Finding Your Biological Roots Stories from a genealogy detective:
uncovering family secrets, reclaiming the truth and uniting families

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 15: My Last Hope for a Close DNA Match

puzzle pieces of family genetics
Six months passed with no new clues or close DNA matches for Bernadette. I was busy with three other cases during this time, managing to find two birth fathers, a half-sibling and a wayward grandfather. But Bernadette remained a mystery.

I dabbled with a new tool from Genetic Affairs, using Auto Cluster analysis to assemble matches into colored blocks according to shared DNA. A fascinating hi-tech method to quickly sort matches into groups, I found the Auto Cluster app much faster than using the manual LEEDS method. In order to access the Auto Cluster tool I first needed to register with Genetic Affairs then add my FamilyTreeDNA account and selected Bernadette’s profile.

The results soon arrived by email. I unzipped the file and watched as it magically pulled together tiny floating squares, each representing a cousin match from Bernadette’s raw file. Within a few seconds the screen resolved itself into an organized diagonal line of colorful blocks. I was left with 31 clusters and many floating gray squares on the outer fringes signifying DNA overlaps between two or more clusters. To put this into perspective, in a perfect situation you would have four major blocks of matches signifying a person’s four grandparent lines and then a smattering of smaller clusters. Of course you should never expect “perfect” in genetic genealogy. Therefore an average Auto Cluster usually contains 5 to 10 groupings - but 31 clusters! Obviously endogamy was again skewing the results and playing havoc with this new automatic sorting tool.

Auto Cluster was certainly a valuable and powerful genetic technology, but I needed more in-depth understanding before I could confidently utilize this tool in NPE research.

Bernadette’s case again returned to a state of inactivity, with the hope that something eventually would turn up and point me in the right direction.

By November of 2020, a year after Bernadette’s passing, inspiration struck in the form of an email from MyHeritage. Although I use MyHeritage only occasionally and was not a paying member of the site, I had taken advantage of their offer back in 2016 to upload my raw DNA file for free. Since they were new in the DNA testing market, MyHeritage was attempting to quickly build their database by accepting raw files tested with other companies. At the time, I thought “Great! Another DNA database where I can park my results and possibly connect with more cousins.”

On this particular morning, I received an email from MyHeritage with several distant cousin matches along with the country where they lived. I always found it interesting when a cousin from another country other than the United States appeared in my results. Usually I click through to view the match and attached comparison.

But today lightening struck - I had completely forgotten about MyHeritage for Bernadette’s research! How could I have overlooked this obvious database! I wasted no time, adding her raw DNA file that very afternoon.

Within twenty-four hours I received an email - Bernadette’s results were available and would I like to pay their $29 fee to unlock the account. I could barely contain myself. The MyHeritage database may very well be my last hope for a close match. Entering my credit card information, I clicked to charge the fee. Bernadette’s results appeared on my monitor.

I sat back in my chair with a gasp. With past cases, I have been happily surprised when a close match pops up and solves a birth mystery. But I wasn’t prepared for Bernadette’s results.

There it was! A close match sharing 25% of Bernadette’s DNA! This was the answer to her birth parents’ identity – and it was not what I expected.

The first name on the list I immediately recognized from the projected family tree I had built for Bernadette. It was the daughter of her older brother – Bernadette’s niece. Sharing 1,778 cMs of DNA, it was a 100% match! With this much shared DNA from the descendent of a sibling, there was only one conclusion – Bernadette shared the same birth parents as her older brother. Since her brother was born in Northern Italy not long after his parents’ marriage and he had immigrated to the United States as a young child with his mother, the brother’s birth parents were without a doubt, the same two people who had raised him. Therefore, there was no other conclusion: Bernadette’s true birth parents were indeed the parents who had raised her!

What a strange NPE case this had turned out to be! Bernadette believed for much of her adult life that she had different birth parents. And from conversations with her son, I understood this birth mystery belief was passed on to her spouse, children and grandchildren! So much so that Bernadette’s ex-husband had actually confronted a descendant of the supposed birth father, Frank, and demanded he acknowledge her as his half-sibling! Of course without any proof, this did not happen and the descendent dismissed the ex-spouse’s accusations as delusional.

But in the end, Bernadette was exactly who she was, the product of the two people who raised her as their middle child – there was nothing to uncover as there was no hidden birth secret!

It had been two years since Bernadette’s autosomal DNA was added to the AncestryDNA database. For two years I had tried to unlock a family mystery that was nothing more than a ghost! Although happy to conclude this case with an answer based on irrefutable DNA evidence, now I had to tell Bernadette’s children none of the lore surrounding their mother’s birth was real.

Although anticlimactic in its resolve, I felt Bernadette’s situation was a true learning experience of never expecting a pre-conceived outcome to a genetic genealogy case. Even though I suspected the DNA results were leading me in the direction of her real parents, Bernadette herself was convinced of something entirely different.

I took a day to compose myself after the final discovery before calling Bernadette’s son with the news. He was as shocked as I had been, having believed his maternal grandparents were someone else. Naturally he questioned the match with his first cousin (Bernadette’s niece), but soon resigned himself to the truth after I explained how I arrived at my conclusion through science-based facts confirmed by DNA. He had expected something different as had I.

In the end, the good news was that Bernadette’s children could now be certain of their maternal ancestry and of their medical history through their maternal grandparent lines. On further reflection, I felt it was probably best the truth had been found after Bernadette’s death. She may not have accepted this outcome, or perhaps Bernadette simply wanted to believe in an alternative reality.

As a search angel, I can only analyze DNA results and put together facts in the hope of solving family mysteries. I’ll have to leave speculation about Bernadette’s birth and life to her descendants. 

puzzle pieces of family genetics

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 14: Comparing Admixture Results

DNA graphic
At this point, I decided to backtrack and revisit Bernadette’s admixture at AncestryDNA. The term “admixture” is another way of saying ethnicity results based on comparing a person’s DNA to specific gene pools to determine their ethnic mixture.

Predicting ethnicity percentages is an evolving “science” and somewhat speculative. Current testing can be certain of continents (such as a person’s ancestry being 75% European and 25% African), but narrowing the percentages to specific regions is still an approximation and should be viewed as such. Results vary between testing companies due to different test populations used by each company; different parts of a genome being tested; and differences between test companies in designating ethnic regions. Taking all of this into account, a person will never see the exact same ethnicity percentages when comparing DNA test results between companies. Your comparisons should be similar, but the percentages and regional designations will always vary.

You will also see similar but differing ethnicity results between siblings even though they share the same birth parents. The ethnicity results for my two siblings are close when compared to mine, but slightly different in percentages and minor population designations.

Although I was certain after examining Bernadette’s closest DNA matches and her ethnicity results that both of her birth parents were from the same endogamous community located in Northern Italy, I thought it was worth comparing her results against another DNA cousin with the same ethnic background. I knew their results would not be exactly the same, but a close approximation in their ethnicity percentages would provide further evidence of her maternal and paternal lines originating in the same close-knit community.

I happened to manage the Ancestry results for one of Bernadette’s DNA matches (a probable paternal 3rd cousin). Since I knew for certain that his paternal and maternal sides both emigrated from the same tiny village where Bernadette’s supposed birth parents came from, he was the perfect ethnicity comparison.

I accessed the cousin’s Ancestry DNA page and clicked on the pie chart under “DNA Story”. I copied his Ethnicity Estimate and pasted it into a Word document. Next I did the same for Bernadette’s Ethnicity Estimate, pasting it in the same document below her cousin’s. The results were so similar in populations and percentages that I thought I was comparing the results of siblings instead of cousins!

Plus Ancestry includes “Additional Communities” below their ethnicity results for populations with a high concentration of similar DNA to the tester. There were three communities listed for Bernadette, all accurate for this particular endogamous ancestral group. I scanned down to her cousin’s “Additional Communities” – and yes, they were exactly the same as Bernadette’s!

I felt this ethnicity comparison was substantial evidence that both Bernadette’s father and mother were native to the same small community in Northern Italy shared by her closest DNA cousins.

Earlier I proposed the scenario that Bernadette could have been the product of a younger uncle having a relationship with another woman from their endogamous community and the baby being given to the uncle’s brother and his wife to raise. But now I was beginning to suspect the parents who raised Bernadette actually were her birth parents. For an NPE case, this was a strange turn of events!

Still, I needed positive proof of her parents’ identity and the only way to confirm their relationship with Bernadette was to find a close DNA match. This mystery may prove to be unsolvable as Bernadette and all of her immediate family members had passed away. The only test subjects left that could establish positive proof were a few descendants of Bernadette’s brother and sister.

From previous analyzes of Bernadette’s closest AncestryDNA matches, I was confident her birth father was from the same family as the descendants of her siblings. This meant a DNA test from a paternal niece or nephew would without a doubt show up in Bernadette’s results.

I had to hope a descendant would eventually test with one of the companies where Bernadette’s results were registered. If a niece or nephew did appear in Bernadette’s results, their relationship estimate would be either a full niece/nephew or a half niece/nephew, depending on whether they shared one or both grandparents (one or both of Bernadette's parents). And if Bernadette’s father had actually been her younger uncle, the DNA match would indicate a slightly more distant relationship such as first cousin, once removed.

I had much less confidence a descendant would match her birth mother as I had found no DNA matches in any of the data bases with a close association to Bernadette’s maternal lineage. It was time to be patient and wait.

DNA graphic