Deep into DNA
a monthly column by Mike Maglio
Imagine getting a letter that a distant relative has passed away and that you are invited to the family home. There is a gift waiting for you there. When you arrive, you are handed a skeleton key with a little tag. Handwritten on the tag is your name in faded, old ink. The caretaker tells you that the key fits the door to one of the rooms in the house and you should feel free to look for it.
As you wander the old home, you see priceless antiques and old photos. In the study, there are volumes of genealogies of surnames both recognizable and foreign. The entire place is a treasure trove of information and memorabilia. You would be happy with even the smallest of gifts.
The cold iron key in your hand reminds you that there is even more to see. Locked doors line the hallway and your key doesn’t fit any of them. Ahead the sounds of surprised gasps indicate that other invited guests have found their rooms. Finally, at the end of the hallway, at the last door, your key turns and the lock snicks open.
Entering the room, the number of artifacts overwhelms you. On one wall is book after book about your father’s father’s family. On the opposite wall are volumes about your mother’s mother’s family. The rear wall contains information about cousins, going back for generations. In the center of the room is a massive table holding maps of far away and forgotten homelands. You turn to find the caretaker at the door.
You ask, “How can I decide which item to accept as my gift?”
“All of this is yours if you promise to make use of it,” he replies.
The hours pass and you realize that it could take a lifetime to read and understand all the history that has been unlocked for you. The hours spent would be worth it. Heading home, knowing that you can return at any time, you are stunned by the number of doors still locked along the hallway. How many invited guests didn’t make the effort to find out what awaited them? Perhaps they mistook the invitation as a con or a hoax. Everyone who came that day unlocked a room. Some rooms were small and some large, but they all contained a library of genealogical and historical information about the key holder.
~ * ~
Each of us already has this key, it’s in your DNA. While there are volumes of existing information that your DNA will unlock, there is still a lifetime of discoveries to be made.
Testing is easy and usually consists of a swab inside the cheek or spitting into a test tube. There are a variety of tests and a variety of testing companies. When I give DNA presentations I am always asked, “Which test should I take?” My answer is almost always, “What mystery are you trying to solve?”
Perhaps your grandfather was an orphan and you don’t know his real surname or you have a major brick wall five generations back on your paternal line – you could use yDNA testing. We all have 46 chromosomes, 23 inherited from dad and 23 from mom. yDNA comes from the male sex chromosome. The y chromosome is inherited from father to son virtually unchanged for generations. This is a male-only test. A yDNA match could identify a previously unknown surname group or a parallel lineage with a more extensive paper trail and common ancestor. At a minimum, you will learn about your deep paternal ancestry, going back thousands of years.
Perhaps there has always been a story told in your family that great-great-grandmaw was Native American or that your other great-grandmother arrived in America and they changed her name at Ellis Island – you could use mtDNA testing. Mitochondrial DNA is in all our cells and is inherited from our mothers. mtDNA is passed to daughters and sons, also virtually unchanged for generations. This test is good for men and women. An mtDNA test will reveal the ethnicity of the maternal line and a match could connect you to a parallel lineage to help break through a brick wall. Like yDNA, you will learn about your deep maternal ancestry, going back thousands of years.
Sometimes your mystery doesn’t exist along your paternal or maternal lines – you could use atDNA. Autosomal DNA tests look at your other chromosomes. When you inherit your genes from mom and dad, they mix or recombine. Mixing is never perfect and many times large sections of your DNA are inherited intact from generation to generation. The atDNA test looks for matches by comparing large sections that are in common between two people. Depending on the size of the gene sections and the quantity of matching sections a relationship can be calculated anywhere from 1st to 5th cousins. Another feature of this test is that your atDNA will be compared to world samples to determine the percentage of your ethnicity. The results come back as a pie chart indicating how European, Asian or African you are.
Autosomal DNA can also be used to determine if your genes show inheritable diseases or a risk for future conditions.
We are at the dawn of the DNA age for genealogy. The existing databases of DNA results are excellent and they get better with each new record added. Over 1 million people have been tested, but that hardly scratches the surface of the world’s population. Fears about privacy and accuracy of DNA testing still exist. Testing is completely private and your results can remain anonymous if you choose. Laws exist to prevent discrimination based on DNA and the databases that law enforcement groups use are completely different from genetic genealogy. If you use the top DNA testing companies, you are guaranteed about accuracy and that your privacy is being protected.
You hold the key to the library of information about your family and yourself. Don’t waste that gift.
Mike Maglio is the author of Deep into DNA, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the use of DNA in genealogical research. Mike can be found blogging at OriginHunters.
© Michael Maglio (Origin Hunters) 2012
Graphic Source: Michael Maglio original graphic 2012