Making sense of my mitochondrial DNA test results

I got my mitochondrial DNA test results today, and wanted to blog about the experience of testing, and getting the results, to help others considering going down this route.

First it’s worth saying that I avoided DNA testing for a long time. Personally I found the terminology confusing and baffling. Also testing prices were generally high. As a genealogist who researches every branch of my family tree I was also somewhat sceptical about the benefit of tracing one line back out of many more, and finding out about its deep origins. What finally swung me was FamilyTreeDNA slashing their testing prices, combined with their large international database for matches. This opened up the possibility of matching – most probably in the future – people who shared the same genealogical line as me. And as a genealogist that was quite exciting. I did look at other testing companies, but this one for me offered the best combination of sufficiently detailed testing, a large international database for matches, and good value in terms of the test kit and (unlike some other companies) shipping costs.

Ordering the test online was really easy. And then a few days later it arrived from America in the post. I delayed doing the testing for a bit, but then finally plucked up the courage. It was very much a CSI moment, what with the swabbing. It just took a few minutes anyway, repeated for the second sample a few hours later, and was really easy and painless to do. Sending it off in the post was slightly trickier, not expensive, but I pondered for a while what to write on the customs form! Apparently “genealogy sample” is a good thing to put on. The test arrived at FamilyTreeDNA a few weeks later, then there was the delay while I waited for the results. It can take a lot of weeks for mitochondrial DNA to be fully sampled.

The results came overnight, and I was emailed to say they were available, and logged in today to FamilyTreeDNA to see them. As expected I was a bit baffled by it all initially, again the terminology rather frying my brain, but I’ve taken time to try to make sense of everything. I’ll explain it here as best as I can. The test that I got done is the mitochondrial DNA one, their more expensive mtFullSequence one, which tests the mother’s mother’s mother’s etc. line back in time to a high degree of accuracy. So it’s a deep genealogical test, analysing the DNA which has been passed down through many generations on one line. Mitochondrial DNA can only be passed down through the female line, from mother to child (male or female). But it indicates deep ancestry, even for male line descendants.

The mitochondrial test results come back in a number of formats, but the easiest to understand is probably the predicted haplogroup. As I understand this is the group of DNA, with a common ancestor, that most closely matches the numbers that come back from crunching your saliva sample. In my case that’s V-C16298T!. As the FamilyTreeDNA page explains, “Mitochondrial haplogroup V is a primarily European haplogroup and underwent an expansion within Europe beginning approximately 13,000 years ago.” This is a relatively rare hapiogroup, even within Europe, and may originate in the Near East. The FamilyTreeDNA database includes other people whose DNA sample gave this result. Quite a lot of them are of Scottish origin, some English or Irish, some Spanish, French or German. But basically European.

More interesting for me as a genealogist is the possibility of linking up directly with distant cousins, especially provable ones, through the site. There is a difficulty in that we may be so distant that the paperwork doesn’t survive, and it isn’t possible to make a connection that can be proved in the conventional historical records. There can also be matches where the DNA link isn’t as strong as it could be. So in the matches page you get you need to look carefully at the information recorded about earliest known direct maternal ancestor, as well as number of steps between your genetic results, to see if there’s a likely connection. So far not in my case, though some of the matches seem to be very low in number of steps from my DNA (even 0). But I’m more hopeful of making useful connections in the long term, as more people are tested, especially as the prices for testing continue to drop.

For the record my currently known most distant all-female line ancestor is Elizabeth Oliver, who married Robert Govanlock at Southdean in Roxburghshire, Scotland, in 1787. They were my 5xg-grandparents. Via them I have Robson, Scott, Kerr and Dodds female descendants before reaching me.

One thing I couldn’t get tested as a female was Y-DNA. This is another form of deep DNA, but it’s only passed down from father to son. Although it, too, only traces one line back, it does have the advantage of potentially linking people of a given surname, and seeing if and how they are related. This assumes that there are no non-paternity events on the line back in time. I’m so inspired by the possibilities of this that I’ve started a Cavers Y-DNA surname project, to try to figure out how all the different lines in my Cavers one-name study are related, if at all. This needs male line descendants to volunteer to be tested, and again they must have no female link in the chain, for example through illegitimacy on the Cavers line. It’s very much a long-term project, but one that I’m extremely hopeful for.

Am I glad that I’ve taken the test? Yes definitely, and I’m going to continue to get my head around the results. Hopefully I’ll make some good matches with people through the database in future, which would be great. And it’s opened my eyes to DNA testing. So much so that I’ve just ordered, for the low price of $99, the FamilyFinder test. For me this is an upgrade, using my existing DNA sample, so there is no need for me to do the swabbing and posting thing again. And it will look for DNA matches across all lines, in the last 5 generations. Again very much a long-term thing, but worthwhile I think.

About vivdunstan

Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan.
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5 Responses to Making sense of my mitochondrial DNA test results

  1. Viv

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with your mtDNA test.

    Make sure you join the haplogroup V Project:

    They should be able to help you with your results. The haplogroup is not predicted but confirmed. You can have a look at the mtDNA tree on Phylotree:

    The nomenclature of the mtDNA haplogroups does change from time to time and a new Build of Phylotree is promised soon.

    You should also join the Scottish DNA Project which is run Alasdair Macdonald at the University of Strathclyde.

    It’s worth getting the custom mtDNA report from Dr Ann Turner:

    She will tell you if you have any medically informative mutations and will also do a literature search to find information on your subclade. She charges a very modest fee for her reports.

  2. Claire Williams says:

    Hi Viv,

    I found your blog on doing a Haplogroup V search after getting my Mother’s DNA results. Am just starting to make sense of it as results only arrived yesterday but just thought I’d introduce myself as another UK match. Our family history is very much based around Wales and the Welsh Marches. Claire

    • vivdunstan says:

      Thanks Claire. I’m still making sense of it myself! I’ll be in touch with you by email soon, to follow up properly. I suspect any link between us is distant though. As you’ll see my relevant line goes back to the Anglo-Scottish Borders. But will be in touch ASAP.

  3. Vanessa Neiles says:

    Hi, I just got my test done and it turns out I’m in the same heplogroup with that same exact number. Thought it was weird though, can’t find much info on it other than distantly being related to Bono and Benjamin Franklin. Supposedly its rare and alot of Scandinavians in the north have it too.

    • vivdunstan says:

      Thanks for the reply! Yes it seems to be a very rare type. I find it fascinating, though as a genealogist tracing every single branch I remember it’s just one tiny branch of my gargantuan family tree. But hello distant cousin! 🙂

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