25 Do’s and Don’ts of DNA

DNA Graphic

I first wrote this in January 2015 with 20 tips. Advancements in DNA technology and more DNA options have surfaced since then, making it necessary for me to update this blog post. Keep in mind, the comical yet serious tone of this post reflects my love for DNA technology. Maybe “addiction” or fanatic is a better word. I don’t desire any professional help for this. Also, these 25 tips are my perspectives. Of course, adoptees are exempt. You don’t have to agree with some of these. However, a written lecture on why I should be thinking the way you do about some of these dos and don’ts may get ignored. You’ve been forewarned. Well, here goes again ……

(1) Please do not take any DNA test without first trying to put together your family tree. DNA test-takers need to have started working on their family tree before jumping to DNA. DNA alone will not magically generate your family tree for you. I’m actually glad it doesn’t because researching is fun. Genealogy research + DNA technology = An Indelible Marriage.

(2) After you get your DNA results from either AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, FamilyTree DNA (FTDNA), or etc., some of your DNA matches may send you a message. Please respond. Also, if you took the 23andMe test, please accept invitations to share ancestry reports. It’s your choice if you want strangers to also see your health reports. To ignore someone’s message is just rude and disrespectful, in my opinion. The “I Don’t Have Time” excuse will likely fall on deaf ears. Utilizing DNA to uncover family histories and to solve family mysteries is a serious matter for many. If you are not interested in communicating with DNA matches, think about opting out of making yourself visible. We don’t need to see your name and be reminded how rude you are being by not responding, especially if we share a lot of DNA.

(3) I realize that many people are only interested in those doggone admixture results, and don’t give a rat’s ass about family connections, ancestors’ names, etc. That’s fine. If this is you, please know that you are irritating many serious researchers, especially those who are high DNA matches to you. Your DNA match may be the key to solving a longtime family mystery. You are truly doing yourself a disservice, because many of us serious researchers are quite willing to tell you more about your family history and why you are sharing a good amount of DNA. It’s your loss. Please, believe that!

(4) If you have chosen to make your family tree private in AncestryDNA or anywhere, please be willing to send other DNA matches an invitation to view it upon request. Or if you have an electronic copy of your pedigree chart, be willing to share it via e-mail upon request. How can anyone expect to make the connection if DNA matches cannot view a family tree? Comparing family trees is pivotal to figuring out family connections.

Family Tree
My public family tree that my DNA matches can see.

(5) The science of DNA and genetics isn’t easy to understand, and you really don’t need to fully understand the science. However, the basics of genetic genealogy are relatively understandable. You will be doing a disservice to yourself and your DNA relatives if you don’t try to understand the basics. Here’s a good online guide called “Beginner’s Guide to Genetic Genealogy.” Here’s another one from 23andMe called “Genetics 101.” Again, the “I Don’t Have Time” excuse will fall on deaf ears.

(6) I get this statement sometimes, “Let me know how we may be related.” The DNA relative has not provided a family tree, but maybe a few surnames with only the states where their ancestors resided. Really? Don’t have in your profile that your surnames are Jones, Smith, and Miller from Mississippi and North Carolina and expect me to magically know how we are related. I don’t have super powers. Give me and your DNA matches something to work with. Show me a family tree.

(7) I’m aware that many of you may be looking for your biological father and/or your biological mother. I wish you much success on your journey of discovery. However, if we are distantly related, or share a small amount of DNA, unfortunately I may not be able to assist with identifying your bio parent(s). Please don’t get upset or discouraged if I express that I am unable to help at this time because of the lack of information. Know that if I was able to do so, I would do it with excitement. Several cousins can attest to this.

(8) If you have built a family tree, please include exact locations (county and state or city/town and state) and not just the state of birth or death. I have seen many family trees with just a state listed. Narrow it down for us by giving us a little more information, like the county and/or city or town. I won’t magically know where in South Carolina your paternal grandmother lived and died. Again, I don’t have super powers.

(9) If you have a family tree on AncestryDNA, names of living ancestors will default to “Private.” Even the names of some of your deceased ancestors will default to “Private” if they are shown as being alive. Do a “Quick Edit” on an ancestor or family member’s profile, and select “Deceased,” even if you don’t know the date of death. Then, we will be able to see that ancestor’s name on your family tree. I see many DNA matches with a public family tree attached to their accounts, only to be angered that all of the names are listed as “Private”.

Quick Edit
Martha Miller Belton of Warren County, Mississippi was my great-great-grandmother. I don’t know when she died, so I left her death of date blank. However, under “Status,” I made sure that “Deceased” was selected. Please do this for deceased ancestors, especially those who could be presumed as being alive by Ancestry’s software, so they won’t show as “Private” on your public family tree.
This is what we fanatics do NOT like to see. Am I suppose to believe that everyone on this tree are still alive? If so, can you add the names/locations of your living grandparents’ parents, grandparents, etc. and make sure “Deceased” is selected if you don’t know their date/year of death? We will appreciate that.

(10) If your family tree only goes back to your grandparents or great-grandparents, with locations and dates, at least you took the time to provide something! You are immediately loved. Our love for what you’ve done may be rewarded with a message from someone like me, a fanatic, explaining the family connection, giving you more names and family history that you may not know. Yes, we will take the time to expand your family tree, in order to figure out why we are sharing a noticeable amount of DNA. By the way, noticeable for me means over 25 cM.

(11) Please don’t just list only one or two surnames in your profiles. Surely you have knowledge of more than one or two surnames in your family tree, right? If not, make a few calls and ask some questions. Better yet, do some research on your family history. It can be life-changing.

(12) Please don’t leave your profile in 23andMe (and others) blank. I understand that people are nervous about providing the public with too much information about themselves. I get that. However, if you have chosen to take a DNA test and would like to learn how some of your DNA matches are related, and perhaps learn more about your ancestry, include surnames and family locations in your profile. Again, give us more to work with! We fanatics prefer a family tree or a link to your family tree, though.

(13) If you decide to take the AncestryDNA test, please consider uploading your raw data file to GEDmatch.com. AncestryDNA has no analysis tools, and those analysis tools are essential in trying to positively figure out how DNA matches are related. Even if you take the MyHeritage, 23andMe or FTDNA’s Family Finder test, which have valuable analysis tools, please consider uploading your raw data file to GEDmatch or Genesis GEDmatch. GEDmatch won’t take the new 23andMe chip, at the moment. To make things a little easier, include your GEDmatch number(s) on your DNA profiles. Why not also go ahead and add your e-mail address to your profiles, while you’re at it. Due to the unreliable nature of AncestryDNA’s messaging system, it’s more reliable for your DNA matches to e-mail you.

(14) If a DNA match asks you to consider uploading your raw data file to GEDmatch so he or she can try to determine the family connection, ignoring that request is just plain rude. Even if you express to us fanatics that you are concerned about privacy issues or law officials using your DNA in GEDmatch to catch criminals, I will wonder why you are protecting criminals. But I will respect your decision not to do so. I think. However, know that you will still lose a lot of “cool points” with me. Just sayin’. Uploading your raw data file to FTDNA and/or MyHeritage is another great option. There’s a level of protection there.

(15) You must try DNA Painter. You must! See dnapainter.com. This online program allows you to map your chromosomes to specific ancestors. However, if you have taken the AncestryDNA test, you will need to upload your raw data file to GEDmatch or even to FTDNA or MyHeritage, which has a chromosome browser and provides segment data. Chromosome segment data tells you which chromosome(s) and the locations on the chromosome(s) where you and your DNA relatives share identical DNA. This segment data is needed in order to paint your chromosome by assigning chromosome segments to a particular ancestor (or couple) where that segment came from. DNA Painter is also helpful in determining which ancestor (or couple) a DNA match may also descend from.

DNA Painter

(16) If you are white, please don’t respond with, “I just don’t see how we can be related because I am white.” Here’s one word for you to study: MISCEGENATION. Please know that the following scenarios occurred: (1) Many slave-owners fathered children with enslaved women via rape or consensual sex; (2) Yes, consensual interracial relationships have existed since America was founded, even on plantations; and (3) Many people “passed” as white because they could.

(17) I know that many times, surnames are often our basis for determining how DNA matches are related. Please know that it is very possible for many people to share a common surname and not be related through that surname. With African Americans, relying solely on surname matching can lead many to travel down the wrong path. That’s why it is vitally important to include family locations in your family trees or pedigree charts and on your profiles.

(18) Please take time to read the profiles of your DNA matches in 23andMe. That alone may answer some initial questions you may have. For example, if you read my profile, you will immediately learn that Collier is my adoptive family via my father’s adoptive parents, who I loved dearly. Sending me a message with a speculation that we are biologically related via your Collier ancestors will say to me, “You did not even read my profile.”

(19) Please be cordial when responding to messages from your DNA relatives. Sharp, condescending tongues have no place in DNA communications, unless the person deserves to be “chewed out.” If someone provides you with information about your family, show your home training by saying, “THANK YOU.”

(20) If you encounter someone who is not a DNA match to you, but he/she is genealogically a distant cousin (4th cousin or further), please don’t assume that a NPE probably took place. (NPE = Non-Paternity Event, when someone’s father was really not the biological father, unknowingly.) DNA transmission is quite random. Family members inherit different chromosomes from the same ancestors. Also, the probability that you will be a DNA match to a known relative is the following:

  • First cousins or closer:  ~ 100%
  • Second cousins:   > 99%
  • Third cousins:       ~ 90%
  • Fourth cousins:    ~ 45%
  • Fifth cousins:        ~ 15%
  • Sixth cousins & beyond: < 5%  (Source: 23andMe)

As you can see, there’s a much lower chance that your fourth cousin or more distant relative will be a DNA match. However, if your known first or second cousin (or closer relative) is not a DNA match to you, there’s a high likelihood of a NPE or an unknown adoption.

(21) DNA companies give predictions about relationships. If AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, FTDNA, or etc. predict that someone is a third cousin, or if GEDmatch gives the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) as 4.0 generations, that doesn’t always mean that your great-great-grandparent(s) is that DNA relative’s great-great-grandparent(s), too. Those are just estimations based on the amount of DNA you two share. For example, my cousin Alisa from Arkansas shares enough DNA with my mother to have a prediction of being third cousins. However, after I was finally able to determine exactly how she’s related, I learned that she’s actually my mother’s fourth cousin once removed.

Look at the amount of centiMorgans you share with a DNA relative and compare that amount to DNA-sharing charts to garner some relationship possibilities. See the ISOGG’s DNA Statistics and also Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project for DNA measurements and possible relationships.

(22) If both of your parents are living, test both of them if they agree to it and you can afford to do so. Testing one or both parents helps to determine if a DNA match is a paternal relative or a maternal relative. Great substitutes are aunts, uncles, and grandparents, if you are blessed to have grandparent(s) living. The more known family members who take a DNA, and upload their raw data files to GEDmatch, the greater the chance of figuring out how DNA matches are related and solving genealogical puzzles.

Parents DNA
I tested both of my parents with AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and FTDNA. I have also tested other family members. I uploaded their raw data files to GEDmatch.com, Genesis GEDmatch, and MyHeritage. I don’t play around. My ancestors want me to find them, and DNA is one of the tools.
DNA Matches
This is a snapshot of three DNA matches in my 23andMe database of DNA relatives. Since I tested both parents, 23andMe indicates if the DNA match is on my mother’s side or my father’s side. Other DNA companies do this, as well.

(23) I have found that testing full second and third cousins are especially beneficial. Full second cousins share the same great-grandparents. If a DNA relative also shares DNA with your second cousin, then the family connection may be via one (or both) of your great-grandparents you share with your second cousin. Full third cousins share the same great-great-grandparents. If a DNA relative also shares DNA with your third cousin, then the family connection may be via one (or both) of your great-great-grandparents you share with your third cousin.

(24) In most cases, haplogroups should not be used to try to figure out family connections. Many people who share the same haplogroup are not relatives. In fact, most of your relatives will actually have a different haplogroup because your haplogroup only tells you about your direct maternal or direct paternal lineage. Direct maternal lineage means your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother and so on lineage. Direct paternal lineage means your father’s father’s father’s father’s father and so on lineage. However, in a case where you suspect that a DNA match is a direct maternal or paternal relative, then the haplogroup may confirm it with further testing and analysis.

For example, my third cousin’s maternal grandmother’s mother, Laura Danner Reid, and my maternal grandmother’s mother, Mary Danner Davis, were sisters. Therefore, our maternal or mitochondrial haplogroup should be the same, since it is passed down unchanged from mother to child. Indeed, when she received her 23andMe results, we had the same maternal haplogroup L2a1a, which came from our great-great-grandmother, Louisa Bobo Danner (1842-1921), and her mother Clarissa Bobo and so on.

(25) Read, read, read! Once you have taken a DNA test, please continue to educate yourself about DNA. Also, educate yourself on what actually are these DNA tests truly telling you. Do this even before you spit in the cup. Ask questions if you don’t fully understand. Many informative articles and blog posts can be read online. If you desire a good book to read about DNA technology, read Blaine Bettinger’s The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy.  This will certainly help to understand how DNA is passed down and how certain matches are related, especially if you share DNA on the X chromosome with a DNA relative.

DNA is a wonderful, groundbreaking technology that is still growing. It has allowed many of us to break down a number of brick walls and garner a greater understanding of our family history. I have even found family members who had been separated from my ancestors during slavery. I am very passionate about finding those long-lost ties. Again, like last time, if you have other conducive DNA tips, feel free to share them in the comments section.

7 thoughts on “25 Do’s and Don’ts of DNA

  1. Steve Kearley

    Very, very well said and informative. How I wish I could somehow embed this article in my tree, perhaps as a story. Or share this link in inquiries that I send or receiving regarding DNA matches.


  2. Great article, Melvin! I think I’m going to either put a link to it on my DNA profile page(s) OR I’ll hold on to it and include it with my first communications with new matches.



  3. Janette McKenzie

    Great reading – thank you. Now, if only those DNA matches of mine wouldn’t dismiss my inquiries because we don’t have the same surnames in our Tree! I am trying to find my maternal grandmother (long since gone…) and I explain that in my enquiry. Can I say – a lot of thickheads out there? (Why did they bother getting a DNA test)? Thanks for info on GEDmatch.com – something I was unaware of. I was looking at ways to ‘spread’ my results further afield, which is how I came upon your article. Thanks again. Janette McKenzie. Oamaru, New Zealand.


  4. Susan Dakin

    Excellent list! Just about every item rings true based on my own experience. I’m trying to do chromosome mapping to ultimately break through some brick walls. My biggest problem is how to address the privacy concerns of matches. Just today, my first-ever match on one paternal line (half 3C1R) told me she would not upload her AncestryDNA results to FTDNA because she didn’t want to “spread her privacy around on too many sites.” I tried to explain how safe her data would be, but she just responded, “Good luck.”


  5. Thank you so much for this article! We had a big surprise that my dad’s sister was only a half sister. We are currently looking for my dad’s biological father as a result (as she matched to her father’s other known relatives but my dad didn’t!). He’s 70 so what a thing to find out at that age. I realized I wanted to know any surprises in my 40s, not 70s! More fascinating than we realized.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s