Posted by Stephen Baloglu on April 25, 2014 in AncestryDNA

We often hear the questions, “How does AncestryDNA work?” or “How do you take my spit and create these awesome results?” There are many ways to answer that question. There is a highly technical response with copious amounts of scientific data on the technology, the math and calculations, the reference populations, etc…

Many times, people just want to know the process. How do you take that tiny bit of saliva and turn it into a detailed story about my personal family history and amazing aha moments? Today, let’s try to answer that.

Your DNA

Of course, a personalized view into your ancestry starts with you. After you order your AncestryDNA test online, you will receive an AncestryDNA kit in the mail.

The full set of instructions is included in your kit. To collect your DNA, you simply salivate and spit into the tube. It should only take a minute or so and you only have to fill to the line on the tube.You kit includes a prepaid mailer to send your DNA to the lab using the US Postal Service. So, you can send your DNA in rain, heat, or snow. AncestryDNA kit

The Test

When your DNA arrives at the lab, it is scanned and put into a 6-8 week testing process. Each DNA sample goes through a complex lab procedure that could take 2 semesters of biochemistry to really understand, so we’ll give you the cliff notes.


        • DNA extraction – Your saliva isn’t ready to test when it comes into the lab. So, the first process is to extract your DNA from the saliva. The best part about this: a robot is involved.
  • The testing chip – When your DNA is ready to be tested, it is placed on the micro-array testing chip, which is what the machine uses to read the DNA. Your strands of DNA are placed ever so carefully by, you guessed it, another robot.
  • Reading the genetic code – The machine goes through your DNA, strand by strand, to determine the genetic code across over 700,000 locations. Your genetic code looks something like this after the testing is done. Do you see your ethnic origins in this? Well, not yet. The next process is to run the analysis on the genetic code to give you the real family story.
Genetic Code

The Analysis

Now that the test is complete and we have your genetic code, the real magic happens. While the DNA test itself is a technological breakthrough in its own right, taking that data and providing meaningful information is the next frontier of innovation. This is where AncestryDNA provides the unique value to you. There are two main components of the analysis that we will just scratch the surface on here.


To determine your ethnicity, we compare your DNA to the DNA of people from all over the world who have been selected as a reference set of DNA. To be a part of the reference set, there is a very rigorous set of criteria, but basically, someone needs to have a long family history from a specific country or region. The diagram below gives an overview of the process.DNA Pipeline


Here are some key points about AncestryDNA ethnicity:

  • Details from around the world – Currently, your results will be detailed across 26 regions shown on this map. This includes Native American, Ireland, and the most detailed West African breakout available.
  • 500 to 1,000 years or more – The ethnicity results are estimated to represent where your ancestors lived in the past thousand years or so. It’s a great view into our family history that goes further than most family trees.
  • Always evolving – Your results can be updated and enhanced with more detail as we evolve the reference panel and the science powering the results.

DNA Matching

The other extremely powerful result from the AncestryDNA test is DNA matching. This is where we compare your DNA to the DNA of all the other people who have taken the AncestryDNA test in order to find people you are related to, which means you share an ancestor.

Here are some key points about DNA matching:

  • Always updated – When you get your results, you will get a full list of people you may be related to. This will be updated continually as more people take the DNA test.
  • Connected to family trees – It can’t be a DNA test for family history if it isn’t connected to the powerful family tree tools available on the largest online family history resource, We currently have over 20 million people in the family trees connected to DNA results.
  • Hints, hints and more hintsshared ancestry hint cowan – When you get a DNA match, we automatically look within the family trees connected to the results to find who is your shared ancestor, the people that make you related. Sometimes it’s a great-grandparent, sometimes a great-great-great-great grandparent. If we find one, we will show you the familiar shaky leaf to give you the hint. We currently have over 3 million hints out to DNA customers.

The Results

Once the analysis is complete, your DNA results are posted to your account and you will get an email to let you know they are available. This is when the anticipation ends and the aha moments begin.

To learn more about using your DNA results, check out this blog post from Crista Cowan, one of our resident experts in genealogy who also knows a thing or two about DNA.



  1. Paula

    I had my DNA tested over a year ago. My results were very interesting. As a family historian, I am very interested in connecting with people who share DNA. What frustrates me is the lack of family trees of people who are tested. Why do they have their DNA tested by a genealogy site such as Ancestry if they are not going to link with other genealogists?! I understand the people who make their trees private, but to NOT have a tree? Anyway, I have found the most hints with my French Canadian roots…

  2. Kenneth Ford

    I have had some very insightful discoveries via the DNA testing. I have finally been able to make some connections that were not so much possible with paper.
    What I would like to know is how would an additional test enhance things?

  3. Erin

    I had my DNA tested with because I liked the idea of the website doing the work for me to compare trees with my matches. I find this really useful! But there are some downside I hope will address in the future.

    I know in all of my hundreds of matches that not each person is only representative of 1 ancestor. So you can spend a lot of time hunting common surnames and its a wasted effort until you both hit that common ancestor in your tree and the hinting system tells you the connection. I would like to see an in common matches tool, so we can sort out who amongst our DNA cousins are cousins to each other. So if I have identified my connection with Cousin A, I can see who we both match to in our lists and know that our shared Cousin B, C, D, E… are also from that same family line and not spend wasted hours hunting and pecking through an incomplete tree because we both share the same surname Smith. Or see that cousin A, B, C & D are all matches to each other and look at their tree’s to see who their common ancestor might be to help me down an uncharted path in my own tree. The fact that doesn’t allow you to compare the scientific data of your matches is a disadvantage and the only way is to export to and get your matches to do the same. Is that what wants? users seeking other websites? If you wont show the scientific data please develop a tool to help us help each other.

    Another thing I hope to see is some more cross over in the hinting system. While going to the DNA page you can see your tree hints and the DNA match ups, on the building your tree side when you have ancestry tree hints, you cant see that any of them are your DNA matches. When I am reviewing Ancestry Tree hints while building my tree, I think that’s good information to know! But there is no indication that a Tree hint is your DNA match. It seems like you have to be working on 2 sides of the site all the time and frankly, that leads me to ignore my DNA results as a tool. It would be nice to see some sort of icon indicating the user is a match, or a special hint that pops up in your tree hints that you have a DNA match with that same ancestor.

    Another problem solving tool maybe to consider is advanced filtering of your matches tree’s. Some tool to sift through the matches in more specific detail, like ability to add a first name or even surname AND location at the same time. i.e. Smiths in Kentucky. Right now I can only see Smith or Kentucky, not both together. I like the surname function, but it would be nice if you could add a first name to see if anyone in your matches has a specific ancestor. A few times now I have been exploring an idea and DNA would be a helpful tool if I could hunt for one person rather than a general surname. One example, I am at a cross roads in my tree and my 5th great grandmother has conflicting biographical publications about what her last name was and who her father was. No marriage record found, but 2 books indicating different families, no 3 record tie breaker to be found. Looking at other tree’s with both family lines, I wanted to use DNA to see if I could find among my matches, a cousin descendant of one of these 2 men or their father, or further up to give me a clue as to what road I might head down. But after hours of exploring every match with the surname Marshall to see if they had a specific Marshall grandfather in their tree and hours more of work ahead to look at the matches I hadn’t reviewed, I gave up the idea as another frustrating deficiency of the DNA system.

    I hope to see some new tools in the future that will allow users to be more successful in using their DNA results to propel their research.

    Thanks, Erin

  4. jdove222

    It is very difficult to use our DNA matches for any meaningful research with the tools currently available to us. I appreciate Erin’s comments and believe the majority of ancestryDNA users would agree that we need more research tools. It would be nice if ancestry would share with their members what they are working on.

  5. I have to agree with Erin, a very thoughtful comment (essay..!) This product is so good … it could be absolutely great, but it’s missing the kind of tools we need. Please, please,

    1. Let us see what chromosome and where on the chromosome the match resides.
    2. Let us search on both NAME and LOCATION. That’s how it worked at the start, but not now.

    Regarding (1) above, it would be even better if the Ancestry computers could process all that match information and tell us which of our distant relatives match in any selected region of a chosen chromosome. I know this is computationally intensive; but once the job is done, the results can be stored, and only incrementally updated when new match relatives come in. Your software people are already wagging their heads, “Yes, yes, straightforward to do that…”

    But even without all the extra features … if you give us the match data, we’ll enter it by hand on a bloomin’ spreadsheet, just to see how things correlate. Please.

  6. Lou Sherburne


    For the reasons others have stated above, I no longer recommend AncestryDNA to people who want to do genetic genealogy. Without a chromosome browser, it is nearly useless for that purpose as a stand-alone product.

    I did just purchase a kit during the sale but only because I’ll be able to upload the raw data to FTDNA, where there’s a chromosome browser. If that was not the case, I’d never purchase another AncestryDNA kit.

    On the positive side: I really like the access to records and trees offered by and have been willing to pay for that access for years. I also appreciate that my more-than 10,000 autosomal matches there have not been restricted by the llimits imposed at 23andme and FTDNA. Thank you, Ancestry, for that.

    I am very displeased with the way has responded – or rather NOT responded – to the needs of genetic genealogists, however. It must be clear to Ancestry that genetic genealogy will be an integral part of ALL genealogy in the future. I really don’t understand why doesn’t step up and take the lead in this when it so clearly could. The promised “better mousetrap” may be a solution for some, but if it lacks a chromosome browser that I can use to verify Ancestry’s claims, it won’t be for me.

    Cora Lou Montgomery Sherburne

  7. Marilee Brown

    I was very disappointed at the huge areas circled on the geographical map. Saying that you are from all of Europe is a complete waste. And I don’t have time to sort through thousands of records to see what the common name is. All of the hints that were given me, did not have any common sir name (3rd and 4th cousins). In addition, I know we have American Indian blood and it did not list that whereas other genetic searches offered by other companies did. As far as I’m concerned, it was a complete waste of money.

  8. Sheila Randolph

    I’ve found a few new cousins I didn’t know I had, and I’ve been able to confirm common ancestry with cousins I already knew about, but I would have had more success if Ancestry DNA had a chromosome browser like the other major testing companies. We need a way to search for matching segment data between cousins so that we can triangulate matches and compare the unknown to the known. When dealing with ancestors whose surnames changed depending on who owned them, comparison tools will help break down some of my pre-1865 brick walls.

  9. I find the DNA testing at Ancestry to be a JOKE! Matching me with every single Ancestry Tree that shares a common surname with my tree when I have over 20,000 individuals is ludicrous. I wanted to be matched with persons who share my DNA, not a common surname. Ancestry has lost its integrity as far as I’m concerned. I will not be renewing my subscription.

  10. @David Tharp, something must have gone badly wrong in your case, because what it -should- be showing is possible DNA matches. In my case, it matches me with thousands of people who share no common surnames with me, whatsoever. In many cases they find common names, sometimes multiples; in a few cases these names are actually linkable via your own tree. BTW, the ones with no common names are the ones where you just throw up your hands .. but often that’s because they don’t have any family tree online.

    You should call the support people and try to work through what’s going on. It may be that with 20,000 people in your tree, the first DNA matches they find are also the ones with largest match, and thus the most likely to be already in your tree.

    Aha Moments: In fact, today I used the surname feature here to track a -probably valid- connection, via Burnham in New England, to an MRCA born in 1646. The match person is also on 23andMe, where I can see that the match is only about 8 cM long on chromosome 8, which could correspond to such a distant MRCA. It took both sites to put this fascinating (though not that useful) connection in place, since Ancestry still doesn’t give us the chromosome data, and 23andMe has only a small and ineffective surname capability.

    When I say “probably valid,” I mean that I have a good paper trail back to Burnham, and I think the other person does, too. I have a few other matches at 23andMe on at that spot on chromo 4, and I am pretty certain I have dozens or hundreds -here- … but I can’t bloomin’ tell that, because Ancestry won’t release the match data. (Well, you can take your own data to GEDmatch, but that doesn’t help very much, because only a few of the matches here are also on GEDmatch.)

  11. For “at 23andMe on at that spot on chromo 4,” please read the following more grammatical, and more numerically correct, “at 23andMe at that spot on chromo 8”


  12. AD

    I’m South Asian and am interested to know if there are very many South Asians in the DNA database. In 23andme, I have about 200 matches ( mostly non-responsive). Can I expect this number to increase in Ancestry? Also, I find the merger of DNA and non-DNA (paper family tree) to be a very powerful tool for family historians. I wonder whether there would be very many South Asians with trees like that out there. Appreciate any feedback regarding my questions. Thanks

  13. Pamela Marie Galvan Tamez Tatanka Winyan Buffalo Woman

    I am pleased with the results of my Ancestry DNA test. My DNA results tell me that I am Native American, I knew that, I have come up a match to many others who are Native American, Italian, Irish, Jewish and African. Of which my lineage is. But I hope that one day, DNA will tell me exactly what type of Native American as proof. I know I am Lakota Sioux, Kiowa and Tarascan, but would love to have Ancestry tell me that. Also am I Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jew? Also, I had to download my raw DNA to GEDmatch for more answers and my God! the information I got from them on my matches to many others who came up a match to me on Ancestry who also downloaded their Raw DNA to GEDmatch is amazing. It tells me the Chromo we match on, Haplo Group and how far of cousins we are and the SNP is amazing! no exaggeration!!! It has become tedious searching Ancestry DNA matches that are 4 to 8th cousin virtually impossible to find the match. I hope one day Ancestry will have a way to tell me, Ok you are a DNA match to this person a 4th, 5th and so on cousin, here is your common ancestor. Hopefully one day soon we will all be able to be told ok you are Native American here is your tribe you are a DNA blood match to. That would be awesome!! Thank you Pamela Buffalo Woman

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