DNA Research Methodology

Applying a research methodology is your best chance of success in DNA analysis. Make sure you follow a systematic process applying identified procedures and techniques to ensure you remain focussed on your DNA goal. Research methodologies assist in identifying, processing and analysing your results, eliminating re-work. Once hypotheses are identified, ensure you test your theories using the Genealogical Proof Standard.

When you decide to take a DNA test ensure you build your family pedigree to the best of your ability. The more extensive your tree, working out how you are related to your matches will be that much easier.

When you first start using DNA as a tool to progress your Family History research it can be very daunting. There is so much to learn and many people get put off by thinking they need to be science or math experts! Best practice suggests that you should start by looking at your results broadly, before diving into the detail of chromosome analysis.

Every case is different. However many DNA questions can be answered by utilising the power of shared matches and clustering, then seeking to find the common ancestor within each group, through ‘tree triangulation’. This will often be sufficient for closer matches and the combination of a paper trail and a DNA match (within the expected range for the relationship) can be enough to confirm matches up to 3rd cousins. Relationship beyond 3rd cousins (or where a paper trail does not exist) need to be confirmed through chromosome analysis, using ‘segment triangulation’. You can read more about these on the ISOGG site. If you are looking to validate and confirm your pedigree, eventually you will need to delve into chromosome analysis techniques.

The following chart was developed by Chris Woodlands in 2020. It suggests that for those new to DNA many initial research questions could be resolved by applying the following three step process (see Christines blog for more detail).

  • Grouping and clustering, using the Leeds Method. For this exercise the grouping tools (coloured dots) at AncestryDNA make the process much easier and are a good place to start. The process is easily adapted to FTDNA, My Heritage and 23andMe, but cannot be visualised as easily compared to AncestryDNA when working with your match list.
  • Tree triangulation – Developing research trees for you and your matches to document the genealogical paper trail and the genetic relationship.
  • Developing ‘What are the Odds’ trees at DNA Painter to document and test relationships. This step is (one of many) needed to ensure you meet the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Clearly, not all your research questions will be able to be solved through ‘tree triangulation’ alone. Often, it will be necessary to immerse yourself into chromosome analysis – which can be challenging and rewarding in it’s own right! In fact, beyond third cousins it can be very dangerous to assume that ‘distant’ matches are confirmed just because you match someone with the same ancestor in both trees. Your genetic tree is different to your genealogical tree, we don’t inherit DNA from all our ancestors. You may well share ‘genealogy’ with a distant match but it does not ‘prove’ a genetic relationship.

For your traditional research we all accept that to be ‘proven’ we must work from the known to the unknown, via birth certificates and other primary and secondary evidence. To ‘confirm’ a genetic relationship with a distant cousin is no different, you must ‘walk back the segment’ through chromosome analysis and ‘segment triangulation’. This is definitely more complicated and more time consuming DNA research territory.

Working within a research framework and applying a research methodology makes the task easier. There are 7 key steps that you need to apply. As you can see, the three steps discussed previously are incorporated and found at Steps 2, 3 and 6. Understanding these initial three steps are foundation learnings for any DNA researcher.

The methodology sits within an overall research framework. Don’t forget to also have some organisational tools in place to help you keep track of matches and other information you find along the way. If you are not proficient with spreadsheets you may find using a database like GDAT useful – Genealogical DNA Research Tool (formerly Genome Mate Pro).

The following charts seek to demonstrate how you might progress your learning to be able to master and apply the DNA research methodology.

Veronica Williams, January 2021