LivingDNA Product Review

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.

Price

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

Thankfully, Judy Russell recently provided a great overview and digestion of Living DNA’s terms and conditions. Please read Judy’s First look: Living DNA terms of use.

Vendors can and do modify their terms and conditions, so always read what any vendor provides, including any fine print.

LivingDNA’s Claims

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.

Navigation

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.

Family Ancestry

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.

Summary

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.

23 thoughts on “LivingDNA Product Review

  1. What I find interesting is that there is another player in a field already crowded. Did they do a market feasibility study to determine if there is room for them. What will their carrot be to entice people to test with them. What do they think distinguishes them from their competitors. Just wondering.

    Thanks, Roberta, for keeping up informed.

    • I would guess they are targeting European public who could be worrying over what law apply to their DNA in the United States. Plus there is less time to wait and less fees to pay with a Europe based company.

      For the moment, they are really specialized in British Isles and England much more precisely, but I guess they will try to make their algorithm more efficient for the rest of Europe and progressively for the rest of the world.

      The already saturated American market is probably not in their aim for the moment.

  2. There can be British ancestry in your Dutch and German ancestors. For example, my husband has Dutch ancestry, but delving into that ancestry, we learned that an English gent migrated to The Netherlands around 1700-1710 and married a Dutch girl — thus the surname Addison emigrating from The Netherlands to America in the mid 1800s. This ancestry would have been more disguised had my husband descended from a female offspring of Jonas Addison of Hatfield, England.
    Combine that with the uneven inheritance from so far back, and a bit of extra English might not be so far fetched.

  3. My results are expected in July – as you say, Roberta, not speedy. I am anxious to see what they say, as I am one of those mainly British Isles people you speak of. My mother’s family comes from Ulster in Ireland and has also been found on the Isle of Man, which might account for all those Scandinavian matches I get (Vikings would go along with Manx history). My father, OTOH, has a strong American colonial (Mayflower) ancestry, PLUS more recent ancestors from Wales and Somerset in England. These latter two lines have been traced back to only the mid-18th century, so there might be some room for variety there. I had wanted a male on my father’s surname line (Tefft) to test, because we know nothing about the progenitor’s origins except that he came from England in the 1630s, but couldn’t find a direct descendant. Perhaps one will pop out of the woodwork sometime and perhaps the Living DNA results will improve. Perhaps before I’m gone?

    Kathleen

  4. Roberta,

    Regarding your various Scandinavian ethnicity estimates, do you receive many matches on GEDmatch with kits having e-mail domain extensions like .no, .se, .dk, .is, or telia.com?

      • Interesting. My Scandinavian ethnicity estimates are the following:

        Ancestry: 26%
        23andMe:2.8%
        FTDNA: was 10%, then 3% Finland and Northern Siberia, now 0% Finland and Northern Siberia or Scandinavia.

        As of yet, I have not been able to pin down a known Scandinavian ancestor on paper (My documented genealogical tree is not very developed at this time). However, I do tend to receive a good number of matches on gedmatch.com with Scandinavian (or Finnish) names/surnames that have domain extensions like the ones I listed…these are conservative matches across various chromosome pairs/segments. I would think that you would likely see some of this yourself if you had fairly recent shared ancestry originating in Scandinavia.

  5. It must be remembered we do not inherit autosomal DNA from all of our ancestors 500 years ago. As such, these tests can only make predictions based on the limited number of ancestors we actually did inherit some DNA.

    This inheritance pattern is believed to be random, and it is quite possible the random nature of inheritance skews the results. As a simple hypothetical example, a person may be 50% English and 50% German from their “paper” genealogy, but only 25% English and 75% German from their aDNA inheritance.

    We certainly cannot entirely “fault” a DNA test for incorrectly giving the percentage of our ancestry from different regions when at least some of this “blame” properly belongs to the random nature of inheritance.

    • It surely would be nice if the random nature of inheritance was reflected with any consistency by multiple vendors. Looking st the results, it isn’t today. LivingDNA is the furthest afield from the only accurate tool we have which is our own genealogy.

  6. Hi Roberta,

    I am waiting for the results of the Living DNA tests for both my parents any day now.

    I have been closely reading the Living DNA threads on Anthrogenica and it seems most people are generally happy with their results but there are a few issues:

    – people with German ancestry such as yourself are finding that some of it is showing up as East Anglia (this may be because East Anglia had the highest levels of Anglo-Saxon immigration during the dark ages)
    – People with Irish ancestry are finding lower than expected levels of Irish
    – People with Scottish ancestry are debating where the boundaries between some of the regions within Scotland should be.

    Living DNA does have plans to fix these things. They are adding in an Irish regional breakdown in about 8 weeks and they have started work on a project to do a regional breakdown of Germany. So hopefully if you come back in a year, your results will look much better!

    As a Brit, I’m very excited about my results as I’m hoping it will give me some clues as to where my London ancestors originally came from.

    I agree that Living DNA aren’t as good as the others currently but I’m willing to cut them a lot of slack as they don’t have the resources of Ancestry and as I think they have the potential to have a really great product a year or 2 down the line. I’m hoping if they succeed they can get a lot more Brits testing and help fill in the gaps.

    Best Wishes

    Gareth

  7. Roberta,
    That you for a very comprehensive review of Living DNA. I tested with them because I am 50% British Isles/Ireland, and I cannot connect positively to one region. I’m hoping for the best.

  8. It seems an issue right now, that Dutch or North German ancestry is mistaken, probably because of the Anglo-Saxons, and misinterpreted as East-Anglian or Sout-East English. If you interpret those as Germanic, it should already make a difference. They are doing a German project, so this might be finetuned probably next year.

  9. I liked the human figures made of dots. Very cute, but it’s not a novel idea. It brought to mind pointillism.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointillism

    This is “Eye Candy”.

    Q: Why are all the GG sites now providing ‘eye candy’?
    A: Because they want to attract business, attracting people like flies to honey, or moths to the flame. For them, they know that’s where the money is, at this moment. And their competition, in all the GG sites also know where the money is.

  10. It is fairly obvious by now that people with German ancestry are often having it placed in their Southeast England & East Anglia categories. In fact, they recognized the problem from the start and made reference to it in their technical notes. One of the things I appreciate about LDNA is that they let you know where they may be having a problem. So in my case, I was able to make the appropriate adjustments, which balanced things out and brought my results more in line with my own calculations. It may also explain why they’ve started recruiting participants for a fine scale analysis of Germany. They’ve also been expanding their sample sizes in both Ireland & Scotland where some have complained about under reporting for those areas. So it would appear that they’ve been working on their problems and hopefully it’ll be reflected in some of their future upgrades.

    “Technical Note

    East Anglia and the Southeast are the regions of the UK most similar to Germanic populations such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

    If you have Southeast England ancestry that you didn’t expect: If you expected Germanic ancestry, then it is likely that it has been mistaken for British ancestry. If you expected British ancestry, but not East Anglian, then it is possible that you possess a slightly higher Anglo-Saxon ancestry proportion than expected and East Anglia is used to represent this.

    If you have Southeast England ancestry but it is not inferred as strongly as expected: This appears to empirically be quite rare, so it may be real; however, this ancestry can sometimes be spread over several neighbouring populations.”

  11. Hi Roberta,

    Thank you for the review of Living DNA, as a company we are really keen on education and supporting people to connect with their ancestry and the fact of the diverse mix that we share within our DNA at different points in history. We developed the figures to help people, and the young adults in our anti-racism work, connect with their results but that is designed to be one way of looking at their information and for many a map or chart is more helpful.

    In terms of pricing the premium option was never a requirement so I do apologise if that occurred for you. We are also working to bring down the price but as the test includes atDNA & mtDNA (plus YDNA if you are male) there is quite a difference there.

    All that said the main area that we are working on is improving the Northern European ancestry estimation, with the adjustments that we are making (growing our databases) your results will see a substantial improvement. We are working flat out with hundreds of thousands of DNA samples at the moment and you’ll receive a full update later in the year.

    I do want to add that we are doing great results for people with Asian, Southern European, African etc. ancestry. The only area where the calling gets mixed is half a dozen countries in northern Europe, which is being addressed as the similarity to certain parts of the British Isles is very strong.

    We appreciate your feedback on the haplogroup map for J and will have our team review this.

    We are also working on reducing down our pricing but as a company that does not sell your data or charge a yearly subscription fee we have to look at where the finances come from.

    Warmest Regards

    David Nicholson
    MD – Living DNA

  12. Hello I am new to this interesting Blog, I was wondering do you know or heard about any updates on AncestryDna in their algorithm since the current one is pretty broad and does not give me a lot of information. I am mostly Polish as well as I have distant German and Austrian ancestry also how can I find out if my ancestor was from a specific ethnicity? I assume I have german due to the last name my ancestor had witch is Sattel not really polish but when I did my research mostly poles and germans showed up and I don’t know what to think. While my austrian is not fully documented i have their last name and there are family tales about them. My austrian ancestors seem to marry ones with the german last names.

  13. Got my Living DNA results a few weeks ago; for comparison, I have my Big 3 vendor results plus 30 years of paper research. I can segregate my immigrant ancestors to the U.S. into two distinct groups: 1610-1775, and 1845-1870.

    For my non-UK heritage, I have the similar experience of my German disappearing into East Anglia, my East Europe (Lithuania-Poland) missing in action, etc.

    But, my UK ancestry (average 40% from all sources) is especially why I took this test, and first I note that Living DNA doubled that to 84%.

    Putting that aside, let’s look at the breakdown; I have 14 UK sub-regions.

    The easiest for me to sync up are two regions: 10% Cornwall and 10% Scotland. These logically derive from four mid-19th c. immigrant GG grandparents, two from N.Ireland/Scotland, and two from Cornwall.

    But, the rest of my UK heritage comes through eight GG grandparents who descend from the 1610-1775 immigrants. (The UK is blended with a smaller portion of German-Dutch-French). I do know the geographic origins for many of those ancestors, spread across the southern half of England.

    And, what are my remaining UK sub-regions from L-DNA? They are spread all across southern England. In some cases, I can sync up the regions to specific ancestors, with a few “mystery regions” that are still plausible.

    I look forward to the refinements to come, but right now find most interesting that for the first time I see “tentative proof” that I’ve inherited ethnicity from both “older” and “newer” ancestors, when I might have expected that the 400-year-old segments would have washed themselves out more than they did.

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