Marian Spencer | Feb 15, 2018

3 Ways to Test Your DNA

The nice thing about DNA is that it will never run out—unlike that plate of cookies sitting on your counter. If you eat them all, no one else will get any. DNA, on the other hand, is infinite; just because one person inherits something from their grandmother doesn’t mean no one else can (like her talent for baking, for example).

Because DNA is inherited, it can be traced, making it a powerful tool in the hands of a genealogist. In her RootsTech 2017 presentation, Angie Bush, MS, Region 1 Director for the National Genealogical Society, described not one but three DNA tests available for those looking to dig a little deeper into their ancestry.

Y-DNA Testing

This test traces the Y chromosome, which is passed down virtually unchanged from father to son. How is it traced? Specific parts of the Y chromosome will determine a male’s Y haplogroup. This haplogroup, or single line of descent, is then used to trace the subject’s ancestors through common DNA markers. This is especially useful if you want to confirm a common ancestor between two test participants (ISOGG).

Pros and Cons

  • One disadvantage is that women who want to use this method of DNA testing will have to ask their father, brother, paternal uncle, paternal grandfather, or a cousin who shares the same Y-DNA to take the test.
  • On the other hand, because Y-DNA is passed from father to son—much like western surnames—it’s easy to both visualize and track genealogically (
  • That said, you don’t need to know your biological surname in order to take the test. “If you were adopted,” Bush said, “and you maybe don't know what your biological surname was, do a Y-DNA test. There's a 30 to 40 percent chance you're going to find out what [it] was.”

Autosomal DNA Matching

Humans have 22 pairs of autosomal chromosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. This test traces the two autosomal chromosomes that we inherit from each of our parents and is especially useful for genetically connecting parents and children, and “all relationships up to the second cousin level” (ISOGG).

Pros and Cons

  • This test can be taken by anyone, male or female.
  • Unlike Y-DNA testing, which only traces a direct parental line, autosomal DNA testing can be used to search for ancestors along any branch of your family tree.
  • However, because DNA is recombined when it’s passed on (that’s why siblings can be so different from each other), you will only share small fragments of DNA, if any, with your more distant relatives (ThoughtCo.).

Mitochondrial DNA Testing

Mitochondrial DNA is found in mitochondria, or “tiny structures that sit within each of our cells” ( It’s passed down from a mother to her children, both male and female. This means anyone can take the test to trace their maternal line. If a perfect match is found between two subjects, they may find that they have a common ancestor.

Pros and Cons

  • Mitochondrial DNA may determine not only who your direct ancestors are but how they migrated throughout the world (FamilyTreeDNA).
  • To help with DNA genealogy, most companies offering mitochondrial DNA testing offer a Family Finder feature in their results.

Whether you’re fishing for living relatives or targeting a specific ancestor, DNA testing is an excellent first step toward discovering your own genetic story.

Read more about genetic genealogy here.

Marian Spencer

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