5 top tips for starting a DNA project


11 December 2019
If you're thinking of joining - or maybe even starting - a DNA project, Iain MacDonald has five tips to help you make the most of this exciting experience.

Genetic genealogy means comparing your DNA to others, but the goal of projects is not to find new matches between people. Projects allow a group of people to explore common interests and share research to further their common goals. Projects are normally about connecting genetic testers, to work out how they are connected, and when and where their ancestors lived.

What defines a DNA project?

Projects come in a variety of forms. They may focus on a specific lineage (male-line Y-DNA, female-line mt-DNA, or autosomal DNA), representing the descendants of one or multiple people. They may focus on a specific geographical area, cultural group, or historic interest. 

     QUICK LINK: What you need to know before you take a DNA test

Many projects are hosted by testing companies, allowing you to explore members’ DNA using their interfaces and IT support; many other projects are independent entities on forums or social media groups, allowing administrators to provide independent advice, use your own structures and retain a degree of informality. Projects range in size from a handful of people to over 10,000.

1. Find your perfect project

To start, you should join the projects relevant to you and explore their communities and the resources they can share with you.

Try to define clear boundaries that you are most interested in, both geographically and temporally. There is often a project whose remit covers that region in space and time, in which case it is worth seeing if you can help out with its administration – there is almost always more work to be done in projects than people available.

2. Know your stuff!

Project administrators are part-researcher, part-educator and part-politician. Formal projects give you most access to data, but you are legally and morally responsible for keeping that data safe. 

Project members will look to their administrators for guidance, so the more you know about the companies’ tests and genetic genealogy, the more successful a project you will run. Knowing where you can turn to for help is a big part of this, particularly who in the ‘super-user’ community may help with a particular problem.

3. Prepare for project problems

You will also ultimately encounter users’ problems: people with different understandings and beliefs, angry customers with unrealistic expectations, and the dreaded NPE (not-the-parent-expected) problem.

Any given day may bring someone claiming descent from the Biblical Adam, someone who expected a thousand names to suddenly drop into their family tree from their genetic test, or someone whose test differs irreconcilably from their father’s.

Members may not be the test-takers themselves, so sometimes this has to be dealt with via third parties and over language barriers. The responsibility for dealing with these problems is not to be taken lightly, so do pause to reflect on whether you are prepared for them.

4. Share knowledge

Administrators can also represent groups to other projects, eg a specific family branch might be discussed between a surname project, the haplogroup project of that family, and the geographical project of their place of origin. This might lead to insight on a family’s cultural origin (eg Saxon, Norman, Viking), or in mapping its geographical origin and distribution.

5. Keep realistic and keep having fun!

Finally, for most people, DNA testing is part of a hobby, but one that people can become very passionate about. This holds doubly so for people rising to become administrators. Whether you are acting as an administrator, or asking something of them, keep realistic expectations for yourself, your time and abilities, and those of others. This is meant to be fun, and if it isn’t, you’re doing something wrong. Happy researching!

To read Iain’s DNA project tips in full, get the DNA special issue of Family Tree magazine, on sale 14 January.