What DNA Test Should I Take? Part 3: Recommendations Based on Research Goals.

11124558_sI don’t claim to be a genetic DNA expert. The subject matter is so complicated I still feel like a newbie and I’m still learning daily. But I HAVE learned much and I’m happy to pass on my knowledge.

Following are my recommendations on what test to take or what company to test with. However, use this as a starting point. I encourage you to do your own research before investing in a DNA test—it’s not cheap! Ask questions and make a plan.

Most important, though– enjoy the journey!

Note that this is Part 3 of the series titled, “What DNA Test Should I Take?” Click for Part 1 or Part 2.5620931_s

If you are looking for basic ethnicity breakdowns and cousin matches:

If you can only take one test and you want to obtain a basic overview of your genetic history, the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA is a great starting point. This company is committed to genetics, offers a comprehensive array of tools to use for evaluating your results, and you will find a fairly high rate of responsiveness from your newly found biological relatives. However, Family Tree DNA comes in third place of the three major testing companies in terms of accuracy of its admixture percentages.

Another option and one heavily recommended by a number of researchers is to take the AncestryDNA autosomal test first (especially if you already have an Ancestry.com account), and then upload your results to Family Tree DNA.  Family Tree DNA allows for free autosomal transfers from AncestryDNA and 23andMe (V3) but you will need to pay $39 to “unlock” most of your cousin matches (it’s free if you get four persons to upload their data as well). They do provide the first 20 highest ranked matches whether or not you pay the $39.

If you are tracing paternal lineage or your paternal surname:  The Y-DNA test at Family Tree DNA.

If you are tracing maternal lineage: The mtDNA test at Family Tree DNA.

Testing older folks: If you are testing an elderly relative, keep in mind that a spit test (such as the AncestryDNA test) may be difficult for them. Some elderly persons are unable to create the approximately one teaspoon of saliva needed for the test.

That said, here’s a suggestion (IF you feel that the test-taker can generate the spit!): have the person take the autosomal AncestryDNA test ($99) and then transfer the results to FTDNA (free transfer; $39 to unlock all of the found cousin matches after the first 20). Then have the person take the cheapest available version of either the Y-DNA test or the mtDNA test (whichever is applicable to the gender of the person). FTDNA will keep the sample indefinitely and you now have a preserved sample for future testing.

If you are interested in tracking ancient ancestor migration patterns (versus finding living cousins): The National Geographic Geno 2.0 project is probably your best bet. This test focuses on tracing migration patterns back to the cradle of humanity.

If you’re adopted and searching for birth family: To provide the greatest opportunity to find bio relatives, it is recommended that adoptees test with all three of the big companies: AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe (this is because most test takers only test with one company; testing with all three and then also uploading your results to GEDMatch.com helps find additional cousins/relatives). Take the autosomal DNA test, which will provide matches with genetic cousins on both the paternal and maternal sides.

To get a discount when testing with Family Tree DNA, order the kit through their Adoptees DNA Project. For males, Y-DNA testing will assist in finding your birth father’s surname. Start with at least a YNDA-37 marker level test and check your Y-DNA matches for any repeating surnames. Females can take a mtDNA test but it probably won’t provide much insight.

For further assistance, head to www.DNAAdoption.com or www.dna-testing-adviser.com/adoptionsearch.html. On Facebook, two great pages worth connecting to are: Search Squad and DNA Detectives. Members of these pages specialize in helping adoptees get reunited with biological family.

One suggestion for adoptees: if you test with Ancestry, once you have testing results back, create a “mirror tree.” This technique of making a copy of a pedigree from one of your DNA cousin matches helps adoptees begin building their own tree. First, create a private, non-searchable tree on Ancestry.com. Give it a name (for example, the surname of the person whose tree you are copying). Find your highest-ranked cousin match (of unknown relationship) that has a public tree of at least several generations. View their tree, and create a tree that looks just like theirs. Copy their pedigree, starting with the DNA match as the home person, to at least the 3rd or 4th great grandparents. Then attach your DNA/your kit to the home person. Now Ancestry’s Shared Ancestor matching system will begin attempting to find common ancestors. Anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, you will start seeing people that match your DNA AND have the same people in their tree- a shared ancestor.  The blog “Genealogy and Genomics” offers a detailed pdf on this technique definitely worth reading: http://ourpuzzlingpast.com/geneblog/

Adopted from China and beginning the search for your Chinese ancestry:  7200707_sA friend texted me this week with this scenario: a friend of hers adopted a girl from China and they are now interested in finding the girls’ birth family. They wanted to know where to begin!

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to tell her. I suggested she contact the adoption agency and attempt to obtain the daughters’ family records. Then, head to https://familysearch.org and review their Research Wiki on China Genealogy. If possible, access the genealogical database at the Shanghai Library, the largest public library in China. Joining the China DNA page on Facebook or visiting  www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~chnwg/ or houseofchinn.com/chinesegenealogy.html may help as well.

Of course, getting the child DNA tested will help in determining her ethnic heritage as well as to begin connecting with relatives all over the world. Some researchers recommend 23andMe, as its admixture analysis is superior and more detailed than that available at AncestryDNA, but it’s much more expensive. Family Tree DNA offers the China / Chinese DNA project for test takers, whether they are living in or outside China. This is a dual Y-DNA and mtDNA project and all communication is in English. I would suggest starting with the autosomal test at AncestryDNA and then taking advantage of the free autosomal transfer to Family Tree DNA. As well, upload the raw data to GEDMatch.com to find additional relatives.

Tracing your African American (AA) ancestry:  For AA testers, you will find challenges to be overcome. Generally speaking, African Americans test at a much lower rate than the general population, making it difficult to find matches. It will be necessary, if financially possible, to have one’s DNA in all of the autosomal databases.

On their site, AncestryDNA states that this company “provides the most detailed African admixture in that it is the only one that matches your DNA to a number of distinct regions in Africa.” As well, the Ancestry test is affordable.

Several researchers have noted that 23andMe has a large AA database, due to their actively recruiting West Africans to test. At one point, this testing company provided more than 10K tests free to persons of African descent and then free tests to continental Africans. This fact definitely gives them an advantage, though the recent changes at 23andMe, especially their emphasis on health reports instead of genealogy, makes them a weakening choice for many researchers.

Several additional DNA testing companies do exist that specialize in studying African American (AA) ancestry: one is African Ancestry, who states that they are the “ONLY company that traces your ancestry back to a specific present-day African country of origin and often to a specific African ethnic group when African ancestry is found.” Another company worth investigating is AfricanDNA.  I can’t provide insight into these companies as I don’t know anyone who has used them.

Do note that, in studies, people who self-identify in this country as African American have, on average, 24% European ancestry. If you are black, you will very likely find Caucasian/white relatives in your cousin matches and an admixture that reflects European heritage. If you are white, and your family traces back to colonial America, you will possibly have third and fourth cousins who are black in your match list– even though you carry no African ancestry.

You’ve been told the family has Native American ancestry:  15044346_sA common oral narrative in America is this: “My (insert ancestral family member name here) was Cherokee. I’m part Native American.” You may or may not actually have Native blood but how do you prove it?

An autosomal test will determine percentages of Native ancestry. This test will be reasonably accurate for about five generations back. Further back, it may pick up minority ancestry. If your Native American ancestor was your great-grandmother and she was full-blooded, you would be 12.5% Native, which definitely should show up in your results. One piece of information that you will NOT receive is which tribe your ancestor belonged to; as well, genetics will not legally establish Native ancestry.

Be aware that you are likely to find no evidence of Native blood in your results, for one of several reasons: it could be that you AREN’T NA or the percentage may be too low to pick up. Native diaspora is poorly sampled (many indigenous groups refuse to get tested), so it can be difficult for the algorithms of companies to detect the DNA.

Supposedly, AncestryDNA’s sensitivity is set low and doesn’t pick up NA DNA well in those who have a low percentage. If you tested with this company, it is recommended that you upload results to GEDMatch.com. Create an account; you will be issued a kit number. Click on the Admixture (heritage) utility and select the project titled Eurogenes. Process it: Admixture Proportions (With the link to Oracle). Select Eurogenes K13 as the calculator model to use. The results will indicate your percentage of NA DNA (as well as other ethnicities). Keep in mind that very low percentages may be false “noise.” In this same utility, you can run the Dodecad project; World9 calculator model.

If possible, have as many family members as possible tested. The more family members tested, the greater chance you have of finding the DNA you are looking for—if it exists to be found.

For support and advice, join the NATIVE AMERICAN Ancestry Explorer: DNA, Genetics, Genealogy & Anthropology page on Facebook.

If possible, pay to take a Y-DNA test (test taker must be male)—at least, a 37-level marker test. Doing so will provide an assigned haplogroup. Haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X are known as NA. Also Y haplogroups C and Q. Women taking the mitochondrial, or mtDNA, test, should find haplogroups A, B, C, D, X and possibly M. Each of these base haplogroups have subgroups either European and/or Asian. The same holds true for Native American Y haplogroups Q and C.

Am I Jewish?  For those researching their Jewish roots, there is an alternate testing company: iGENEA. They have over 700,000 persons in their database—supposedly Jewish but this isn’t clear—but this route is pricey. Their “Basic” test is $239 and the “Expert” test is $1399!

My suggestion would be to start with the Family Tree DNA autosomal Family Finder test. Family Tree DNA states that “We can compare your results with our database – the largest of its kind in the world – and tell you whether those clues indicate possible Jewish ancestry and whether you match others who are Jewish. Our Jewish comparative databases are the largest in the world, containing records for Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as Levites and Cohanim.”

Family Tree DNA offers discounted group pricing for those participating in a project. There are a number of projects focusing on Jewish ancestry.

For more information, visit www.jewishgen.org


So, friends, it’s time to get started on your journey! I would love to hear your stories and your questions. So feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment.






  1. Teresa

    I had my moms DNA done and she has 46 percent Native American and she has 164 matches of cousins and I looked on ancestry and can’t find any family of hers I’m at a brick wall with this.

    1. Julie (Post author)

      Be patient and keep digging and you should be able to create a family tree for her! Did she test with AncestryDNA or another company? If she tested with AncestryDNA, check to see if any of those 164 matches are close family or 2nd-3rd cousins. When you click on their name, you’ll find a little grey “i.” Click on it. This will tell you the total cM (centimorgans) shared with that person.

      If her close matches have public trees, you can study those and even make a mirror tree (copy a few generations).

      Be sure and upload her results to GEDMatch.com. It’s free and will allow you to see matches from all three of the primary testing companies.

  2. Terra

    A few things I have questions on —

    1) Fees question: is it true that after you pay for the AncestryDNA test that there is an annual fee to keep the data housed at AncestryDNA? but free if you have an Ancestry.com account? Are there annual fees for FamilyTree DNA?

    2) DNA ownership: if you’re testing older relatives and want to keep access to that DNA, what do you recommend? There’s an administrator function at Ancestry and a beneficiary option at FamilyTree DNA — but I’d like to hear real-world situations of how that is dealt with after that older relative passes. Do you transfer the AncestryDNA somewhere? What about the FamilyTree DNA?


    1. Julie (Post author)

      Terra– I’m sorry for not responding! I’m working full time right now and haven’t been able to get to my blog. I’ll get back with you as fast as possible.

  3. Professional DNA Testing Services

    DNA test can reveal a lots of secrets of my life. My friend has recently got his DNA checked and found that he is not a part of his so called family.


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