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Can ethnicity help with unknown parentage?

Recently ethnicity was a major factor in figuring out the family of the mystery father of an Australian women of mixed heritage: Chinese, Italian, and English/Irish. We still need some help, so any Australian readers please read to the end.

Elana’s ethnicty on Ancestry after the update, before she had lots more Italian

This case is unusual because for those of us with primarily European ancestry, the ethnicity predictions from the various DNA test companies are not accurate enough to be a significant aid with figuring out unknown parentage situations. For one thing, our ancestors moved around more than you might expect, and for another, the science is just not exact enough yet.

Too often I get a panicked email or comment from someone who is worried that Daddy is not their dad, or perhaps grandad is not, because their ethnicity predictions show no German or French or Bulgarian which he was and where is that Norwegian from? To which I respond, check your matches, if you have matches to cousins from his family, all is well, it’s just the inaccuracy of ethnicity predictions. North Europeans and South Europeans are fairly distinct from each other, but countries as we know them today did not exist in the far past.

Comparing ethnicities for Elana (left) and her mother (right) at Ancestry

In Elana’s case, having East Asian and Southern European in addition to the usual Australian British mix, actually gave us some different and potentially useful data to work with. Her mother seemed entirely English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, a frequent blend for an Australian. She remembers that Elana’s father said he was part Maori and that his name was Bob. There is no Maori in her results shown above (it usually looks Polynesian), so likely he was just trying to make himself seem exotic and interesting.

Elana’s best matches at ancestry were almost all maternal (yes this is a squashed image)

Since Elana’s mother tested also, we could see that Elana had no close matches that were not listed as “Mother’s side” on Ancestry which made the search very difficult. Her paternal matches consisted of only one 3rd cousin, an American of Italian ancestry, and lots of 4th cousins, quite a few with trees, and most of the closer ones were of Italian descent, in spite of only 7% Italian listed in her Ancestry ethnicity.

One possibility for so few paternal matches was related parents. We checked that by uploading to GEDmatch.com (click here for my post on related parents) and that was not the case. The other more likely explanation was very few of her father’s relatives had tested. For example, Elana had only one very distant Asian match in spite of her father clearly having half that heritage.

Since we could see both Elana’s ethnicity and her mother’s it was easy to tell that Elana’s unknown father was half Chinese/Korean with an Italian (great) grandparent. These were her initial percentages before the recent update at Ancestry:

65% England/Scotland/Wales (so her father will have about 15%)
16% Korea and Northern China
12% China
7% Italy

I asked Elana to also test at 23andme and to upload her Ancestry results to MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA as well. Still no luck finding close paternal matches.

 

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Clicking Over from DNA Ancestor Hints

The great new features just keep coming for Ancestry‘s DNA product. Now we can click new people into our tree from a DNA match with an Ancestor hint. This can be done from the page where it shows the pathway for each of you to the common ancestor, explained in detail on the next page of this post. Hopefully you will all be careful about this, checking sources and so forth …

One thing I love about Ancestry‘s common ancestor feature is that it always uses my tree first before extrapolating from other trees and records. Yes that’s right, it uses records!

When I look at a DNA match with a common ancestor I always note the relationship in the notepad and then color code by great grandparent line. This means that when I look through my DNA matches with common ancestors, the ones not yet categorized are easy to see since they have nothing added in the right hand column, for example Susan in the diagram above.

The other approach would be to filter by “Matches you haven’t viewed” and visually scan for common ancestors since you cannot combine those filters. Personally I have too many distant cousins that I have not looked at yet, but I often use the group filter of “Close matches – 4th cousin or closer” and combine it with the sort by date. People who have just gotten their test results are more likely to be on the site and thus may respond to your message.

The problem with the latter approach is that some matches you have already viewed may have recently added some tree information and Ancestry has found a common ancestor that was not there before. Therefore it is best to add notes and/or color codes and periodically check the list of people with common ancestors for new finds.

The other day I saw a very fanciful looking match with distant cousin “A” to my VE line from Hordaland. Her ancestry was almost entirely Norwegian with a bit of Swedish so that fit. Curious about an ancestor called just “J” in her line I had to investigate.
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Shameful DNA reporting by PBS

These days too many media outlets seem to go for sensationalism rather than facts, but not usually PBS. I watch their news hour every night and expect it to have thoughtful, in depth reporting, unlike the sound bites from many other news shows.

Thursday night’s piece on the privacy issues from DNA testing was a travesty. This misleading headline on their web site about that segment is not what I have come to expect from PBS – “Genetic genealogy can help solve cold cases. It can also accuse the wrong person.”

No, genetic genealogy does not put the wrong people behind bars. Autosomal DNA is just a very accurate tip that points police to a person or family. In order to make an arrest they next collect the suspect’s DNA from discarded items to see if it is a match to the crime scene DNA. It is those results they take to court, not the genetic genealogy theory.

The wrong person accused scenario that they refer to happened several years ago from using Y DNA, not the full autosomal DNA currently used by genetic genealogists. PBS interviewed Michael Usry about his experience of being suspected of a horrific murder because his Y matched the crime scene and even he suggested that it was not such a bad thing to catch murderers and rapists by using the DNA of their cousins. Click here for an article from 2015 about the Michael Usry case that explains what happened back then.

Note that the Y is only one of 46 chromosomes (in 23 pairs but Y pairs with X) and it is the only one which changes extremely slowly. Therefore can reach back many hundreds of years. For example I have a cousin who has a perfect Y match with a 5th cousin where their common ancestor lived in the 1600s. So clearly, the Y is just not useful for law enforcement searches.

CeCe Moore explaining how autosomal DNA led to a killer – screenshot from PBS News Hour Wednesday Nov 6

Wednesday night’s episode (click here) did a wonderful job of explaining how autosomal DNA is used to solve cold cases. PBS interviewed both famous genetic genealogist Cece Moore and Curtis Rogers, the founder of GEDmatch. I even made my husband watch it so he could better understand what I do when I help people with their DNA results. He enjoyed it.

So I was expecting Thursday’s follow up episode on genetic privacy to explain to me why so many people are worried about this issue. Personally if any of my cousins are violent criminals I am happy to out them, but I get that people did not expect this use when they uploaded to genealogy sites, so their permission is needed.

Instead Thursday’s show was highly inaccurate. So I wrote this blog post… will I cancel my PBS membership? We will see.

 

UPDATE 8-Nov-2019: A number of readers have pointed out the glaring innacuracy of the November 7 episode claiming “that Brian Dripps had been convicted of killing Angie Dodge and is serving a life sentence” when in fact the case has not even gone to trial yet. Although he confessed, he is now pleading not guilty. A recent non-sensationalist summary of that case is here: https://www.ishinews.com/events/unraveling-the-twisted-case-of-angie-dodge/

UPDATE 9-Nov-2019: The PBS NewsHour has corrected the Brian Dripps statement in November 7 episode on their website and also retracted the incorrect information towards the end of their November 8 episode.

Automation to Find the Common Ancestors in the Trees of your DNA Matches

Recently I gave a presentation on many of the great new DNA tools that have come out this year. The talk focused on how both Ancestry and MyHeritage figure out the likely ways in which you are related to a DNA match from the other trees on their sites (click here for my slides). This left very little time to go into the details of my favorite third party tools that can do similar magic, so I promised the attendees a blog post…

The three tools I use the most for finding common ancestors are:

They all have their strengths but none are free. Think of the endless hours professional programmers have spent making these tools and be grateful.

Mainly I use them for unknown parentage cases where the tree is not yet known. However they are also useful for your genealogy. For example, Genetic Affairs will look at the trees on Family Tree DNA and show you any common ancestors it finds with the path to your matches:

My Dad shares DNA with many descendants of this couple as shown by Genetic Affairs from his FtDNA results

There are many other tools I could not do without, like the online relationship calculator at DNApainter (click here) but this article is about automation to find common ancestors. Read on for my summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the tools that do that.

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Why don’t we share more DNA with a Sibling?

When I first started doing DNA testing and I saw that full siblings shared only about 2800 cM of their DNA, I was surprised. I expected more. Then I thought about it. We have 23 pairs of chromosomes but the testing process cannot separate the two parts of each pair so our matches are seen as if we had only 23 unpaired chromosomes.

The matching segments are listed and totaled as if there was just one side of each pair even though it is using the data from both sides for the comparison; that is why they are called half identical regions or HIRs. Click here for my blog post with a deeper discussion of why doing comparisons that way can create false matching segments.

My brother and I compared at 23andme. The darker segments are the FIRs. Click it for the full image.

Siblings are usually listed as sharing about 50% of their DNA but that is only the half identical part that most companies measure. How many places did they get the same DNA from both parents on both pairs of a chromosome? In other words how many fully identical regions (FIRs) do siblings share? In my experience, they share about 800 cM or so that are fully identical. Thus the total of the FIRs and HIRs is about 3500-3700 cM; the same amount expected of a parent match. That intuitively makes much more sense to me.

So what would be the logical basis for this? Each parent gives each child half of their DNA but not all of it will be the same half. Roughly half of what each parent gives me will be the same as what my brother got so about 2 times 1800 for 3600; yet most full siblings are shown as sharing only about 2600-2800 cM of half identical segments. The rest of that 3600 is found in the fully identical segments.

A recent query I got was “I only share 2553 cMs with my sibling are we full or half? By the online calculator at DNApainter they are full siblings sharing a low amount, but another possibility is the father of one sibling was the brother of the other. That is called ¾ sibings. To tell the difference total up the FIRs and the HIRs. If they total less than 3000 rather than the 3600 for full siblings then they are most likely three quarters siblings or some similar relationship.

23andme totals both the FIRs and the HIRs unlike any other testing company, as shown above, however those totals include the X which throws it off a bit for my calculations.

Wherever you tested, you can get the FIRs and the HIRs by comparing the two kits at GEDmatch.com.

Here’s how. Presuming you have both uploaded to GEDmatch (and hopefully both opted in to helping law enforcement identify violent criminals and victims – click here for my post on that), start with a One-to-One comparison of the two kits.

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