Adoptee Guide Part 2: DNA Testing

Eastman, P. D. (1998). Are you my mother? New York: Random House.

As most adoptee-helper sites will tell you, it’s important to “fish in all the ponds,” or to have your DNA in every database available. If you’re looking to find your birth parents as quickly as possible, you can expect to spend anywhere from $150-$300, depending on whether or not the kits are on sale.

Paternity-Only Tests

Note: If you’re only looking to prove or disprove paternity, a less-expensive alternative is a HomePaternity DNA test. For about $99, HomePaternity will send you two kits, one for the child and one for the father, with the option to purchase additional kits for a reduced price. The company guarantees results within 2-3 days, and does not use a database to compare the DNA of all if its clients. Your data is compared only to the other sample(s) you submit.

Paternity-only DNA testing won’t provide you with a list of possible relatives, however. It can only tell you if the submitted samples belong to a father and child. If you have no idea who your mother or father is, you’ll probably want to test with some of the larger companies, with millions of users in their combined databases.

Autosomes, Allosomes, and Mitochondrial DNA Tests

AncestryDNA, 23andme, and other companies offer what’s known as autosomal DNA testing. Autosomal testing allows companies to compare your genetic makeup with millions of other customers, regardless of your gender. If someone in the database has DNA that matches yours that person will appear as a match.

Autosomes

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One set is inherited from each parent, giving each of us 46 chromosomes in total. Chromosomes 1 through 22 are called autosomes.

Allosomes

The last pair of chromosomes, either referred to as number 23 or XX/XY, are called allosomes. Although most companies analyze chromosomes 1-22 and the X chromosome, they’re still called autosomal tests.

The allosomes are gender-specific. Males have one X, inherited from mom, and one Y, inherited from dad. Females do not have a Y chromosome, but instead have two X chromosomes, one from each parent. A woman’s X chromosome is an identical copy of her father’s single X chromosome.

23andme, MyHeritage, and FamilyTreeDNA all report shared genetic data on the X chromosome. AncestryDNA does not.

FamilyTreeDNA offers Y-DNA tests that use the male allosome to identify distant paternal lineage. These test may be useful to a male adoptee who is seeking his biological father’s surname. I say may because these tests identify shared bits of genetic data, going back thousands of years. Just one name change or out-of-wedlock birth 300 years ago can break the name chain and render the test ineffective for verifying a paternal line.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA is small circular DNA found within a cell’s mitochondria. It is different than the 23 pairs of chromosomes previously mentioned. 1. mtDNA is passed down from mother to child, virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

FamilyTreeDNA offers an in-depth maternal line test. However, it isn’t especially useful for identifying an unknown mother for the same reasons I mentioned with Y-DNA testing.

Data Portability Among Testing Companies

There is a lot of outdated information circulating online regarding testing companies, specifically regarding DNA data transfers. Back in 2016, you could take a test at one company and then upload that data to a few other places (this is called an autosomal transfer).

Unfortunately, some newer versions of these tests are not compatible with other companies’ software, so the data will not transfer. It’s a bit difficult to keep track of, but this post from The DNA Geek has the most accurate and current comparison chart I’ve found.

If you haven’t taken a DNA test yet, you may be cringing at the thought of paying for three different kits. In reality, the cost per test has gone down and the frequency of 20-30% off sales has increased, so buying three tests today isn’t much more expensive than a single test taken a few years ago. As of this edit (August 2019), FamilyTreeDNA tests are $79.

So my answer to the oft-asked question,”Which kit should I buy?” is:

AncestryDNA

and

23andMe

and

FamilyTreeDNA or MyHeritage

Yes, buy three of them. Each of these services has its own set of pros and cons, but by testing with three, you can be sure you don’t miss any possible matches. MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA are fully compatible with each other, so results from one can be transferred to the other.

(In case you were wondering, the affiliate links on this site are only for companies I personally recommend.)

Let’s start with the pros:

AncestryDNA: Largest member database (over 10 million users), DNA matches often linked to family trees

23andMe: Most accurate basic relationship prediction of the three, Chromosome browser tools helps see which DNA matches also match each other. Offers a basic Y-DNA group (called a haplotype) for men and a basic maternal line haplotype for both men and women.

FamilyTreeDNA: Has a chromosome browser. Is the only site for region-specific DNA projects (run by dedicated volunteer genealogists). DNA test only requires swabbing the inside of your cheek. Offers additional paternal and maternal-line testing, for an extra charge.

MyHeritage: Has a chromosome browser. Most DNA matches have attached family trees. Company is popular internationally, so may potentially be useful for finding non-American matches.

And now some cons:

AncestryDNA: Has no chromosome browser. Has no chromosome browser. I purposely wrote that twice because it really should count as two cons. DNA-matching algorithm “misses” more true matches than the other two companies, has no maternal or paternal haplotype reports

23andMe: Matches are (in my experience) less likely to respond to messages than members of the other two companies, no easy way to see which members have attached family trees.

FamilyTreeDNA: Often suggests relatives are a closer match than they really are (somewhat the opposite of Ancestry’s match algorithm). The family tree interface is slow and glitchy.

MyHeritage: Has an annoying pop-up in the header that urges you to purchase their family tree service and research tools, also shows matches are more closely related than they actually are

Once you get those results back, which can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks, depending on the time of year, it’s time to upload them to the other matching sites. Oh, and here’s a bit of advice — buying a kit on sale may save you $40, but you’ll probably end up waiting an extra 4-6 weeks or more due to slowed processing times (because everybody else is buying the kit when it’s on sale).

Real-life examples: (kit mailed date vs. how long it took to get the results)

Ancestry, October 2017 : 16 days

Ancestry, December 2017:  9 weeks

23andme, July 2017:  3 weeks

23andme, December 2017: 10 weeks

Ancestry, July 2019: 3 weeks

Or maybe just don’t send in your kit between Thanksgiving and New Years…

Part 3: Making Sense of  Your DNA Matches

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_DNA

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