Maximize Your DNA Matches

This page is a suggestion on how to maximize the matching of your autosomal DNA (atDNA) to other potential relatives, without buying a test kit for each service. It includes links to the instructions for downloading the data representing your raw DNA tested on each service, which you can use to upload for other services.

At the time of this writing, there are four major DNA testing services for genealogical purposes. Each service allows you to download a file that contains data representing your  DNA data, often referred to as a “kit.” Some of the services allow users to upload from other services, others do not.

Four Testing Services

The four major atDNA testing services are: Ancestry DNA (ADNA), 23andMe (23aM), MyHeritage DNA (MHDNA), and FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA). As of March 7, 2018, there are approximately fourteen million (14,000,000) kits in the databases of these four services, combined, although there is overlap. 

More details about that number
This total does not represent 14 million distinct people who have been tested. There are two kinds of overlap. Some people will test on multiple services in order to maximize their match potential. Some people will also download their kits from one service and upload them to another service, as I will instruct herein. I am not sure how to calculate how many unique people those 14 million represent. In fact, even if all four companies were willing to collaborate, it may be impossible to know for certain, with variations in name or email addresses used.
Those approximate numbers are based on the ISOGG atDNA testing comparison chart. That chart is also a very good place to start when comparing the services. There are plenty of other online reviews, but the ISOGG comparison is quite objective.

Each testing service gives you tools to compare your atDNA to other people in their database. Their web services will show you information about other people whose DNA matches yours. Each of those matching people might be a relative. Then again, they might not. Those matching people could be a close relative that you did not know about, or a very very distant relative, too distant to determine exactly. They could also be a “false positive” who happens to share a matching strand of DNA for unrelated reasons.

There are differences in how each test and comparison is done. Each testing service has their own proprietary methods and algorithms for processing and interpreting the results of your DNA. Even the services that use the same sequencing computer chip may use different SNPs and different thresholds for matching. Your DNA is going to be the same no matter which service you test with. However, you will get different results from different services, even when compared to the same people.

Because of these difference, the best way to get the most accurate matches is to submit a sample to each of the four services and have them compare your actual DNA, sequenced on their systems, to others in their systems. However, this can get expensive. Best case scenario, if you order the kits when they are each on sale, will be about $260. Full list price is closer to $370. That is just for atDNA for one person. If you want to do mtDNA (to verify maternal lineage) and Y-DNA (paternal lineage), the price goes up even more.

Of course, if you are also getting family members to test, for telemetry purposes, it becomes more complicated. It took a bit of convincing to ask my 85-year-old mother to spit in a tube for me, but she was willing to indulge me. I think that if I asked her to spit into another tube, and take cheek swabs for two other services, that she would draw the line, even if I paid for the kits and managed all the matches.

Downloading and Uploading

All four services allow you to download a data file that represents your atDNA. That “raw” DNA file can then be uploaded to other online genetic genealogy analysis web sites like GEDMatch, other genealogy web sites like Geni or web sites that do other things with your DNA, like Promethease.

Two of the testing services, FTDNA and MHDNA, will allow you to upload that data file in order to compare it to their database for more matches. The other two do not. MHDNA will allow you to upload your DNA kit for free and show your matches. FTDNA will also allow you to upload for free, although they do charge a one-time fee of $19 to use their advanced online analysis tools. That is considerably less than $79 (or $59 on sale) to order their kit, and you don’t have to wait 6 to 8 weeks for the results.

Maximization Strategy

Neither Ancestry nor 23andMe accept uploads, so to maximize your match potential, it is necessary to test people on both of those services. If you time things right, you can order your kits when there is a sale. Ancestry has the largest database of testers, but they do not provide a chromosome browser at all. If you plan to do any actual DNA comparison activities with your matches you will want to test yourself and your family members on one of the other services. The chromosome browser tool is very important for phasing your DNA (identifying which SNPs are from each parent) and determining where your matches come from by comparing segments. If you test on Ancestry, you can upload your DNA to GEDMatch for those tools, but you also have to convince everyone with whom you match to do the same.

Downloading Your Kits

Whatever service you decide to use, I recommend that you download and save, in a secure location, a copy of your raw DNA data, from each service where you tested. You can keep this as a backup in case you need it — if you lose your email account and password, or the testing company goes out of business or you accidentally delete your data onlin. These things happen. Better safe than sorry.

You don’t  want to leave your raw DNA lying around on a random computer disk. There are potential privacy issues associated with your DNA profile. I would also strongly recommend against storing your raw DNA on a cloud storage disk such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or the Windows cloud. You never know where data stored in the cloud might end up.

I would burn the data files to a CD-R or DVD-R disc. To be completely safe, burn the files to two discs. Keep one in your safe deposit box or another safe place with your critical file backups outside of your house, and another one some place safe in your house. If you are comfortable with encryption techniques, you can encrypt the files or store them in an encrypted filesystem like Keybase.

For now, though, let’s assume that you have your downloaded data in a directory on your workstation. The next section provides instructions on how to download your DNA data from each of the four services.

One word of warning … do not attempt to print your raw DNA data file!  Don’t do it by accident either. Your raw DNA file will require at least 10,000 pages to print. It is OK to look at the file … it is a simple text file, compressed as a ZIP file.

If you have tested on multiple sites, I recommend creating a separate directory for each testing company. If you are managing tests for multiple people, be sure that the files are named uniquely for each person, or create a separate directory for each person as well.

Downloading from Ancestry DNA

Instructions for downloading your DNA data from Ancestry are here: https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/Downloading-Raw-DNA-Data-1460089696533. Be sure to keep track of where the file gets downloaded by your browser. Also, be sure not to allow your computer to unzip the file automatically. Most sites want you to upload the file exactly as it was downloaded from Ancestry, as a .ZIP file.

Downloading from 23andMe

23andMe provides instructions for downloading your DNA data at: https://customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/212196868-Accessing-and-Downloading-Your-Raw-Data.  Make sure that you keep track of where the file gets downloaded, and don’t unzip the file.

Downloading from MyHeritage

Instructions for downloading your DNA kit from MyHeritage DNA are at: http://www.myheritage.com/help-center#/path/951697461. If you have tested with MyHeritage and you want to download your kit for GEDMatch or another site, you will need these instructions. Also, if you tested on MyHeritage, you will want to upload to FTDNA. It is also a good idea to keep a backup of your raw DNA.

Downloading from Family Tree DNA

Here are the instructions to download from Family Tree DNA. Again, if you are testing only on Ancestry or 23andMe, you don’t need to test on FTDNA. However, if you already did test on FTDNA, you will want to download in order to upload to MyHeritage. You can also keep a backup.

Uploading to Family Tree DNA

Create an account on Family Tree DNA and upload your atDNA kit here: https://www.familytreedna.com/autosomal-transfer . This will let you match your DNA to their database of kits. If you want to unlock all the Family Finder features, you can pay $19 to upgrade your account. You already know your heritage information from Ancestry and 23andMe … Family Tree might have some different information there.

Create a new account. Review the terms of service to be sure that they are acceptable to you.  After you create an account, you will be prompted to upload your DNA kit. Pick one of the two that you downloaded. I used my 23andMe kit. I don’t think it matters too much. I do recommend that you upload the same kit to all the sites that you didn’t test on directly. Creating multiple copies of your DNA on comparison sites will lead to confusion — yours and your matches.

If you are managing DNA for multiple people, you will need to create an account for each kit.

Note: I seem to be unable to upload recent (after August 2017) 23andMe raw data. It might be that FTDNA is not set up for the data from the V5 chip that 23andMe started to use then. I will update this if that changes. However, at this time, it seems like it will be necessary to test on three services to get maximum exposure. FTDNA has the smallest number of kits in their database, so I would definitely wait until they have a sale on their kit.

Uploading to My Heritage

Create an account on My Heritage and upload your DNA kit here: https://www.myheritage.com/dna/upload . Review the terms of service and consent agreements, and if they are acceptable, upload your DNA kit.

Uploading to GEDMatch

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