Investigative genetic genealogy is increasingly receiving media attention and is renowned in the true crime community as well as the genealogy community. Followers of the latest investigative genetic genealogy related solves may wonder: what does it take to become an investigative genetic genealogist (IGG)? Most IGG practitioners in the field now have had years of experience with genetic genealogy – solving their own DNA mysteries or those of adoptees and foundlings – prior to entering the field of investigative genetic genealogy.
Each IGG practitioner utilizes slightly different techniques to accomplish the goal of human identification, but our team has identified some core skills that are applicable in any IGG case.
The list of educational resources below identifies the skills we think are key, and educational resources for new IGG practitioners to become familiar with them. This isn’t a comprehensive guide by any means and is only meant to help you get started. There is so much that goes into IGG and this information only scratches the surface!
If you have no experience and are brand new to genealogy, you’ll want to start out by working on your own family tree and taking an AncestryDNA test. It’s important to have good research skills as a lot of what we do is tree building and evaluation of genetic matches and their relationships. Being able to create accurate, well-sourced family trees and estimating relationships based on shared DNA is extremely important.
For novice and intermediate researchers, these three books are excellent resources for understanding and working with DNA:
- The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger
- Your DNA Guide by Diahan Southard
- Research Like a Pro with DNA by Diana Elder, Nicole E. Dyer & Robin Wirthlin
Once you receive your AncestryDNA results, begin working with your matches. Who are they? If you don’t know, how can you identify them? How are you related and who are your most recent common ancestor/s (AKA MRCAs)?
Although Ancestry now sorts parent sides automatically, accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Using the Leeds method to manually sort your matches will help you understand the basics of parent sorting and how to create genetic clusters.
One of the most important aspects of being an IGG practitioner is the ability to identify genetic matches and build trees – even when a match doesn’t have one attached to their profile. The following two videos are the best we’ve found to hone these skills:
- Watch: A DNA Match with No Tree? No Problem
- Watch: Building Quick & Dirty Trees to Identify Genetic matches
If you’re serious about getting into the field of investigative genetic genealogy, take the time to build a solid research foundation and learn how to perform genetic genealogy properly – with just one error, hours of research time could be wasted and you may never find the unidentified individual or perpetrator you’re seeking.
If you have some experience doing genealogy and feel comfortable working with DNA:
Only GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA allow for law enforcement to upload DNA data from unidentified human remains (John & Jane Does) and crime scenes. You’ll want to upload your own kit to those databases to get started learning the tools that would be available to you as an IGG practitioner. Combined, these two databases have about 3 million testers – in comparison to Ancestry which has over 20 million testers. As a result, IGG practitioners work with fewer and more distant matches than genetic genealogists working in the larger databases. Also keep in mind that while unidentified human remains are matched to all publicly available kits (similar to what you’ll see with your own results), crime scene DNA is only matched to those who have opted in for law enforcement matching. That cuts the matches down quite further and the top match for a suspect kit is often in the 3-4th cousin range or more distant!
Suggested Tools & Subscriptions:
Ancestry.com all access subscription
DNA Painter: What are the Odds? (WATO), Chromosome Mapping, SharedCM Project
“People Finder” Subscriptions: Been Verified or Spokeo (There are free sites out there, but these are highly recommended as they provide more accurate searches)
Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank (suggested, not required – Note: Newspapers.com access is now included in Ancestry.com all access subscription)
Identify matches and construct family trees of genetic matches using only GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA
Know how to use the DNA evaluation tools at GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA (A Tier 1 subscription at GEDmatch is highly recommended.) Commonly used tools for IGG practitioners include the 1:many tool, 1:1 tools, User Lookup, People who match both of 1 or 2 kits, Admixture/Population tools, Multiple Kit Analysis, Triangulation, and Segment Search.
Measure estimated relationships using centimorgans (cMs) shared between DNA matches
Be able to sort and evaluate matches using Chromosome Maps on DNAPainter
Have an understanding of autosomal DNA, X-DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA (mitochondrial) and understand the strengths and limitations of each. You can check out our previous post on this topic to learn more.
Have an understanding of how endogamy presents in DNA matches (segment size / clusters)
While most of these links are for general genealogy or genetic genealogy education, resources that are IGG specific are noted as well.
Family History Fanatics (YouTube)
Research Like a Pro with DNA (Podcast)
Genealogy Gems (Podcast)
GEDmatch Education (Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced videos)
(IGG) Ramapo College (Online Certificate Program)
(IGG) University of New Haven (Online Certificate Program)
(IGG) Fundamentals of Investigative Genetic Genealogy (In person class)
(IGG) The Investigative Genetic Genealogy Accreditation Board (IGGAB) is a newly formed accreditation board that hopes to start certifying IGGs by next year (no prior certifications required)There is also a newly formed accreditation board that hopes to start certifying IGGs by next year (no prior certifications required).
Be sure to check back for new posts as we do a deeper dive into specific topics. If there’s a certain topic that you’d like to see covered, please let us know!
(Last updated 3/23/2023)