Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Wonder-land

I’ve found some matching DNA!

It isn’t every day that a dedicated adherent to the tasks of genetic genealogy can make such a celebratory claim.

Actually, the pursuit of distant cousins who share my DNA—either mitochondrial or autosomal—has been quite frustrating. It seems like a process of sifting through haystacks to find the proverbial needle. Sometimes, I wonder what benefit this new technology has provided us. Sometimes, I wonder if someone forgot to insert the needle in said haystack.

Of course, having nearly eight hundred matches on my account isn’t making this any easier. But I try to keep up with the task. I’ve found that many of those matches are people who, for whatever reason, got themselves talked into testing, but didn’t have the fanatic interest in genealogy that you and I share. Some never bothered to post their family tree on the DNA company’s website. Others didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to even type in the most commonly-occurring of their surnames. Of the limited number of those remaining on my match list, some posted such a minimalist tree that it serves little to no use at all—especially those well-meaning individuals who thought it best to protect their privacy by not allowing anyone to see any of the names in the tree that they did post online.

Of what help is that?

To complicate matters, I am not only searching for the needle in my family haystack, but I’ve convinced both my husband and my brother to have their DNA test done, as well. Part of the deal was that I would serve as administrator of their cases. While their numbers aren’t as daunting—my husband checks in at around four hundred matches as of last Thursday, and my brother trails him by about eighty—I still haven’t been able to find more than a smattering of hits belonging to parties on the other side of the match, willing and able to confirm my guesses.

So, as you can imagine, it was quite an adrenaline rush to see Charlie’s comment here the other day. Apparently, he was as surprised as I was to see my name pop up in the DNA test results for one of the relatives he is monitoring for his family.

Yet, when we each checked the other’s genealogy, nary a surname seemed to connect. What’s up with that?

I realize that, once you edge toward the “fifth to remote” cousin range, you come closer to matching people by sheer coincidence: “Identical By State” results, as they are called. IBS results are those in which there are identical segments or sequences of DNA, but that state did not result from common descent. In other words, it was just a coincidence, not a true relationship. There is no great-grandparent to the nth degree out there, just waiting to be discovered by you and your “match.”

In this case, however, the suspected relationship range was in a safer second-to-fourth cousin segment. That should mean we are keepers. If, that is, we can find a way to connect on paper.

True, I have gaps in my family tree. I suspect this particular match has a tree with gaps in it, as well.

I’ve come close with some other results, as well. I try to keep plugging away at the test results as they come in. Every week or two, I glean the results on my “Family Finder” test at Family Tree DNA, to see what new matches show up. For each new match, I explore the trees that are posted, and then send an email to my new match, introducing myself, sharing the link to my more-thorough tree at Ancestry.com—and hoping for a reply in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, I’m furiously hurrying through building my own tree out, generation by generation, for all those relatives in the big murky middle—everything between the patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder: isn’t there a better way to find the connections that make me and my fellow cousins matches? Isn’t there a more efficient way to trawl through all the surnames?

Short of finding a way to build a better family tree—and a way for the DNA companies to provide more facile search capabilities for those results they provide—I doubt there will be any way to lessen that feeling of impossibility. As amazing as the DNA technology may be, the path to those “match” answers still is paved with lots of hard work and perseverance.

Isn’t that the way it always is with real life?

Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Harvesters," oil on panel circa 1565; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Indeed! I recognize that quote from Jabberwocky any day! :) Funny how Lewis Carroll's nonsense words actually communicate so well!

    1. That is an oft-quoted passage around our house, too, Iggy!

  2. It boggles my mind to hear your number of matches, but I can see the dilemma it has created although your problem is quite the opposite of mine. I have exactly 5 people at the genetic distance of 4 or less. An additional 8 people are at a distance between 5 and 7. Yes, I have a total of 12 matches having tested at 67 markers.

    The two closest do not share my same last name, but they realize there was some illegitimacy at the root of their trees. DNA does seem to produce as many questions as it answers, and it makes me wonder how many are actually pursuing lines not correctly aligned with their own. I have several friends who have discovered that family relationships at a rather close distance are not what they originally assumed and that previously undisclosed relationships are being confessed by some, while some secrets have been buried with those now gone. It's truly overwhelming.

    1. Not to mention the labs that do the DNA analysis are hardly "mistake free" and might have confused (or mixed-up) somebody's result with another.

    2. Michelle, don't let that number concern you. When I talk about those hundreds, I'm referring to my autosomal DNA test results. As for my mitochondrial DNA (indicating the matrilineal line), I have a much smaller universe--and even out of those twenty six, only one is an exact match (my mystery cousin who was an adoptee).

      When you speak of "67 markers," I am presuming you are referring to the Y-DNA test. Even then, on both my husband's and my brother's tests, the matches were at quite a distance, and don't seem to reveal much. So you are in quite a bit of company when you talk about large genetic distances in your results, and lack of large numbers of close matches.

      I have learned to keep that "non paternal event" concept at arm's distance, though, Michelle. On behalf of the men in my family for whom I'm administering their DNA results, I've had them join various DNA projects, where we can track mutations over a large group of similarly-coded participants. Though for whatever reason these same-surnamed men do not show up on our family's own results, their numbers are nonetheless close.

      All this to say, there are many other explanations than "NPE" for those results that seem to be "mismatches." As you observed, DNA testing sometimes raises even more questions than it answers--but in the pursuit of these secondary answers, we will learn even more about our ancestors. Unless you have other direct evidence to indicate such family secrets did occur, I'd suggest exploring other avenues as well. There are answers; we just haven't figured them out yet.

  3. One relative at a time! You are making progress! :)

    1. I know, Far Side. It's just that "slow and steady" doesn't lend itself well to the genealogy happy dance. I guess I'm just too impatient.


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