! I spit in to the tube and returned the kit the same day. On Dec. 8th I received notice that the kit was in the lab and was awaiting processing. It would be great if I get my results before Christmas! I have been trying to learn about advances in DNA testing for purposes of genealogy research for awhile now. However, I know that I still have a lot to learn. I consider ordering the DNA kit as the first major step in a new genetic genealogy journey. I will be documenting that journey here, in my blog, and I invite you to come along.

AncestryDNA Kit

Contents of my AncestryDNA kit

There are some excellent resources elsewhere that explain the ins and outs of genetic DNA testing, including the different tests that are available. Therefore, my main purpose is simply to document the reasons I chose for starting on this journey. For example, “What do I hope to learn from this?” and “How do I think it will help me in my research?” I also hope to document what I learn and discover as I continue this journey!

At this point I have 3 main goals:

  1. Educate myself about genetic genealogy
  2. Create the opportunity connect with unknown cousins
  3. Add one more tool to break through a brick wall in my family tree

Education

I believe in lifelong learning, and genetic genealogy is simply one more example of that. I could have chosen to read scores of blog posts or attend dozens of educational conferences before deciding to take a test. However, when a heavily discounted offer came along, I chose to take the test. I will now use this experience as a major part of my learning process. Certainly I did some reading ahead of time. I learned, for example, that you can upload your results to several sites so it doesn’t matter so much which test you start with. In addition to AncestryDNA, other leading products are 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and MyHeritage.

I learned enough to know that for the broad results I was looking for, I should take an autosomal DNA test. This type of test allows you to see results from both father and mother. It has also become the most common kind of test in the market today.

So, a major impetus for taking the AncestryDNA test is simply to learn what it is all about. And you will have the benefit of learning right along with me!

Connect With New Cousins

Another aspiration is to connect with new cousins. From what I have learned, the AncestryDNA test will reveal my ethnic origins. For the record, I expect mine to be primarily English, German, and Danish, with just a little Irish mixed in. I don’t expect any surprises like being 25% East Asian or Sub-Saharan African. So this portion of the result should be mildly interesting in terms of what percentage of each ancestors’ DNA I inherited. By and large, however, I expect it to confirm my family tree as it has been researched.

However, there is power in connecting your DNA results with your public Ancestry DNA tree. Doing so allows you to match with other people and then open communication lines with new cousins. I am looking forward to this aspect of the DNA results.

Breaking Through My Brick Wall

The last reason is an actual hope I have that these results could help me beak through a brick wall in my family tree. As I have written earlier, there is a mystery surrounding the father of my Great-Great-Grandmother, Ella Belle Bunch. I hope that the test results will provide some clues as to her actual father. Perhaps, for example, it will link me to another AncestryDNA user and identify us as distant cousins. Subsequently we could compare our trees in search of a common ancestor. If perhaps, we cannot find one, we will follow the clues to see if my distant cousin has information in his or her tree that will tie my to Ella’s father.

Let’s analyze this assumption a little closer.

With today’s technology, a DNA test has about a 50-50 chance of identifying your 4th cousins. Knowing that autosomal DNA (atDNA) tests can only reliably reveal most relationships of 3rd cousin or closer, why did I decide to take the test? How distant would a cousin be from me that shared the common ancestor of Ella’s father?

I think to answer this question, I need to provide just a little education.

Random Inheritance

First a VERY high-level review. DNA strands are the building blocks of all life. It differentiates one species from another as well as one individual from another. The human genome contains about 3 BILLION base pairs. You share 99.9% of that DNA with every other human on the planet. In addition, there is some randomness to how your DNA is passed down to your descendants. So what this means is that if you were to test about 100 of your 4th cousins, the test would detect about half of them as your 4th cousin.

As you probably remember from your High School biology class, you inherit half of your genes from Mom and half from Dad. Except this is only “approximately” true? “What?” you say. “Why only ‘approximately’ true?” Well, pretend that at each new segment you decide to flip a coin to see which half of the DNA you will get. Overall, statistically speaking, you will come up heads (Dad) about as often as you come tails (Mom). But on any individual segment you have an equal chance of getting heads or tails.

Let’s try a simpler example. When a child is conceived, it has a 50% chance of being male and a 50% chance of being female. It all depends on whether it ends up with to X chromosome or an X and a Y, right? But you know families that have ALL girls or ALL boys, right? How did this happen?  Random chance.

OK, let’s bring it back to DNA testing again. Let’s say a child’s father is 100% Irish and 100% Polish. That child’s DNA could be a “perfect” mix of his parent’s and would show a 50-50 mix of Irish and Polish. But the child could also have any other range of mix with his parents that adds up to 100%. Let’s say he inherited 75% of the segments that most “Irish” share and only 25% of Polish. If this same ratio occurred each time, it would only take a few generations for nearly all traces of “Polish” DNA to disappear in a single individual. This randomness is why, statistically speaking, finding shared DNA segments with extended cousins beyond 3rd cousins gets harder and harder.

Calculating Cousins

So exactly how far back can I expect to find information? To answer this is will be helpful to show a chart of cousins. The degree of “cousin-ness” is simply a shorthand way of describing how far away you and another relative are from a common ancestor. You probably know your 1st cousins. You share a set of grandparents with them. Your grandparents are the shared ancestors that define the “first cousin” relationship.

Second cousins share great-grandparents, third cousins share great-great-grandparents and so on. There are more technical ways of remembering this, but I like to count the number of words in used to say the common ancestor. This number is the degree of cousins you are. (We won’t concern ourselves with “removed” at this point.)

Common AncestorsNumber of wordsRelationship
Grandparents11st Cousins
Great-Grandparents22nd Cousins
Great-Great-Grandparents33rd Cousins
Great-Great-Great-Grandparents44th Cousins

Mystery Father

So could a DNA test help me solve this family history mystery? Well, Ella Belle Bunch is my Great-Great-Grandmother. Her father, therefore, is my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, and it is very possible that I could find a 4th cousin! Even better, I am recruiting my Great-Aunt and some of her children to take an AncestryDNA test as well. They are 1 or 2 generations closer to Ella Belle, and could help us get that much more data!

AncestryDNA Kit Instructions

So, now that I have established my reasons for embarking on this journey, let me just explain how easy it was to actually do.

AncestryDNA Step 1

AncestryDNA Step 1

  1. After paying for my kit it arrived in the mail in about 1 week. It might help that I am located in Utah which is where Ancestry is headquartered.
  2. The kit itself was very well organized. The instructions were clear and easy to ready. Before doing anything I read through the instructions from beginning to end (unlike when I am trying to assemble Christmas presents for my children!)
  3. The first step was to activate the kit online. I simply went to the link provided and typed in the unique code printed on the “spit tube.”
  4. I filled the tube with my saliva. There is a wavy line that tells you how much you should add.
  5. I took off the funnel and replaced it with the cap which is filled with a blue, transparent liquid.
  6. As you tighten the lid it is supposed to break a seal and release the blue liquid into the collection tube to mix with your spit. I had to tighten, loosen, and re-tighten for it to drain completely.
  7. I shook the tube to mix it thoroughly.
  8. Lastly, I placed the tube in the bag provided, then placed the bag in the postage paid return box and dropped it off at my local post office.
AncestryDNA Step2

AncestryDNA Step2

In just a few days I received an email from Ancestry saying they had received my sample and would be processing it shortly. In the meantime, they invited me to upload my family tree to Ancestry and associate it with my sample.

Waiting Game

And now I am anxiously awaiting my results. The kit says results could take 6-8 weeks to receive. However, many people seem to get their results back in about 4 weeks. Obviously I am hoping for a shorter time frame!

Have you done any DNA testing for genealogy purposes? What did you wish you knew before you started?

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