Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

DNA Testing Helps Users Research Family Tree

Feb 27, 2019 12:49PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Helene Colaizzi of Franklin Park did not learn that she was adopted until she was 8 years old, when she found some paperwork in her family’s Philadelphia attic. Her parents acknowledged the truth but did not provide any details about her birth parents.

Always curious, Colaizzi, who was raised Jewish, vowed that she would not seek genetic family information during her parents’ lifetime. “My mother was a Holocaust survivor. I knew if I was ever going to search for my lineage, I could never do it while she was alive, because that would have devastated her,” she explained.

On a trip to Penn State in 2006, however, her daughter encouraged her to get DNA testing as part of a research study. She consented and was quite surprised at the results, learning that she was 25 percent Italian, 25 percent Irish, and 50 percent Filipino.

Although Colaizzi left the door open for biological family members to contact her, she did not hear from anyone until a decade later. A month or two after her mother passed away, she received a notification from her biological mother’s side of the family and met a second cousin, who filled her in on relatives she never knew about. Just two short months later, a cousin from her biological father’s family contacted her. To her astonishment, Colaizzi, who was raised an only child, discovered that she had eight biological siblings on the Filipino side of her family.

Going from being an only child to being part of a larger family has been an incredible journey for Colaizzi, who now has a close relationship with that side of her family. “They had a huge party to welcome me to the family; it’s been a blessing on both sides,” she said. “Even people who aren’t adopted—you always have an image of what you think you are. It could not have turned out better; these are amazing, loving people.”

She’s also happy that she can now pass down family information to her two children.

Ironically, and bolstered by her positive experience, Colaizzi and her husband recently purchased a company called Genelex, which does genetic testing to help doctors determine the proper medication for your body, based on your DNA.

Home DNA testing

Home DNA testing has been around for more than 15 years, and tests have surged in popularity, in part due to constant ads by AncestryDNA and other companies.

“The ads are penetrating the common market; they have grown from 1 to 2 million test-takers to over 10 million,” said Wexford resident Elissa Scalise Powell, a certified genealogist. As the owner of Powell Genealogical Services, she helps clients who have genealogical questions, including those on DNA test results.

Powell said that the tests are 100 percent accurate when it comes to identifying biological relationships between parents and children, with decreasing reliability as one travels further out the family tree to about fourth cousins.

She added that home DNA kits are different than the DNA tests that police use to try to identify criminals. “Those DNA tests look for different markers on your chromosomes,” she explained. “The police use a different system than consumer DNA tests; theirs use more markers, and the more markers you have, the more identifying characteristics you have.” 

The four major commercial tests on the market are Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA. Depending on the test, all it requires is a cheek swab or filling a test tube with saliva; after sending it back to the company, results are made available within several weeks.

The 23andMe test, while it can match you with relatives, predominantly provides medical information such as whether you are a carrier for genetically transmitted diseases or traits such as motion sickness. Powell said that if certain disease markers are identified, it’s best to follow up with a genetic counselor to help you interpret the results.

Ancestry has the largest commercial DNA database on the market, and testing can connect you with relatives and their family trees. Powell said that the ethnicity estimates are accurate for telling what continent your ancestors came from, but less so for exact countries; algorithms compare against reference populations to determine your ethnicity percentages.

Ancestry is also a subscription service, and for an additional fee, you can build your family tree on their website and utilize their records.

Similar to Ancestry, Family Tree DNA specializes in family trees and connecting people. “They have better tools than Ancestry for looking at DNA matches,” said Powell. 

For example, they have a chromosome browser where you can see all 23 chromosomes and can match people based on that specific chromosome. “The advantage to testing directly with Family Tree DNA is that they keep DNA samples for 25 years,” said Powell.

MyHeritage is the newest product on the market and has the smallest pool, but because it is based out of Israel, their database has a more international population. “For those who have more European or Jewish ancestry, it will come up with more matches,” said Powell.

For those hesitant to take a home DNA test due to privacy concerns, Powell stated that users strictly control privacy settings, and no one, including your insurance company, is allowed to see your results without your permission.

One thing to realize is that if you’re searching for relatives and used Ancestry, for example, but your biological sister used MyHeritage, you will not find each other. “You’re swimming in different pools,” said Powell.

However, you may opt to make your results available to a larger pool by using GedMatch.com, but then you are consenting to make your DNA public. Or you can upload your Ancestry results and move it to Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage to get access to those “pools.”

Also, because children inherit different DNA combinations from their parents, even biological siblings may have somewhat different results. “You should test siblings if you’re looking for a complete picture of your family heritage, because your siblings inherit different parts of your father and your mother,” Powell said.

Let’s say you think you might be Native American. “If Native American ancestry doesn’t turn up in your reports, it doesn’t mean that you’re not; it means you didn’t inherit the genes from that Native American ancestor,” said Powell. “As you only get 50 percent from each parent, the other 50 percent is lost to you.”

Another important tidbit about home DNA testing is that you should test the oldest family members as they are closest to your ancestors, and DNA matches are only accurate for five generations back.

If you want to connect with others interested in genealogy, the North Hills Genealogists meet at Northland Public Library on the third Tuesday of every month, which is free and open to the public. Registration is necessary. The subject at this year’s annual conference is on DNA testing. The conference will be held on March 22-23 at the Columbian Room in Wexford. To learn more, visit https://northhillsgenealogists.org/cpage.php?pt=77 for more information.