Guest blog - DNA and genealogy


03 January 2018
DNA detective and genealogist Michelle Leonard talks to us about the fast-changing field of DNA and genealogy, and shares her expert tips for making the most of your DNA results.

DNA detective and genealogist Michelle Leonard talks to us about the fast-changing field of DNA and genealogy, and shares her expert tips for making the most of your DNA results.

What does the coming year hold for you, both as a genealogist and a DNA detective?

The year ahead is going to be a very busy, interesting and eclectic one for me both in terms of genealogy and DNA detective work. Over the last few years my focus has shifted increasingly towards the genetic genealogy field. DNA testing has revolutionised both my working life and the way I research my own family history.

I am passionate about using DNA to solve mysteries that regular paper trail research alone would never be able to do. This year I will be working on many DNA mystery cases and there is a real mix of these currently on my books. There are adoption cases, foundling cases, misattributed parentage or NPE cases (I like to call these "Not The Parent Expected" as opposed to Non Paternity Events) and unknown ancestor cases such as an unknown grandparent or great grandparent.

I will also be doing more one-to-one and group tutorials both in person and online as a growing number of people are interested in learning how to work with their DNA matches themselves and I really enjoy teaching others how to get the most out of their tests.

Genealogy events

I will be giving several talks over the coming months beginning at the Glasgow Branch of the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society on Saturday 6th February on “Using DNA To Solve Family Tree Mysteries”. This will be closely followed by the inaugural Belfast edition of Genetic Genealogy Ireland at Back To Our Past taking place 16-17th February. There is a fantastic Genetic Genealogy Ireland conference in Dublin each October which I attend and regularly speak at but this is the first time it has come to Belfast. I will be speaking on “Using Autosomal DNA To Maximum Effect” on the Friday afternoon.

One of my great passions is WW1 soldier research, most specifically tracking down appropriate DNA donors for soldiers whose remains have been found on the Western Front in order to identify them and get them named graves. My work on the Fromelles Genealogy Project is well known but I work on other cases on a regular basis as they crop up and 2018 will be no different! I am currently working on several cases both searching for DNA donors to help identify recovered remains and researching soldiers from war memorials.

I also have an exciting writing commission on the horizon, some traditional genealogy client work (yes I still do regular family tree research as well as DNA!) and historical and television research to throw into the mix too. Finally as the official genetic genealogist of I will be on hand most Tuesday evenings between 7-8pm to answer any DNA queries that arise as well as to help furiously retweet all the advice and information our attendees throw our way. I may even find time for a few new Ancestry Hour articles throughout the year.

How do you think the topic of DNA for family history has changed over the past couple of years?

I think DNA testing for family history has been evolving at a rapid rate of knots in recent years and has become much more mainstream. There has been what can only be described as an autosomal revolution. A few years ago when anyone spoke about DNA testing it was Y-DNA but autosomal testing has now far outstripped Y-DNA as the most popular test. It's quite staggering that Ancestry only launched their autosomal test in 2012 and now have well over 6 million people in their database the vast majority of whom have tested in the last two years.

Last year during the Black Friday sale they sold over 1.5 million kits in just four days and the other major companies are expanding their databases all the time as well. We are now seeing much more advertising of DNA testing but one of the frustrating aspects of this is that cousin matching is often overlooked when it is by far the most useful feature for genealogy.

We've also had new companies enter the market in the last couple of years – Living DNA and MyHeritage. This year Living DNA will start providing cousin matching and, as the only UK company on the list, that's a really welcome addition. MyHeritage has recently overhauled their matching algorithm to make it a lot more accurate. They have also added a chromosome browser so they now have a very solid product and even more updates are coming such as one-to-many chromosome browser capability.

Additionally there are some great developers out there working on new tools; last year saw Jonny Perl's DNA Painter hit the scene and I know several new tools are on the horizon for 2018 so I'm excited to see what the year ahead holds on that front. You can see my recent lowdown on how to use Michael Devore’s new improved MedBetterDNA extension for Ancestry here.

And what advice would you give anyone considering taking a DNA test?

There's so much advice I could give but I sometimes feel that those new to DNA testing can be overwhelmed with advice when starting out so I won’t bombard them.

Firstly I always start with a disclaimer that it’s possible you may find out something about your ancestry you’re not expecting if you take a DNA test. That’s not said to put people off or scare them as it’s the exception rather than the rule but it’s important to be aware of the possibility and think about how you would feel if you did get a shock result.

The next piece of advice I would give is to think about your goals and choose the correct test to match. If you are just going on what I would call a "fishing trip" then an autosomal test is best and I would advise most people thinking of testing to start with one of those. If you are most interested in your direct paternal line or you're doing a surname study, though, then you have to take a Y-DNA test or if you have a brick wall on your direct maternal line you should consider an MtDNA test. There are different reasons to take different tests so don’t discount Y-DNA and MtDNA.

Test older generations

The next important piece of advice would be to test your older generations! Your parents have double the autosomal DNA from your ancestors that you do and your grandparents have triple so if you have parents or grandparents who are alive and willing to test then don’t delay. I wish every day I could test my dad!

If you don’t have older generations to test then test your contemporaries; siblings and first cousins. The more DNA from our ancestors we have to work with, the more we can get out of DNA testing for genealogy. I liken it to a giant jigsaw puzzle; the more pieces we can put on the board ourselves, the easier it is to slot other pieces into place.

The third piece of advice I would give is to build your tree back as far as you can in terms of your direct ancestors but also don't neglect your collateral lines as it is via collateral lines (the descendants of the siblings of your direct ancestors) that you will make the most DNA cousin connections.

Explore your DNA results

There are many things you can do when you get your results but spend a bit of time to begin with familiarizing yourself with the testing platform you’ve chosen and the tools it offers. Then once you’re comfortable you can explore uploading your DNA to GEDMatch and other things. When you first look at your match list start from the top and work your way down; always work on your highest matches first as they theoretically should be the easiest to work out.

Read as much as you can; there are helpful books, blogs and Facebook groups. Don't be afraid to ask questions even if you think they sound dumb; everyone has to begin somewhere and there are lots of knowledgeable long term users who can help. Get to grips with the nomenclature such as Centimorgans and segments; the ISOGG Wiki is your friend! As I say I could go on and on but those are some basics I always repeat to anyone just starting out.

How well do you feel that DNA fits with/complements traditional genealogy?

The answer to this question is something I feel really passionately about! My answer is an emphatic they complement each other perfectly. I think there has been some suspicion towards DNA testing, in the early days at least, that it is somehow in competition with traditional research and nothing could be further from the truth. I always emphasize the fact that you cannot get the most out of DNA testing without traditional research and now that we have the fantastic resource that DNA provides you can't get the most out of traditional research without also taking DNA evidence into account.

Think of DNA as an additional new record set you can use in conjunction with all the regular record sets you use; it is not a panacea and can't give you all the answers but it can add crucial evidence to what you already know or think you know.

When you get the results of a DNA test and you first look at your DNA match list, barring any close relatives that may have tested, you are not going to be able to make sense of how the people on your match list relate to you without traditional genealogy. You need to be able to build a robust family tree and use it in reference to the trees of your matches.

For instance 3rd cousins share 2nd great grandparents so if you have a 3rd cousin who has tested but you don't know who your 2nd great grandparents were and/or they don't know who their 2nd great grandparents were then neither of you will be able to recognize the connection! At that point you have to delve back into the records to build both trees out before you can identify the link.

DNA alone won't break your brick walls or confirm the lines of your tree but it can if used in conjunction with traditional research - not only are they a great complement to each other, they are actually essential to each other in my view.

Some links

Twitter: @GenealogyLass

Facebook: @genesandgenealogy


Associate of Professional Genealogists (APG)

Ancestry Hour

Genetic Genealogy Ireland Profile

Top Ten Reasons To DNA Test for Family History (Video)

Top Tips for Contacting DNA Matches

DNA Testing For Unknown Ancestor Mysteries