Many adoptees take an interest in their biological families, wanting to know more about where they came from and whether they have any living relatives with whom they can develop a relationship. In previous generations, the only way for an adoptee to find his or her birth parents was to find records of their adoption — records that may have been difficult or impossible to obtain.
DNA testing has opened a whole world of possibility for adoptees searching for their parents. Adoptees may be able to find long-lost family members within minutes of receiving their results. Collecting your DNA for testing is simple and painless. Depending on the testing company, you either scrape the inside of your cheek with a swab or spit some saliva into a tube. The MyHeritage DNA test consists of a simple cheek swab that can be completed in just 2 minutes.
Below are 7 guidelines for adoptees testing their DNA in hopes of finding their biological family members.
Cast a wide net
Upload your raw DNA data to as many autosomal DNA databases as you can. This will give you the greatest chance of finding close relatives.
Each testing service will identify people with whom you share a common ancestor somewhere in your family trees. While your family tree may still be blank, your genetic matches will likely include many genealogists with extensive family trees. Their knowledge is often the key to your success. There is no way to tell in advance which test will uncover your best matches — so it’s best to do as many of them as possible.
DNA testing companies maintain separate databases with mostly different people, and each test has its own unique strengths. You can now access all four databases for less than $400 — a fairly reasonable price to pay for the information you might find on each.
Some companies will accept uploads of your raw DNA data. For example, if you’ve already tested with Ancestry, you can upload your results to MyHeritage to benefit from possible matches in the MyHeritage database as well. This can save you the cost of taking an additional DNA test.
If you’re male, test Y-DNA
Only men have a Y chromosome, inherited from their fathers, who in turn inherited it from their fathers, and so on. Surnames typically pass down this same paternal line, so a man’s closest or most frequent matches on a Y-DNA test may share the same surname as his biological father.
This shortcut works nearly 40% of the time. Other times, no one from that line has tested yet, or the father’s direct paternal line may include a name change, another adoption, or what we politely call a Non-Paternal Event (NPE). Family Tree DNA has the largest Y-DNA database by far. Order their 37-marker test or a higher level if you can afford it.
Skip mitochondrial DNA testing
Everyone has mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Since only women pass it on, the mtDNA test traces your direct maternal line. Unfortunately, most of your mtDNA matches reflect common ancestors from hundreds of years ago. With female surnames changing every generation, this test is rarely helpful for adoptees.
Know that luck and geography can impact results
This shortcut works nearly 40% of the time. Other times, no one from that line has tested yet, or the father’s direct paternal line may include a name change, another adoption, or what we politely call a Non-Paternal Event (NPE).
As the databases have grown, more adoptees are getting direct matches with a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or close cousin. These adoptees are in luck because they can usually complete their search with little additional effort. Adoptees from regions where DNA testing is common, such as the U.S. and Europe, are more likely to hit this jackpot. On the other hand, adoptees born in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe will find fewer matches.
Even if you were born in the United States, luck might not be on your side: if your parents were recent immigrants, most of your relatives are probably outside the United States, and you will see fewer matches. Fortunately, the autosomal DNA tests mentioned above include a breakdown of your ethnic ancestry. That alone can be fascinating and worth the price of testing.
On the luck scale, most adoptees will be somewhere in the middle. You will likely uncover many distant cousins of varying degrees, and working your way from their ancestors to your recent relatives will require additional time and effort.
Because of MyHeritage’s global reach and diverse family tree collection, those born outside the U.S. or those with a recent immigrant background from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe have a better chance of finding matches with MyHeritage DNA.
Educate yourself and get help online
A good place to start is my Guide to DNA Testing. It’s a Kindle Short Book available on Amazon for just 99 cents. It’s the easiest, most concise introduction you can find. You don’t even need a Kindle device to read it: Amazon offers free Kindle readers for computers, tablets, and smartphones. With that basic foundation, you can explore specific topics in more detail on my website, DNATestingAdviser.com. The site is mobile-friendly, so you can view it on your smartphone or tablet if you prefer.
Another great resource is the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. They have a great online Wiki and a DNA-Newbie discussion group on Yahoo. Finally, there are many DNA discussion groups on Facebook. For adoptee-specific help, join DNA Detectives.
Use select third-party websites
You can download your raw data from most DNA testing websites. Then you can upload your file to third-party sites where various utility programs can extract more information from your data. Here are three that I recommend:
This website teaches and supports users with a process called “triangulation.” Some of your DNA matches will be related to each other. If they have detailed family trees, you can often trace their common ancestor — who is also your common ancestor. The volunteers that run this site have created and collected online tools that find and process these clusters among your matches. They also offer online classes and have a Yahoo discussion group where you can ask questions and get answers.
This site has a wide variety of tools. You can compare your DNA with that of everyone else on the site to see if you have enough DNA in common to be related. Since the site accepts data from all of the autosomal DNA tests, those who have only taken one or two of the tests will almost certainly discover additional matches. You can select different admixture utilities to get different perspectives on your ethnic ancestry. They also have a triangulation utility in their Tier 1 utility set that requires a small donation for access.
For a modest $5 fee, it will analyze your raw data and report some medical information.
Use the right tests to confirm relationships
Once an adoptee finds someone from his or her birth family, there is often a need to confirm the relationship. Some autosomal DNA tests are powerful enough to confirm several close relationships between two people. This includes parent-child, full siblings, half-siblings, aunt/uncle with nephew/niece, grandparent-grandchild, first cousins, and usually second cousins. Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on old technology “sibling” or “kinship” tests. Those tests only check a handful of markers and are almost always inconclusive.