Foundations for Genetic Genealogy Success: Profiles and Family Trees
Our own Paul Woodbury follows up on his article about the journey of a DNA sample with a discussion of how profiles and family trees are the foundations for genetic genealogy success. This article is a reprint from a recent issue of the National Genealogical Society Magazine and is published here with permission.
In my previous article, “From Spit to Screen: The Journey of a DNA Sample” I described the journey of a DNA sample from the moment a sample is taken to the moment a test taker receives notification that their test results are ready for review. From mailing to completion of processing, a customer may need to wait several weeks or months until their test results are ready to be used for genealogical research. Still, even while waiting, test takers can perform several tasks to create a strong foundation for future genetic genealogy research success. Creating a detailed profile, preparing lists of ancestral surnames or locations, and uploading a family tree can encourage collaboration, open doors of discovery for others. These steps can also lead to efficient corroboration of proposed family trees, and spur genealogical discovery once test results complete processing.
A test taker’s profile is akin to a job application or resume; it is a tool that helps convince genetic cousins that they do want to work and collaborate with the user. Collaboration is an essential element of all genealogical research, including genetic genealogy, where many genealogical mysteries are solved using the details, information, and family trees shared in the profiles of genetic cousins. While a strong profile can certainly help others in their journeys of genealogical discovery, it can also help a user themselves, by encouraging and inviting efficient and focused collaboration. Each DNA testing company offers the option to customize a profile with an image, description, and explanation of research interests.
When a test taker’s profile includes a photo, genetic cousins may consider the user more approachable and open to contact. When a test taker’s profile includes additional details such as age, residence, interests, family surnames, or other information, this can help other genetic cousins avoid unnecessary communication just to figure out a user’s identity. As a result, those with more complete profiles often experience less unwanted communication centered around identity and instead invite more helpful communication centered around specific research questions and goals for genealogical research. At the same time, the information that a user wishes to share should be balanced against their privacy preferences and comfort level.
In addition to profile images and descriptions, each DNA testing company offers additional options to enhance a user’s profile:
At 23andMe, users have the option of publishing their current residence, places where their ancestors were born (including survey results regarding their four grandparents), surnames in their family tree, and links to online family trees at other sites. While 23andMe prompts users to fill out these profile items when they are setting up an account, these responses can be edited at any time by reviewing and editing a user’s account settings and their “enhanced profile.” The current residences reported by 23andMe customers in their profiles are used to create the map view of a user’s genetic cousin match list: a demonstration of the geographic distribution of genetic cousins.
The results of the grandparent birthplace survey are published on user-profiles and can aid others in quickly determining which ancestral lines may be the source of a shared relationship. In addition to the results of this survey, users can publish a list of other birthplaces from older generations. These, too, are published on a user’s profile and are searchable within the database of genetic cousins. For example, performing a search at 23andMe in the “DNA Relatives” list for “Alabama” will return all individuals who have reported Alabama as a birthplace for one of their ancestors.
23andMe customers may also provide a list of family surnames in conjunction with their test results. These surnames are also searchable in the general database, along with the names of genetic cousins. For example, a search of the “DNA Relatives” list for the Woodbury surname will return all individuals with the Woodbury surname listed in their profile of ancestral names. Still, it will also return all matches carrying the Woodbury surname regardless of whether it is included in their profile list or not. 23andMe users can provide a link in their profile to an online family tree. Because 23andMe no longer supports their tree-building tools, users must link their family tree to outside sources. These links can greatly assist others in identifying common ancestors and determining the nature of a genetic relationship. Finally, 23andMe customers can share an introduction and description to be published and shared with their matches.
Users can adust other publication preferences at 23andMe in the settings and preferences for a user’s involvement in the DNA Relatives database. These adjustments include how your name is shown, whether or not to display your birth year, the sex you wish to be displayed, as well as if you would like to display your ethnicity percentages and matching DNA segments. These latter display features can be helpful to others in determining the nature of a relationship.
Users of MyHeritage are asked to fill out a member profile that displays their age and country of residence. Nevertheless, the most useful foundation and preparation that test-takers can pursue here is linking a family tree to their test results. When MyHeritage test-takers link a family tree to their test results, the website will generate hints regarding shared ancestors (SmartMatches) between the trees of common matches. MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity will also take the details from trees and compare them against their larger database of trees and records to propose theories of how two individuals might be related. The details are compared even if the proposed common ancestors between two individuals are not included in their respective family trees. When MyHeritage users attach family trees to their test results, the website will also generate lists of shared surnames and shared ancestral locations described in the match list and match profiles. Users can search for specific surnames or can filter by shared surnames or locations.
At Ancestry.com, customers can adjust their account profile to show their age, residence, languages, family history experience, and research interests. These details can help encourage collaboration and correspondence with researchers sharing similar interests. Publishing residences also enables the map view of DNA test results where users can see the geographic distribution of their genetic cousins.
Beyond the basic member profile, users can also adjust settings related to how they appear in others’ match lists as part of the DNA settings, including their display name and if other users can see their ethnicity estimate and genetic communities.
Perhaps the most useful setting at AncestryDNA is the ability to link a test to a family tree. AncestryDNA will generate hints regarding shared ancestors with other genetic cousins when users link family trees to their DNA test results. They will also present genetic cousins who also descend from shared ancestors as part of their ThruLines tool. AncestryDNA’s ThruLines incorporates data from the family trees of matches and utilizes other family trees to link matches to each other even if their common ancestor is not in both family trees. Finally, when users link a family tree to their AncestryDNA test results, Ancestry will highlight shared surnames and locations in the family trees of other genetic cousins, offering clues regarding likely sources of shared DNA. These shared surnames and shared locations are searchable as part of the AncestryDNA search and filter functions.
Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA customers can fill out a profile, introduction, and other associated information in their account settings. Customers here should ensure that they publish an updated email address to enable communication with DNA matches. Family Tree DNA also offers the option to select an account beneficiary who can continue to manage the account and any remaining DNA sample if a test taker dies.
Under the “Genealogy” section of Family Tree DNA’s account settings, users can add a list of ancestral surnames and associated locations as well as information on their earliest known maternal and paternal ancestors. Surname and location information is beneficial when exploring genetic cousin match lists as any surnames shared in common between a test taker and a match is listed in bold. These surname lists can also be queried as part of Family Tree DNA’s surname searches and filters. Meanwhile, user-provided information on the earliest known paternal and maternal relatives can greatly aid in the interpretation of Y-DNA test results and mitochondrial DNA test results. Y-DNA is inherited from father to son in a direct line of paternal inheritance. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from a mother to her children in a direct maternal line of inheritance. Therefore, one should focus on the earliest known patrilineal (the father of the father the of father) ancestor and earliest known matrilineal (the mother of the mother of the mother) ancestor as opposed to the earliest known paternal relative or the earliest known maternal relative from any ancestral line.
Finally, Family Tree DNA offers the option to upload or build a family tree to associate with a user’s test results under the “MyTree” section. Surnames included in a tree are not searchable in the Family Tree DNA database as the surname lists are. Also, the inclusion of a family tree does not generate automated hints at Ancestry or MyHeritage. Nevertheless, searches can be performed in individual trees for specific names or surnames to quickly locate the position and identity of a common ancestor. Thus, the inclusion of family trees at Family Tree DNA can still help others better determine the nature of their shared relationship to a test taker.
Profile and Family Tree
Setting up a detailed profile at each DNA testing company and, where possible, attaching a family tree to DNA test results lays a strong foundation for future success in genetic genealogy research efforts. A well-crafted profile can direct and invite desired collaboration. The inclusion of residence information can reveal the geographic distribution of DNA matches. Lists of surnames and ancestral locations can generate hints and enable database searching for others. Finally, linked family trees can generate hints of relationship, ease interpretation of key genetic cousins, and aid in identifying which genetic cousins are most likely related through ancestral lines of interest. Users should only share after considering their comfort level and privacy preferences, and each company provides multiple options for setting individual preferences to align with personal privacy concerns.
Regardless of how much a user chooses to share or not share, consideration of these steps stands to benefit all genetic genealogy researchers. As more test takers share details regarding their age, residence, origins, ancestry, and genealogy, all benefit from more readily helpful information, which unlocks the doors to genealogical analysis, interpretation, and discovery.
Getting a DNA test is a great way to start, but completing the journey requires hard work, collaboration, and access to the latest tools and services. If you get stuck and need some assistance, our genealogists will work with you to find success. Contact us today for a free quote!