I’ve just spend three days attending the DNA to the Max event in Sydney, part of Unlock the Past’s DNA Down Under roadshow. My verdict: phenomenal!
Headlining the event was Blaine Bettinger, one of the US’s top genetic genealogists, ably supported by our local Australasian experts. The topics ranged from the ethics involved in DNA testing, to visual phasing and chromosome mapping. While there were some talks aimed at beginners, most were of intermediate to advanced level. The panel discussions in the last session of each day were brilliant.
Here are my main takeways from the three days:
1. Step away from the small segments
Any match under 7 centiMorgans (cM) lies in what Bettinger terms “the Danger Zone”. Be cautious of a match between 7 and 10 cM, and feel pretty safe with anything over 10 cM. The caveat though, is that those 10 cM can’t be made up of several small segments – it should be one block, or segment, on a chromosome.
However, say you have a connection showing on Ancestry’s ThruLines, but it’s with a small segment of 6 cM. If the paper trail and documentation are sound, it’s definitely worth pursuing the match. Bettinger says: “You may be genealogically related, but not genetically related.” So, test to see if that small segment is valid, or just random noise. Either way, you may have found a cousin.
2. Take up stamp collecting
The testing of artefacts such as stamps and envelopes for DNA is becoming cheaper and more viable. Louise Coakley’s presentation on the options available now, and what may be available in the future, was eye-opening. There’s no guarantee that your grandmother licked that stamp or envelope herself, so the DNA found may not be from her, but it could be worth the punt to test any letters she sent.
totheletterDNA offers a testing service, including an initial check to see if the sample is suitable for further analysis. Whether the sample is viable, often depends on how the item has been stored. So break out the acid-free archival pockets and preserve those letters! I’m off to check out my great aunt’s letter (and envelope), and see what other letters we may have stored away.
3. Get informed consent
If you’re asking family (or strangers) to take a DNA test, make them aware of possible issues. Just because you’re not requesting a health test right now, doesn’t mean that in three years time, your results won’t automatically indicate a possible health risk (which might be viewable by all). This may not be a consideration for your 80 year old uncle, but it may be for a cousin in their 40s.
Do they want to know if something unexpected turns up? When Bettinger asked the audience to raise their hands if they had encountered a surprise with their DNA results, over 30 per cent of the 400 strong audience raised their hands. Some surprises will be good, but it’s important to be aware (and make others aware) that some might not be so positive.
Are they happy to have their raw data transferred to other companies? Ancestry has the largest database of testers, but they don’t offer a chromosome browser, so uploading to other sites can be useful for detailed analysis. Get consent before you do.
The Facebook group Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques has an Informed Consent Agreement you can download and use. (The group is a fantastic resource if you’re interested in DNA.)
Unlock the Past did an amazing job putting together this event, and I was honoured to be selected as an Ambassador. I loved catching up with genies I had met at Congress last year, and meeting people I follow on social media.
It’s likely Unlock the Past will hold another DNA Down Under roadshow in 2021 or 2022, so start saving (and testing).
In the meantime, the exciting news is that Blaine Bettinger and Angie Bush will be coming to New Zealand next year in March and April. As far as I know they will be giving talks in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, with a three day workshop in Auckland at the end. If you’re interested in learning more about DNA analysis for family history, miss these at your peril!