21 July 2012

DNA: Another tool for the toolbox

I really like to concept of DNA testing for genealogy research. I like it just about as much as manifests and census records. Having no experience with DNA testing, I anticipate liking it a little less than the records I've found most useful: probate, naturalization and obituaries. In other words, I see DNA test results as a another source of data - another tool in my genealogical toolbox, to be used in conjunction with other good information. Perhaps DNA information will generate more questions than answers, but that is all part of what keeps me engaged in genealogical problem solving.

I'd been thinking about trying a genealogy DNA test for some time. Actually, what I'd really been thinking about was convincing a male relative of mine to do it. But then I thought, "Well, I need to do a test myself so I am familiar with the ins and outs and can honestly say, 'It's no big deal!' " So,this past Sunday, the last day of the recent Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) sale, I ordered up a mitochondrial (mtDNAPlus) and Family Finder kit.

I chose FamilyTree DNA because they are known to have the largest database of Jewish tests and they have partnered with JewishGen.org. If one is looking for matches, a large comparison population is a distinct advantage.

I first looked through a variety of resources on the Family Tree DNA website to ascertain which test would be best for me. Their resources include pages, articles and videos on not only the testing results, but also the testing procedures. When one selects the Products tab, the website asks you to tell them whether a male or female will be tested. It then offers you only the testing options for that gender.There are a variety of tests at a variety of prices - the pricier ones, naturally, provide results at greater level of certainty. But, one may upgrade later if one feels the need and has the cash.

Due to the character of DNA and genetic inheritance, women can only test along their female lines (i.e., mother's mother's mother, etc). Thus, my choices were limited to the mtDNA test. Men (lucky them), however, may track their DNA along either line, depending upon which test they select: mtDNA (which tests along the mother's line) or Y-DNA (which will only test along paternal lines (father's father's father, etc.)).

For me, then, the mtDNA test meant that I can only test my mother's mother's mother's side.
It is a good idea to tie oneself to a DNA project. These may be oriented to surnames,  geography, or both or haplogroup (something one wouldn't be able to identify until receiving Family Finder test results). One may change, add or subtract DNA projects from ones profile at any time. The DNAeXplained blog has a recent post regarding considerations for selecting a project.

Aside from the opportunity to compare notes with researchers with similar genetic genealogy interests, with project affiliation one may also find some discounts on FTDNA tests. In my case, I bought the test during a sale - so project discounts did not apply and would not have provided an advantage. However, current discounts in the project in which I was interested only apply to the Y-DNA 37 Marker test (the one most recommended for paternal line genealogy) on which one may save $20. The Family Finder and mtDNA tests are not discounted for the project I selected: Gesher Galicia.

Gesher Galicia is for those with Jewish origins in the area that is now part of Poland, and Ukraine. Around 1900 when most of my mother's family left Europe, Galicia was a province in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. There are currently 278 members of this Jewish genetic genealogy project. There are other projects to select, but I thought I'd start with one and see how it goes. This is all new for me, so information overload is a concern.

Having earned a little overtime pay recently, I chose to splurge a little and decided to not only go with the mtDNA Plus but also the Family Finder. The Family Finder is an autosomal DNA test. This is similar to the tests Henry Louis Gates has completed on his PBS series Finding Your Roots participants and gives one a breakdown of ones ethnic percentages. It may also provide information allowing one to connect with ancestral lines within about the last five generations. Since most Jewish people (including me) can't really trace much beyond that for people with surnames (for most of us surnames didn't appear until after 1800), this could prove useful in taking me back a generation or two. I believe my family line is 100% Ashkenzi Jewish. So, it will be interesting to see how that plays out with the autosomal test results.

Signing up with FTDNA meant selecting a project, selecting a test package, entering my name,  contact information, and credit card info and learning my kit number and password. After paying online, I received an email receipt reiterating my kit number and password.

My test kit arrived in the Friday's mail. I read the enclosed instructions and watched a suggested video demonstrating the DNA collection procedure. I'm glad I watched the video. The only tricky part is handling the scraper and releasing it from the handle into the specimen tube. The video does a better job explaining this than the written instructions enclosed with the kit.

After dinner last night, I waited, as prescribed, more than an hour and took the kit into the bathroom. (For some reason brushing my inner cheek seems like a bathroom type of activity but, truth be told, the collection procedure was not messy at all.) I unwrapped the first scraper, set my stop watch and scraped the inside of one cheek for 60 seconds. After I carefully delivered the scraper to the specimen tube and screwed on the lid, I repeated the procedure on the other cheek. I placed the specimen tubes into the provided zip-locked plastic bag, and put them and the completed waiver form into the provided mailing envelop. I will go to the post office this morning, buy postage for $1.95 and mail in my DNA.

One topic usually comes up when talking about this test. What about privacy? Well, while there are companies that will screen for some health information, the FTDNA tests only look into DNA for genealogical purposes. One does have the opportunity to select privacy settings for ones test results. Consider, however, that the concept of DNA testing for genetic genealogy is to connect with others. The larger the sharing group, the better for finding matches. And the usefulness of ones results will be tied to contacting those that FTDNA identifies as possible relations and figuring out the relationships. I don't see anything in these tests that someone may use against you.

Collecting the specimens was easy - no big deal. Stay tuned. I'll let you know how my DNA exploration turns out. And, if you're a relative, beware that if the results are interesting, I may be asking you for some cheek scrapings (!).

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