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Genealogy: Taking a DNA Test

Learn what's involved in a DNA test.

Genealogy: Taking a DNA Test

Testing is best done through individual surname projects whenever possible. Surname administrators carry databases of all tests done to date under their surname project and have many tools available to them to compare results. They usually have close ties with family associations and researchers with expertise in the particular family. This is extremely important, as DNA results only become meaningful when coupled with traditional genealogical research. Another advantage is that participants in group projects are often offered substantial discounts by the testing facility.

Each surname project is generally operated by the administrator using a single testing facility. Lists of group projects can be found on the Internet at or

Be Sure You Understand!

Before being tested, it is important to understand the tests offered, and what information can be expected from the results. In addition to what is briefly described, the major companies providing services have extensive websites, including tutorials and other aids:

  • Family Tree DNA (Houston, Texas):
  • DNA Heritage (Dorset, Eng & Rochester, New York)
  • Relative Genetics (Salt Lake, Utah):
  • Oxford Ancestors (London, England):

In addition to these, an excellent tutorial on DNA prepared by Charles F. Kerchner, Jr., can be found online at

The limitations should be strongly considered to reduce false expectations. No meaningful match can be guaranteed from any test. However, if any people who are directly paternally related to you have been tested, and you are sure of your relationship to the person tested, the results will help you, too. Project administrators are generally helpful in this task of matching the various tests and explaining the results.

What's in the Kit?

DNA can be obtained from any portion of the body, with little exception, and all results would be theoretically identical. One exception is hair, which contains only mtDNA (see later). The preferred choice at one time was to test from blood, but this has since been replaced by a buccal swab, or, in some cases, a mouth wash.

Genie Jargon

A buccal swab refers to a specimen taken from inside the cheek or the mouth cavity.

To order a test kit, go to the website of the company providing the surname project of your choice and contact the surname project's administrator. Specify which test you wish to take. If the kit is to be sent to a relative and billed to you, that can be arranged.

Also provide the project administrator with the identity of the earliest proven male ancestor in your line, and some basic information about him such as dates and locations. (This will assist the administrator in grouping your results with others.) The administrator will order the kit sent to you from the lab; then you'll return it to that lab. The test kits are identical regardless of the test being performed. Generally they contain two swabs, two miniature vials of preservative, complete instructions, a waiver form (which must be signed), and a return-mailer envelope. The sample is obtained by simply brushing the inside of the cheek with the swabs. The tips of the swabs are then ejected into the vials. Payment is made with the return of the kit, unless otherwise arranged.

On Pins and Needles

You'll be excited and impatient awaiting the results. Will you finally know to which family you belong? The ethnic background? Will you find relatives? Results of the test are usually available about four to six weeks after the return of the kit. At that time, basic numeric results and information are sent directly from the testing company to the participant by e-mail. These are also supplied to the project administrator, who compares the results with all others of the surname. The administrator should then report to you any matches or similarities found, together with relationships of earliest-known male ancestors. You also usually receive the e-mail addresses of those whom you match, so you can share information toward your common goals. And in the future you will be notified of any new matches.

Looking Into a Crystal Ball

All DNA samples from current tests can be and often are routinely saved for an extended period (up to 25 years—see the testing company's literature), in case further tests are desired on the sample. Better tests are being developed constantly, and this enables you to take advantage of them simply by ordering an upgrade without taking another sample.

Various kits are also available to take and save samples for future tests. These special kits, available at a minimal cost, can often be stored along with your family history. Inquire about this at dnatestingbiz/DNA%20Archving/dnabanking.html. (Note carefully the spelling and symbols in the foregoing URL, especially the spelling of “Archving” or you won't find the page!)

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