Living DNA entered the landscape for ethnicity testing in the summer/fall of 2016. Hands down, they win the contest for “cool logo.”
Ordering and Waiting
I ordered my test, and the results were frustratingly slow in arriving – more than 3 months after submission. Their website currently says “within 10-12 weeks our results will be ready to explore.” Speedy is not their middle name. At first I thought the delivery time of 12 weeks was a startup snafu, but apparently it’s their standard delivery window.
Sometimes vendors offer free tests with the hope of a good review. I typically order tests like any other customer from a vendor, because it’s not a fair review if the vendor knows they are testing someone who will likely review their product. In other words, I don’t want special treatment. However, in this case, I did complain to the Marketing Director and received my results shortly thereafter. I don’t know how long those results would have taken otherwise.
LivingDNA is a British company, registered in England and Wales. Their price in US dollars is normally $159 with an additional $9.95 for standard delivery (5-7 working days) or $39.95 for premium delivery (2-3 working days). At the time I ordered, US purchasers were required to purchase premium delivery, making the price of an ethnicity test effectively $199.
The LivingDNA ethnicity test costs substantially more than Ancestry or 23andMe at $99 or Family Tree DNA at $79, plus shipping. The other vendors products include ethnicity results plus matching to other testers and varying comparison tools. LivingDNA hopes to offer matching between testers in the future.
Terms and Conditions
Vendors can and do modify their terms and conditions, so always read what any vendor provides, including any fine print.
The page that greets customers provides the following verbiage.
LivingDNA claims twice the detail of other ancestry tests. Detail, which means reference populations and regions in this case, does not necessarily equate to accuracy, but we’ll see how they fare in that department.
LivingDNA is the only company, to date, that offers ethnicity breakdown by regions within the British Isles, based on the POBI (People of the British Isles) project results funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Living DNA claims to have a 3-in-1 ancestry test, meaning ethnicity, mitochondrial and Y DNA, which isn’t exactly true, but it’s not entirely false either. It’s a matter of perception.
LivingDNA is a scan test that scans specified locations in your genome. Haplogroups, both Y and mitochondrial, are defined by specific locations that carry mutations. LivingDNA scans for Y and mitochondrial haplogroup mutations at some level, but they do not offer anything more for Y and mitochondrial DNA than the haplogroup designation. In other words, no detail and no matching. The LivingDNA results are in the same ballpark as 23andMe or the Genographic project, but much less detailed than Family Tree DNA. Ancestry doesn’t offer any Y or mtDNA results, haplogroup or otherwise. To see a detailed comparison of Y and mtDNA testing and who provides what, please refer to Which DNA Test is Best?
LivingDNA does not offer DNA matching, nor do they currently provide a download raw data file so that you can upload your results elsewhere. They indicated in a February Rootstech conference call that they want to move towards both of these goals.
All major vendors (with the exception of Genographic) provide free updates to existing customers when they update their data base, so it’s good that LivingDNA does too.
As for the LivingDNA claim to “view your ancestry through history,” let’s take a look and see what they deliver.
Notice on the left hand side of the page that I have two options under Ancestry:
- Family Ancestry – your ethnicity results
- Motherline – your mitochondrial DNA results
If I were a male, I would also have Fatherline.
Where ever you are on the site, additional options are always shown on the upper left hand side of the page.
Mother Line – Mitochondrial DNA
First, let ‘s look at my mitochondrial DNA results. Your Motherline options are shown on the bar to the left of your page.
The “Download Results” function has not yet been implemented.
The first Motherline page provides an overview.
I know already that my full haplogroup through full sequence testing at Family Tree DNA is J1c2f. Let’s see what LivingDNA tells me.
Living DNA shows my haplogroup as J1c, which isn’t incorrect as far as it goes, but isn’t complete either.
Living DNA gives me an option to ‘take a tour” of my results, so I did. The heat map, below, shows the locations of my “mother line haplogroup.” Heat maps are hotter, or darker, meaning more intense, where the frequency is greater.
Please note that you can click on any image to enlarge.
I’m not clear whether LivingDNA is displaying a map for haplogroup J1c, or core haplogroup J, given the “hottest” region shown is, surprisingly, Yemen. J1c is typically considered to be European, so surely this map must be referring to haplogroup J plus all subgroups.
The LivingDNA heat map is significantly different than the spatial frequency map for haplogroup J, shown below, published in the academic paper, Genetic Stratigraphy of Key Demographic Events in Arabia published in PLoS ONE in March 2015 by Fernandes et al.
Next, Living DNA discusses the genetic migration for haplogroup J.
Followed by a migration map.
Haplogroup J is shown in Europe here. What happened to Yemen? From this map, it looks like J was born near the Black Sea and traveled directly to Europe, which certainly doesn’t track with the heat map or the PLoS ONE article.
Last, the phylogenetic tree showing the path from Mitochondrial Eve, the first known woman to have offspring that lived to today, to me. I notice in this tree that the migration map above omits haplogroup JT between R and J.
Fatherline – Y DNA
Clearly, being a female, I don’t carry a Y chromosome, but the Y DNA section holds the same pages of information as the mitochondrial DNA section, above, which you also receive if you are a male.
The Family Ancestry section is where you will find your autosomal ethnicity results.
You have four options, shown on the left bar.
The first page you will see offers you the option to take a tour and then provides basic information.
In the “What Makes You” section, my results show that I’m 93.4% European and 6.6% unassigned in the rest of the world.
Well, that’s pretty boring, but there’s more.
Click on the “+” to the right of the word “Global” which shows regional results, shown below.
Clicking on the “+” again shows the full breakdown, including the British Isles detail. They could certainly make finding this information more intuitive than “+” and “-“. I suspect a lot of people miss this detail, and if you’re testing for ethnicity, which is all LivingDNA offers today, this IS the important part of the test.
You can click on each region to show history about that region, but I surely wish they had shown a map of the British Isles with the sub-region highlighted instead of the image of the body. It’s impossible to discern which present day counties are included in which LivingDNA regions.
My English ancestors whose locations I know are from Lancashire and Kent, and I can’t tell which of the English regions referenced by LivingDNA would include the locations my ancestors are from.
Ireland, on the other hand, is pretty self-explanatory, but is also a pretty large area.
The Family Ancestry Map shows the locations where your ancestors were found.
Clicking “explore in full” and then the “+” button shows me the following, as does the “Through History” selection.
I’m 72.5% Great Britain and Ireland and 12% North and West European and 6.2% unassigned European which is reflected on the map below, with the darker area having the higher frequency. However, please note that the legend and map are reversed. On the legend, the Europe unassigned at 6.2% is shown as the darkest shade of green, where on the map, the Great Britain and Ireland shown at 75.2% is shown as the darkest, which is accurate if you are using heat maps.
Click on the “+” sign once again moved to subregions showing the detail of where your ethnicity is found.
Clicking on the region at left shows the associated region on the map.
Please note that some of the features both above and below did not display correctly, or at all, using a PC with either Edge or Internet Explorer browsers. MACs did better.
Another really easy to miss feature is the “click here” just above the word “standard” which allows you to view your family ancestry at different points through history, beginning with 500 years ago. I really like this video type feature as it shows you the movement of your ancestors with time.
Expanding back in time.
At the bottom of each time period is some history to go along with the time period you’re viewing.
Clicking on the Chart option, shows the following.
How Accurate is Living DNA’s Ethnicity?
I wrote the article “Calculating Ethnicity Percentages” to explain how to determine, based on your known genealogy, what to anticipate in your ethnicity percentages, and to compare the various vendors’ accuracy, although Family Tree DNA has since released an update since that article was published.
For purposes of comparison, I calculated all of my 64 GGGG-grandparent’s ethnicity percentages – each individual accounting for approximately 1.56% of my DNA today.
The following chart shows how LivingDNA compared with my known genealogy.
LivingDNA significantly overestimated my total British Isles. My known and inferred British Isles, based on surnames and colonial American records, is no more than 50.7%, while Living DNA shows it at half again as much, at 75.2%. That’s simply not possible, given the immigration records of my ancestors and the proven locations of their origins in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
I can’t align the known locations of my British or Scottish ancestors with the British Isles regions shown, so I really don’t know if the subregion breakdown within the British Isles is accurate or not. That’s not a problem with the LivingDNA analysis, but is due to the fact that my British Isles ancestry with proven locations is scant.
LivingDNA shows Scandinavian that I don’t show in my genealogy, but they aren’t alone, as we’ll see in a minute when we look at how they stack up to the other vendors.
LivingDNA badly missed the mark for my German which is proven at 25% and my Dutch proven at 14%, although clearly that unassigned European probably comes from that grouping. Living DNA shows Germanic at 9%.
LivingDNA clearly struggled with DNA outside of Europe, as they could not identify any DNA anyplace else in the world. Other vendors have identified Middle Eastern, North African and Native American. Of those, only the Native American is solidly proven.
Altogether, with unassigned Europe and unassigned in the rest of the world, 12.8% of my DNA is unassigned.
Compared to Other Vendors
I’ve updated the chart below to include the LivingDNA results along with the new Family Tree DNA update that occurred in April 2017. The only vendor results which are not the results provided by vendors with a current test is the Genographic project, whose ethnicity results changed in November 2016 when they switched their testing vendor to Helix. I have not retested at Genographic. I have included Genographic in the chart, but excluded them in the comparison because their categories are so broad as to not be functionally comparable to the major vendors and the results are obsolete at this point.
Compared to the other three major vendors, Living DNA was the worst at determining my British Isles ethnicity percent as compared to other regions. Family Tree DNA was the best.
All vendors showed Scandinavian, which is not reflected in my genealogy. The school of thought most prevalent is that Scandinavian is possibly reflective of Viking ancestry that was so ingrained into the population as to remain a constant today. That may be true, at least to some extent. LivingDNA shows less Scandinavian than anyone else, making them the most accurate in this category given that I have no known Scandinavian genealogy.
LivingDNA was second worst in determining my Dutch/French/German heritage if you presume that all of the 6.2% European unassigned fell into that group. If you don’t make that presumption, then LivingDNA was the worst. 23andMe was the best.
LivingDNA had the highest amount of unassigned at 6.6% of any vendor while Family Tree DNA and Ancestry assigned all of my DNA and 23andMe only has .1% unassigned.
LivingDNA missed my Native altogether, while all three other vendors found it, even though it is a small percentage.
LivingDNA did not perform well in any category relative to ethnicity as compared to the other major vendors with the exception of Scandinavian. Surprisingly, they placed last in the British Isles category which is their area of expertise.
Some of my British Isles heritage is inferred, which could theoretically have raised my genealogical percentage of DNA if I am incorrect in my inference. In other words, in reality, my British Isles heritage % could be even lower than the 50.7% shown on the chart. It’s also possible that amount is slightly low, but my British Isles can’t be much higher because more than 45% of my genealogy is unquestionably proven elsewhere with relatively recent German and Dutch immigrants. So, at most, my British Isles can’t be more than 55%.
If LivingDNA had shown less British Isles than my genealogy, I would have been accepting of that information, given that their specialty is supposed to be British Isles ethnicity and some of my British Isles is inferred. However, LivingDNA was 50% higher than my own calculations, showing 75.2%.
My mitochondrial haplogroup at Living DNA was not incorrect, but it was incomplete, showing only 2 of 4 branches of haplogroup J, as proven by full mitochondrial sequencing. By comparison, the two other vendors who provide the same type of scan tests for mitochondrial and Y DNA, 23andMe shows me as J1c2 and the Genographic Project 2.0 test shows me as J1c2f. Family Tree DNA shows me as J1c2f as well, but their mitochondrial DNA test is more comprehensive and is a separate test altogether, not included in their Family Finder autosomal test.
I can’t correlate my known English genealogy to specific regions as reported by LivingDNA because my only ancestors whose British Isles locations are specifically known came from London, a melting pot from all over the rest of England, Kent and Lancashire, so I can’t pass any judgement as to the relative accuracy of LivingDNA’s British Isles breakdown except to say my known Irish appears to be accurate.
What I can say is that for anyone who doesn’t have primarily British Isles DNA, or entirely British Isles DNA, I would not recommend this test given the issues noted above. Additionally, LivingDNA is substantially more expensive at $149 than the competing products at $99 (23andMe and Ancestry) and $79 (Family Tree DNA,) all of whom also include matching.
For this test to be useful, the tester would need to be nearly or entirely British and have their genealogy proven to specific regions within the British Isles in fairly recent generations to ascertain accuracy. For me, with a high level of American colonial DNA mixed with relative recent ancestors from western Europe, the test fared poorly.
I would be very interested in knowing the accuracy from the standpoint of multiple testers whose ancestors are entirely from the British Isles and have proven an extensive genealogy back through their 64 GGGG-grandparents. In other words, are the regions within the British Isles accurate?
Keep in mind that all ethnicity tests are really estimates and vary based on the reference panels used by the vendor and the algorithms the vendor uses internally to assign your DNA to specific ethnicities. LivingDNA points out on their website that inheritance is not a constant at 50% per generation (of ancestral DNA being passed to the next generation) and ethnicity testing is not an exact science – and they are right, on both counts.
In other words, your mileage will vary – a lot.