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A DNA Expert Shares Her Secrets on How She Got Hooked on DNA and Genealogy

[Editor’s Note: this personal account of finding family through a DNA test was written by Mary Eberle, JD — an experienced genetic genealogist and a DNA expert.]

Thousands of DNA kits were sold over the holidays and many people will receive their DNA test results over the next two months. What will they do with their results? Will they benefit from everything that DNA test results can provide?

Ethnicity Estimates from DNA Testing

Many people do DNA testing to find out their ethnicity since DNA testing companies provide ethnicity estimates. If you live in the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand and have immigrant ancestors, you might yearn to know where your ancestors came from. Maybe you have a family story about Native American roots, and you want some DNA evidence. Or maybe you descend from enslaved ancestors, making genealogical research very difficult before the U.S. Civil War, and you want to know where in Africa your ancestors originate. Whatever the situation, most people who do DNA testing focus solely on finding out their ethnicity, but they’re missing out on so much other valuable information.

I admit that one of the reasons I did DNA testing was to search for possible Jewish ancestors. Although the Jewish faith is a religion and not an ethnicity, there are some DNA signatures for Jewish heritage reported in ethnicity estimates. My DNA test results provided some valuable clues, but I’ve also gained so much more from DNA testing besides ethnicity estimates.

More Than Just Ethnicity Estimates — Find Your Relatives, Connect, Share

Thankfully, DNA testing provides more than just ethnicity estimates. Test results can connect you to a cousin and your ancestors. It opens up the door to genealogical research and family history. I’m someone who had never met cousins on my father’s side of my family. Family stories had been shared, but I had no paternal first cousins. On top of that, we never had any family reunions; or perhaps maybe my father just wasn’t invited, or maybe he boycotted them. No matter . . . the only paternal relative I actually knew was my aunt.

Then I took a DNA test. One of the first DNA matches I connected with turned out to be my second cousin, once removed (2C1R) on my father’s side! For non-genealogists, a 2C1R means one of our great grandparents is the other person’s 2 times (2x) great grandparents. In this case, my great grandparents, Joseph Eberle and Anna Reiland, are my DNA match’s 2x great grandparents. This article will explain how I came to that conclusion.

Meeting My Paternal Relatives

The truly amazing thing about my DNA testing experience is that I got to meet this paternal cousin. I met not only her, I also met her sister and her mother! We shared family pictures and stories — the kind of thing you might do at a family reunion. I also learned that, like me, my cousin is a scientist! So maybe my love of science is hardwired in my DNA!

How did I discover this new relative? There were just a few steps involved. I learned these steps by educating myself — reading blog posts, watching videos, and attending classes on DNA testing.

Steps to Finding Your Relatives

Step 1 — How Much DNA is Shared?

First, I looked at how much DNA I shared with my new cousin. We both tested autosomal DNA at 23andMe. Autosomal DNA is the kind of DNA inherited from both mothers and fathers. Thus, matches could be maternal or paternal. In general, autosomal DNA finds match up to five to eight generations. This corresponds to matches being as distantly related as 6th cousins or so. Closer relatives, like half-siblings, parents, first cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, can also be found using autosomal DNA results.

So how much DNA did I share with my DNA match? We shared 1.37% of our DNA.

23andMe reports share DNA in percentages. In general, the higher the percent, the closer the relationship. For example, parents and children share 50% of their DNA with each other.

Other companies report shared DNA in centimorgans. I think of a centimorgan as a useful length of DNA, kind of like inches on a ruler. Centimorgan will often be abbreviated “cm.”

How do I use the reported amount of shared DNA to figure out how I’m related to my match? The shared cM Project 3.0 tool allows you to input the percentage (or cm) shared with a DNA match. Based on the amount, the tool tells you the possible relationships to the match, along with the probabilities of those matches.

Below are the results of using the shared cM Project 3.0 tool at DNA Painter for this match.

Plugging 1.37% of shared DNA into the tool generates the possible relationships shown above. The most likely relationships, at 39%, are

  • half 2nd cousin (abbreviated Half 2C),
  • second cousin once removed (abbreviated 2C1R),
  • half 1st cousin twice removed (abbreviated Half 1C2R), and
  • first cousin three times removed (abbreviated 1C3R)

The list above includes some unusual relationships, like 1C3R. It also includes more common relationships. The most common (and luckily the easiest to think about) is 2C1R. Thus, my hypothesis is that my match is my 2C1R. That would mean one of our great grandparents is the other’s 2x great grandparents. One of us would be one generation further from our common ancestors.

23andMe has a nice diagram that shows these possibilities:

Family researchers should spend their time reviewing and researching the most-likely explanation. In my case, this 2C1R relationship was the first relationship I explored. It was my top hypothesis.

Step 2 — Finding Our Common Ancestors

I looked on 23andMe (where my match tested) to see whether she also had a family tree. Unfortunately, she did not. However, 23andMe allows test takers to list surnames from their family tree. Luckily, my match listed 37 surnames, including my surname, Eberle!

Next I pulled out my family tree and looked along the Eberle line. Here’s what I saw for my great grandparents and 2x great grandparents.

Among my match’s 36 other surnames were Reiland and Habich. Next, some detective work was employed to determine whether we shared my great grandparents (Joseph Eberle and Anna Reiland) or my 2x grandparents (Peter Eberle and Margaretha Habich). This couple would be the most recent ancestral couple, which oftentimes is called the “most recent common ancestor(s) or MRCA(s).” I needed to figure out who our MRCA was.

An important clue in solving this puzzle is that my match’s surname list contained both Reiland and Habich. This indicated that both surnames were her direct ancestors. In contrast, if Anna Reiland were her great aunt, she would not be a direct ancestor, and my match probably wouldn’t have listed her.

To summarize, at this point I figured my match must have both a Reiland ancestor and a Habich ancestor (just like me). That suggests that we share mygreat grandparents, Joseph Eberle and Anna Reiland. Because we have a once-removed relationship (2C1R), I know that they must be her 2x great grandparents. Therefore, I solved the puzzle of “Who’s our MRCA” — or at least everything makes sense to this point, and my hypothesis is still alive.

Step 3 — Determining How My Match is Related to Our Shared Ancestors

Since my match is my 2C1R, I can further posit that one of her parents is my 2nd cousin (2C). Lucky for me, her mother also tested at 23andMe. How did I know this? For each DNA match, 23andMe shows you other matches that match both you and your selected match. 23andMe calls this feature “Relatives in Common.”

To make things even better, 23andMe also provides your predicted relationship to the relative in common, as well as your match’s predicted relationship the relative in common. At the top of my 2C1R match’s Relatives in Common list was a female match predicted to be my 2nd cousin and my 2C1R match’s mother.

Her mother and I share 4.72% of our DNA. I plugged the 4.72% into the shared cM Project 3.0 tool at DNAPainter. It told me that there was a

1. 54% chance that this match was my 1st cousin once removed (abbreviated 1C1R) as well as some less likely relationships,

2. 43% chance she was my 2C as well as some less likely relationships, and

3. 3% chance she was my Half 2C or Half 1C2R.

At first, I scratched my head. I expected her to be a 2C if her daughter was my 2C1R. That’s because “removed” a generation means my match’s mother must be one generation up (or closer to our MRCA). When I looked at the probabilities again, I realized that although the highest probability suggested a 1C1R relationship at 54% probability, being a 2C was fairly high at 43%. Thus, all evidence still supported my hypothesis that the original match was my 2C1R and her mother is my 2C.

Step 4 — Reaching Out to Your New Relatives

I reached out to my new 2C1R to tell her how I though we were related. She confirmed my hypothesis — her mother had Eberles in her tree, and she was my 2C. We were thrilled to find each other and arranged a meeting. We each brought other family members with us, and we had our own family reunion — all thanks to DNA testing!

Finding these paternal cousins was my first big breakthrough in using DNA for genealogical research. We’re related on my direct paternal line, that is, my father’s father’s father’s line. It’s interesting to note that usually people think that if they want to research their direct paternal line, they need to test Y-DNA — not autosomal DNA. Although Y-DNA is transmitted through direct paternal lines (from fathers to sons), this example shows that autosomal DNA testing can also be used to research one’s direct paternal line.

Step 5 — Exporting to Other DNA Testing Companies and GEDMatch

Once you’re received DNA test results from one company, several other DNA companies accept transfers of the results into their databases. An example of this is GEDMatch.

Both my match and I transferred our DNA test results into GEDMatch. GEDMatch doesn’t do DNA testing; instead, it allows the upload of DNA test results from various DNA testing companies. GEDMatch is a community of people who have tested at a variety of DNA testing companies.

GEDMatch has been in the news lately because law enforcement has used it to identify suspects in several criminal cold cases. For example, recently on January 9, 2019, a suspect identified through GEDMatch, Raymond ‘DJ Freez’ Rowe, pleaded guilty to raping and murdering Christy Mirack in 1992.

Conclusion

To get the most out of your DNA test results, it is important to understand the types of DNA tests available and the variety of results received. All of my DNA education and DNA testing has paid off. I’ve connected with cousins on both sides of my family. Some of my matches have family history records and documents that I didn’t have, thereby allowing me to extend my family tree and break through brick walls.

Today, I’m a DNA educator. I’m a published author and a national speaker. I also present webinars that are viewed internationally. The webinars, called DNA Boot Camps, are live, on-line educational events where participants can ask questions (and have them answered). Participants also receive thorough handouts and access to the recorded webinars for up to one year!

Nine DNA Boot Camps are available in 2019, starting on Saturday, January 19, 2019, with “Getting Started with DNA and Genealogy.” It includes two topics helpful to those just receiving — or expecting — their DNA test results from test kits purchased during the holiday sales.

  • Introduction to Using DNA for Genealogy Research
  • Using Autosomal DNA for Genealogy Research

In addition, on February 16, 2019, we’ll talk about GEDMatch, a DNA website mentioned above. The second topic on that day is “Best Tools for Researching Difficult DNA Matches.” Although my match discussed above quickly responded to me, many times that’s not the case. This webinar shares tips and techniques for figuring out who those matches are and alternative ways to reach them.

Why not make 2019 a great year for DNA education? Happy hunting!

***

Mary Eberle is an experienced genetic genealogist and a DNA expert. She’s a former patent attorney with extensive DNA experience. Mary began her work in the field of DNA research 30 years ago. She now owns DNA Hunters, LLC, which finds people’s biological parents and helps people understand their DNA results. Mary lectures on genetic genealogy throughout the country.

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