Sunday, 23 March 2014

Have AncestryDNA discontinued their Y-STR and mtDNA tests?

It would appear that AncestryDNA have stopped selling their Y-STR and mtDNA tests. The website now shows that the tests are out of stock and visitors are directed to the landing page for the new AncestryDNA autosomal DNA test.

I spoke to an Ancestry representative at Who Do You Think You Are? Live last month to enquire what they were planning to do about their Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. I was told that they had at one time considered phasing them out but that they still regularly receive orders every week from a few projects. They have now supposedly set up the system to make the Y-DNA tests easy to find for those who need them but difficult for everyone else to discover. However, it would appear that even if you have a Y-DNA project at AncestryDNA, there is currently no way to order a kit. It is not clear if the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests have been permanently discontinued or if this is a temporary problem.

Ancestry have not been actively marketing their Y-DNA and mtDNA tests for some time now and have focused instead on their new autosomal DNA product. Probably about 95% or more of surname projects are hosted at Family Tree DNA, but there are a few surname projects which have persisted against all the odds with AncestryDNA. AncestryDNA acquired Relative Genetics in 2008 and some of the old Relative Genetics surname projects were transferred to AncestryDNA. Family Tree DNA bought out the British company DNAHeritage in April 2011, and these projects were given the opportunity to transfer their results free of charge to FTDNA, but a handful of projects decided to move their results to AncestryDNA instead. However, even if there is a project at AncestryDNA, there will inevitably be a complementary or rival project at Family Tree DNA.

I've never been a great fan of the AncestryDNA Y-STR and mtDNA tests. One of the biggest problems was that the company provided no facility for SNP testing. Y-DNA haplogroups can often be predicted with a high degree of confidence from a Y-STR haplotype, but this becomes much more problematical with a rare haplotype. There have been a number of reported cases of incorrect haplogroup predictions from AncestryDNA which were only discovered when the customers tested elsewhere. There are probably many other people sitting in the AncestryDNA database blissfully unaware that they have been assigned to the wrong haplogroup. There have been similar problems with the Ancestry mtDNA haplogroup predictions. The AncestryDNA mitochondrial DNA test sequences most of the hypervariable (non-coding) region of the mtDNA genome. While it is often possible to predict the mtDNA haplogroup from HVR results, sometimes there is ambiguity and it is necessary to test SNPs from the coding region for confirmation. Ancestry do not have any facility to upgrade mtDNA test results or to order SNP testing to confirm the mtDNA haplogroup. Other companies do offer mtDNA haplogroup backbone tests or include some coding region SNPs in the cost of the test. Family Tree DNA include with their mtDNAPlus test (HVR1 + HVR2) a free mtDNA haplogroup backbone test which covers a panel of 22 coding region SNPs to confirm the haplogroup. FTDNA are the only company to offer a standalone full mitochondrial sequence test for a detailed haplogroup assignment and matches within a genealogical timeframe. GeneBase also offer a full sequence test but it is only available as an upgrade and costs almost twice as much as the FTDNA test.

In addition to the haplogroup problems Ancestry provided very little in the way of support for surname projects. The interface was very primitive and very hard to use and no improvements have been made since the service was launched back in October 2007. Ancestry have only ever offered two basic Y-STR tests for 33 markers and 46 markers. They inflate their marker count by including three markers for which the majority of the population will have a null value. Other companies report values for these markers if found but don't routinely include them in the marker count. 

The Ancestry marker panels are also supposedly less useful for genealogical purposes because they have a slower mutation rate. The genetic genealogist John Robb has done an interesting study comparing the mutation rates of the AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA Y-STR markers which can be found here:

There are occasions when it is necessary to order additional markers in order to subdivide family groupings or if one has a large number of matches. Unfortunately Ancestry did not have any facility to order extra markers. Other companies offer upgrades to 67 markers, and Family Tree DNA even offer a 111-marker test.

However, Ancestry did have one advantage over Family Tree DNA because they have always reported microalleles (fractional marker values such as 14.2). While microalleles are rare, they can be genealogically useful as the Acree surname project have found to their benefit. It is very much hoped that Family Tree DNA will eventually provide the facility to report microalleles.

If you have taken a Y-STR test with AncestryDNA I recommend that you transfer your results to Family Tree DNA. The basic transfer costs US $19, and once your results have been transferred you will have the option to upgrade for an additional fee so that you can be included in the matching database. For further details see the third-party transfer section in the FTDNA Learning Center:

For comparisons of the Y-STR tests available from the different companies see the Y-STR testing chart in the ISOGG Wiki:

There is also an mtDNA testing comparison chart in the ISOGG Wiki: 

Thanks to Joss Ar Gall and Charles Acree for telling me about the unavailability of the AncestryDNA tests.

Update 23 February 2014
Stephanie Ray has kindly sent me the following link which can apparently still be used to order a Y-DNA test from AncestryDNA:

This page does not appear to be linked from anywhere within the AncestryDNA pages. It also transpires that it is no longer possible to access the group results from the groups menu. However, you can access the results by using this link:

The link only works when you are logged into your own Ancestry account. The number after the equals sign needs to be replaced with your own Ancestry group ID. You can find the group ID by going to the groups menu and going to the home page for your group.

Update 24 February 2014
Charles Acree has advised me that he has tried to ring AncestryDNA to clarify the current situation. He tells me that the reps are not accepting any Y-DNA or mtDNA orders at all. They are "portraying it as a temporary situation (not a problem)" and they've added that "there are no new kits on order". I do not know of anyone who has tried to order a Y-DNA or mtDNA test from AncestryDNA, but Charles was told that even if an order were placed a kit would not be sent. He was further told that the link to the misleading webpage that Stephanie provided is a glitch that will eventually be corrected.

© 2014 Debbie Kennett

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014

Who Do You Think You Are? Live is now firmly established as the biggest event in the family history calendar in the UK, and it always provides a welcome opportunity to meet up with friends and colleagues and make new connections. This is my seventh year at WDYTYA. I've been to all of the shows apart from the very first one in 2007. There was a departure from the usual schedule this year and for the first time WDYTYA was held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday rather than Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In previous years Sunday has always been the quietest day, perhaps because of the difficulties of Sunday travel on public transport. The change of days seems to have paid off. The attendance this year was 13,128, slightly down on last year's figure of 13,941, but the footfall was spread evenly across the three days. Here are the figures for comparison:

Thursday 20 February   4,253
Friday 21 February        4,353
Saturday 22 February    4,522

Friday 22 February       5,444
Saturday 23 February   5,365
Sunday 24 February     3,132

In another change this year ISOGG (the International Society of Genetic Genealogy) stepped in to co-ordinate the lecture programme for the DNA workshop which is sponsored by Family Tree DNA. I worked with Maurice Gleeson and Brian Swann to put together the programme. For the first time we invited some speakers from the world of academia to complement the genetic genealogy talks. I believe we came up with a good mix of speakers, and the talks were all very popular and very well received. The abstracts of the talks and the speaker biographies can be seen here. Maurice recorded all the lectures and they are gradually being uploaded to the DNA Lectures - WDYTYA Live 2014 YouTube channel, though only if the speakers have given permission. The open plan speaking area was not ideal and there is quite a lot of background noise but, for those who were unable to attend in person, it is the next best thing. I was presenting two talks this year, both of which will eventually be on YouTube.

The DNA workshop area at WDYTYA Live is always very busy. We thought that last year was exceptional because of all the publicity from Richard III, but this year the interest in DNA testing was even greater. The Family Tree DNA stand was constantly busy throughout all three days of the show, and at at times it seemed as though the entire population of London had descended on Olympia to have their DNA tested. We had to implement a triage system. This involved volunteers talking to people in the queue to answer any questions that they might have and to ensure that, if they did want to have their DNA tested, by the time they sat down to be served they knew exactly which test or tests they wanted and what they might expect. Queries from people who had already tested and wanted help with the interpretation of their results were referred to the helpers on the ISOGG stand. Other people were sent away with literature so that they could read up on the subject and come to a decision. The DNA testing frenzy reached its peak at lunchtime on the Saturday. At one point there were over 20 people in the queue, which had to be subdivided into a swabbing queue and a triage queue. It almost seemed as though a mass hysteria had gripped Olympia, or perhaps it was just the British love of queuing and people didn't want to miss out! Family Tree DNA sold all the kits they brought with them, despite having brought many more kits than last year, and extra supplies had to be brought in from stock held in the UK by a project administrator. Nevertheless, by about 3.30 pm on the Saturday, all the kits had been sold. People were still able to place orders, and it was arranged that the kits would be posted to them free of charge. There seemed to be far more women than men testing which is perhaps not surprising considering that more women than men attend WDYTYA. The £35 mtDNAPlus test seemed to be particularly popular and there were lots of Family Finder tests sold. Some women were buying Y-DNA tests to take away for their male relatives. All in all there were nearly 500 kits sold, an all-time record, and everyone can look forward to lots of new matches in the FTDNA database in a few months' time.

I spent most of my time at WDYTYA on triage duty, and by the end of the three days I was feeling somewhat hoarse, but it was fascinating listening to people's stories as I chatted to them in the queue. I spoke to one lady who has Basque ancestry on all her lines going back to the 1500s. Another lady had come along to the show to get a kit for her father who was in his nineties. One gentleman had come over from Germany especially for the show, because there is no German equivalent of WDYTYA. I heard that there was one gentleman who had been given just two months to live, but he had come along to WDYTYA to get his DNA tested to make sure that it was preserved in the database as a legacy. His test is being expedited by FTDNA and I do hope that he lives long enough to receive his results.

I paid a brief visit to the Ancestry stand and took the opportunity to ask them if they had any intention of introducing their new autosomal DNA test in the UK. I was told that they are hoping to start selling it in the UK and a number of other countries in the first quarter of 2015. They are looking at getting the the DNA testing itself done somewhere in the UK. There are plans to introduce some sort of filter based on networking which would help solve the problem of finding the useful British matches amongst the large number of Americans in the database. The filter should recognise that people would be more likely to have meaningful matches with people in their own country and these would appear at the top of their list. There do not seem to be any plans to introduce a chromosome browser. Ancestry recognise that experienced genetic genealogists would like a chromosome browser but they think that most people would not now how to use one. They are working on an alternative solution, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. I also asked what was happening with their Y-DNA tests which are now very hard to find on the website. I was told that they had at one time considered phasing them out but they still regularly receive orders every week from a few projects. They've now tried to set up a system so that the Y-DNA tests are easy to find for those who need them but difficult for everyone else to discover. BritainsDNA also had a stand at WDYTYA. I walked past their stand a few times but it never seemed to be very busy. Their tests are very expensive compared to the offerings from Family Tree DNA and I think they had a hard time competing.

I met up briefly with Peter Calver of Lost Cousins to discuss the arrangements for my forthcoming talks for the Genealogy in the Sunshine conference in Portugal. I had a brief chat with Jane Taubman and Simon Orde on the Family Historian stand. I met up briefly with Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski, but got dragged to answer more questions about DNA testing. I paid a visit to the History Press stand, where I was greeted by a lady who just about to buy a copy of my Surnames Handbook! I was able to sign a copy of the book for her. While I was there I signed a few copies of DNA and Social Networking for the publishers to use, though I'm still bemused as to why anyone would want my scrawl in a book!  They'd apparently sold quite a few copies of both books as a result of my talks.

I was particularly pleased to have the chance to meet Tom Bromwich, my third cousin once removed, who was attending the show with his parents, and is the youngest family history researcher that I know. Tom started his family history research at a very young age and seems to do most of his research in the school holidays. He's a very careful and meticulous researcher and has already made good progress with his family tree. I would have taken a photo but I got summoned away to talk to a TV production crew, who wanted some advice on DNA testing for a forthcoming TV programme.

We were so busy that I only managed to escape to go to a handful of talks.  The highlight for me was Chris Stringer's  fascinating talk on the early peopling of the British Isles. I had the chance to talk him briefly afterwards and I was interested to learn that the Natural History Museum is thinking of re-testing Cheddar Man. The original DNA testing was done many years ago by Professor Bryan Sykes, but the research was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. A lot of the early ancient DNA research is now somewhat suspect, and it is thought that sample has probably been contaminated by modern DNA.

I also enjoyed John Rowlands talk on "The perpetual incognito of being a Jones: overcoming problems with surnames in Wales", the content of which was based on material from the newly published revised edition of The Surnames of Wales, written by John with his wife Sheila. This book is the bible for anyone studying Welsh surnames, and the new edition benefits from much new material and many new maps. I was also very pleased that I finally had the chance to meet Sheila as we have corresponded a lot over the last couple of years and become good e-mail friends.

On Saturday I attended Bruce Winney's talk on the People of the British Isles Project. The good news is that within any luck the long-awaited paper with all the wonderful maps should be published very soon. The authors have been dealing with referees' comments and should by now have resubmitted the paper.

There have been a lot of rumours flying around about the future of Who Do You Think You Are? Live and there has not been any official announcement from the organisers, but it appears that the show will either not be held at Olympia next year or will be held on different dates.  I am told that none of the exhibitors have as yet been given the chance to renew their bookings for 2015. The nearby Earls Court arena is being knocked down to make way for new housing, and exhibitions normally held at Earls Court are moving to Olympia. It has been suggested that the show might be held at the Excel Convention Centre, the NEC in Birmingham or even in Manchester. Although it would be great to see a version of WDYTYA Live in other parts of the country, I think there is always going to be a need for a large family history show in London. No doubt we will hear something soon.

The good news is that it has been announced that Who Do You Think You Are? Live is coming to Scotland this year as part of Homecoming Scotland 2014. The Scottish WDYTYA will be held at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow from 29th to 31st August. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend as the event clashes with the Essex Society for Family History's 40th anniversary conference in Basildon.  I am one of the guest speakers at this conference and will be hoping to enlighten the audience about the mysteries of DNA testing.

A number of other bloggers have written reports from WDYTYA Live. Emily Aulicino has done a nice write up with lots of photos of all the genetic genealogists on her Genealem blog. Jo Tillin, a fellow member of the Guild of One-Name Studies has done a great job providing a round-up of all the other blog posts from this year's Who Do You Think You Are? Live which you can find on her Full Circle Family History blog.

I leave you with a selection of photos from the show. Click on the images to enlarge them. Enjoy!
The DNA workshop schedule.
Maurice Gleeson explaining to a captive audience how to analyse
 autosomal DNA test results.
Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum gave a fascinating talk on
 human origins. Here he discusses the discovery of the 800,000-year-old
 footprints found in Happisburgh, Norfolk.
I get to meet Chris Stringer.
Connie Fisher of Sound of Music fame talking to Max Blankfeld of
Family Tree DNA. Photograph courtesy of Max Blankfeld.
Emily Aulicino telling a full house about her autosomal DNA success stories.
The crowds on the Family Tree DNA stand.
Triage in action on the FTDNA stand. Photo by Joss ar Gall.
At times the queue for DNA testing got so long that it wound right round
 the corner to the next stand. The people at the front of the queue are patiently
 waiting to be swabbed. Triage is in operation at the back of the queue.
The packed Family Tree DNA stand. There was standing room only for the
 lecture in the DNA workshop. Photo by Joss ar Gall.
Sue and Anne on the ISOGG stand with the poster in the background
 with the list of surnames for which sponsored DNA tests were available.
Photo by Joss ar Gall.
Richard answers questions on the ISOGG stand. Photo by Joss ar Gall.
There was standing room only for most of the DNA lectures.

A quieter moment at the end of the day but all four seats are still occupied with
 FTDNA customers having their DNA tested. The organisers had to come and
 tell FTDNA to stop selling so that they could shut the hall up for the night!
An exhausted but happy team of genetic genealogists with Bennett
Greenspan and Max Blankfeld of Family Tree DNA at the end of the show.
 Photo by Joss ar Gall.
Bennett and Max shared with all the volunteers a bottle of champagne and
wine that had been kindly provided by the organisers. We were promptly
 ticked off by an official for breaking the health and safety regulations by
 drinking alcohol during "take down" - the time when all the stands are
 dismantled - but by then all the alcohol had gone!
© 2014 Debbie Kennett. All photos © Debbie Kennett unless indicated otherwise.

Friday, 7 March 2014

More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat on the BBC

It is ironic that on the very day it was announced that the BBC had upheld a complaint about a misleading interview given by Alistair Moffat on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the BBC decided to give him yet another opportunity to promote BritainsDNA, his genetic ancestry testing business. His latest interview was on yesterday’s edition of the Mark Forrest show on BBC Local Radio. You can listen to the interview for the next six days on the BBC iPlayer. Here is the direct link:

The interview starts at around 2 hours four minutes and thirty seconds.

Once again the for-profit nature of Britains DNA is disguised. Alistair Moffat is introduced as “a historian and the managing director of BritainsDNA, a project set up to map DNA across the British Isles”. Although Moffat does make it clear that people have to pay for the DNA tests he gives the false impression that all the profits are ploughed back into the company for research purposes: “What we do when people pay for a test is we plough what we get from customers back into research.” We have yet to see any "research" from BritainsDNA published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The interview is full of inaccurate statements and misleading claims. Here are some examples:
“What we have discovered, Mark, is that Viking blood still runs very deep in Britain. We’ve done research recently where we’ve looked at the [Y-chromosome] DNA of 3500 men and we think that almost a million men in Britain – one in every 33 British men –  can claim to be the direct male-line descendants of the Vikings. And it’s extraordinary that that is so clearly present in the modern population.” 
“We can tell when it [the Y-chromosome marker] arose… where it arose, and we can sometimes track its movement.” 
“I have Scandinavian DNA, and it comes from Northern Denmark and from Norway so I’m a Viking and I know that because I did a test which looked at my Y-chromosome and it was able to track it back to Scandinavia and because it was attached to a historical event I’m pretty sure that I came over with the Vikings.” 
“If you have Viking DNA we can tell you.” 
“I haven’t got much hair and I’m not blond but I’m still a Viking.” 
“My mitochondrial DNA from my mum is from Pakistan 30,000 years ago – quite remarkable – and her ancestors made this extraordinary trek across the face of the earth to get to Scotland from Pakistan.”
All of the above is of course complete nonsense. It is not possible to tell where any specific “marker” arose thousands of year ago simply by testing the DNA of living people. We can get a good idea of the present-day distribution of Y-chromosome and mtDNA lineages but the present-day location of a lineage does not necessarily correlate with its distant origins.

For further information on the reasons why we cannot make these extrapolations from Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests see the What’s wrong with these stories page on the UCL website.

The BBC have either wittingly or unwittingly given Alistair Moffat and his BritainsDNA testing company a huge amount of free publicity in the last few years, and have failed to give any independent geneticists the opportunity to counter his ludicrous stories. See the PR attack on the BBC page on the UCL website to understand the full scale of the problem.

Related blog posts
- Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"
BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard
The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat
BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"

After a prolonged and frustrating complaints process, the BBC has finally upheld a complaint brought by my colleague Professor David Balding of University College London (UCL) about the now infamous radio interview on the Today programme between Jim Naughtie and Alistair Moffat, the Managing Director of BritainsDNA and the current Rector of St Andrews University. The interview was deemed to be in breach of the BBC’s guidelines on both "accuracy" and "product prominence". Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints, writing on behalf of the BBC, conceded that Alistair Moffat “spoke in terms which either went beyond what could be inferred with certainty from the evidence or were simply mistaken” and that “some of the terms used on this occasion conduced to an exaggerated impression of what was possible”. He considered that “the programme-makers should have done more to guard against this”.

With regards to the issue of product prominence Mr Steel concluded: "it seems to me that Mr Moffat’s statement that 'we subsidise it massively' may have contributed to an impression that it [BritainsDNA] was a disinterested research study (an impression which Mr Naughtie’s description of the company as a 'DNA database' and this reference to 'people who give their DNA for the project' would have done nothing to dispel)... it seems to me that the reference to the website amounted to undue prominence for what is in fact a commercial organisation..."

The BBC have promised to put a summary of the outcome of the complaint on their Complaints Website, together with the actions they propose to take in response to the finding. We have been informed that this is the responsibility of the News Department, and that the summary and actions should be published within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime there is a brief account of the story in the latest issue of Private Eye (No. 1361, 7 - 20 March 2014, p13). (Update: The summary of the upholding of the complaint was finally published on the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit's website on 15th April 2013 and can be found at: A summary has also been provided as a Correction and Clarification. )

Although not disclosed by the BBC in the Today interview, Alistair Moffat and Jim Naughtie are old friends. Jim Naughtie publicly endorsed Alistair Moffat's bid to become Rector of St Andrews. The issue of this conflict of interest is still under investigation by the BBC but is being handled by management in the BBC News Department. David Balding was advised on 20th February that he can expect a response within 20 working days. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Steel advised that Jim Naughtie was "unaware of the financial structure of BritainsDNA at the time of the interview", but even if Naughtie did not know of the commercial interests there seems to be no excuse for his failure to ask more probing questions in response to his friend's ludicrous claims.

However, the most troublesome aspect of this whole affair has been Alistair Moffat’s use of legal threats in an attempt to silence legitimate criticism and stifle public scientific debate. Professors David Balding and Mark Thomas at UCL wrote privately to the then BritainsDNA scientists expressing their concerns about the Today interview. They were subsequently the recipients of a threatening letter from Alistair Moffat's solicitor, but bravely held their ground and eventually went public with their concerns, after failing to get a satisfactory response to private e-mails. Students writing for The Saint, the St Andrews University student newspaper, were similarly intimidated by threats to sue when they tried to cover the events, but they courageously ignored the threats and went ahead and published their story. Although much of the affair is already in the public domain, the full facts have not been revealed. Now, to coincide with the upholding of the BBC complaint and for the sake of transparency and public interest, a new UCL website has been launched which documents the events in full and provides links to all the relevant correspondence, including all the legal threats and the complaints to the BBC. The website can be found here:

I hope that anyone else who has been similarly intimidated by threatening legal letters will take inspiration from this case and will be encouraged to stand up for their principles.

It is interesting to note that this is not the first time that Alistair Moffat's attempts to take legal action have backfired on him. In 1999 he lost a £25,000 defamation case that he brought against the West Highland Free Press. He objected to being described as ''the Laird o' Coocaddens' in-house bully'' in the newspaper's diary column. The judge "did not accept that the article... was attacking Mr Moffat's private character or business reputation, or that the words were capable of being read that way" and he dismissed the action.

Nature memorably described the Moffat/UCL case as “a messy and perhaps uniquely British farce”. The affair highlighted the antiquated English libel laws which, rather than protecting the interests of society, had the effect of restricting free speech and suppressing academic debate. Following nearly five years of campaigning by the Libel Reform Campaign, Sense About Science,  and other organisations and individuals, a new Defamation Act came into force in England and Wales on 1st January 2014. Although it remains to be seen how the new law will be interpreted in practice, it seems likely that it will have the effect of restricting such trivial and vexatious claims. If the new Defamation Act had been in force at the time of the Moffat/Naughtie interview it is quite possible that the whole sorry saga would never have happened.

The new UCL website also highlights some of the problems with the haplogroup stories provided by BritainsDNA, but it should be noted that BritainsDNA is not the only genetic ancestry company providing misleading stories. Furthermore, there have been many papers published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature which make similar subjective and unsubstantiated claims about the origins of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. Advances in ancient DNA testing and the new next-generational sequencing tests, which will provide ever-greater resolution of the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA trees, will no doubt expose the deficiencies in previously proposed hypotheses. It is perhaps time for a wider scientific debate on the legitimate inferences which can be made from deep ancestry tests.

Related blog posts
- More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat on the BBC
- BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard
- The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat
- BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release

© 2014 Debbie Kennett