DNA Chapter Two: Testing Companies

We’ve all heard the advice that we need to test the DNA of as many relatives as we can afford to test, and upload our results to as many websites as possible so we can identify as many matches as possible.  In addition, the most important piece of advice for new genealogists is to test your oldest relatives as soon as possible, before it’s too late.

Fortunately, in the older generation, I’ve tested my mother and her brother, my uncle. There are none left in that generation on my mother’s side, and my father was an only child. Unfortunately, I no longer have any siblings to test, but on the bright side, I have six first cousins, two children, one niece and one nephew. Two of my first cousins, and my niece and nephew, have already tested on their own. I gave my children DNA test kits for Christmas.  So the only close relatives I need to test are my four remaining first cousins.  Then I move on to second cousins.

It seems that the primary three websites for autosomal DNA testing are Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, and Gedmatch.  23andme doesn’t seem to be the website of choice for genealogists, but certainly we can find matches there as well.  MyHeritage has recently jumped into the DNA market, which means that database will be very small for awhile.  FamilyTreeDNA seems to be the one used the most by professionals because of its extremely helpful tools (that’s the one Dr. Thomas Jones uses for his DNA analytics, and he’s my hero!). I use the word “seems” because I’m not really qualified to make a declarative statement about these things – I’m just repeating what I think is true based on my limited knowledge and experience.

I’ve read that you should test at Ancestry first.  That’s because Ancestry doesn’t allow you to upload test results from another company, so unless you test with them directly, it isn’t possible to get your DNA results into the Ancestry database.  They do, however, allow you to download your raw DNA data, which you can then upload to FamilyTreeDNA and Gedmatch.

The list price for an Ancestry DNA test is $99, but it frequently goes on sale. Until the RootsTech conference earlier this month, the lowest sale price I’d ever seen was $69, and that’s the price I paid for the three tests I purchased for my two children and my ex-husband for Christmas.  But at the conference, Ancestry was selling the tests for $49 each – that’s 50% off!   I bought the maximum number allowed – five tests (watch out family, if I’m visiting you in my RV this year, you can be sure I’m going to ask you to spit into a test tube!).


Ancestry DNA test kits bought on sale!
Ancestry DNA test kits bought on sale!

Once you’ve tested at Ancestry, you can download the raw data and upload it to Gedmatch for free – so that’s a no-brainer.

As for FamilyTreeDNA, up until very recently, they couldn’t accept Ancestry DNA data if you tested after May of 2016, which was the case with my children and my ex.  If your Ancestry DNA was older than that, you could transfer it for $39.  They also have sales sometimes – in fact, in my recent transfer frenzy, I was all ready to upload my mother’s DNA from 23andme to FamilyTreeDNA, and mine from Ancestry, and pay the $39 for each test, when I realized I had already transferred it.

My mother tested several years ago at 23andme on a recommendation from her doctor, and I jumped right on it at the time (thank goodness I did). Then, two weeks before my mother died, evidently (I say that because I remember none of this) FamilyTreeDNA had a big sale on transfers – it was free.  So I transferred hers from 23andme and mine from Ancestry.  It’s amazing how grief will just wipe your brain clean.

Last week, when I was looking at the matches for my mother and I on FamilyTreeDNA for the first time, I discovered that there was a catch to this free transfer, which is that not all features of the standard “FamilyFinder” autosomal test are available to me.  To “unlock” those features will cost $19, which I’m not going to do, at least for now.  All I really need are the matches (which shows how closely you match by displaying the number of centimorgans you have in common), and the ability to communicate with the matches.

Then, just a few days ago, FamilyTreeDNA announced that they can now accept the more recent Ancestry DNA data, and the transfer is free, with the same limitations I found with my Mom’s DNA.  For the extra $19, you get access to the Chromosome Browser, myOrigins and AncientOrigins.  I think that the latter two are some type of ethnicity percentages and haplogroup information – but you might already have that from other websites.

As for the Chromosome Browser tool, that will create a chromosome map which shows which chromosome segments you share with your matches. It’s cool looking, but one thing I learned at the RootsTech conference is that it doesn’t matter which segments you share with your matches.  The chromosome maps are great and fun visuals, but knowing which segments you have in common doesn’t help in your research.  At least, that’s my understanding right now.

Plus, if you really want to see a chromosome map, you can create one for free using the chromosome mapping tool developed by genealogist Kitty Cooper.  I’ll do a separate post on that once I practice with it for awhile!

Chromosome Map from Kitty Cooper's Blog
Chromosome Map from Kitty Cooper’s Blog

To summarize, we should test on Ancestry first, download the raw data, and upload it to Gedmatch and FamilyTreeDNA for free.

So, I’ve now transferred all of the Ancestry and 23andme tests I administer over to Gedmatch and FamilyTreeDNA. In addition to those, I have my uncle’s Y-DNA at FamilyTreeDNA.  I was able to use the same saliva sample to upgrade to the FamilyFinder autosomal test, and upgrade to the 111 Y-DNA test at the same time, for a total of $169.  I could have chosen to test my uncle at Ancestry, but I really didn’t want to ask him to spit again, and I think if his autosomal DNA is at FamilyTreeDNA and Gedmatch, that will be enough.  And, in his case, I’ll have access to the full analytical tools on the FamilyTreeDNA website.  Once I understand those tools better, I can decide whether I want to upgrade the others for $19 each.

I’ve found that it’s really easy to get confused about whose DNA is where.  So I’ve created a table where I can track all the samples I administer, and the sites where they’ve been uploaded, along with kit numbers and passwords.  My ex-mother-in-law and sister-in-law are also testing, and then there’ll be the five tests I bought at RootsTech – so the administration tasks will become even more complex down the road.  It’s a good time to get a tracking system in place.

Lots more to come on this topic as I learn more!


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