If you’ve been following this series of DNA blog posts, you are ready to create a research objective and move ahead in your genetic genealogy journey. With access to DNA results and information about matching relatives, you now have a tool that is like a sledgehammer that can break down brick walls in your family history research. DNA alone does not tell you anything about your family history. But when it is used in conjunction with time-honored, traditional genealogical research you have a powerful tool that will help you find your ancestors.
With DNA, you need to understand what you’ve got before you can go anywhere with it. Two of the blog posts in this series will help you to assess (Understanding and Using your DNA Results – 4 simple steps) and organize (Seeing the Big Picture: 3 Ways to Chart Your DNA Matches) your DNA matches.
Using a combination of what you know about your family tree, and your list of DNA matches – you are prepared to focus your DNA research by using the following three steps:
1. Examine your family tree and think about which brick wall could be overcome with DNA evidence.
2. Choose an ancestor or ancestral couple with that brick wall to research using DNA evidence.
3. Create a research objective—combining information about your ancestor and the question that will further your research.
Step 1: Examine your family tree and think about which brick wall could be overcome with DNA evidence
Ask yourself, “Can I answer this research question using DNA evidence?” DNA evidence will help you find the answers to genealogical questions about identity and relationships.
Using DNA evidence to identify an individual
While researching, we sometimes find people with the same name in the same location. We absolutely want to discern which person is the ancestor we are looking for. DNA can help to separate and detect the unique identity of similarly named people.
It is important to include key identifying information in a research question so that you stay focused on finding information about a specific individual. Birth, marriage, death dates, locations, and identifiable relationships are used to narrow the search to a unique person in the community during a specific point in time.
Examples of DNA research questions can be formulated like the following:
–“Which of the 4 John Shifflets found in the 1840 Greene County, Virginia, census is my ancestor?”
–“Which John Smith is the father of Mary Smith, who was born on 1 July 1906 in Seattle, Washington?”
Using DNA to prove a family relationship
DNA can prove or disprove close biological relationships in a family. There is a predictable average amount of DNA that is passed down from parents to children to grandchildren. Similarly, cousins, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, and other relationships have predictable ranges of shared DNA with a relative. Examples of genealogical relationship questions that can be discerned using DNA may be worded as follows:
–Who were the parents of Fern Smith born on 11 December 1911 in Chicago, Illinois?
–Who are the children of Carlo Borsani and Mariagela Marrucca, who married on 19 November 1912 in Lisbon, Columbiana, Ohio?
–Who was the father of Sparks Shifflett born on 15 May 1877/8 in Bacon Hollow, Greene County, Virginia?
Step 2: Choose an ancestor or ancestral couple to research using DNA evidence
The following information will help you narrow down which ancestor to research within the structure and limitations of DNA evidence.
Understanding the basics of inheritance
A child inherits 50 percent of its DNA from each parent. That 50 percent is an average mixture of about 25% of each grandparent’s DNA. Each succeeding generation inherits approximately half of the previous generation’s DNA. However, DNA is also inherited randomly, and a person may inherit more or less than the average expected amount from an ancestor. Furthermore, each sibling inherits a different portion of each parent’s DNA.
The following link will open a fantastic 2:07 minute video from Learn.Genetics that explains and illustrates the principles of DNA inheritance:
Genetic Science Learning Center, “What is Inheritance?” Learn.Genetics, 1 March 2016, (https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/basics/inheritance : accessed 12 April 2019)
Dimario, Wikimedia Commons, ( https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_statistics : accessed 12 April 2019)
The chart above illustrates the average amount of DNA shared in family relationships. The percentages of DNA shown in red are average expected amounts of DNA shared between “self” and each of the family relationships listed in yellow, blue, or green.
Blaine Bettinger, Shared Centimorgan Project, (https://thegeneticgenealogist.com/2017/08/26/august-2017-update-to-the-shared-cm-project/ : accessed 12 April 2019).
This chart, created by Blaine Bettinger, shows the observed ranges of DNA in thousands of known family relationships due to recombination and the random nature of DNA inheritance.
Limitations of DNA
While examining your family tree to formulate a research question, it’s important to consider the limitations of DNA evidence. It cannot be used in all situations to answer questions, but if it can be used, it is very powerful!
Autosomal DNA (atDNA) may be used to identify and determine family relationships for about 6-8 generations. Beyond 6-8 generations, the amount of DNA that is inherited from a specific ancestor may be too small to identify who it came from definitively.
Y-DNA is inherited from father to son along the patrilineal line. This test can show inheritance for a range of one to thousands of generations. If you are trying to discern which John Smith is your ancestor, you will need to find a descendant of a direct father to son to grandson family line to obtain a Y-DNA haplogroup that is unique to each patrilineal line. If you are a woman, you don’t have a Y chromosome, and for Y-DNA to be useful in your family history research, you would need to find a direct patrilineal male descendant of the family line you are trying to prove. You can overcome this limitation by finding a male relative to test.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited directly from mother to child along a matrilineal line. Each mother passes on her mtDNA unchanged to both her sons and daughters. Only daughters pass their mtDNA on to their children. If you are trying to trace a maternal line in your family, you need to find a direct matrilineal descendant of the ancestor you are researching. If you are not a direct matrilineal descendant, you can still use mtDNA in your research by finding a cousin who is directly maternally descended from that ancestor.
Step 3: Write a research objective
Formulate a research objective by combining your DNA research question with key identifying information such as birth, marriage, death, and location. A research objective will help you focus on a definitive answerable question. It will help you research effectively and be more productive. A research objective can be concise or complex. It all depends on what you are trying to learn. Sometimes you will need to break a more complex objective into simpler parts, to focus on gathering information in a step-wise fashion. Your research objective will guide you through the process of working with DNA to answer questions about your ancestors. It will help you move ahead on a focused path to overcome the dead ends or “brick walls” in your family history research.
An example of a DNA research objective:
The objective of this research project is to use DNA and genealogical records to find the father of Sparks Shifflett born on 15 May 1877/8 in Bacon Hollow, Greene County, Virginia. Sparks Shifflett died on 18 April 1966 in Ponca City, Kay, Oklahoma.
To focus your DNA research, follow these three steps:
1. Examine your family tree and think about which brick wall could be overcome with DNA evidence.
2. Choose an ancestor or ancestral couple to research using DNA evidence.
3. Write a research objective.
Writing your DNA research objective will help you effectively Research Like a Pro with DNA.
Other articles in the Research Like a Pro with DNA series:
Step 1 Take a DNA Test: Which DNA Test Should I Take? and DNA-Recommended Testing Strategy
Step 2 Assess: Understanding and Using Your DNA Results – 4 Simple Steps
Step 3 Organize: Seeing the Big Picture: 3 Ways to Chart Your DNA Matches
Step 4 Research Objective: What Do You Want to Know? 3 Steps to Focus Your DNA Research – You Are Here
Step 5 Analyze your Sources: DNA Sources, Information, and Evidence: Sorting it All Out
Step 6 Locality Research: Where in the World Has My DNA Traveled? DNA and Locality Research
Step 7 Research Planning: Genealogy Research Planning with DNA
Methodology and Tools to use as you plan your research:
– Charts for Understanding DNA Inheritance
– Clustering or Creating Genetic Networks
– Pedigree Triangulation
– Chromosome Browsers
– Segment Triangulation
– Chromosome Mapping
– DNA Gedcom
Step 8 Source Citations: DNA Source Citations
Step 9 Research Logs: DNA Research Logs: how to Keep Track of Genetic Genealogy Searches
Step 10 Report Writing: DNA Research Reports – the Ultimate Finish
Step 11 What’s Next? Continue Your Research & Writing, Productivity, and Education
Thank you for sharing. I also think knowing what sorts of DNA tools are out there and how they work can help you formulate your objectives, either through knowing which tools out there will best help solve that particular one, or knowing how a tool works will help you create a question to fit the tool’s abilities. I’ve been impressed with the ones on Rootsfinder.
You are right- the DNA tools available online from either the DNA testing companies or 3rd parties help us understand, utilize, and maximize the information available from our DNA. We are first highlighting the process of using DNA in genealogical research and we look forward to explaining various DNA tools and how they can help answer specific research questions. It’s exciting to see the development of programs and websites that have been or will be launched to help us all in our research.
Very clear, well written article. Very helpful. It is true, that with DNA research as with any other genealogy research, you need a question before you can find an answer. Without deciding what you are looking for, there are just too many shiny things to look at and it becomes difficult to make real progress. I like that you reminded us how many generations you can go back. Using DNA is sometimes straight forward and obvious, some is quite complicated. Unfortunately, most of the articles I read are difficult to understand, too academic to be helpful. Thank you.
This is a great series of articles. They have really helped me coalesce my thoughts on new ways to approach my research.
It took a little while, I won’t say how many articles it took, before the notion of using your DNA matches to solve larger research questions really clicked. Right now, my project is to identify an MRCA for a DNA match. Grasping out how that task might be part of a larger project/plan did finally start to make sense.
For now, though, I’m going to practice my chops on working a plan and research log around finding some MRCAs before I start to leverage the skills against my tougher research problems.
Thanks for all of the time & energy you’ve put into these articles.
You are welcome. I’m glad it’s been helpful!
Thanks for the positive feedback!
You’ve outlined a great strategy; your confidence and expertise will grow as you practice.
Good luck and let us know how your research goes!