DNA for Dummies

One of the most common questions we get from KAD readers is: “Have you done the DNA test yet?” Almost 2 years into this blog and hundreds of inquiries later, we decided to do the test to be able to speak from experience and see what all the hubbub is about! Actually, Whitney decided to do the test – Lee chose not to. Here we’d like to insert a quick note: these tests are deeply personal and should be treated with respect! If you have a loved one in your life whom you want to push into a DNA test to satisfy your own curiosity: resist! Each person should decide at their own time if/when they are ready to submit their DNA. To be frank: it’s not your decision!

We heard from others about a private Facebook group where DNA tests were being offered to KADs at no cost through the generosity of a donor. First of all: WOW! That is just an amazing gift. Whitney joined and requested the test. She was told she would be added to the waitlist and there was no estimated time period as to when she might receive one. We were so surprised to receive it on our doorstep the very next week.

We opened the package and found these varied contents:

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It felt quite overwhelming at first and we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into. But as we read the instructions, we realized it was actually quite easy. Fill out a few forms, swab your cheek twice, and mail everything back in. No sweat.

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You will notice the company was FamilyTreeDNA, not the famed 23andMe that many people complete. Apparently their prices have gone up recently, so the donor had switched to the more cost-effective FTDNA. Who are we to be choosy?!

We did not know how long it would take to get the results back (or what in the world those results would show) so we just waited. In the end, it took about 6 weeks or so. We got an email: results and matches had been uploaded!

Logging in, we were not surprised by what we found. As many of our friends have found, there was a laundry list of 4th and 5th cousins – 25 of them, to be exact…

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…along with some information that we did not understand because we are not scientists. Centimorgans and blocks and helix and what? *Grrrr science!*

Next, the ethnicity breakdown:

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Surprise! Whitney is Asian.

We then went back to the original Facebook group to find out where to go from here. That became really overwhelming! There are a ton of posts from other DNA tested adoptees with lots of similar questions. We found a helpful step-by-step from one of the group administrators that directed us next to GED Match.

That site directed us to download raw data from FTDNA and then upload to the GED Match database. Sounds easy. But then…

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…what the heck. I don’t know what this means? Build 36 or 37? Autosomal or Chromosome? Come again?

We found some instructions about which one we needed so we downloaded..then uploaded. Months later, we still have not gotten any results back from GEDmatch. We have given up. Supposedly those results are meant to give you information on genetic linkage based on chromosome positions called centimorgans, which honestly sounds like something we wouldn’t understand anyways.

Next, Facebook told us to join DNA.Land. Same deal. We had to download from FTDNA and upload to DNA.Land (a different file than GEDmatch!). In the end, DNA.Land showed no further relative matches for Whitney.

The post told us to go next to MyHeritage and Promethease. We chose to not take those steps because we were already confused enough by this point. MyHeritage is apparently a new database for matching people in the future (work in progress). Promethease allows you to pay for a health report.

In summary…

Wow, this was much more complex than we expected. On one hand, “DUH, it’s DNA,” – of course, we understand that part. But with the popularity of the new at-home DNA tests, we sort of expected it to be a little easier to navigate for the average layperson.

From what we are hearing (on social media – not from a necessarily reliable source), we probably did the wrong test for our purposes. If you are an adoptee using DNA to seek out birth family members (most users), you could easily use the steps we took to try to track down ancestry. It would require a study of genetics, though, and would not be as simple as swabbing your cheek and receiving a print-out two weeks later with your family’s address and phone number.

For someone like Whitney just interested in learning more about common physical traits and ancestral health history, 23andMe would have probably been the better way to go. We would have gotten a bright and colorful report back in layman’s terms and that would have been the end of it.

Overall, it was neat to see the results come back, but we were not surprised by what we found. Furthermore, if Whitney had not already been in reunion, she would be out of luck based on the results we received. The closest match found was a 5th cousin. On the positive side, it was cool to get an email from one of those 5th cousins and connect. We are now friends on social media and get to peek into each other’s worlds every now and then.

As a final note: these tests are only as good as the information put into the database. Meaning, for KADs particularly, we will only find more matches to biological families as those biological families agree to be tested and added to the database. Culturally, there is a way to go in Korea to get masses of birth families tested. Therefore, it is much more common than not for adoptees to be matched as 5th cousins to other adoptees than to their birth families overseas.

DNA testing seems to be everywhere these days but probably has a ways to go in terms of accessibility for the average Joe. We wish all of our adoptee friends luck in their endeavors and would give the advice to those about to test: get ready to brush up on your biology.


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© We the Lees, 2017. All Rights Reserved

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