Getting DNA from postage stamps, hair samples and other items is now sometimes possible. Here’s what you’ll want to know about this for your own genetic genealogy mysteries.
A few years ago, I blogged about DNA to be extracted from hair samples purportedly belonging to the crew of the HMS Bounty. Though this was a cool historical exploration, I warned genealogists not to get too excited about shipping off hair samples found in grandma’s hairbrush, since cost and technology didn’t make this a reasonable option for most situations.
Well, you’re now allowed to get a little more excited.
DNA “special samples:” Stamps, hair, etc.
DNA profiles can now sometimes be extracted from a licked stamp, used razor or hair with the root attached (not just cut hair) and even other items. These kinds of genetic samples are known as “special samples” because they require additional processing to acquire a viable profile—more processing than is typically performed on saliva or cheek swabs by the Big 5 genetic genealogy testers (23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, LivingDNA, and MyHeritage DNA).
Last year, Living DNA helped a woman in a high-profile case identify her birth father (after extensive genealogical research narrowed the search) from DNA taken from a postage stamp. This service isn’t yet advertised on Living DNA’s website, but they are willing to provide it.
Companies outside the mainstream genetic genealogy world do process special samples. An Australian company called To the Letter DNA claims to be “first company in the world to offer commercially-available testing of envelopes, postcards with stamp/s, aerogrammes and other artefacts from deceased relatives for genealogical purposes.” Prices start at $310 AUD. The DNA Testing Centre, Inc. in Lansing, Michigan, USA, advertises DNA processing from bloodstains, fingernail clippings, hair samples, cigarette butts and more. Their prices start at $240 USD. I have not used either company’s services myself.
The fine print
Because DNA in special samples is of variable quality, there’s no guarantee that your samples will produce a usable DNA profile for genealogy. But the technology continues to improve. Things are definitely looking brighter on this front than they were even a couple of years ago.
Here’s one thing to watch for in the future: It’s actually easier to pull mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from special samples. (This is only helpful if you’re doing maternal line research.) The only company currently offering a comparison database for mtDNA is Family Tree DNA, and they’re not processing or accepting special samples, so this information doesn’t help you now. But things can and DO change in the DNA testing world. So just file that piece of information away for now.
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Do you know of a company that has tried using Formalin-Fixed Paraffin-Embedded (FFPE) tissue specimens for genealogical DNA analysis?
My father passed away 4 years ago but I have kept his razor in a bag with his hair and probably skin cells in it. Where can I get this tested for Autosomal DNA testing?
This is very important to me so I hope you can help guide me in the right direction.
Hi Kathy, I would recommend reaching out to To The Letter DNA, they are one of the few companies that can extract DNA from samples like that. You can visit their website here: http://www.totheletterdna.com
Is there a company where I can submit a clipping of my grandmother’s brother’s hair for DNA? My great-grandmother, their mother, is a brick wall. My grandmother and her siblings are all dead, but I do have an envelope of the clipping taken from when the little boy died. My mother did a few DNA tests for me before she passed, but that hasn’t helped me break down the wall.
While it is technically possible to get DNA from cut hair it is kind of an emerging technology and will certainly be affected by the number of people who have touched her hair as their DNA will also be all over it. The only company I am aware of that does non-traditional DNA samples is To The Letter DNA. https://www.totheletterdna.com I am not sure if they are doing cut hair samples. Keep in mind that once you have the results, FTDNA and MyHeritage are the only two major testing sites that accept DNA sample uploads like that. I hope this helps!