What I’ve Learned About DNA Testing

I took a DNA test to find blood relatives on my father’s side. Ever since I got my DNA results a few months ago, I’ve been semi-obsessed with solving the puzzle of my past from the comfort of my home.  It’s a work in progress  (emphasis on “work”).

I know many of my fellow adoptees are in the same boat. Many of you are thinking about taking a DNA test, so I want you to know what I’ve learned about DNA over the last couple of months. Keep in mind I’m pretty green about the science of DNA, actually quite feeble with science in general. I’m still learning the terminology and the tools for understanding DNA results. These are just my  impressions.

DNA tests are easy. I ordered Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test online. A few days later, it arrived in the mail. Following the simple directions, I used the little brushes that came with the kit to scrape cells and saliva from inside my cheeks. I bundled up the results and sent them back to the test company. The process was quick, painless, easy and cheap. The test only cost $104.

Ÿ• DNA test results are hard. When I got my results a few weeks later, I was stunned to see the names of more than 600 new cousins, none of whom are first cousins. What should I do with all these matches? I have not found an easy way to sort out the relatives from the two sides of the family especially since none of my matches are closer than second to fourth cousins.  I’ve also learned DNA can be random in the way it’s passed down from one generation to the next so that complicates things.

It probably would be helpful for my half-sister, Sissy, to take A DNA test. A cousin who’s a genealogist also suggested I do mitochondrial DNA testing, which would trace my mother’s ancestry only. That would help determine whether I am related to various cousins via my biological mother or biological father.

Hmmm. I’m reluctant to shell out more money for DNA testing. Fortunately, there are smart people with a passion for DNA and genealogy who will answer our questions at no cost.  Genetic genealogist Roberta J. Estes has a great website on DNA. Check it out. It is especially helpful if you’re curious about Native American ancestry.  The DNAAdoption Group on Yahoo is also helpful and extremely active.

DNA is time-consuming. Don’t take a DNA test thinking it’ll provide answers to all the burning questions you have about family. I’ve spent countless hours comparing matches in the chromosome browser, attempting to determine who’s related to who on which side of my family. Oh and did I mention the hours I’ve spent writing emails to matches?

me looking at DNA matches

How am I related to these people?

Ÿ• DNA cannot replace old-fashioned detective work. As an adoptee searching for blood relatives, my most significant discovery to date has been finding my half-sister, Sissy. DNA had nothing to do with that discovery. My wonderful search angel, Marilyn Waugh, pointed me in the direction of my mother’s family. Working with online records and old newspaper stories, my husband, Tom, found Sissy’s stepmother’s name. I gave her a call and she put me in touch with my sister.

DNA is social. I’ve had many pleasant and interesting conversations online with my new DNA cousins. Many are genealogists with a passion for family history. Some are adoptees on a mission to fill in the blanks in their life stories. Whatever their goals are, I can tell they’re good people. I can picture myself having dinner or coffee with some of these folks. That’s how friendly the connections feel.

Ÿ• DNA is tantalizing. The DNA game never gets old. Every week or so, new cousins are added to my ever-growing list of matches.

Are you sitting down? Here’s an amazing story. Just the other day, I heard about a woman whose birth mother turned up as a DNA match. How thrilling that must have been for her. She and her mother have talked on the phone. Maybe a face-to-face reunion is on the horizon.

Hearing that story sends chills down my spine and inspires me to stick with this project no matter how long it takes.

9 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About DNA Testing

  1. So interesting to follow your adventures. Have you read the book, The Rosie Project? A lot about DNA testing in a woman’s quest to find her biological father.

  2. I agree with all you’ve said.

    A thought on Mtdna: it is useful for tracing deep maternal history/roots typically a thousand years ago or more – it doesn’t look at the last 5 generations like the Family Finder test at FTDNA. Of course if a birth mother has tested the connection will show up but most seem to do the test thinking it works in the same way as the Family Finder test except for the female line. It doesn’t. Most don’t find it helpful for establishing relatively recent genealogical connections.

    1. I don’t think I’m going bother with Mtdna, Julia. I don’t think it’ll help me in my mission. Better to keep following up with my new DNA cousins and perhaps having my sister tested. Thanks for reading!

  3. Yes, it’s a lot of work – just like traditional genealogy. You’re right that too many people expect to do DNA testing and have a family tree roll out, complete with names, dates and places. No, you aren’t going to get the name of the town your 5th great grandmother was from. No, telling a 5th cousin match your grandparents’ names and that they were from “Russia” isn’t going to help either.

    One important point – mtDNA (mitochondrial) testing only gives you ONE line, your strict maternal line. It does NOT trace all of your mother’s ancestry, only that tiny sliver related to her mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s…mother. The vast majority of your mtDNA matches come from a common female ancestor several hundred to thousands of years ago.

    1. I don’t think I’m going to do mtDNA at this time, Gaye. For my purposes, I don’t think it’ll help. You and two other people pointed out what mtDNA can and cannot do. Since I’m interested in finding out about my father and his family, it probably would be smarter to have my sister take a DNA test rather than bothering with mtDNA.

  4. Keep the faith–it is work, but you never know how you will be rewarded. I got lucky. I found my biological father on 23andMe (I was adopted). He had no idea I even existed, and I had no idea I’d ever find him (biological mother never told him she was pregnant/had a baby–and she refuses contact with me and won’t provide info). Pure coincidence that he submitted a DNA sample for health reasons. I’m blogging about my adoption story, too–it’s more of a puzzle than I ever imagined. http://adoptionmytruth.wordpress.com/

    Also, look into Richard Hill’s work. He’s a fellow adoptee who used autosomal DNA to search. He wrote a book and has a website and guide on deciphering the “code.” http://www.dna-testing-adviser.com/DNA_Testing_Adviser.html

    Good luck!

  5. I just received my Ancestry DNA results back. I guess I was secretly hoping for an “easy” find of a first cousin or even a parent. But that didn’t happen. What did happen, so far, is several 4th cousins. This is going back about 5 generations to find a connection. VERY challenging! I have emailed them all in hopes of family stories, rumors, hints, ANYTHING that may lead me in the correct direction. I am still hoping that something will pop up down the road….maybe a closer relative will take the DNA test. I will never give up hoping!

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