Notes on DNA testing for family history research

by Trevor Rix

For anyone that has not encountered family history DNA before it is all rather mind boggling and bewildering. That's how it was for me until I started investigating last year. I will try to summarise the benefits and the disadvantages, and address some questions that have been raised.

Why should we consider DNA testing for family history research?

Y-DNA only passes down the male line from father to son. Females do not have any Y-DNA.

Y-DNA tests only a few specific markers on the 23rd chromosome that are passed down through the generations over thousands of years from father to son to son etc., and that are useful for family history purposes. Only males have Y-DNA and can take the Y-DNA test. This test is therefore beneficial to one-name studies such as the Barcham (and variants) study where both the surname and the Y-DNA is passed more or less intact down the male line. All male descendants through the male line have essentially the same DNA (but see mutations below). The main benefit is to discover whether the various lines of Barcham from the inception of the use of the surname Barcham (and variants), most likely from the 1200-1400 AD timeframe, all descend from the same stock or from multiple roots. It follows that the technique is used to allocate testees into groups. The groups may stay independent of each other or may be proved to have a common ancestor at some point in time.

What benefit might there be to the Barcham Family?

If a Barcham and a Burcham (or any present-day variant) take the test and there is an exact or close match on the Y-DNA it is extremely likely that they both descend from the same person even if that person lived way back in 1300. It may have been impossible to establish that link using traditional family history research through documents. That is a major benefit.

Furthermore these people are likely to have close matches to people that do not have the surname Barcham (or variants) in which case the common ancestor is likely to have been before the use of surnames became commonplace in the 1200-1400s.

Most Y-DNA markers mutate very slowly over the centuries. By studying the few mutations that do occur it is possible to estimate how long ago two people were related (known as the Most Recent Common Ancestor). Two people may be related only a few generations back, or the common ancestor may have been centuries ago.

The extensive Barcham records going back to the 1600s can therefore in theory be pushed backwards in time over many centuries using Y-DNA testing.

Who would carry out the tests?

The company, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), undertake most of this interpretation and evaluation as part of their service. It is all built into the initial cost of taking a test. There are tools on the FTDNA website that compute the matches with other people and the timescales involved. No one needs to be a biochemist. It is already a well established refined science. So far there are 4502 different surname projects on the FTDNA website.

FTDNA also compute the broad geographic origins of people being tested. People are assigned a haplogroup that defines the part of the world that the person's male line ancestors originate from. It is thought that all people have migrated over time from Africa. Using haplogroups it is possible to map the migration of people's ancestors over the centuries from Africa to the parts of the world where the people now live. As the science develops, haplogroups are being broken down into more precise regions called haplotypes that can be as specific as a region of a country.

What qualifications does the administrator need and who would be tested ?

The proposed surname project administrator (Barcham volunteer) does not have to be a geneticist but would need to know enough of the basics however to decide which people it would be most beneficial and cost effective to test. The people that take the test would be expected to be interested enough to pay for the whole of the cost of their test themselves. It is only if a key person is identified who is unwilling to pay the cost himself that any Barcham funds would be used to partially subsidise the test. That's how it usually works, assuming that people are willing to be tested in the first place which is not always the case.

What does it cost?

The minimum cost of a Y-DNA test is the group discount rate of US$99 (about 50) for a test on the first 12 markers. For myself I decided to take the more comprehensive 67 marker test (and also a mtDNA test more on that later) for a total of 206. I hear gasps all round, but tens of thousands of family historians around the world have already paid that sort of money to be tested. I am proposing that some Barcham funds be eked out over many tests over many years to subsidise important tests.

As females do not have any Y-DNA and cannot be tested, it is very common for females to pay for their father or brother or a close male cousin to take a Y-DNA test on their behalf.

Would we have to obtain DNA from the graves of our ancestors?

The test is on living people, not ancestors in graves. As the results of the tests are so revealing and accurate it is not necessary to test dead people at all.

Are there any disadvantages to consider?

The big disadvantage is if someone's Y-DNA results reveal what is known as a non-paternal event; that is where a presumed father somewhere along the line is not the biological father. If that prospect is too disturbing for a person to contemplate then they should not take the test. Most people are however realistic and would rather know about such an event than waste years of their lives and a large sums of money tracing a line that is nothing to do with them biologically.

Can females be tested too?

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) only passes down the female line from mother to children. Everyone can therefore test for mtDNA. Only females can however pass on their mtDNA to the next generation. mtDNA testing is less useful to a surname study such as Barcham because surnames are not normally passed down the female line from mother to daughter to daughter.

It is interesting to note that my mother's, mother's, mother's, mother's, mother was Elizabeth Thompson who married Ezra Barcham in 1818. My mtDNA test results will therefore be identical to the results of Elizabeth Thompson. That is why it is not necessary to test dead people.

mtDNA mutates extremely slowly and is so persistent that the results are highly accurate in determining the geographic origins of female ancestors in the strict female line over thousands of years.

What can DNA testing tell us about our ethnic origins?

Everyone male and female has autosomnal DNA which is a big mix of DNA passed down from all of one's ancestors. The catch is that the mix is completely random which is why this type of DNA testing is regarded as being only of interest rather than being of much practical use. For example I may have a mix of exactly 25% of the autosomnal DNA from each of my four grandparents. However my autosomnal DNA may be 100% from only one of my four grandparents and none from the other three. The truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. Nevertheless it is possible to calculate the theoretical most likely mix of the geographic origins of all of one's ancestors. That is how family history TV programmes calculate that someone is for example 32% Jamaican.

If anyone has read down as far as this I say well done and thank you for your time! I think Judith's suggestion to conduct a debate on the 'Barcham blog' is a very good one.