11 December 2019
Professional genealogist and DNA detective Michelle Leonard helps you decide which DNA test - and which DNA testing company - is right for you.
DNA testing is revolutionising the genealogy world and has now become an essential tool in any family historian’s toolbox, writes DNA expert Michelle Leonard.
After deciding to take a test, the most important question to answer is ‘what are my goals?’ as this will determine which test you should take. Do you want to:
Verify your family tree?
Break a brick wall?
Identify a mystery ancestor?
Connect with new cousins?
Discover your ethnic make-up?
Perhaps you are simply curious and have no specific goal in mind: I call this ‘fishing trip testing’. Autosomal DNA tests are best not only for ‘fishing trips’ but all of the previous questions posed unless they concern more distant ancestry as 5-7 generations is the acknowledged limit of autosomal reach.
Autosomal tests are the most popular and widely-taken tests as they are the all-rounder of the DNA testing world and can cover all your ancestral lines. For this reason I always recommend an autosomal test for a first foray into DNA testing for genealogical purposes.
The pros and cons of different DNA tests
All of the companies have their individual pros and cons! Factors such as database size, DNA collection methods, ethnicity estimates, health insights, DNA match lists, shared matches, family tree facilities, messaging options, subscription-only features, raw data transfers, chromosome browsers and additional DNA tools may influence your final decision.
Max your matches
The most important consideration when testing for genealogy is database size; the larger the database, the more chance you ultimately have of successfully identifying matches that will benefit your family history research.
Ancestry has by far the largest database with over 15 million testers (as of November 2019). 23andMe is the second largest with over 10 million, MyHeritage has over 3 million and whilst FTDNA does not release figures it is the smallest of the big four databases.
Assess your goals before deciding both which type of test and which company best suits them. Evaluate which features will be most valuable to you and maximise your chances of success by testing with or uploading to additional companies. Finally read all company terms and conditions to make sure you are comfortable with them before testing.
QUICK LINK: What is DNA?
For more on DNA in family history, get the DNA special issue of Family Tree magazine, on sale 14 January.