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DNA Basics Chapter 1: A New Blog Series

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Hi, I’m Yael and as a new member of the MyHeritage team, I’m excited to share with you a new DNA Basics blog series. I completed my Ph.D. research in medical neurobiology at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem where I also taught physiology in the medical school. My laboratory specialized in genetic approaches to answering research questions. I’m proud to join MyHeritage, where we help millions of people find new family members and discover their ethnic origins.

A lot of people ask me how it all works. What are we really looking at when we analyze your sample in our lab? This new DNA Basics blog series will answer some of the most commonly asked questions by MyHeritage DNA users about the science behind DNA testing for family history.

This series will explain DNA for non-scientists. Are you interested in learning about DNA in general, curious about your personal Ethnicity Estimate results, or are you looking for a deeper understanding of how this tool can take your genealogical journey to the next level? If the answer is yes, DNA Basics is for you.

Genetics 101

Our bodies are composed of cells. The headquarters of each cell is the nucleus. Inside each nucleus is an identical copy of the unique instruction manual for YOU, written in DNA. There are more than 30 trillion cells in our bodies and, in each nucleus, is a copy of your DNA.

No one else’s DNA is exactly like yours. So if you know how to read your DNA you can learn much about who you really are.

Inheriting DNA

We inherit 50% of our DNA from our mother and 50% from our father. They each received 50% of their DNA from their mother, and 50% from their father. So when we look at your DNA, we’re looking at about half of your mom’s and half of your dad’s, which is about 25% of each of your grandparents, or 12.5% of each of your great-grandparents. In other words, by looking at your DNA, we can see little pieces of all your ancestors who together gave you the exact combination of DNA you have today.

Adapted from The University of Arizona Health Sciences

Sharing DNA

It follows that two people, who have inherited DNA from the same source, will have some common DNA. For example, a daughter who received 50% of her mother’s DNA and 50% of her father’s DNA, will share some of the same DNA as her brother, who also inherited half of his DNA from each parent. The siblings may have inherited a different 50% of each parent’s DNA, and so the siblings won’t have identical DNA but they will have about 50% in common.

That means you have 50% of your DNA in common with your mother, 50% in common with your father, and 50% in common with each of your siblings. Two anonymous DNA samples with 50% overlap might be a brother and a sister, or a child and a parent. To identify the relationship, we first look at the gender of the samples. Males will have a Y chromosome in their DNA sample and females won’t. Next, we look at the age of the sample donor, if we have it. That part isn’t written in the DNA itself. Knowing those three pieces of information — the amount of DNA in common between the two samples (in the current example, 50%), the donors’ genders, and the donors’ ages — is enough to give a good estimate of the relationship between the sample donors. Two people with 50% DNA in common, both female, 30 years apart in age, are most likely mother and daughter.

DNA and you

DNA carries the code for YOU — your eye color, hair color, height, even whether you hate the taste of coriander, is written in your DNA. That’s why two people with common DNA have common features. The more DNA in common, the more features you would expect to have in common. If you’ve always been told you look like your mother, or have your father’s nose, or if people who have never met your siblings know you’re related the instant they meet them, now you know why!

DNA and your family

While you have a large portion of DNA in common with close relatives, you have a smaller portion in common with more distant relatives. Two distant cousins who have never met but have a common ancestor will have a small piece of DNA inherited from that ancestor in common. That’s the basis for using DNA tests to discover relatives you otherwise wouldn’t know about.

How small a portion of common DNA depends on how many generations back the common ancestor was. Combined with our huge database of family trees where we have the types of clues discussed above (such as gender and age), MyHeritage DNA has reunited families all over the world. Check out real user stories here on MyHeritage Stories.

DNA and your family’s past

Generations ago, people didn’t move around as much as we do today. They didn’t fly cross-country or across oceans. Most people married and died in the same region where they were born. Because people married other people from the same region, and had children who then married in the same region, a correlation can be seen between DNA and geographic location. This was especially true for geographically isolated places like the island of Ireland.

Sometimes this insular DNA inheritance wasn’t necessarily geographic — it may have been cultural. For example, Jews or Mennonite Christians married and had children within their own groups for generation after generation, creating a correlation between DNA and cultural identity.

When you do a MyHeritage DNA test, we compare your DNA to our models of DNA from different ethnicities to see which ones you match. MyHeritage Ethnicity Estimates include 42 ethnicities. Reading DNA Basics will help you understand more about how we’re able to provide the best ethnicity breakdowns in the market.

Stay tuned

DNA Basics posts will appear monthly. We hope you’ll follow the series for a better understanding of DNA and how DNA testing can help you learn about yourself and your family. We welcome your questions and comments and look forward to exploring DNA together!

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  • Kristina Marshall


    November 9, 2017

    Hi 🙂 I am unasure of who my father is, would this test let me know his nationally? Also my son is wanting to have one one also to find out his ancestory.

    Many thanks
    Kristina

    • Jess


      November 12, 2017

      Hi Kristina, Thank you for your comment. If you take a MyHeritage DNA test you can find out where your ancestors were from through our Ethnicity Estimate. You will also receive DNA Matches with those who tested and match your DNA. To learn more, click here: https://www.myheritage.com/dna

  • Daniella


    November 10, 2017

    Very cool, look forward to keeping up

  • Darío


    November 12, 2017

    good morning

    in the case of a Jewish ancestor married to a gentile in the sixteenth century, there would be in my DNA remains (to use colloquial language) of the modal cohen haplotype?

    • Yael


      November 16, 2017

      Hi Dario,

      Thanks for your question.

      Indeed, certain Y-chromosome haplotypes have been correlated to particular surnames. One of the most well-known cases is the Modal Cohen Haplotype (MCH) which is found with greater frequency on the Y-chromosome of men with the last name Cohen (in any of the various spellings, e.g., Kohen) than in the general population. Jewish people with the last name Cohen are thought to be members of the tribe of priests who descended from Moses’s brother, Aaron in the Bible.

      If your Jewish ancestor was not a descendant of priests, he would be no more likely to have the MCH than the general population. If your Jewish ancestor was a woman, she would not carry MCH as it presents on the Y-chromosome which only males have. But if your Jewish ancestor was male, and descended from priests, he might have the MCH and it might have been passed to you.

  • toni


    November 12, 2017

    Where do I sign up for the DNA blog?

    • Jess


      November 12, 2017

      We will post a new DNA Basics blog post every month on the MyHeritage blog. Stay tuned!

  • selma herzberg


    November 19, 2017

    I have a question. If I take a DNA test and my brother (same father, same mother) takes the DNA test. Might we get different ethinic origins?

  • Colleen Quirk


    November 21, 2017

    Hi there!
    I apologize if this is the third or fourth time anyone has seen this. I tried putting this question up on my phone and it kept telling me it wasn’t working and never showed up. A few months ago I took a test and I got my mom to do one as well. The other day she got her results back. When we were comparing ours my dad started to argue with me about something. On her estimate the first thing that she was told was that she was 44.8% English. On mine, it told me I am 39.7% North and West European. I had no English anywhere on my test although everything else matched her’s. My dad has been told he is mostly German and French, and we assume that maybe I’m just more similar to him in that one area. He keeps insisting that if her amount of English is as high as it was, then I should have had some English ancestry as well. Is he right, or is it very possible that even though she is my biological mother (as confirmed by test) that we could still have some big differences? I have read some crazy stories about this stuff and I know that everyone has a unique estimate that makes us all different.
    Thank you!

    • Yael


      November 23, 2017

      Hi Colleen,

      Thanks for your question. Indeed, it’s possible that you didn’t inherit any of your mom’s English ethnicity!

      It sounds like your mom is about half English and half not English. You get half of your ethnicities from each parent, so half of your Ethnicity Estimate should match ethnicities your mom has; it does not mean you got half of each of her ethnicities. If you have siblings, it’d be very interesting to compare your Ethnicity Estimates – maybe one of them got some of your mom’s English ethnicity!

  • C. Thompson


    January 25, 2018

    We recently received DNA results on my grandson. Our daughter was adopted and her mother was adopted so we had little firm info on her. We were told by the agency that she was half German, part Lebanese, and part Czech. We knew my grandsons fathers ethnicity so that part came out as expected. However my grandson also turned out to be 38% Italian ,8.4% Scandinavian, and small % of middle east ,North African, and Nigerian. The other big surprise—no German. The findings were well worth the money.

  • Susan Baker-Deeds


    February 6, 2018

    Do you test the Y in men?
    If not how much could you pick up on the male side?
    I was told if the Y is not tested it’s just picking up on the mothers or women

    • Yael


      February 10, 2018

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks for your question. I’m sure a lot of people are wondering the same thing.

      Each person inherits 22 autosomal chromosomes plus 1 sex chromosome, from each parent. We do not analyze the sex chromosomes (X and Y) but we do analyze the 22 autosomal chromosomes you received from both parents. Whether you are a man or a woman, your MyHeritage DNA test results will include information from both your mother’s and your father’s sides of the family.

  • Carol


    February 13, 2018

    One of the best explanations I have found. I have been researching for years and this is great for sharing with my family and friends that really don’t want to read the scientific version. Thank you.

  • Donnal Nichols


    February 13, 2018

    Very interesting ! I would like to learn more about DNA.

  • Janice Turner


    February 13, 2018

    This has always fascinated me. I really want to learn how to read the chromosome charts and understand how to figure out realitionships

  • TRACEY MCGEE


    February 13, 2018

    I have my DNA with you and have looked to find where my ancestors had come from. I may still be a bit naive, and may not be available (yet), but, I think it may be interesting to see if there were some way to have some sort of timeline that estimates around when a particular ancestor lived in the place/area in where they lived.

    • Marianne Melcherts


      February 14, 2018

      Thank you for your suggestion Tracey, we appreciate your feedback!

  • Bob Frenkel


    February 14, 2018

    A good introduction. I look forward in later blogs to some easy-to-follow description of “genetic distance”, which I understand is measured in centimorgans. Could you provide such a description? Many thanks.

    • Yael


      February 14, 2018

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your comment and for the excellent idea! I will include it in the next chapter.

  • Helen Catlalano


    February 14, 2018

    The basic DNA blog is great. It will hellp those of us who are confused about how to use DNA to track family

    • Yael


      February 14, 2018

      So glad you’re enjoying it!

  • Laurie-Anne Smith


    February 14, 2018

    How do I go about finding records for my family in the UK? I have no real information beyond my parents. Many thanks.

    Laurie-Anne

    • Marianne Melcherts


      February 14, 2018

      Hello Laurie-Ann. Start building your family tree, use the Smart Matches found with family trees of other webmasters at MyHeritage and research further together.
      With new found data in you tree you may find records in the SuperSearch too.

  • Maureen


    February 14, 2018

    I want to know how do i download my dna from ancestry thank you

  • roger herrick


    February 15, 2018

    A much needed, well written and easily understandable blog. Thank you for I have been stuck.

  • david greaves


    February 21, 2018

    If I was to take one of your DNA tests as a 76 year old is it likely you would be able to provide information to enable me to trace great great grand parents, bearing in mind DNA testing is a fairly recent thing

    • Marianne Melcherts


      February 25, 2018

      Hello David. DNA Matching at MyHeritage is developed to help our users find relatives based on their shared genetic sequences.The DNA Matches found are people who are likely to be your relatives (close or distant) because there are significant similarities between their DNA and yours. We will match your autosomal DNA results with the raw DNA test results of other MyHeritage users uploaded from 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FTDNA and our own MyHeritage DNA kits.

  • Jane


    April 3, 2018

    I realise that the autosomal DNA should be tested as widely as possible to find ethnicities but I wonder about the other DNA test. If I were to do one DNA test the most efficient would be a find the oldest male relative and do complete test if choosing between a brother and a sister? Males have the y DNA from the father and the mt DNA from the mother?

    • Yael


      May 1, 2018

      Hi Jane,

      Indeed an autosomal test is the best test for ethnicity analysis.

      You inherit half of your ethnicities from your paternal side and half from your maternal side; because you only get half of each parent’s DNA, and they only get half of their parents’ DNA, etc., you yourself end up with only a very small piece of the ethnicities that any given ancestor had, many generations ago. If you want a better picture of the ethnicities that are in your family — places your ancestors called home — but that may not have been passed down to you, it is a good idea to find the oldest relative you can (as many generations back as possible). On the other hand, this will only tell you about that ancestor’s line, so to get the most comprehensive picture, you want to test generations back from as many lines as possible (i.e., the closest you can get to testing all 4 grandparents, or all 8 great grandparents).

      It doesn’t matter whether you test male or female relatives because autosomal tests do not analyze DNA from the sex chromosomes (X and Y).

      Hope that helps!