First and foremost, I want to state unequivocally that I am NOT advocating closing your account at any of the testing vendor sites. That’s not the purpose of this article. In fact, I encourage everyone to use each tool to extract every drop of information possible.
The purpose is to educate and inform you that IF you close your account and/or delete your DNA RESULTS from your account, even if the vendor in question says that the action is irreversible and you will need to resubmit a new sample and purchase a new test if you change your mind, that does NOT necessarily mean that your physical DNA sample itself will be destroyed unless you take separate action to request sample destruction. It also does not automatically reverse any previously-granted research permissions.
Many people presume that if they delete their results and/or close their account, that automatically means that their original spit or swab sample is destroyed – and that’s not necessarily true.
First, we need to understand the difference between:
- A DNA sample
- A DNA raw data results file, also referred to as a download file
- DNA matches or a match file
The Difference Between a DNA Sample, Results and Download Files, and Matches
There are three distinct parts of the DNA testing process that people often confuse. It’s important to understand these distinct pieces because you interact with them differently and vendors do as well. In other words, deleting your DNA results file, or closing your account does not necessarily mean that your original sample is destroyed unless you request (and confirm) that separately.
DNA Sample – The DNA sample itself is the swab or vial of spit that you submit to the vendor for processing. That sample is sent to a lab where DNA is extracted and processed on a specific DNA chip that produces a file with roughly 700,000 locations for autosomal tests.
After your DNA results are processed and the vendor knows that they do not need to rerun your sample, how or if your DNA sample is stored, and where, is a function of each specific vendor and their policies.
One vendor, Family Tree DNA archives your DNA sample vials for 25 years as a free benefit so that you (or your heirs should you pass away) can order additional products or upgrades. FamilyTreeDNA offers various levels of Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing along with autosomal (Family Finder) results – so there are several upgrade avenues.
This short article, 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy, explains the difference between various kinds of DNA tests.
It’s less obvious why a vendor who does not offer genealogical DNA products other than autosomal testing would retain a customer’s actual DNA sample. The other three vendors, while they don’t currently offer additional genealogy DNA products, do offer health upgrades and purchase options. They may be retaining samples so that their customers could potentially upgrade and they would have a sample on-hand to rerun, if necessary.
Both MyHeritage and 23andMe offer a combined ancestry/genealogy plus health product initially, or customers can purchase the health add-on later. FamilyTreeDNA offers a high-end comprehensive Exome health product for existing customers, the Tovana Genome Report, but it’s a different test altogether and requires a fresh DNA sample. (Update – this information is no longer valid in 2021. Both Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA have discontinued their health products.)
Furthermore, both Ancestry and 23andMe either conduct health/medical research internally and/or participate in research partnerships with outside entities and may be hoping that their customers will opt-in to research.
Regardless of the underlying reason why, keep in mind that your actual sample is likely being archived someplace, assuming there is any left after processing, unless you request that your sample be destroyed.
All vendors change the contents of their Terms and Conditions along with other legal documents from time to time, so be sure to refer to the current version.
The DNA sample itself is NOT the same thing as the output from the processing, which is the DNA raw data results file.
DNA Raw Data Results File – The DNA results file contains only a small fraction of the three billion locations found in the human genome. Autosomal DNA tests include only about 700,000 (plus or minus) selected locations produced by the chip the vendor is utilizing. The output of the laboratory process is referred to as a raw data file or the DNA results file. People sometimes refer to this as the download file as well, because it’s the file you can download from each vendor.
The results in a raw data file look like this:
When you download and transfer your file from one vendor to another, the raw data file is what you are transferring. You can find instructions for downloading your data file from each vendor, here.
- The DNA raw data or download file is NOT your actual DNA, which is what is extracted from the liquid in the vial.
- The raw data or download file is NOT a list of your matches, which may or may not be a separate file available for downloading, depending on the vendor.
The raw data file only contains letters representing your two genotyped nucleotides (T, A, C or G) for the rsid (accession #) for each genetic address or position tested. Each genetic address contains two SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms. You don’t need to understand the details, just that one nucleotide at that address is received from your mother and one from your father.
The example above shows my first 4 locations in my raw data file. You can see that I received an A from both parents at the first two locations, and a G from both parents and the second two locations.
The values in your DNA results file are compared to other people in the vendor’s database. If enough contiguous locations match, typically more than 500 matching SNPs, plus additional cM (centiMorgan) threshold match criteria, shown below, you are determined to be a match with that other person. You will each be placed on the other person’s match list, and the vendor will then provide additional processing based on the signature features they offer to their clients.
Of the four main vendors, three, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and 23andMe allow customers to download a match file in spreadsheet format that provides additional information about each match. Ancestry, unfortunately, does not.
You cannot upload your match file to other vendors – only your raw data file gets uploaded which the vendor then processes in the same way they would if you had tested at their company.
If someone on your match list wants to be included in the database at another vendor, they will either need to test at that vendor or transfer their file to that vendor. Every vendor has people in their database that the other vendors don’t have, so it behooves all genealogists to be in each of the four databases either by testing directly or uploading their raw data files as a transfer.
Of the four main vendors, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage both accept transfers from other vendors and provide free matching, but 23andMe and Ancestry do not. Note that both FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage do charge for advanced features, $19 and $29, respectively, but in both cases, it’s significantly less than the cost of a test.
Deleting Results and Closing Accounts
Again, I am NOT advocating that anyone should close accounts at any vendor. In fact, I would discourage DNA deletion. Some people delete their DNA or close their accounts when other options would better serve their purposes. However, if you decide to do so, you need to be aware of the following:
- If you have a genealogical tree/records research account at Ancestry or MyHeritage, you can delete your DNA results but maintain your genealogy research account, if you desire. You will lose the benefits of having a DNA test at that vendor if you delete your DNA test.
- At those two vendors, if you delete your DNA, that does not automatically affect the genealogy side of your account except for combined features like ThruLines at Ancestry and Theories of Family Relativity at MyHeritage.
- If you DOWNLOAD your DNA file, that does NOT delete the file at the original testing vendor unless you do so separately. Downloading only means that you download a copy of the file. Your original raw data results file is still at the vendor, UNLESS YOU CHOOSE TO DELETE YOUR RESULTS. Do not delete your results file unless you want to lose your matches and no longer participate in DNA testing or DNA-related features at that vendor.
- If you are planning to delete your DNA results at a particular vendor, download a raw data file first, and verify that the file works correctly by uploading the file to one of the vendors that accepts transfers. Save the raw data file permanently on your computer. This preserves at least some of your testing investment and allows you to utilize your DNA results file elsewhere.
- If you delete your DNA results at any of the major vendors, you cannot restore the results file at that vendor without repurchasing and resubmitting a new DNA test. For vendors who accept transfers, you could potentially re-upload your file as a transfer, but you would need to pay for advanced features.
- If you delete your DNA results at vendors who do NOT offer additional genealogical research services, meaning at 23andMe and Family Tree DNA, there is no reason to maintain an account at that vendor.
If you delete your results or close your account at any vendor, it DOES mean that:
- The DNA result you’ve deleted along with corresponding matches and other features are permanently gone. You cannot change your mind. Delete=permanent.
- At FamilyTreeDNA, you can delete one kind of DNA test without deleting all types of DNA tests for a particular individual. For example, you could delete a Y DNA result but not delete mitochondrial or the autosomal Family Finder test.
- You will have to pay to retest should you change your mind.
If you delete your results or close the DNA portion of your account, it DOES NOT necessarily mean that:
- Your DNA sample is destroyed.
- You’ve revoked any permissions previously given for participation in research.
You will need to perform both of these tasks separately and independently of deleting your DNA file at a vendor and/or closing your account.
Every Vendor is Different
The process of requesting sample destruction and revoking research permissions is different at each vendor, with or without closing your account.
Every vendor’s terms and conditions are separate and different. Some vendors may automatically close your account if you request sample destruction, and others won’t. Some may automatically delete your sample if you close your account, but I know for certain that’s not uniformly true.
Terms and conditions, as well as standard procedures, change over time as well.
I’m not telling you which vendors operate in which ways, because this article will someday be dated and vendor policies change. I don’t want to take the chance of leading someone astray in the future.
Therefore, if you wish to have your sample destroyed and/or revoke any research permissions previously granted, I strongly suggest that you call the vendor’s customer support and convey specifically what you want, and why. The vendor may offer alternatives to achieve what you desire without deleting your sample and account.
To delete your sample and/or account, you may need to provide your request in writing.
Request verification in writing that your sample has been destroyed and that any previously granted research authority/permission has been rescinded.
Please note that you can rescind previously granted research permission WITHOUT affecting your account in any other way. However, the reverse is not true – deleting your sample and closing your account does not automatically rescind previously-granted research permission.
You can only rescind permission for future research, not research already underway or completed that includes your DNA and corresponding answers to research questions.
I hope you will continue to enjoy the results of your DNA tests for years to come. New features and benefits are added regularly, as are new matches – any one of which has the potential to break down that pesky brick wall. Equally as important, at least to me, is the legacy I’m leaving with my combined tree, DNA, and research work for future generations.
However, what’s right for me may not be right for you. If you make a different decision, be sure that you fully understand the different parts of DNA testing along with the various options and steps you may need to take to achieve your goal.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- FamilyTreeDNA – Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing
- MyHeritage DNA – ancestry autosomal DNA only, not health
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload – transfer your results from other vendors free
- AncestryDNA – autosomal DNA only
- 23andMe Ancestry – autosomal DNA only, no Health
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
Genealogy Products and Services
- MyHeritage FREE Tree Builder – genealogy software for your computer
- MyHeritage Subscription with Free Trial
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars – genealogy and DNA classes, subscription-based, some free
- Legacy Family Tree Software – genealogy software for your computer
- Charting Companion – Charts and Reports to use with your genealogy software or FamilySearch
- Legacy Tree Genealogists – professional genealogy research
Thanks for your post about how DNA samples may not be deleted. I wrote a month ago saying that I had revoked all DNA permissions at Ancestry and had my DNA results deleted. That happened almost immediately. As I wrote before, it was a day or two before it occurred to me that there was nothing in the delete options about deleting the sample, nor in the fine print.
First I called Ancestry and asked they make sure that my DNA sample is deleted. I was told I had to send an email to a separate email address asking that the sample be deleted. I did that right away.
It was 2 days before I heard back. The notice said they would delete my sample but could not say how long that would take. That was August 8, 2020.
It is now September 8 and I have heard nothing from them about destroying my DNA sample.
In my opinion, Ancestry has not acted in good faith honoring my request.
I am not sure what my next step will be. I will probably contact the Attorney General for the State of Utah and see what I can learn there.