Y-DNA Testing for Genealogy

Y-DNA tests can help you trace ancestry along your direct paternal line -- son to father to paternal grandfather...

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Y-DNA testing looks at the DNA in the Y-chromosome, a sex chromosome that is responsible for maleness. All biological males have one Y-chromosome in each cell and copies are passed down (virtually) unchanged from father to son each generation.

How It's Used

Y-DNA tests can be used to test your direct paternal lineage—your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, etc. Along this direct paternal line, Y-DNA can be used to verify whether two individuals are descendants from the same distant paternal ancestor, as well as potentially find connections to others who are linked to your paternal lineage.

 Y-DNA tests specific markers on the Y-chromosome of your DNA known as Short Tandem Repeat or STR markers. Because females do not carry the Y-chromosome, the Y-DNA test can only be used by males.

A female can have their father or paternal grandfather tested. If that is not an option, look for a brother, uncle, cousin, or other direct male descendants of the male line you're interested in testing.

How Y-DNA Testing Works

When you take a Y-line DNA test, your results will return both a general haplogroup and a string of numbers. These numbers represent the repeats (stutters) found for each of the tested markers on the Y chromosome. The specific set of results from the tested STR markers determines your Y-DNA haplotype, a unique genetic code for your paternal ancestral line. Your haplotype will be the same as, or extremely similar to, all of the males who have come before you on your paternal line—your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc.

Y-DNA results have no real meaning when taken on their own. The value comes in comparing your specific results, or haplotype, with other individuals to whom you think you are related to see how many of your markers match. Matching numbers at most or all of the tested markers can indicate a shared ancestor. Depending upon the number of exact matches, and the number of markers tested, you can also determine approximately how recently this common ancestor was likely to have lived (within 5 generations, 16 generations, etc.).

Short Tandem Repeat (STR) Markets

Y-DNA tests a specific set of Y-chromosome Short Tandem Repeat (STR) markers. The number of markers tested by most DNA testing companies can range from a minimum of 12 to as many as 111, with 67 being commonly considered a useful amount. Having additional markers tested will generally refine the predicted time period in which two individuals are related, helpful for affirming or disproving a genealogical connection on the direct paternal line.

Example: You have 12 markers tested, and you find that you are an exact (12 for 12) match to another individual. This tells you that there is about a 50% chance that the two of you share a common ancestor within 7 generations and a 95% chance that the common ancestor is within 23 generations. If you tested 67 markers, however, and found an exact (67 for 67) match with another individual, then there is a 50% chance that the two of you share a common ancestor within two generations and a 95% chance that the common ancestor is within 6 generations.

The more STR markers, the higher the cost of the test. If cost is a serious factor for you, then you may want to consider starting with a smaller number of markers, and then upgrade at a later date if warranted. Generally, a test of at least 37-markers is preferred if your goal is to determine whether you descend from a specific ancestor or ancestral line. Very rare surnames may be able to obtain a useful result with as few as 12-markers.

Join a Surname Project

Since DNA testing cannot on its own identify the common ancestor that you share with another individual, a useful application of the Y-DNA test is the Surname Project, which brings together the results of many tested males with the same surname to help determine how (and if) they are related to each other. Many Surname Projects are hosted by testing companies, and you can often receive a discount on your DNA test if you order it directly through a DNA surname project. Some testing companies also give people the option to only share their results with people in their surname project, so you could potentially miss some matches if you are not a member of the project.

Surname projects generally have their own website run by a project administrator. Many are hosted by the testing companies, while some are hosted privately.

If you can't locate a project for your surname, you can also start one. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy offers tips for starting and running a DNA Surname Project—select the "For Admins" link on the left-hand side of the page.

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Powell, Kimberly. "Y-DNA Testing for Genealogy." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/y-dna-testing-for-genealogy-1421847. Powell, Kimberly. (2021, July 30). Y-DNA Testing for Genealogy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/y-dna-testing-for-genealogy-1421847 Powell, Kimberly. "Y-DNA Testing for Genealogy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/y-dna-testing-for-genealogy-1421847 (accessed March 28, 2023).