In February this year Family Tree DNA announced the introduction of an exciting new DNA test called the Family Finder. The test is being rolled out in a phased release, and is currently available to existing customers only. It is scheduled to be launched to the general public in the coming weeks. Traditionally family historians have used Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) tests to look for surname matches in the direct paternal line, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests to find genealogical matches in the direct maternal line. The Family Finder looks at the 22 autosomal chromosomes to find matches on all your ancestral lines, but is best suited for finding matches with close cousins up to the fourth or possibly fifth cousin level. The test works by locating shared segments of DNA and predicting relationships based on the number and length of shared segments. FTDNA have provided an excellent set of FAQs (frequently asked questions) on the new test which can be found here. The FAQs are updated at regular intervals so it is worth checking back from time to time. A demo can be seen here. If you already have an FTDNA account make sure you are logged out before accessing the demo page.
Autosomal DNA is shuffled up and becomes diluted with each new generation. The following figures show the average amount of autosomal DNA shared with close relatives:
50% mother, father and siblings
25% grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, half-siblings
12.5% first cousins
6.25% first cousins once removed
3.125% second cousins, first cousins twice removed
0.78% third cousins
0.20% fourth cousins
The percentages can vary. A son might for instance inherit 53% of his DNA from his mother, but only 47% from his father. While the Family Finder test is sensitive enough to detect shared DNA for most third cousins, some fourth cousins will test and not have a match. It is recommended wherever possible to test the oldest generations in your family to maximise your chances of finding matches with your more distant cousins. Rather than test myself I have therefore had tests done on my mother and father as part of the beta-testing programme. My dad's results have now come through. My mum unfortunately sent off the vials without including the brushes and is having to redo her test so it will be a while before I get her results! When the results came in I was very surprised to discover that my dad had 12 matches despite the fact that the test is still very new and there can be no more than a few thousand people in the database at present. One of his matches is in the second to fourth cousin range. The remaining matches are what FTDNA terms "speculative" and are in the fourth/fifth to distant cousin range. The screenshot below shows how the matches are presented with the names of the matches obscured for privacy. You will need to click on the picture to enlarge it to see the details.
The speculative matches at the fifth to distant cousin level will in most situations not be worth pursuing because of the difficulties in researching every line back this far. I have already done a substantial amount of research on my father's line but it was quite sobering when I looked at his pedigree to see how far back I could trace all the branches. Although I can trace some lines back to the 1600s, and in some cases back to the 1200s, I have been less successful with my research in some of the other lines. I can currently identify fourteen of my dad's sixteen great-great grandparents, but just eight of his thirty-two great-great-great grandparents. In most instances I've taken the line back beyond the censuses to a specific parish, but a substantial amount of parish register reconstruction in many different counties would now be required to trace these lines further back in time. I also have a substantial brick wall with a certain William Hunter who was born c.1798 in Scotland. He married in 1828 in Stepney and appears in both the 1851 and 1861 censuses in Limehouse in the East End of London where he rather unhelpfully tells us that he was born in Scotland with no indication as to the county or parish. There are rather a lot of William Hunters born around this time on the Scotland's People website and it would be a huge undertaking to trace and eliminate each one. I suspect that because of the large number of Scottish emigrants to America William Hunter will be responsible for the majority of my dad's matches with cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.
There are further Family Finder features in development. The test will eventually give percentages based on ethnic origin, though this feature would probably not tell me very much as I anticipate that I would be 100% European on both my maternal and paternal lines. More interestingly, I understand that results will eventually be reported for the X-chromosome, and there are plans for a separate X-chromosome browser. The X-chromosome has a special inheritance pattern which makes it easier to pinpoint the ancestor contributing the shared X-chromosome so this should be a very useful tool.
The Family Finder test is not a replacement for Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, but it can be a useful complement to those tests, and can be particularly useful for proving relationships in the last four generations. As with all DNA testing it is a tool which needs to be used in conjunction with the paper records. Its value will grow as the database becomes larger and there is more chance of finding meaningful matches. I've seen a lot of orders going through my FTDNA projects, and I'm sure that it will not take long for that to happen.
With effect from July 2013 the price of the Family Finder test has been reduced to just $99 (£64). See my blog post Autosomal DNA testing is now affordable for all for further details.
© Debbie Kennett 2010