Since I’ve always been interested in DNA and in this case, how DNA applies specifically to unlocking clues to family history, I recently contacted Chris Ford of OmegaDNA in Washington DC and requested an interview with him. Here’s our conversation:
Chris Ford Of Omega DNA Explains How DNA Tests Work
GOS: Hi, Chris! I’m interested in learning how DNA unlocks clues to family history, but first, I need to get a better understanding of how DNA tests work. Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the field of analyzing genetic data.
Chris: Hello and thank you for the opportunity! My name is Chris Ford and my interest in genetics began years ago after being alerted that I may be carrying a high-risk mutation. Initially my results piqued my interest into exploring further, however the process was daunting to say the least. This is why I joined OmegaDNA. We run a customer’s raw data and deliver their results in an easier to read format, without too much confusing jargon.
GOS: How can genetic analysis benefit your client?
Chris: Genetic analysis benefits everyone. It strengthens weak paper trails and fills in the blanks. It is a genealogist’s dream!
Aside from a novel or historical aspect, it most benefits adoptees, who have little to no information to rely on. Adoptees can not only find blood relatives – but DNA also gives them a glimpse into the medical history they thought they’d never see. This is the most crucial benefit DNA offers, aside from providing adoptees with a list of blood relatives they had been searching for.
As I mentioned, DNA testing has the ability to confirm or deny paper trails and oral history. For many this is a positive addition to their own research, to others, DNA pulls the skeletons right out of the closet. It reveals everything you want to know and some things you never thought even existed!
GOS: King Richard III made big news in the past few years when a modern living relative was found. Is your company involved in providing forensic genetic analysis for historic cases?
Chris: Not at this time, no. We run a client’s raw data and provide them with full ancestry and health reports.
GOS: Could you clarify something for me? It’s my understanding that mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) traces only the mother’s lineage. Does this mean that when a woman purchases mtDNA testing through a site like Ancestry.com or 23andme.com she will only see the heritage of her mother, and maternal grandmother, maternal great-grandmother, 2x maternal great-grandmother, and so on?
Chris: Yes mtDNA solely examines the maternal line. The only limitation it has, really, is that both maternal and paternal DNA becomes diluted, naturally, after so many generations. This is why one only sees relatives from, at best, 6 generations back.
GOS: In that case, is there a DNA test that I’m not aware of that’s able to detect all of the genetic information contributed by all of an individual’s ancestors?
Chris: Yes, there is a test that 23andme uses that allows men and women to see both lines (relatives) equally. This is called an autosomal (atDNA) test. The individual testing (Y or mtDNA) is preferred by some, but essentially these tests are becoming obsolete because they cannot compete with atDNA’s ability to combine lines for both genders. The only thing atDNA cannot do is give a woman her paternal haplogroup. The reason for this is because she does not carry a Y chromosome, and the Y is, essentially, the paternal line.
Autosomal also shows both maternal and paternal lines and their relatives. So say you tested and a close cousin pops up on your list. (Note – If you haven’t tested one of your parents, you won’t see an M (maternal relative) or a P (paternal relative) next to their name). This cousin is close enough to figure out who she or he is on your tree and vice versa. You look at your tree and see this person is related to your dad. The cousin looks and sees you are related to his/her mother. Basically — autosomal shows more than just a direct maternal or paternal. You will see all of your relatives — anyone who shares blood with you.
Again, the only thing even atDNA cannot do, and mtDNA cannot do – is give a woman her paternal haplogroup. If she wants to know this information, she will need a male. Your brother, father, cousin who’s dad is your dad’s brother and so on. Only paternally related and only a male. Other than the paternal, a woman can see everything else with atDNA.
Ancestry, FTDNA and 23andme offer atDNA, which show all family members who have tested, on both lines. However, you won’t be able to see any shared segments between you and one of those relatives because the DNA between you and someone 500+ years plus ago has been watered down. As DNA gets passed down line in a family, it becomes more and more diluted. This doesn’t reflect on atDNA, but rather what we, as, individuals, inherited.
GOS: I can understand why DNA would get watered down, but if that’s the case, how is it possible to go back to an original mother or father and see a haplogroup? How would it be possible then to connect a living individual to King Richard III or Cheddar Man?
Chris: The way companies and researchers are able to identify old and new generations is by the haplogroup and by testing someone who is a known descendant (verified via documentation, paper trail). A haplogroup identifies a person to a region and adds the likely migration. Researchers gathered DNA from ancient bones discovered through excavation and by other means as well in order to formulate a better picture.
GOS: Wow! That’s outstanding! I didn’t know that.
GOS: Do you have any favorite stories about your work you’d like to share?
Chris: The most rewarding aspect of this work is hearing the many stories from our customers. The one which stands out the most is of a woman who was adopted and had virtually no information to go on. After running her raw data, she returned to seek help with her relative list. As we scanned her list – my name showed up as her 3rd cousin. Basically, we are all related to one another, but to see this connection with one of our clients was astounding and memorable!
GOS: Thank you so much for your time and for your willingness to participate in this interview and share your knowledge with us, Chris! You’ve really helped me understand how DNA tests work. It’s greatly appreciated!
Chris: No problem!
Please visit OmegaDNA.com for more information.