Today the breakthrough product for genealogists and adoptees is autosomal DNA testing.
Both men and women are using this type of test to identify previously unknown relatives in their family trees and learn more about their ethnicity. One test even provides genetic health information.
Now that the prices have dropped below $100 each, thousands of people are taking these tests every week and the databases are growing rapidly.
The Geno 2.0 test from National Geographic’s Genographic Project uses similar technology. But it focuses on ancient ancestry and does not allow you to contact others who share genetic segments. That makes it far less useful for genealogists and adoptees and I am not covering it in this discussion.
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All three products went through a Beta testing phase and I was one of the early testers of each. Happily, I have found many genetic matches using autosomal DNA testing with all three products.
23andMe pioneered this technology, using an existing database of customers whose autosomal DNA had already been tested for health information.
FTDNA introduced Family Finder a few months later. More recently, Ancestry.com launched AncestryDNA. Both FTDNA and Ancestry.com focus on genealogy and do not include health testing.
Now that the prices are so low, I encourage adoptees and serious genealogists to take all three of these autosomal DNA tests.
There is only a small amount of overlap among the three databases. And there’s no way to tell in advance which test will produce your closest or most useful matches.
If genetic health information is important to you, you should clearly start with the 23andMe test.
Once you get your results, you can order an inexpensive transfer from Family Tree DNA that lets you copy your 23andMe raw data into the Family Finder database.
That’s the best two-test strategy.
NOTE: You cannot order the 23andMe test from New York or Maryland. Lawmakers in those states have concluded that we are too dumb to interpret our own genetic data without going through a physician.
If you really need to choose just one test, here are six other things to consider:
1. Match Communications
Getting a match through autosomal DNA testing is most valuable when you can open a line of communication with your newfound cousins. Then you can share genealogical data like surnames, geographic origins, and pedigrees to identify your common ancestor.
Since 23andMe does health testing, they have to build extremely high privacy walls around their customers.
When new matches appear in your DNA Relatives list, most will not reveal the person’s name. Instead, you will only see their sex, the predicted relationship, and some non-identifying data about each match.
To introduce yourself to that person you must go through an internal communication system.
The AncestryDNA test also forces you to go through an internal system to communicate with your matches. And most of your matches will be identified by user names instead of real names.
As with other FTDNA products, Family Finder provides the name and email address for almost every match.
23andMe does provide another means of finding some of their customers. When people choose to make their Profile public, you can search for them by name. You can also search for a surname and get a list of people who included that surname in their Profile.
Unfortunately, you can't tell if any of the people in your search results are among the anonymous people who have a match with you in the DNA Relatives list.
ADVANTAGE: Family Finder
2. Match Responsiveness
Once you introduce yourself to someone you match, you hope they will respond and exchange personal messages with you. Then you can work together to identify your common ancestor.
Based on my experience and the experience of others, Family Finder matches are the most likely to respond with AncestryDNA matches a close second.
Since most Family Finder and Ancestry.com users are genealogists and not just people curious about health issues, matches through those tests are also more likely to have extensive genealogical data.
23andMe makes up for the relatively low response rate by having the biggest autosomal DNA database. So if you are diligent and professional about contacting matches, you can still reach a lot of relatives there.
TIP: If you are using 23andMe or AncestryDNA, provide matches with your email address and ask for the other person’s email address. That way you have the option to communicate directly and bypass the proprietary message systems.
ADVANTAGE: Family Finder
3. User Interface
The Chromosome Browser in Family Finder uses color to let you visually compare up to five of your matches at a time to see where you have matching segments with each person.
23andMe's similar Family Inheritance Advanced view uses color to distinguish two degrees of matching segments, which it calls half identical and completely identical.
AncestryDNA does not provide any information about matching segments or any tools for comparing them.
With Family Finder you can select from several segment size minimums to be more or less selective. The minimum in the 23andMe browser is fixed.
As your list of autosomal DNA matches grows, various filters on Family Finder will make it easier to focus on certain matches. Their “In Common With” and “Not In Common With” filters are especially useful for narrowing your search to certain branches of your family tree.
Family Finder also includes a Notes icon where you can save notes about each relative.
AncestryDNA also has a notetaking feature and some limited filters.
Many of AncestryDNA’s users have family trees posted on Ancestry.com. So AncestryDNA’s best feature is the automatic comparison of your family tree with those of your matches.
While some trees are public, many others are private and you will need to individually request access to each private tree.
This matching feature is less useful for adoptees, who don’t have a family tree to post with their account.
Both Family Finder and 23andMe allow users to upload GEDCOM files for viewing by their matches. Family Finder will highlight surnames common to both of your trees.
NOTE: Regardless of which DNA test you use, keep in mind that the majority of online family trees are poorly researched and many are full of errors.
Finally, Family Finder is the only one of the three to support the uploading of raw data files from the other two companies.
ADVANTAGE: Family Finder
4. Supplemental Information
23andMe offers just one test. So they pack a lot of features and value into their autosomal DNA product, including the health information not provided by the other two tests.
In addition to testing the autosomal chromosomes, 23andMe also checks some data from the X and Y (for men) chromosomes and a portion of your mitochondrial DNA. That lets them predict your maternal line haplogroup and—if you are a man—your paternal line haplogroup.
Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com include haplogroup information with separate Y-DNA and mtDNA tests instead of their autosomal tests.
NOTE: If you are interested in Y-DNA or mtDNA testing, Family Tree DNA has the most testing options and the largest databases.
5. Ethnic Ancestry
All three of these autosomal DNA tests use DNA population studies to determine your biogeographical ancestry. Essentially, they tell you what proportion of your total ancestry originated in different populations around the world.
This collective ancestry from ALL your ancestors may be quite different from your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups. That’s because those tests only trace the narrow origins of your ancestry through your direct paternal and maternal lines.
FTDNA's Population Finder report, included with Family Finder, checks your DNA against more than 60 populations from seven distinct continental groups.
The comparable report included with the 23andMe test is called Ancestry Composition. It uses fewer population studies that Population Finder, but it adds an innovative technique to further break down European ancestry.
The Genetic Ethnicity report in the AncestryDNA test is still a work in progress. For many people it shows an unrealistic amount of Scandinavian ancestry.
6. Customer Service
Whenever you buy something over the Internet, customer service can become a critical factor.
I have found the staff at Family Tree DNA to be knowledgeable and helpful. They respond promptly to email inquiries and they publish a phone number you can call. The company even received an Award of Excellence from the Better Business Bureau for superior customer service.
I have not personally tried to contact the other companies with any questions. The only phone number for 23andMe is that of their corporate office…and that number is extremely well hidden on the site.
Ancestry.com does publish a toll-free number, but they have had some major communication failures with adoptees.
ADVANTAGE: Family Finder