The Family Finder test is the brand name of FTDNA’s autosomal DNA (atDNA) test. It’s the same kind of test the other companies offer. atDNA tests are the workhorses of genetic genealogy, because they track all of the branches of your family tree. This type of DNA gets diluted over the generations, so the Family Finder is most useful within the past five generations or so. Everyone should take an atDNA test, and right now FTDNA’s offering is only $49 ($30 off the usual price of $79).
The Y chromosome is a chunk of DNA that is passed from father to son. It’s what makes genetic males male. Thus, yDNA tests trace the direct paternal lineage that coincides with surnames in most western cultures. Women can’t take so-called yDNA tests because we don’t have Y chromosomes, but we can ask our fathers, brothers, and uncles to test for us. (A woman’s son or grandson will have yDNA from his father, not hers.)
Deciding which yDNA test to take can be daunting because FTDNA offers so many choices. With one exception, they are different levels of the same basic type of “STR” test, which looks at repeating sections of DNA that tend to change every few generations. The Y-37 test examines 37 STRs, the Y-67 test examines those 37 plus an additional 30 (67 total), and so on.
The more STRs you test, the more precise the matching will be. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee a man will have any matches at all. My father has matches; my husband doesn’t. For that reason, I recommend starting with the Y-37 test and upgrading later if more precision is needed (see below). The Y-37 test is currently $99 ($70 off the regular price of $169)
The exception to their yDNA tests is the “Big Y-500”. In addition to more STRs (500 or more, in total), it sequences most of the Y chromosome. I advise it only for the most serious genetic genealogists or those willing to contribute their results to basic research into human yDNA evolution. The Big Y-500 test is on sale for $499 ($150 off the regular price of $649).
This table from FTDNA compares the regular and sale prices for their yDNA offerings.
Once you see how many matches the tester has, you can decide whether to upgrade his test to a higher level. He won’t need to provide a new sample, and it only costs a little more to do the testing in two steps rather than all at once, especially if you upgrade during another sale.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests examine DNA in parts of our cells called mitochondria, which generate energy for our cells. (You can read more about mitochondria here.) Everyone has mitochondria (we need them to live), but we only inherit them from our mothers. That means mtDNA tests trace our direct maternal lineage, and they are reliable for many many generations back in time. I have perfect mtDNA matches for whom our most recent direct-maternal ancestor was Barbe Minguet (c. 1600–1631), my 11th great-grandmother.
mtDNA testing has the fewest applications in genetic genealogy, in part because it changes so slowly over time and in part because the direct maternal lineage is harder to trace in cultures where the surname changes every generation. That said, for specific applications, it can be quite powerful.
FTDNA offers two levels of mtDNA testing: mtDNA Plus and mtFull. mtDNA Plus test ($89) only examines a fraction of the mitochondrial DNA. I don’t generally recommend it because the mtFull test is so much better. The latter sequences the entire mitochondrial genome and, on sale, it’s only $139 (regularly $199, so you can save $60).
If you’ve already done the mtPlus test, you can upgrade to mtFull for $109 (normally $159).
Finally, if you’re interested in more than one of FTDNA’s offerings, you can save an additional $5 by bundling two or three tests together.