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What is DNA?

11 questions everyone asks about DNA tests

Picture of Niall Cullen - Senior Content Strategist
Niall Cullen
2 December 2019

When it comes to ancestry DNA testing, here are the most frequently asked questions and the answers you need to know.

For anyone interested in their past, DNA is where the worlds of science and genealogy meet. Whether you're about to take an ancestry DNA test or have already taken one, there are certain things you'll want to know about the whole process.

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This list of DNA questions and answers will help you make the most of your test results and ultimately enrich your family history.

1. What is DNA?

Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, as it's widely known, is a molecule found in all living organisms. It consists of two long coils intertwined in a spiral – the double-helix you'll no doubt recognise.

Everyone's DNA carries their unique genetic information and some of this gets passed down through families over generations.

2. What are chromosomes?

The coiled strands of DNA in a human cell are called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes, inheriting half of them from their mother and half from their father.

3. What are genes?

Genes are units within each chromosome. They are transferred to offspring from parents and determine different characteristics such as hair and eye colour.

4. How do DNA tests work?

When you take an ancestry DNA test, your unique DNA make-up is compared with a reference database. With Findmypast DNA, your sample goes into Living DNA's database and the complex technology compares it to millions of others, pinpointing traits common to specific ethnicities and global regions.

5. How do DNA tests determine ancestry?

DNA testing can help to determine your ancestry by using your DNA sample and its comparison to others, to signify your ethnic origins and the regions your ancestors came from.

Taking a DNA test can guide you down certain avenues of family research or help verify existing discoveries. What's more, you can use your results to find living DNA matches - distant cousins and other relations who share your lineage.

6. What is an autosomal DNA test?

An autosomal DNA test checks 22 of your 23 pairs of chromosomes for an estimate of your ethnic make-up. Unlike Y-DNA and mtDNA, autosomal tests are not just limited to your paternal or maternal lines. An autosomal DNA test can pinpoint common ancestors on any branch of your family tree. The standard Findmypast DNA test is autosomal.

7. Do DNA kits expire?

Yes, unopened Findmypast DNA kits expire after a year.

Once you've taken the saliva swab, it must be returned within six months to remain a viable sample.

8. What happens to my data when I take a DNA test?

With Findmypast DNA, your privacy and protection is our top priority. We only use your genetic details to determine your origins. Beyond that, you control your data and how it is used. All of your data is stored on secure servers and only our staff, vital partners such as laboratory technicians and you have access to it. That's why we're the best ancestry test for protecting your privacy.

9. What is Y-DNA?

Y-DNA is only found in males and is passed from fathers to their sons. This means that only men can use Y-DNA to trace their genetic ancestry and a Y-DNA test only examines paternal lineage. Females who want to explore their direct paternal line should ask their father, brother, paternal uncle, paternal grandfather or a male cousin on their father's side to take a Y-DNA test.

10. What is mtDNA?

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is transmitted from mother to child. As such, direct maternal ancestors can be traced by either men or women using mtDNA tests. Most mtDNA ancestry test results include an indication of which haplogroup you belong to.

11. What is a haplogroup?

Haplogroups are different branches of descendants from a single common ancestor.

It's well worth spending some time learning more about DNA and how DNA tests can enhance your insight into who and where you've come from. We hope this has helped answer the most important questions. Remember, when purchasing Findmypast DNA, you also have the option to take advantage of our Deep Ancestry Upgrade - a 3-in-1 test that includes autosomal, mtDNA and Y-DNA.