# 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.

# When the DNA says your parents are related

One of the first things I do when helping someone with their DNA results is to check if their parents are related. This can explain unusual patterns of matches, for example, all seemingly from one side.

GEDmatch.com has a nice tool called “Are Your Parents Related” (AYPR) in the”Analyze Your Data” blue panel (middle right of page) which looks for places in the specified kit where the DNA is identical on both chromosome pairs, maternal and paternal. This happens when you inherit the same segment of DNA from each parent because they are related. We call this a homozygous run which is a fancy way of saying a stretch of identical DNA on both sides.

CeCe Moore specializes in helping people who make this discovery. Click here for the informational brochure she helped Brianne Kirkpatrick, genetic counselor, create. It includes where to get emotional support.

My goal is to help you figure out what the DNA means yourself. Can you deduce what the relationship of those parents is? Well a very simple rule of thumb is to multiply the shared DNA from AYPR tool by four and look up that new total at the DNA painter calculator for the possibilities. Then do further family DNA testing to confirm.

Why does this work? Let’s look at the numbers. Suppose your parents share 25% of their DNA. They will pass about half of that to you, so 12.5%. However only about half of that will be the same DNA so it will show up as about 6.25% on the AYPR tool.

Look at the image. The total is 215.3 when you multiply by 4 you get 861.2. You might look that up before you read on …

# Half sibling or Nibling? A first look at the 25% relationship data

A question I often get is “Can you tell if this DNA match is my uncle or my half-brother?”  Why this question? Because it is very difficult to tell the difference between a half sibling and a nibling (an aunt/uncle/niece/nephew) relationship from the amount of matching DNA. Like grandparents, they all share 25% with you, or about 1750 centimorgans (cMs) give or take several hundred. Unlike grandparents, the age difference can’t usually be used to tell them apart. The testing companies might call him “close family”, “first cousin,” “uncle,” or the more descriptive “1st Cousin, Half Siblings, Grandparent/ Grandchild, Aunt/ Niece” from Family Tree DNA, which by the way is my Dad’s actual great-niece’s designation. Then they show you the amount of shared DNA in centimorgans and maybe a percentage, but really they are just making an educated guess about the relationship.

I wanted to find a way to help adoptees figure out more accurately which relationship a new 25% match was likely to be, so I collected detailed statistics using a google form for about a year, getting some 2400 responses. These were self-reported from people who read my blog or are members of groups on Facebook where I publicized this. I am still collecting, so feel free to add yours to my form (click here) to get included in the next report. GEDmatch numbers preferred.

My experience from helping people understand their DNA results had led me to suspect that segment sizes were the key to telling these relationships apart. I had noticed that the sizes of the four largest segments would usually be much much larger for half siblings than niblings. However now that I have these crowd-sourced numbers, I can see that much of my personal experience came from helping with paternal side cases. There the segments are consistently much larger.

### Can you tell a nibling from a half sib by the shared number of segments and centimorgans?

The collected wisdom of the many adoption search angels is that the number of segments can indicate the difference. While this usually works for nibling versus grandparent, half siblings too often seem to fall in the range of one or the other.

The DNA adoption folk have a chart which shows the number of segments expected for each relationship (click here for that PDF) which is very useful, just not enough for determining half siblings. They carefully separate the AncestryDNA results which can have more segments and fewer total centimorgans due to the removal of some matching data deemed less significant. DNA adoption also has an automated relationship estimater based on that data.

Leah Larkin recently wrote a fascinating post – Escape from the Overlap Zone – which showed simulations for these relationships which indicate that grandparents can easily be told from niblings since they have far fewer total segments. However again, the simulations show that half sibs and niblings have considerable overlap.

### So how does the collected data compare?

Here is a scatter diagram graphing total centimorgans (X axis) versus number of segments (Y axis) for just grandparent and nibling relationships. This used only the GEDmatch data for consistency. The niblings are the lavender color and the dark results show where they overlap with the beige-pink colored grandparents. This is not far different from the predictions although there is more overlap than expected but look what happens when I add the half-sibling data below right.

The graph is hard to read now since those results overlap both categories. The colors are semi-transparent so the darker areas are created by having multiple colors in that area. There seems to be considerably more overlap than the simulations predicted.

It looks like just using just shared centimorgans and number of segments will not produce a clear answer as to whether a 25% relationship is a half sibling.

Notice the funny shape of the half sibling blues. There is a bunch on top with the niblings and another group with the grandparents. Fortunately someone had suggested that I include a question asking which side a relationship is on, paternal or maternal.

# An unusual relationship shown in DNA

Sometimes DNA can reveal an ugly truth. A reader, let’s call her Patty, asked me for help explaining the unusual looking comparison of her DNA test results with her uncle Bob’s results. The surprising thing was the large number of green bars that she saw in the GEDmatch one to one comparison, indicating fully identical segments (FIRs), almost as many as a full sibling would have. How could that be?

Of course my first thought was that Bob is actually her full brother, that her mom, Janet, had a child out of wedlock who was raised by the child’s grandparents, Mona and Dick, as their son. This has happened in many a family. But that was not the backstory. Janet was a small child when her brother Bob was born. Bob and Patty also share just one segment of 27 cM on the X chromosome, which, of course, would be normal for a maternal uncle but low for a brother. Have a look at the comparison image from GEDmatch for chromosomes 1-22:

Thoughts? Usually only full siblings or double first cousins will have numerous fully identical segments, so what could this be? Obviously Patty’s dad would also have to be a close relative of Bob’s for there to be so many FIRs. A full sibling would usually show even more of them, however.

# How to tell the relationship from the shared DNA

Many people have the illusion that if their testing company says a person is a 3rd to 5th cousin they really will be. That is not the case.

The testing companies are just making the best guess they can from the data they have. They do not seem to take segment sizes into account, rather they primarily use total shared DNA measured in centimorgans (cMs) for their relatedness estimates, usually the sum of all matching segments of 5 cM or larger. Close relatives will always share larger chunks with each other and so size does matter here.

Recently I have received numerous questions from people trying to figure out if a new match is a half sibling or a niece or a grandchild. These are hard to tell apart without testing more relatives as they all share about 25% of their DNA with each other. So I decided to collect some detailed statistics on those specific relationships with a google form (click here) that includes total segments and segment sizes for a future blog post [UPDATE as of sept 2017: First round results are written up at https://blog.kittycooper.com/2017/09/the-25-relationship-a-first-look-at-the-data/ ]

The companies predict reasonably well for close family but it is just not possible to be accurate beyond that due to the randomness of DNA inheritance.

For example, here is a picture from the new 23andme of some of the DNA I share with Dick, a 2nd cousin on Dad’s paternal side so blue, and John, a 2nd cousin on Dad’s maternal side so red.

I share a third again as much DNA with John as I do with Dick,  even excluding the 14 cM on the X. The expected amount for a 2nd cousin is 3.125% which is 212.50 cM, right in the middle between these two.
Checking my brother, I see the same effect – he has 282 cM with John versus 185 with Dick. Not surprisingly, when I look at Dad I find that he shares almost twice as much with John as with Dick. Clearly he just inherited more of the same DNA as John’s mother from their common grandparents. Conversely, he inherited less DNA shared with Dick’s mother from his other grandparents.

On the left is a comparison of my first cousin Henry with both Dick and John. The amount he shares with each 2nd cousin is practically identical, as long as you subtract the 40 cM that he shares with John on the X from the total shown by 23andme. Amazing how variable DNA inheritance can be among 2nd cousins.

Click here for the ISOGG wiki article on Autosomal DNA statistics which usually includes the current chart from Blaine Bettinger’s shared centimorgan DNA project.