- About four years ago, I sent in my samples of spit to 23andMe and Ancestry to find out what my DNA could tell me about my family history and health. I’ve also taken the now discontinued test from National Geographic.
- At the time, I thought that the initial reports would be the only time I looked at my results. Instead, I’ve found myself turning back to them frequently and finding new updates.
- In one case, my ancestry results in one update looked completely different from the next one, challenging my understanding of my family history.
- I’m often asked which test I’d recommend. For years, my answer boiled down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test?
- As the distinctions among the tests become less clear, the one thing I hope people will keep in mind if they take a test is that you shouldn’t be surprised if your results change, especially with genealogy.
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I’ve sent my spit off for more genetics tests than anyone else I know.
It’s an occupational hazard. As a healthcare reporter for Business Insider, I’ve kept a close eye on the consumer genetics-test makers that take my sample of spit and analyse the DNA within it to find out a host of things about my ancestry and health. For years, consumer genetics has been growing in popularity, though there are some signs that the industry is slowing down.
Genetic-testing companies have proprietary sets of data and various ways of analysing information, so each one I tried offered a distinct approach. One provided details about my great-grand-relatives, while others listed how much Neanderthal DNA I have.
Over the years, I’ve gone back to my results time and again to find, in some cases, new reports. One test I took, National Geographic’s, has been discontinued.
But one thing I hadn’t fully expected when I sent off my first sample of spit was that my genealogy results keep changing.
Every so often, someone asks me which test I’d recommend. My answer used to boil down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test?
But as the information that the tests provide grows more similar (Ancestry in October launched a health test in addition to its family-history reports) my advice has increasingly turned to setting expectations for what people might find out in their reports – including that their results could change.
23andMe has given me a comprehensive picture of my health and ancestry that keeps growing
23andMe offers two versions of its test: The $US200 version identifies health, traits, and ancestry components, whereas the $US100 version now identifies ancestry and information about your predisposition to certain traits, like what ice cream flavour you’re likely to prefer.
The company now also offers a $US500 VIP service that includes two kits, priority lab processing, and one-on-one ancestry walkthroughs.
To analyse your DNA, 23andMe uses a technique called genotyping. Humans have 3 billion base pairs of DNA in our genome – that’s a lot of information to sift through, so genotyping technology looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together.
The health reports can tell you information about your physical traits (like whether you’re likely to have dimples or curly hair), wellness (such as how well you metabolize caffeine or whether you’re a sprinter), and carrier status for certain genetic mutations.
The Food and Drug Administration now allows 23andMe to provide reports on a person’s genetic risk for certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and certain mutations associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. The test has more than 80 reports, and more get added all the time. I often get emails telling me that a new test is ready for me – recently I got one that looks at my genetic risk of celiac disease.
With 23andMe’s ancestry reports, users have access to information about their ancestry composition (which geographic regions your genes align with), haplogroups (genetic populations that share a common ancestor), and Neanderthal ancestry. Customers also get access to a tool called DNA Relatives, which 23andMe users can opt into as a way to connect with other users in the system who might be relatives.
In 2018, 23andMe updated its ancestry reports to provide more specific regional information. My report used to specify just Scandinavian ancestry, but then it pinpointed Norway as a country where my ancestors lived within the past 200 years.
A year later, my results had changed again. Instead of being roughly 63% Scandinavian, I was up to 66% Scandinavian – a small shift, but a reminder of how the data sets can influence and change my report.
Interestingly, the report didn’t break down what per cent Swedish and what per cent Norwegian I was. Instead, it showed me the regions in both countries I likely have ancestors from.
23andMe also maps out how many generations ago your ancestors may have lived in a particular region. For example, I may have had a Finnish ancestor sometime in the early to mid-1800s or late 1700s, while my French and German ancestors date even earlier.
Verdict: If you’re looking at this test as a science experiment, using it to get involved in research, or viewing it as a chance to learn about your genetic health risks, then this is a fit for you. But if you opt for the full test, there are some considerations that patient groups and genetic counselors would like you to take into account.
If you just want to know your ancestry percentages, how many Neanderthal variants you have, and some trait reports, the $US100 version is a good bet. Just be prepared to keep checking back in to see how your results might have changed.
Ancestry’s DNA tests gave me starkly different ancestry results as I wait to find out what the testing giant can tell me about my health
In October, Ancestry made a massive change by getting into the health-reports part of the consumer-genetics business. It does still offer a $US99 ancestry-only version of the test.
When I first got my results, I was told I was 90% Scandinavian, though it didn’t break out Norway from Sweden. Then, according to an update in September 2018, I was a whopping 71% Norwegian and 17% Swedish.
Finding out I was just 17% Swedish was a major shock. By my calculations, I should be about 37.5%.
I often brought up the massive discrepancy in conversations with my family for the next few months, though at the end of the day it didn’t really change any of our traditions.
But in anticipation of the new health tests, I went back to my Ancestry results in October. What I found was another big switch.
This time, I found results that were much closer to what my family had told me: 54% Norwegian and 36% Swedish.
I have brought up the big swings in my results anytime the conversation around genetic tests comes up (which, for me, is pretty frequently). I hadn’t expected the changes to bug me as much as they have. They have me reconsidering how much stock I put into the genetic reports I get back, compared with the recollection of ancestry from my family members.
Ancestry also has a DNA story element that maps out your ancestors’ migration patterns. My ancestors started moving to the Midwest in the US around 1825 to 1850.
Ancestry plans to offer two health products, and I’m still waiting to check them out:
- AncestryHealth Core provides health reports about carrier status for rare conditions parents could pass on to kids, like cystic fibrosis, inherited cancers, and heart disease, and wellness information about nutrition and metabolism. AncestryHealth Core costs $US150, or $US50 if users have already taken an Ancestry test, and people can sign up for the test now.
- AncestryHealth Plus, set to roll out in 2020, will offer more reports, and the plan is to add info over time as the science advances. The test will run on next-generation sequencing technology rather than the genotyping technology that Core and the standard Ancestry DNA test use. Unlike genotyping, which looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together, next-generation sequencing looks at only the protein-encoding parts of your genome, called the exome. The next-generation sequencing analyses roughly 2% of those 3 billion base pairs. To perform the next-generation sequencing test, Ancestry’s partnering with the lab-testing firm Quest Diagnostics. The test will cost $US200, which includes six months of quarterly updates and additional educational resources. After that, it’s $US50 every six months for the quarterly updates, or $US100 a year.
People who have already submitted their spit to Ancestry won’t have to submit new samples.
The reports will take about six to eight weeks after ordering, even for those who have already taken an Ancestry test.
Verdict: The jury’s out until my health report comes back. In the meantime, if the idea of tracing your family tree through generations and connecting that information with historical documents gets you excited, this is the test for you.
Beyond understanding that your ancestry results might change, there’s one other big thing to consider before taking a test: privacy.
The tests do, after all, deal with information that’s fundamental and unique to every person.
In a blog post published in December 2017, the Federal Trade Commission recommended reading the fine print.
“If you’re thinking about buying an at-home DNA test kit, you owe it to yourself – and to family members who could be affected – to investigate the options thoroughly,” it said.
James Hazel, a post-doctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Society, has been looking into the privacy policies of consumer genetics tests. He said the FTC’s suggestion is very important.
“We are good at clicking ‘agree’ and not reading the terms of service,” he told Business Insider in December 2017.
Questions to keep in mind when reading through the terms of service include:
- Who owns your DNA?
- Who gets to see your de-identified (not attached to your name) information?
- How is the data that’s tied to your identifiable information used?
- Can you opt out of giving research partners your genetic data?
- Can you wipe your information after taking a test?