DNA from Deceased Ancestors & Artefacts

By Louise Coakley

Do you have envelopes or aerogrammes from your deceased ancestors?  If so, take good care of them, as your ancestor’s DNA may be able to be extracted from the gum under sealed flaps or stamps and used in your genetic genealogy research.

Until recently, DNA testing for genealogy has focused on samples provided by living people.

We know that testing older generations provides more and larger DNA matches to other descendants and relatives of our ancestors, so many genealogists wish they could have tested their deceased parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great or great great aunts or uncles while they were living – to help extend the family tree or to solve specific research problems.

Saliva preserved on paper products and sealed in gum under envelope flaps and stamps can be analysed in a laboratory to see if there is any useable DNA present.

If DNA is found and it can be successfully extracted and genotyped or sequenced, the resulting autosomal DNA data files are compatible with existing genealogy DNA databases such as GEDmatch, and possibly other genetic genealogy databases in the future.

Imagine how many generations you could add to your family tree if you could test your great great grandparents’ DNA?  Or test an envelope, hair or tooth in your family memorabilia that belonged to an unidentified ancestor?

What items might be testable, either now or in the future?

  • Sealed envelope flaps and sealed aerogramme flaps (ie. a knife or letter opener was used, so some of the flap is still intact, preserving the saliva/DNA in the gum)
  • Stamps on envelopes, postcards, or in books/albums (still sealed, not lifted)
  • Other licked and sealed paper items, eg. photo album corners
  • Hair – from hairbrushes, braids, inside locket/brooches (with roots/follicles)
  • Razors – skin cells
  • Teeth and bone
  • Pathology samples, blood (including Guthrie Cards), tissue, skin, gallstones, appendix, bone
  • Rootless hair (expensive but already happening, so don’t throw it away!)
  • Tooth brushes, dentures, nail clippings, ear wax, hearing aids
  • Hat bands, spectacle frames, hairpieces, pipes, cigarette butts, headset/mouthpiece
  • Jewellery – skin debris on earring studs/clasps; chain links; watch bands
  • Furniture, door knobs, drawer knobs, old tools or utensils
  • Think about your ancestors’ lives, and what personal items they (and only they) may have used often, such as hand tool, utensil, special tin, pen/pencil that was chewed.

Contact the testing company directly to discuss your specific item.

In this ISHI (International Syposium on Human Identification) interview, Professor Ed Green explains how scientists are obtaining DNA profiles from rootless hairs. →

Ed Green – Under the Microscope interview in ISHI News

Preserve and protect items

If you have any items that could potentially be tested for DNA in the future:

  • minimise any contact to avoid further contamination
  • wear cotton or nitrile gloves when handling items
  • place the items in acid-free paper or bags (individually)
  • store in a cool, dry place to prevent further degradation of any DNA.

Which companies do this and how much does it cost?

totheletter DNA

totheletterdna.com is based in Brisbane, Australia (lauched in July 2018)

  • totheletter DNA tests envelopes, stamps, hair, accessories & artefacts.
  • Refer to totheletterdna.com for details, pricing and ordering information.
    • Step 1 – Determine if DNA is present – cost US$165
    • Step 2 – Determine if DNA is human, and if sufficient for processing – cost US$395
    • Step 3 – Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) – cost US$1600 – includes generation of the autosomal DNA file for upload to GEDmatch, the full WGS BAM file, and Haplogroup data.
  • totheletter DNA also offers a service for funeral directors to collect and bank DNA samples for the next-of-kin of deceased in their care.
  • Follow totheletter DNA’s Facebook page for updates.
  • Contact Joscelyn at ttlDNA to enquire about testing your sample type or artefact.

Keepsake DNA

keepsakedna.com is based in the USA, it launched in June 2020, and was purchased by Intermountain Forensics (IMF) effective 1 June 2022.

Living DNA

livingdna.com is based in England, UK

  • Tests some items from direct email enquiries to: [email protected]
  • Living DNA hopes to have a beta service available on their website at some stage in the future – starting with stamps only; in the meantime you can email them directly to enquire about testing a specific item (read Anthea’s story)
  • Living DNA’s CEO, David Nicholson, expects that the price to extract DNA from under a stamp will be around US$500-US$800 per sample (August 2019).

MyHeritage DNA

myheritage.com is based in Israel

  • MyHeritage’s Founder & CEO Gilad Japhet announced on 3 Nov 2018:

“MyHeritage will soon be able, through a partnership with a specialist company, to process the DNA from stamps and old envelopes and then link the DNA to the ancestor, providing you with DNA results for your deceased ancestors, right on MyHeritage. Gilad himself is trying to extract the DNA of Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill from original letters in his collection.”

  • No further updates or announcements as of Nov 2021.

Family Tree DNA

familytreedna.com is based in Texas, USA

What happens to the tested items?

In some cases the item being tested may be damaged or destroyed in order to take a sample of the DNA.

For example, a piece of the item may have been cut out to use for testing, eg. the stamp or part of the flap of an envelope, and some writing may be lost when flaps are cut off the edges of aerogrammes.  Hair and tissue samples may be consumed during testing.

Depending on what the item is, if there is some remaining it may be able to be returned to you for the additional shipping cost.  If you are sending an envelope, keep the letter and only post the envelope or flap area, so no return postage is required.

If you have to send a whole aerogramme or postcard, take good quality photos of the letter before you post it, just in case (and handle the item wearing gloves to prevent contamination).

What is the process?

Email a photo of your item to the testing company for an initial assessment of suitability for testing, then self-prepare (cut off the envelope flap or stamp area), and send it to the testing company via registered post.

The other option is to send the whole item and the testing company will select and cut out a small area for testing, based on what they think will be the most successful for extracting DNA (this option may cost more and you will need to pay for return postage).

A series of lab processes will be completed, and if enough useable DNA can be extracted, you can decide whether to progress to genotyping (GSA) or whole genome sequencing (WGS) to produce a raw DNA data file that is compatible with and will be uploaded to GEDmatch for you.

How long does it take?

Allow quite a few months, at least.

  • Living DNA estimates their stamp extraction service will take about 8-10 weeks, but maybe less once they refine their process.
  • totheletter DNA’s process takes a number of months but it will become quicker as they refine their process.
  • Keepsake DNA doesn’t estimate a time either (see FAQ).

Are there risks involved?

The financial risk is the cost of assessment if no DNA is found, or the cost of assessment and quality check if not enough useable DNA is found, or if it is degraded or contaminated.  Or the whole financial cost if the wrong person’s DNA is found.

Also consider the loss of a limited DNA sample if the process doesn’t work.

Before testing, you don’t know who actually licked the stamp, envelope flap or aerogramme seal.  Was it the letter writer, another household member, a relative, friend or neighbour, an attendant at the post office, or was a wet sponge used?  Or was the item contaminated with your DNA or that of another person who has handled it?

If the DNA unexpectedly matches a living person, you cannot use it without their consent.

If the resulting DNA belongs to an unknown person, genetic genealogy research would be required to identify them.

What are the chances of success?

Rates of success are not known yet, but they may become available over time as more samples are tested and the methods and processes refined, assessed, implemented and results reported.

There are many reasons why your sample could be unsuccessful, including the fact that there may be no DNA found on the item being tested.

Living DNA’s CEO David Nicholson estimated around a 60% success rate for extracting enough useable DNA from stamps (2019).

Privacy & ethical considerations

Deceased persons generally don’t have a right to privacy, and it is not illegal to test their DNA, but you must own the item or have authority to test it.

Ethically, you yourself must be comfortable with testing your ancestor’s DNA.  Is it right?  Should you test or not test?  Would they have approved if they were still alive?  Will it upset other relatives if the outcome includes unexpected results?

Never test a living person’s DNA without their informed consent!

Familiarise yourself with the Genetic Genealogy Standards.

Once you receive the resulting DNA data file, you can choose to set it to either Public or Research on GEDmatch, to control who can view matches to the deceased tester’s DNA.

How do I analyse the DNA results?

GEDmatch

If your tested item is successfully genotyped or sequenced, you will receive an autosomal raw DNA data file which you upload to GEDmatch (or the testing company will upload it for you and transfer it to your GEDmatch account). 

If you test your item at Living DNA (or one of the other testing companies that may offer deceased DNA tests in the future), your test result may also be included in their matching database.

It is most likely that Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) will be required to get the best results, and with WGS you may also receive mitochondrial DNA data and potentially Y-DNA data (if the sample was from a male).

GEDmatch is a free website that is used to compare DNA test data from a range of different testing companies or sources.  You can also upload family trees (in Gedcom file format) and link them to the DNA results; and search any uploaded family trees that share DNA.  GEDmatch also offers a selection of more advanced tools which require a payment of US$10/month.  Learn more at Tips for Using GEDmatch and from the help links in GEDmatch.

You start by running a One-to-many DNA Comparison report on your uploaded data file to produce a list of DNA matches to your tested sample (eg. relatives of the person who licked the stamp or envelope).

Your uploaded profile will only match relatives whose DNA is also on GEDmatch, so if you have tested elsewhere, you will need to download your raw DNA data file from your testing company account, and upload it to GEDmatch for comparison. 

Hopefully it matches you and other relatives as would be expected from the relationship (eg. grandparent) or matches who else you expect it to.

If you are unfamiliar with genetic genealogy results and research, you may require some assistance interpreting the matched relationships, or assistance with relevant research to identify an unknown person. 

Understand DNA Match Relationship Predictions

  • Degraded DNA – it is very important to be aware that if the DNA sample is degraded or of poor quality, the resulting data may not include enough overlapping SNPs to match relatives at the expected level.  This can affect matches negatively.
  • I update this page whenever new services or updated information becomes available, so bookmark it and check back occasionally.