Genetic genealogy is the use of genealogical DNA tests, i.e., DNA profiling and DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogical methods, to infer biological relationships between individuals. Genetic genealogy involves the use of genealogical DNA testing to determine the level and type of the genetic relationship between individuals. This application of genetics came to be used by family historians in the 21st century, as tests became affordable. The tests have been promoted by amateur groups, such as surname study groups or regional genealogical groups, as well as research projects such as the Genographic Project. As of 2019, about 30 million people had been tested. As this field has developed, the aims of practitioners broadened, with many seeking knowledge of their ancestry beyond the recent centuries for which traditional pedigrees can be constructed.


The investigation of surnames in genetics can be said to go back to George Darwin, a son of Charles Darwin and Charles' first cousin Emma Darwin. In 1875, George Darwin used surnames to estimate the frequency of first-cousin marriages and calculated the expected incidence of marriage between people of the same surname (isonymy). He arrived at a figure of 1.5% for cousin-marriage in the population of London, higher (3%-3.5%) among the upper classes and lower (2.25%) among the general rural population.

Surname studies

One famous study examined the lineage of descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal line and male lineage descendants of the freed slave, Sally Hemings. Bryan Sykes, a molecular biologist at Oxford University, tested the new methodology in general surname research. His study of the Sykes surname obtained results by looking at four STR markers on the male chromosome. It pointed the way to genetics becoming a valuable assistant in the service of genealogy and history.

Direct to consumer DNA testing

The first company to provide direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing was the now defunct GeneTree. However, it did not offer multi-generational genealogy tests. In fall 2001, GeneTree sold its assets to Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) which originated in 1999. While in operation, SMGF provided free Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests to thousands. Later, GeneTree returned to genetic testing for genealogy in conjunction with the Sorenson parent company and eventually was part of the assets acquired in the Ancestry.com buyout of SMGF. In 2000, Family Tree DNA, founded by Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, was the first company dedicated to direct-to-consumer testing for genealogy research. They initially offered eleven-marker Y-Chromosome STR tests and HVR1 mitochondrial DNA tests. They originally tested in partnership with the University of Arizona. In 2007, 23andMe was the first company to offer a saliva-based direct-to-consumer genetic testing. It was also the first to implement using autosomal DNA for ancestry testing, which other major companies (e.g., Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and MyHeritage) also later implemented. MyHeritage launched its genetic testing service in 2016, allowing users to use cheek swabs to collect samples. In 2019, new analysis tools were presented: autoclusters (grouping all matches visually into clusters) and family tree theories (suggesting conceivable relations between DNA matches by combining several Myheritage trees as well as the Geni global family tree). Living DNA, founded in 2015, also provides a genetic testing service. Living DNA uses SNP chips to provide reports on autosomal ancestry, Y, and mtDNA ancestry. Living DNA provides detailed reports on ancestry from the UK as well as detailed Y chromosome and mtDNA reports. By August 2019, it was reported that about 30 million people had had their DNA tested for genealogical purposes. GEDmatch said about half of their profiles were American. Due to the limited geographical distribution of DNA tests, there is inherent racism in the databases and results. According to StatNews, The CEO of 23andME, Anne Wojcicki is quoted as saying her company is "part of the problem." Experts in genetics and health inequities believe the inherent racism of these DNA analyses can be addressed by building diverse ethnocultural teams and encouraging Black, Indigenous and People of Color to get their DNA tested.

The genetic genealogy revolution

The publication of ''The Seven Daughters of Eve'' by Sykes in 2001, which described the seven major haplogroups of European ancestors, helped push personal ancestry testing through DNA tests into wide public notice. With the growing availability and affordability of genealogical DNA testing, genetic genealogy as a field grew rapidly. By 2003, the field of DNA testing of surnames was declared officially to have “arrived” in an article by Jobling and Tyler-Smith in ''Nature Reviews Genetics''. The number of firms offering tests, and the number of consumers ordering them, rose dramatically. In 2018, a paper in Science Magazine estimated that a DNA genealogy search on anybody of European descent would result in a third cousin or closer match 60% of the time.

The Genographic Project

The original Genographic Project was a five-year research study launched in 2005 by the National Geographic Society and IBM, in partnership with the University of Arizona and Family Tree DNA. Its goals were primarily anthropological. The project announced that by April 2010 it had sold more than 350,000 of its public participation testing kits, which test the general public for either twelve STR markers on the Y-Chromosome or mutations on the HVR1 region of the mtDNA. In 2007, annual sales of genetic genealogical tests for all companies, including the laboratories that support them, were estimated to be in the area of $60 million. The phase of the project in 2016 was Geno 2.0 Next Generation. As of 2018, almost one-million participants in over 140 countries have joined the project.

Typical customers and interest groups

Genetic genealogy has enabled groups of people to trace their ancestry even though they are not able to use conventional genealogical techniques. This may be because they do not know one or both of their birth parents or because conventional genealogical records have been lost, destroyed or never existed. These groups include adoptees, foundlings, Holocaust survivors, GI babies, child migrants, descendants of children from orphan trains and people with slave ancestry. The earliest test takers were customers most often those who started with a Y-Chromosome test to determine their father's paternal ancestry. These men often took part in surname projects. The first phase of the Genographic project brought new participants into genetic genealogy. Those who tested were as likely to be interested in direct maternal heritage as their paternal. The number of those taking mtDNA tests increased. The introduction of autosomal SNP tests based on microarray chip technology changed the demographics. Women were as likely as men to test themselves.

Citizen science and ISOGG

Members of the growing genetic genealogy community have been credited with making useful contributions to knowledge in the field. One of the earliest interest groups to emerge was the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG). Their stated goal is to promote DNA testing for genealogy. Members advocate the use of genetics in genealogical research and the group facilitates networking among genetic genealogists. Since 2006 ISOGG has maintained the regularly updated ISOGG Y-chromosome phylogenetic tree. ISOGG aims to keep the tree as up-to-date as possible, incorporating new SNPs. However, the tree has been described by academics as not completely academically verified, phylogenetic trees of Y chromosome haplogroups.

Autosomal DNA 2007-present

In 2007, 23andMe was the first major company to begin offering a test of the autosome. This is the DNA excluding the Y-chromosomes and mitochondria. It is inherited from all ancestors in recent generations and so can be used to match with other testers who may be related. Later on, companies were also able to use this data to estimate how much of each ethnicity a customer has. FamilyTreeDNA entered this market in 2010, and AncestryDNA in 2012. Since then the number of DNA tests has expanded rapidly. By 2019, the combined totals of customers at the four largest companies was 26 million. By 2018 autosomal testing had the dominant type of genealogical DNA test, and for many companies the only test they offered.


Direct maternal lineages

mtDNA testing involves sequencing at least part of the mitochondria. The mitochondria is inherited from mother to child, and so can reveal information about the direct maternal line. When two individuals have matching or near mitochondria, it can be inferred that they share a common maternal-line ancestor at some point in the recent past.

Direct paternal lineages

Y-Chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) testing involves short tandem repeat (STR) and, sometimes, single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) testing of the Y-Chromosome, which is present only in males and only reveals information on the strict-paternal line. As with the mitochondria, close matches with individuals indicate a recent common ancestor. Because surnames in many cultures are transmitted down the paternal line, this testing is often used by surname DNA projects.

Ancestral origins

A common component of many autosomal tests is a prediction of biogeographical origin. A company offering the test uses computer algorithms and calculations to make a prediction of what percentage of an individual's DNA comes from particular ancestral groups. A typical number of populations is at least 20. Despite this aspect of the tests being heavily promoted and advertised, many genetic genealogists have warned consumers that the results may be inaccurate, and at best are only approximate. Modern DNA sequencing has identified various ancestral components in contemporary populations. A number of these genetic elements have West Eurasian origins. They include the following ancestral components, with their geographical hubs and main associated populations:

Human migration

Genealogical DNA testing methods have been used on a longer time scale to trace human migratory patterns. For example, they determined when the first humans came to North America and what path they followed. For several years, researchers and laboratories from around the world sampled indigenous populations from around the globe in an effort to map historical human migration patterns. The National Geographic Society's Genographic Project aims to map historical human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from over 100,000 people across five continents. The DNA Clans Genetic Ancestry Analysis measures a person's precise genetic connections to indigenous ethnic groups from around the world.

Law enforcement

Law enforcement may use genetic genealogy to track down perpetrators of violent crimes such as murder or sexual assault and they may also use it to identify deceased individuals. Initially genetic genealogy sites GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA allowed their databases to be used by law enforcement and DNA technology companies such as Parabon NanoLabs and Full Genomes Corporation (see DNA Doe Project) to do DNA testing for violent criminal cases and genetic genealogy research at the request of law enforcement. This investigative, or forensic, genetic genealogy technique became popular after the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer in 2018, but has received significant backlash from privacy experts. However, in May 2019 GEDmatch made their privacy rules more restrictive, thereby reducing the incentive for law enforcement agencies to use their site. Other sites such as Ancestry.com, 23andMe and MyHeritage have data policies that say that they would not allow their customer data to be used for crime solving without a warrant from law enforcement as they believed it violated users' privacy.

See also

*Allele *Allele frequency *Citizen science *Electropherogram *Family name *Forensic genealogy *Genealogical DNA test *Genealogy *Genetic recombination *Haplogroup *Haplotype *Human mitochondrial DNA haplogroups *Human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups *Human mitochondrial genetics *Most recent common ancestor *Short tandem repeat (STR) *Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) *Y-STR (Y-chromosome short tandem repeat) *Y-chromosome haplogroups in populations of the world *Non-paternity event


Further reading


* ''Early book on adoptions, paternity and other relationship testing. Carmichael is a founder of GeneTree.'' * * * * * * ''Survey of major populations.'' * * ''Out of date but still worth reading.'' * ''Early guide for do-it-yourself genealogists.'' * * ''Guide to the subject of family medical history and genetic diseases.'' * ''Names the founders of Europe’s major female haplogroups Helena, Jasmine, Katrine, Tara, Velda, Xenia, and Ursula.'' * * *



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External links and resources

International Society of Genetic GenealogyMSNBC
– Genetic genealogy links from MSN
Guide to ancestry testing
from Sense about Science
"Debunking Genetic Astrology" a set of webpages
at University College London {{DEFAULTSORT:Genetic Genealogy Category:Human population genetics Category:DNA Category:Citizen science