Chromosome painting helps you see your ancestral locations in an appealing new way. Here’s how to use chromosome painters at 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.
Chromosome painting sits smack dab at the intersection of science and art. It offers you a new way to visualize your ancestral places.
Where can I do chromosome painting?
Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) or 23andMe are the DNA testing companies where you can do chromosome painting. They make it effortless because the tools are right on the site!
How does chromosome painting work?
In order to paint your chromosomes, the DNA testing company compares your DNA to its reference population database. (Reference populations consist of individuals who have taken a DNA test whose ancestors all lived within a short distance from each other. Their DNA then becomes the standard by which we determine if a person is actually from that specific area.) The “painting” that is done is really just a pretty graph representing those locations spread across your chromosomes.
Onscreen this looks like a series of pairs of horizontal lines “painted” with various colors that represent different geographic locations. (You will also see grey regions, which just indicate places in your DNA that are not covered by the test.) Remember that in each pair of lines, you received one from your mom and one from your dad. The pairs are not consistently sorted with the same parent on top. In fact, unless your parents have very different ancestry, you won’t be able to tell which chromosome came from your mom and which from your dad.
Let’s take a look at the specifics for FTDNA and 23andMe.
How to use FTDNA Chromosome Painter
1. Access the Chromosome Painter
To access the Chromosome Painter, just click on the corresponding icon in your FTDNA dashboard under the “Autosomal DNA Test Results and Tools” section.
2. Choose the viewing option
You are then presented with two different viewing options: Super populations or Continent. The difference here really comes down to confidence levels. The more broadly you define a region, the more confident we can be that you came from there.
For example, in the Super population view, we can see a breakdown of Western vs. Southern Europe, whereas the Continent view lumps everything together into one big category. So you can see how they may not be quite sure they have my Western vs. Southern segments mapped perfectly, but they can be very confident in the continental map.
3. Filter specific regions
You can use the filter to highlight only specific regions. Here I have shown the painting for my grandmother who was half Welsh and half Italian. I have filtered for only Southern Europe. I would expect to see only one of the pairs of chromosomes (the one she got form her mom) to contain the majority of her Southern Europe heritage. It isn’t quite as clean as I would like, but you can see it on chromosomes 5-8 especially.
FTDNA also offers a detailed segment view, if you want to get down to the nitty gritty of your painting. But this is decidedly moving away from the art and into the science! See the next steps below to do more science!
How to use 23andMe Chromosome Painter
1. Access the Chromosome Painter
To access the Chromosome Painter at 23andMe use the top navigation to choose Ancestry > All Ancestry Reports. Then choose DNA Painting from the menu.
2. Adjust the confidence level
You can adjust the confidence interval by using the dropdown menu at the top of the image. Again, the further to the left you select, the more specific they can be with your painting, but the less confidence they have in their assignments.
3. Filter to places of interest
You can scroll over the name of the location on the left to highlight just that place in your painting. In this image you can see my mom’s results when I highlight her British & Irish heritage. I am lucky because I know that this is from her dad, and you can see how well this helps me identify my mother’s father’s chromosome from her mother’s.
OK, so identifying segments that come from particular places is fun and beautiful, but does it have another purpose?
If you are feeling super techy and you want to look at the pieces of DNA you share with a particular DNA match, and try to match them to their painted chromosome, you may be able to identify which matches came from your British & Irish line and which from your Italian line.
However, I have found that this just isn’t necessary. If you want to find matches that connect to you through your British ancestor, then there are much more efficient ways to accomplish this than slogging through chromosome segments and trying to play match-maker.
Finding those matches is completed much more efficiently by just using the Shared Matches tool to find the group of matches that are most likely related to that ancestor of interest. No segment data with its dizzying start and stop points. No pretty chromosome pictures. Just a good list of matches to help you answer your question.
That’s the kind of science I stick to.
As for the art… I can’t help but love it a little for what it is: a representation of my connection to people and cultures.
Free Guide! Use your DNA to build your family tree
If you REALLY want to maximize DNA discoveries, use your matches to verify your family tree and identify missing ancestors. It’s not a simple process, and it takes time. But if you’re reading about chromosome painting, you can do it! And we can help. Get our free get-started guide to finding ancestors using DNA.