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By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

DNA fingerprinting is on the rise, for medical and forensic purposes, and even just for fun. You can get tested to confirm links to potential cousins, or merely to find out what global “clan” you belong to. The tests usually don’t come cheap: Genealogical testing, for example, can run as much as $350 for one sample. But there are ways to cut your cost to a tenth of that figure. Welcome to the world of discount DNA.

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The genealogical tests don’t provide the kind of information that would be of use to the physicians on “E.R.” or the investigators on “CSI” — which is probably a good thing. Instead, they look at standard markers within what some people call “junk DNA” on a male’s Y-chromosome, which is passed down from father to son; or within mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from a mother to her children.

The markers are valuable because they don’t change much from generation to generation. The DNA fingerprint isn’t precise enough to identify you as an individual or prove paternity, but it can indicate how likely it is that you and another person could be related by paternal or maternal ancestry.

The technology has been around for years, and a widening pool of genetic testing firms are offering the tests at prices ranging from $225 to $350. The varying prices reflect how many markers are analyzed — ranging from, say, 10 to 26 — as well as specialized applications of the data. African Ancestry, for example, charges $349 to trace lineage back to specific areas in Africa.

The first question: Why?
But the first question you ask should relate to your purpose rather than the price, said Illya D’Addezio, webmaster of Genealogy Today. He worries that genetic genealogy is sometimes oversold as a search strategy.

“What are people trying to accomplish when they say, ‘Hey, I’m going to dig into my family tree’? I’m wondering where genetic genealogy fits in. Certainly it’s great if you want to find a living relative, but is that what people are really after? ...

“From a lot of questions I’m seeing from people on my site, they’re not quite sure what it is yet,” he observed. “My concern is that people are going to spend $300 expecting to get all the answers.”

Family-tree sleuths generally say DNA testing should be one of the last steps in a genealogical search, after you’ve gleaned everything you can from relatives’ reminiscences and searches of personal and public records. The more homework you’ve done in advance, the more likely that genetic testing will provide useful information to verify or disprove supposed family ties.

Making and breaking connections
Ken Graves of Wrentham, Mass., turned to DNA testing after building up a database of more than 6,000 potential relatives, most of them bearing the surname Graves or Greaves.

“While there are people who do DNA testing just to see what the results look like, I’ve specifically been trying to find out whether a certain Graves family is connected with some other Graves families, and also to find earlier ancestral connections of all the Graves families,” he said.

With 153 genetic tests, the Graves database is the largest surname project affiliated with Family Tree DNA, a Texas-based genetic testing company.

“For each Graves family that I’ve had, I’ve tried to get at least a single participant in the study,” Ken Graves said. “We’ve learned a lot. We found Graves families that are connected with each other where nobody had an idea they were connected before.”

He’s also found that some branches of the Graves family tree mistakenly thought they were connected through a colonial-era ancestor.

“The early records in Virginia in the 1600s and 1700s are not all existing, but through years of study it was believed that the family had a certain structure,” he said. “We’ve actually shown that some of the branches of that family are not descended from the immigrant ancestor they were believed to have descended from. Instead, there were three or four unrelated immigrant families.”

DNA discounts
Graves and other surname project managers (including yours truly) get a discount for genetic testing through Family Tree DNA: The cost for the bargain-basement, 12-marker test is $99 per person. Other testing services, such as Oxford Ancestors and Relative Genetics, also offer volume discounts. So if your last name matches up with a surname group, or if you can recruit more test subjects, that can make the process more affordable.

Another strategy is to split the cost with other family members: For example, three relatives with the same paternal ancestry, male or female, could pitch in $33 each to have one person tested.

“I’ve suggested to people that several of them could get together and sponsor a family member,” Graves said, “but mostly what we’ve had is a family member who sponsored somebody else, as opposed to sharing the expense.”

When it comes to genetic testing, it’s just as important to know when to stop as it is to know where to start, D’Addezio said. He could imagine going to Italy and testing hundreds of people to nail down familial connections to the Old Country.

“I can see it would get very frustrating,” he said. “Sooner or later, when does it end? How do you prepare for genetic genealogy? What steps do you take to maximize your investment in the technology?”

Graves admitted he could find himself in just that situation.

“For me, I don’t think there is actually a clear endpoint,” he said. “It goes on and on. But I have a broader objective than some people have. I’m not just trying to connect my part of the family to some other part — I’m trying to connect all the various Graves families.”

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