Do you want to know if you can get DNA from hair for the purpose of autosomal DNA testing? In this post, learn the answer, how to do it, and what you might be able to learn from the results.
Just recently, I was going through a small drawer in a dresser that was given to me by my grandmother, which she inherited from her grandparents. The dresser drawer was full of random small items and appears to be just as it had been when my great-great grandparents were alive.
It’s almost like a time capsule. I love it.
There is a small bag of buttons for mending clothing, a to-do list that includes “darn socks” as one of the items, a post card from a distant cousin, an envelope from a travel agent from a cruise my great-great grandparents took in the 1960s, and a comb with a few strands of hair still in it, among several other items.
Now, I know that this particular drawer has been stored in the homes of several relatives, and I can’t be sure that the hair belonged to either of my great-great grandparents, or even someone that I am related to. Even so, it did get me thinking about the possibility of DNA testing hair.
Surely, I am not the only person with a hairbrush or comb that may have belonged to an ancestor who live long ago. And how many parents have saved a lock of hair from their child’s first haircut?
Could the DNA from this hair be tested someday to find DNA matches and information about a person’s ancestral origins?
Is there DNA in hair?
Many people are under the impression that the only DNA that is found in hair is in the follicle, which occasionally is pulled out along with the strand of hair during brushing or coming. Indeed, there is DNA in the hair follicle, but it is not the only way to access DNA on a strand of hair.
There is also mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA in strands of hair without roots, which has only been fairly recently discovered. This is an exciting development, especially to those people who are very interested in genetic genealogy.
Accessing autosomal DNA results for ancestors who lived generations ago would be a boon to genetic genealogists who use DNA results to study their family tree. Imagine knowing for sure how much DNA you share with a great-great grandparent, or what you might be able to learn from their ethnicity estimate?
Before we get too excited, though, we must ask: is this even possible?
Can you do a DNA test from hair?
It is possible to extract DNA from hair follicles at the root of the hair for DNA sequencing and testing. Test results from this process, which is lengthy and expensive, can be delivered in a special file that can be uploaded to Gedmatch.
Gedmatch is not a DNA testing company, but we can use the site in a way that is similar to how we might use 23andMe or MyHeritage. For example, we can get DNA matches on Gedmatch and get ethnicity estimates using the Admixture tools.
What if you have old hair that doesn’t have roots still attached?
More modern techniques have been able to extract nuclear DNA from rootless hair, which is what we want for the type of DNA results that we see from AncestryDNA and 23andMe. The current testing technologies available to the average consumer (that’s me and you) do make testing rootless hair more difficult, and as such, it is easiest to test rootless hair for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).
Technology in this field is advancing every year, and I do hope that there is an affordable way to offer testing of hair without follicles to the general public for family tree research. I will update this post to include details on this topic as developments occur.
How long does DNA in hair last?
The great thing about DNA in artifacts such as hair is that it should last a long time. Even so, if you have hair that you would like to eventually test, you should immediately take steps to preserve the hair and prevent any further damage to the DNA information that it might have.
This means that you should find a dry place, away from sunlight and moisture, where your artifact (in this case, hair), can be stored long-term until the moment when you might be able to have it tested to see if it has usable DNA for analysis. Read more about preservation of this type of DNA:
Where to get DNA from hair tested
None of the major autosomal DNA testing companies, such as AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA, offer hair DNA testing. However, there are two smaller businesses that do offer this service.
Neither company can guarantee that they will be able to extract DNA from hair, or from any artifact, for that matter.
The companies that offer artifact DNA testing, including extraction from hair are below. It is important to note that I have not personally used either of these services:
If you can afford to do it, and you believe that you have ample supply of the hair, with roots to increase the chance of success, that you would like to test, then testing your ancestor’s hair might be a good option for you.
There are a few reasons why some experts suggest that those people with hair belonging to their ancestors decide they should wait to have it tested:
- It is expensive (several hundred dollars)
- The testing with currently technology may not work, and most of us likely have limited samples of our ancestors’ hair
- The results, if testing is successful, are in the form of a file that can be uploaded to Gedmatch – perhaps someday, the file would be accepted at additional sites
I hope that this article helped you understand more about whether DNA testing of hair is possible, how much hair is needed, which companies are currently offering this service, and considerations to take into account when considering testing your ancestor’s hair.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share a story about how you got samples of hair that likely belonged to your ancestor, I would like to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by today!