I have to admit: I’ve become a genetics geek. Ever since I sent my first saliva sample to be analysed by consumer-genetics company 23andMe, I’ve become obsessed with what I can find out from a sample of my DNA.
After trying out 23andMe’s $US199 test, I wanted to see how one of its competitors’ tests stacked up.
For $US99, AncestryDNA will sequence your genes to help trace your geographic roots. It doesn’t provide health and wellness information, although Ancestry launched a program aimed at tracking family-health history called AncestryHealth. The company also recently teamed up with Alphabet’s biotechnology company, Calico, to study the genetics of the human lifespan.
Here’s what it was like to use AncestryDNA:
Shortly after I ordered it online, my AncestryDNA kit arrived in the mail in a small box the size of a hardcover book.
Opening it up, I found a collection tube (and a bag to seal it in once I was done), a set of instructions, and a smaller box to send it all back in.
No stranger to collection tubes, I wasn’t quite looking forward to spitting up to the top of the line on this tube. As I learned previously, generating enough spit for the collection process (which helps ensure the company has enough DNA to run it a second time in case of errors) can be hard work.
After a few minutes of spitting, I was ready to get my sample ready to ship. Following the kit’s directions, I placed a special cap on my tube designed to would release a chemical solution (the blue stuff on the top) to get — and keep — my spit in tip-top shape for sequencing.
Once that was done, I placed it into the bag, packed it up in the box, and it was off on its way to Ancestry’s labs in Utah.
About six weeks later, I had my results. Despite my straightforward-looking homepage, I came away from the test with some intriguing insight about my genes (which I’ll get to).
Instead of jumping right into my genetic results, I watched one of the videos that Ancestry offers; it gave me an overview of the company’s methodology, the same methodology used to determine my Scandinavian roots. The information comes from data sets that Ancestry collects, and the video made it clear that the numbers they gave me are estimates.
Here’s what the results looked like on an interactive map that they provided. Apart from a trace 1% of DNA from Asia, roughly 99% of my genes suggested European roots, particularly from the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden. By my own rough calculations, I should be 50% Norwegian and at least 37.5% Swedish, so the results weren’t super surprising to me.
Ancestry lets you look at a more detailed breakdown of your results as well. Here, I noticed something interesting: While AncestryDNA told me I was less than 1% Finnish, 23andMe had estimated that close to 5% of my genes could be traced to Finland. Wanting to know what to make of the difference, I spoke with 23andMe population genetics expert Kasia Bryc, and Cathy Ball, Ancestry’s Cathy Ball, vice president of genomics and bioinformatics.
Ball told me it had a lot to do with estimates. “This is not a diagnostic test,” Ball said. Instead, the results come out based on statistics and all the reference population my DNA is being compared to. “We try to be really transparent about how this is an estimate.” For example, the range on my Finnish results was zero to 4%
23andMe’s test as well had a tool in a more detailed section of the ancestry report, where I could play around with something the company calls “confidence intervals,” or how confident I wanted to be with my results.
If I wanted to stick to the definitive, nondebatable evidence in my genes, I could choose to veer closer to the “conservative” end of the spectrum on the screen below, which 23andMe pegs at a high confidence interval of 90%. If I felt more speculative, on the other hand, and wanted to see what the evidence potentially suggested, I might choose to be more “speculative” and opt for a much lower 50% confidence interval.
With the “conservative” filter on my 23andMe results, the company’s estimate of my Finnish background dropped to 0.4%, which is closer to the figure AncestryDNA gave me. Bryc said the general reason for the difference in results between AncestryDNA and 23andMe had to do with each company’s methods (especially in relation to the algorithms each uses) as well as this variable confidence level.
Next, I got to take a stab at building out a family tree. Both 23andMe and AncestryDNA offer this option (23andMe teams up with MyHeritage), so I spent some time playing around with Ancestry’s version. It was incredibly addicting.
Because I had linked my family-tree account to my genetics results, I received little leaf symbols next to some potential Ramsey family ancestors.
And, Ball showed me, when I clicked on those distant family members, I could see a web of connections I had with them. This potential ancestor likely had a lot of children.
Because it was drawing off my genetic information, Ancestry connected me with some possible (distant) cousins. This match is likely a 5th-8th cousin of me.
Ancestry draws all this information off the 70 million family trees and 1.5 million DNA tests it has collected in the company’s 20-year history to create a collaborative ancestry network.
For each family member I added, I could add other information — either documents I had on hand or things I’d memorized. While a little daunting, I could see myself falling down a rabbit hole and trying to fill out all this information for hours on end. So many relatives, so little time.
And my DNA wasn’t the only resource I could turn to to fill out this information. Ancestry lets you search through databases to find out even more about your relatives and where they came from.
In addition to ancestor results from the DNA, Ancestry is also exploring the possibility of a health test. Ball said the company is chatting with the FDA to see what those might look like. In the meantime, Ancestry users can enter in family-health history information, which could go more in depth than quick family history you’re expected to recall when you visit the doctor.
The verdict: If what you’re looking for is more information about where your family came from to supplement your interest in your family tree, and you’re less interested in digging into the science of genetics, this is the test to go for. There’s a lot to discover, but it’s broken up in such a way that if all you want are the percentage estimates, it’s easy to just see those, but if you want to dig deep into your family tree, it’s easy to get into that as well. I would definitely consider purchasing this test for a relative who enjoys researching our family tree.
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