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  • Results of Recent Survey on Genetic Genealogy

    Dr. Edwin M. Knights

    Published Date : January 30, 2006

    I am very grateful for the marvelous response by NEHGS members to the November survey on their experiences with genetic genealogy -- their responses were detailed and thoughtful and were accompanied by some excellent recommendations now under careful consideration. We regret that we could not answer all the questions, but we tried to reply to each respondent. Because many of the responses were from family project administrators, we had the added benefit of learning the experiences of over 1,000 genealogists who are using DNA data in various ways to augment traditional methods of genealogy.

    Positive and Negative Experiences
    I am pleased to report that at least half of respondents were very satisfied or just satisfied with using DNA analyses, while most of the rest report "mixed" results. Many of the problems involved either uncertainty about embarking on this new approach to genealogy or the need of expert assistance in interpreting the results. Fortunately for some projects, their selected administrators have attempted to keep up with the emerging technology and are very conscientious about assisting project members, helping them to understand both the possibilities and the limitations of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA studies.

    Comments varied all the way from "Have been able to identify family groups," to "Totally unsatisfactory" and "Don't do DNA testing for genealogy -- it is not beneficial -- stick with the documentation and records."

    Markers and Charges
    The question about markers proved to be rather complex, but it helped to explain why some genealogists because frustrated with using DNA. Those who started very early using the genetic approach might be compared with the person who rushes out to buy that sleek, newly designed car, only to find the manufacturer didn't foresee some glitches. After a few recalls, the car is likely to get more curses than smiles from the frustrated owner.

    There seemed to be general agreement that a 12 marker study was an acceptable way to start (some early studies employed as few as 4 markers), but only if these were "not common." Most genealogists seem to prefer 25 markers and many are now using 37. We didn't get enough comments about haplogroup studies to draw any conclusions, except that some individuals didn't seem to be aware that studies involving slowly mutating DNA or mtDNA are useful for distant ancestry or ethnic identification but are not all that helpful in identifying the family pedigrees usually sought by genealogists.

    The majority of respondents felt the entrance level costs were reasonable. Extended testing, such as 37 markers, can be very beneficial but was considered too expensive for some.

    Confidentiality and Accessibility of Data
    Only a few genealogists expressed any great concerns about the confidentiality of their DNA results; some didn't know and a few didn't care. The majority seemed satisfied with the assurances provided by the testing laboratories. A few weren't that convinced, however. One reply was, "I have not done DNA to date because I fear there isn't the legal security for what happens to the results in the future." Apparently some administrators also encountered similar apprehensions when recruiting new members for their projects.

    There is no uniformity concerning the accessibility of results, as this varies markedly from study to study. Some provide completely private reports for each participant. Summary reports are prepared by other administrators. One study posts all its results on its website. It also became apparent that our question concerning the identification of a serious heritable illness was not clearly stated. The size of family groups continues to expand, especially when DNA identification supports the traditional genealogical documentation. Families are rapidly gathering new members and are reaching proportions not previously encountered. As in ethnic groups, predisposition to certain heritable physical or mental characteristics, or recognized diseases, is likely to become apparent. This could pose an ethical, or perhaps legal challenge for a project administrator, as preservation of confidentiality has become a very serious concern in the medical world. If a heritable condition becomes apparent in a family group, are all relatives notified who are considered potentially at risk? And what about persons wo have just joined or are planning to join the project?

    I am very grateful for all the time and thought which went into the replies to the survey. Some are included here:

    “All positive results for us” (although it took 5 years). “DNA settled problems”

    “I’d be interested in the bad situations encountered by others.”

    “Need for independent, experienced, reliable people to help newbies....” (Suggested checking posts at Genealogy-DNA and

    “It can’t hurt for NEHGS to be involved, a limited way to help out those....just getting interested.”

    “DNA enthusiasts have been working hard to educate ‘traditional’ organizations about this tool.”

    “Contact ISOGG for possible speaker on genetic genealogy.”

    “Need to understand ‘anthrogenealogy’, such as the National Genographic Project”

    “Request recommendations for labs doing DNA for genealogical purposes.”

    “Set up an alliance with others, e.g., World Families, for DNA surname projects.”

    “Can you recommend where to get tested?”

    “Spent a lot of time trying to prove something that was incorrect...” Happy to find error via DNA analysis.

    “Very pro using this as a method of breaking through brick walls.”

    “Many participants do not understand DNA at all....”

    “Attended Elderhostel in New Hampshire by DNA experts” (30 persons attended course)

    “Would like help to interpret the Y-DNA results.”

    “There is no one to communicate with....”

    “Those doing DNA testing have ‘over sold the capacity and benefits...’”

    “$100! I’d rather spend that on good genealogy-related books.”

    “Exciting field but needs to be better communicated.”

    “Yes, I think NEHGS should do this.....a big part of their job is education -- expand activity into DNA education, research and counseling.”

    “Like to see NEHGS (or some other credible institution) set a standard or guideline [for] acceptable genealogical conclusions.”

    “Suspect match information is being generated, e.g., on, so people feel they are getting something for their money.”

    “I have 35 ‘high resolution’ matches at FTDNA, 62 at Ysearch -- test must be very general.”

    “I hold NEHGS in very high regard, but I am not sure it should try to go out on a limb as a consultant at this time.” (Suggests working relationship with one or two testing firms.)

    “NEHGS needs to work with experts to develop standards.”

    “Prefer NEHGS.... prepare a grant proposal to encourage greater participation in surname testing and extend number of markers tested.”

    “Serious mistakes encountered with SNP testing of Haplogroups.” Worries about quality of SNP results for National Geographic Society.

    “DNA testing will work very well to assist traditional genealogy. It’s wonderful.”

    An administrator of a 700-subscriber study states, “...there is not much understood about this new tool” and expresses a “need to educate researchers in an evolutionary process. I believe we are demonstrating the furthering of family history by integrating DNA findings...” but also is concerned that use of DNA testing for genealogy is overstated, as it is actually a supplement to traditional research.

    A genealogist “questions use of quality controls” by DNA laboratories.

    “Should NEHGS provide an interpretation service? It could be worth investigating -- possibly ‘free’ but with a suggested donation.”

    Respondent needs “help to direct me to someone.... to answer my question.”

    “DNA can be a very useful supplement.”

    “DNA will become an important part of many of our lives, not the least being genealogists. So yes, I do support NEHGS getting more involved.”

    Respondents appeared to be generally satisfied with the performance and service rendered by the larger laboratories, although some felt that the advertising could be misleading and perhaps tended to over-emphasize the relative role of DNA studies in genealogy. This is hard to evaluate, because so many genealogists have been recently introduced to genealogy via the internet and haven't fully explored the other possible sources of genealogical information.

    I've included some of the comments received and suggest viewing appropriate websites which carry information about laboratories serving genealogists, with comments from clients.

    The use of DNA is swiftly establishing its value in genealogy -- not as a replacement for traditional research, but as a useful supplement, especially for "brick wall" situations and for clarifying diverse pedigrees which carry the same or similar surnames. Few genealogists are qualified geneticists, and we are merging an art with a science. The science of genetics is advancing at break-neck speed, so we are going to have to adapt to new technology and accept newly recognized "markers" in the foreseeable future, including somatic markers which are currently classified as "junk DNA." There is striking similarity with early mariners who had no idea what was over the horizon when the sun rose each morning and they feared sea serpents might be lurking beneath the waves ahead.
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