Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Here's Where I'm at With Analyzing My mtDNA Results

I think I've figured out why some people are disappointed when they get their mtDNA test results. I'd like to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings since I received my own results. If you have had an mtDNA test done I'd like to know if you can relate to my own experience or if yours was very different.

When I first received my results in an email I looked at the numbers and letters and none of it made any sense to me. But I expected that. I read through a sample of the results on the DNA Heritage web site before I ordered the test so I knew better than to expect a photo of my Cro-Magnon granny with a 10,000 generation lineage in a GEDCOM format. (But oh that would be sweet, wouldn't it?) I needed to have the letter and number sequences interpreted for me, and that's where the difficulty begins.

The basic report I received, which largely resembled the sample pages on the web site, totals 10 pages altogether. The first two pages give a general overview of mitochondrial DNA and genetic testing. The next page gives my actual results (my haplogroup assignment and hypervariable regions) which are a series of letter and number sequences. Following that is a color world map illustrating general patterns of the migration of humans over time and a world map of various families of languages. Next comes one full page and two short paragraphs of text on a second page of information specific to my haplogroup. Then I have a world map showing the distribution of my haplogroup. And lastly I have 2 pages (which could easily have fit on one) of references used in the text section of information specific to my haplogroup.

I looked at the distribution map and my first thought was, "huh, this doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know". The dark shaded areas indicating a higher concentration are right in the area my ancestors came from. So those who share my mtDNA haplogroup come from the same area that my ancestors did. There are a couple of other pockets of concentration on the map but I can't make a connection. I've traced my ancestors back a little over 200 years and in all that time they lived in the same villages that my grandparents emigrated from. So this map doesn't really shed any new light for me. This may be more informative to others but in my case not so much.

Next I looked at the language map. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to learn from this although my daughter the linguist was fascinated by it. I couldn't relate to it at all. OK, so my haplogroup comes from the area where a specific family of language is spoken. I'm no linguist so I don't understand the relevance. Even my linguist daughter was hard pressed to explain what significance this would have for me, a genealogist.

The map I was most interested in when I first read through the sample results was the one showing migration patterns over time. This, it appeared to me, would show how my ancestors got from eastern Africa (where man is theorized to have started out) to Poland where they ended up for the last several hundred/thousand years. Either I'm not reading the map right or it's just not giving me the information. My haplogroup has no arrows coming from Africa to Europe or going from Europe anywhere. And there are no numbers nearby to indicate anything. There are lots of circles and arrows for other haplogroups but none for mine. I feel like I'm coming up empty here.

OK, so let's leave the visual interpretations I was provided and move on to the written report. It begins with, "From your results, we can likely place your mtDNA within haplogroup X." Hmmm. What's with the word "likely"? I thought the DNA part of this was absolute. Either I have the blue-eye mutant gene or I don't... I'm in the haplogroup or I'm not. The report goes on to discuss the haplogroup using scientific and anthropological terminology. But wait, I'm not a scientist nor an anthropologist. I will admit to having taken Anthro 101 as an undergrad but I've retained nothing from that class 32 years later. I struggle with all the number sequences and references to sequence-motifs and learn little. It sounds to me like the text is trying to make a case for why it is believed that this haplogroup occurs where it does. Is this what I paid for? (OK, I know I won the kit but I'm playing devil's advocate here.) Where's the relevance to genealogy? Can't this be explained in a way that a genealogist can understand it?

When I flip to the end of the report I get a bibliography with 17 sources. Everyone of them is a scientific journal. I wouldn't know where to go to access most of them and I doubt if I'd understand any of them if I could. I don't think any of these are the Psychology Today of the genetics world, written in terms a layman would understand. We're talking American Journal of Human Genetics, Forensic Science International, Molecular Biology and the like. These references may be valued by geneticists but they're essentially worthless to your average genealogist who has neither the vocabulary nor the education to understand them. This is where the problems lies... DNA Heritage forgot who they're marketing to. It's not geneticists or anthropologists who are buying these kits (Sorry Blaine but you're in a minority here). It's genealogists who as likely as not don't have a scientific background. I'm not disappointed in the results of my test. I'm disappointed that for $230 this company wasn't able to interpret them for me in a way that I can understand and make it have some relevance to my genealogy.

Now, it could definitely be argued that I paid for test results not explanations. But it's kinda like receiving a diagnosis of cancer and getting a bibliography from the doctor of relevant medical journals to explain cancer on a microbiology level. What one really wants to know is the prognosis, treatment options, and how to hook up with others for support, not an explanation of the methods the doctor used to make the diagnosis. I think this company would sell a lot more test kits if they made the test results relevant to me and my genealogy. That is, after all, why I wanted this test. How genetic scientists arrived at their analysis and theories doesn't matter to me anymore than I would care how my doctor arrived at his diagnosis. I take it on faith that he's an expert and knows what he's talking about. He doesn't need to justify his medical knowledge to me. Similar to the way I would need a doctor to interpret test results and share them with me in a way I could understand so do I need the testing company to interpret my test results and share them with me in a way I can understand. Then if I want more information I can seek it out on my own.

So just what would make me happy with my test results? To begin with, drop all the scientific jargon and give me layman language references specific to my haplogroup and my hypervariable regions. If for some reason the company has a problem referencing information from books written by genealogy-types (Smolenyak, Fitzpatrick, et al.) or even someone who attempts to write for the layman like Bryan Sykes, then for heaven's sake contract with a Genetic Genealogist to write up an explanation that genealogists can understand. We're only talking a little over a page of specific information here. Even if it took 5 pages to convey the same information in layman's terms, so what? What's the big deal?

Next, it would have been extremely helpful if they would have provided me with current links to online information and forums that have information on my haplogroup. I've gone out looking on my own but most of the relevant links I found were scientific in nature. I looked at a couple of forums but I have no way of knowing if the people having discussions there are knowledgeable in the subject matter or if they're trying to put it all together like myself. I'd like to connect with others who I share my haplogroup with but I don't know where to find them. If they could recommend a forum that they know to monitored by someone who knows their stuff that would go a long way.

The DNA Heritage web site has a glossary of the scientific terms they use but hey, if I have to look up every other word in the basic report you're making me work too hard for the basic information I bought and paid for (so to speak). Rather than have "Masterclasses" on the site for yet more complicated information about my DNA how about having a "Haplogroup X for dummies"... one for each haplogroup? I'll bet that would be even more popular!

To their credit, DNA Heritage has an ad for Megan Smolenyak's book on their site stating they recommend it. But after spending $230 for this test I'm thinking I shouldn't have to buy an additional book to interpret my basic information... to get beyond the basics yes, but not to simply understand the basics.

Now I know and you know that I could just send a quick email to Blaine Bettinger and he would provide me with all the explanations and resources my little heart desires. He's very nice that way :-) But most people who order an mtDNA test don't know Blaine and quite frankly wouldn't know who to turn to for information. This should be provided by the testing company. I'm not saying they have to write a book of explanations for each haplogroup but they should have provided me with a bibliography of both print and online resources that would suit me, a genealogist, not scientists.

So where does that leave me? I am not deterred!!! I am determined to find relevance for my test results. After coming up short with the kind of online resources I would like I've turned to books written by my colleagues and for laymen. I've ordered 3 books from my local library; The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, Trace Your Roots With DNA by Megan Smolenyak, and DNA and Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick. I'm hoping that they will give me explanations I can understand. So far, only the Bryan Sykes book has come in. I've read the first 3 chapters and am finding it very interesting and understandable reading. I'm hopeful that the books by Smolenyak and Fitzpatrick will be that way too.

I hope that Blaine and the folks at DNA Heritage do not misunderstand this post and think that I'm ungrateful. On the contrary!!! I'm most grateful for the test and this opportunity to learn more about my ancestors. I'm writing up my user experience in hopes that those who care will learn from it. I'm being as honest here as the company has been with me. There has been no deception on the part of the company as far as I'm concerned. They never promised me explanations I could understand. But if they want to sell more DNA test kits they're going to have to step out from behind their scientific journals and learn to speak the language of genealogists.

I can't compare my mtDNA results with those from other testing companies. But I'd really like to hear from others who have used other companies. Were you satisfied with the format of the results you received? Was is relevant to your genealogy and understandable? Do you have a list of online resources and if so where did you get it? Is my experience unique or can you relate?