13 August 2015

mtDNA or Who’s Your Mommy? Part 1 by Emily Aulicino

An all-female line you are researching comes to a dead-end. An mtDNA test may help. Although there are no guarantees of success, this is the most logical path to try.

First let’s review what the mtDNA test can do and who can take it.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed from moth­er to all her children since womankind began, but only the daughters can pass it to the next generation. For this reason, a living male can test his mtDNA, but the results will be only along his mother’s all-female line. All females can test their mtDNA for their all-maternal line.

Inheritance of Y-DNA & mtDNA

Courtesy of Family Tree DNA

The small chang­es (mutations) that can take place help determine the close­ness of a relationship and help place people into family groups. These mu­tations are random and can happen at any time, although with mtDNA that is less frequent than with Y-DNA. A mother passes the same mtDNA to all of her children, but it’s possible that one might receive it with a mutation while the other does not. Once a mutation occurs it is passed to the next generation of children from the mother who received it. Again, as with Y-DNA, the mutation is a change in one of the chemical bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, or thymine.

Unlike Y-DNA the results are reported when the chemical base differs from the sequence to which it is compared. Currently there are two sequences being used, the rCRS (revised Cambridge Reference System) and the RSRS (Reconstructed Sapiens Reference System). In the 1980s the placenta from a woman who gave birth in Cambridge, England, was the first full mitochondria to be tested. She was from haplogroup H which is the most common haplogroup tested to date, and it tends to be in Western Europe. This was not the haplogroup of the first known wom­an, and recently, Doron Behar, in his mtDNA work pub­lished the RSRS.1 Family Tree DNA currently uses the RSRS, but, for now, has maintained the use of rCRS for comparing mtDNA testing. The RSRS com­pares your mtDNA with the oldest known sample of DNA (mitochon­drial Eve), thus, although your haplogroup re­mains the same, the mutation list will change.

Mitochondria results look different for both sequences. Note in the example that these happen to be the same marker lo­cation: 16399. It just happens that my mtDNA had this result for both the rCRS and for RSRS. The rCRS system (in the first example) is telling me that I have guanine (G) at this location. In the second example the RSRS tells me the same thing, but shows me that Mitochondrial Eve had adenine (A) at this location. 

Example: rCRS 16399G
Example: RSRS A16399G

I have 26 mutations when comparing rCRS for my full mitochondria. With RSRS, I have 56. The numbers will vary with other testers’ results. If someone has a perfect match with me, they will not only have the same number of differences, but they will be at the same loca­tions. Number of mutations and the locations depend upon how closely related that each tester is to the fetus in Cambridge for the rCRS or to Mitochondrial Eve for the RSRS.

The mtDNA is so very slow in mutating that any matches, even on the full mitochondria sequence (FMS), could mean that your matches were before genealogical time; that is, before written records. However, several things can be learned from this test, and it can be used to solve certain genealogical problems.

From mtDNA you can discover your twig on the world family tree, your haplogroup. Depending upon which haplogroup you have, you will learn the time frame when that group began and some of its activ­ities. For example, I am a U5a1a. From this I learned that the U5 group started about 50,000 years ago. They were hunters and gatherers and moved south from the Scandinavian and western European areas before the last Ice Age. After that, many moved back to the area. This means that the sub-group of U5, specifically my U5a1a, came later but still many thousands of years ago. Remember each subclade required that people tested positive for some new SNPs. (Remember that a subclade is formed by adding an additional number or letter to the root branch. U is the root; U5 is a subclade of U; U5a is a subclade of U5, etc. Letters and numbers cannot be added until many people test positive for additional SNPs.)

Using mtDNA to solve genealogical problems can be a challenge, but is very rewarding if you are successful. Some have likened it to winning the lottery. The follow­ing scenario will guide you on what can be done and the work involved. Much hinges on how dedicated you are to finding a solution to your genealogical problem, whether you can locate viable candidates to test, and whether you can afford to pay for the needed test. If you are lucky, perhaps some of your candidates will share the cost.

My fourth great-grandmother is Frances (nee Watson) Ellis who was born in 1788 in Madison County, Kentucky. Her family was from Albemarle County, Virginia, and returned there when she was a year old, according to a brief newspaper article written when she was still living.

When she selected Dabney Ellis in 1808 as her guardian, the record states that she, listed as Franky, was the orphan of John Watson and that Dabney Ellis posted bond in this matter. After much research, five John Watsons were discovered in Albemarle County at this time, and every one had a daughter named Frances or Franky. None of them were my Frances.

Moving to Madison County, Kentucky records, I dis­covered that the only Watsons in the county between the late 1780s and 1790 were Watsons from Albemarle Coun­ty. In 1787 there was a Jesse Watson on the tax records, and no other Watsons until 1790 when Jesse appeared again with some others who were sons of one of the John Watsons of Albemarle County. Jesse left an oral will in June 1790 taken by two witnesses: Evan Thomas Watson and James Stephenson. Jesse was accidently shot by John Anderson when both were hunting deer. Both witnesses stated that Jesse gave all his possession to his wife, Milley Watson. James Stephenson said Jesse told him, “that he wisht me to see that his wife Milley and his Heir appear­ant should enjoy what he had, equally between them.”2

Milly and her child moved back to Albemarle Coun­ty, Virginia, soon after she lost her husband. However, her husband’s name was Jesse and the guardianship pa­pers state Frances’s father was John. At this point, one must look at rational possibilities. Could Jesse have been Jesse John or John Jesse and decided to not use John as there were so many? Could the clerk taking the guard­ianship bond have made an error as there were five Johns with five daughters named Frances, all marrying about the same time in this county? Could this be my family?

As I never found any siblings for Frances, I started researching Mildred (nee Ballard) Watson. She is the daughter of Philip Ballard and Nancy Ann Johnson. Milly first married Jesse Watson and in 1794 married David Craig. With David Craig, Milly had five sons. So far no daughters can be found, and the child belonging to Jesse cannot be located unless the child is my Frances. As there are no female lines from Milly, I must then trace an all-female line from either one of her sisters to the present and test that person. If that can’t be done, then I must trace a line from Milly’s mother’s sisters to the present. If the person I test matches me, then this is my line since the odds of a full mtDNA test matching under such circumstances is definitely like winning the lottery!

You can read about other success stories at the Inter­national Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) website: www.isogg.org . Click Success Stories on the left.

One last reminder: DNA testing does not have all the answers for you. Not every brick wall can be demolished; there will always be brick walls. Not every person you need to have tested can be found, and not everyone you find will be willing to test. Not every person you match will know as much as you. With luck, some will know more.

One last hope: DNA testing is the most accurate re­source we have as genealogists. By testing you will have an opportunity to learn more about your ancestry. More people are learning about DNA testing for genealogy daily. More people are testing, so in the future you may find the person and connection you need. Doing noth­ing gets you nowhere.
More on mtDNA in searching for all-female lines in the case of adoption and more success stories will be shared in the September issue of the Bulletin.

1.      1.  Behar DM, van Oven M, Rosset S, Metspalu M, Loogväli EL, et al. (2012) A “Copernican” reassessment of the human mitochondrial DNA tree from its root. Am J Hum Genet 90: 675–684.[PMC free article] [PubMed]
2.      2.  1790 Madison Co., KY - Will of Jesse WATSON - Will book A p. 11, dated 1 June 1790 - recorded 3 Aug 1790. Transcribed by Mark T. Watson.

Written for the GFO DNA Special Interest Group, February 2013 and appeared in the GFO Bulletin, Volume 63, No. 4, June 2014.

GFO is the Genealogical Forum of Oregon in Portland Oregon.  See their website:  www.gfo.org

For more information about DNA, see Emily’s book, Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond which can be purchased online at AuthorHouse.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble in paperback or as an e-book. The book can be ordered at any bookstore.

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