DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

If you’re involved in genetic genealogy, you’ve probably noticed the recent announcements by both 23andMe and Ancestry relative to workforce layoffs as a result of declining sales.

Layoffs

In January, 23andMe announced that it was laying off 100 people which equated to 14% of its staff.

Following suit, Ancestry this week announced that they are laying off 100 people, 6% of their work force. They discuss their way forward, here.

One shift of this type can be a blip, but two tends to attract attention because it *could* indicate a trend. Accordingly, several articles have been written about possible reasons why this might be occurring. You can read what TechCrunch says here, Business Insider here, and The Verge, here.

Depending on who you talk to and that person’s perspective, the downturn is being attributed to:

  • Market Saturation
  • No Repeat Sales
  • Privacy Concerns
  • FAD Over

Ok, So What’s Happening?

Between Ancestry and 23andMe alone, more than 26 million DNA tests have been sold, without counting the original DNA testing company, FamilyTreeDNA along with MyHeritage who probably have another 4 or 5 million between them.

Let’s say that’s a total of 30 million people in DNA databases that offer matching. The total population of the US is estimated to be about 329 million, including children, which means that one person in 10 or 11 people in the US has now tested. Of course, DNA testing reaches worldwide, but it’s an interesting comparison indicating how widespread DNA testing has become overall.

This slowing of new sales shouldn’t really surprise anyone. In July 2019, Illumina, the chip maker who supplies equipment and supplies to the majority of the consumer DNA testing industry said that the market was softening after a drop in their 2019 second quarter revenue.

Also last year, Ancestry and MyHeritage both announced health products, a move which would potentially generate a repeat sale from someone who has already tested their DNA for genealogy purposes. I suspected at the time this might be either a pre-emptive strike, or in response to slowed sales.

In November 2019, Family Tree DNA announced an extensive high-end health test through Tovana which tests the entire Exome, the portion of our DNA useful for medical and health analysis.

In a sense, this health focus too is trendy, but moves away from genealogy into an untapped area.

23andMe who, according to their website, has obtained $791 million in venture capital or equity funding has always been focused on medical research. In July of 2018 GlaxoSmithKline infused $300 million into 23andMe in exchange for access to DNA results of their 5 million customers who have opted-in to medical research, according to Genengnews. If you divide the 300 million investment by 5 million opted-in customers, 23andMe received $60 per DNA kit.

That 5 million number is low though, based on other statements by 23andMe which suggests they have 10 million total customers, 80% of which opt-in for medical research. That would be a total of 8 million DNA results available to investors.

Divide $791 million by 8 million kits and 23andMe, over the years, has received roughly $99 for each customer who has opted in to research.

We know who Ancestry has partnered with for research, but not how much Ancestry has received.

There’s very big money, huge money, in collaborating with Big Pharma and others. Given the revenue potential, it’s amazing that the other two vendors, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, haven’t followed suit, but they haven’t.

Additionally, in January, 23andMe sold the rights to a new drug it developed in-house as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases for a reported (but unconfirmed by 23andMe) $5 million.

It’s ironic that two companies who just announced layoffs are the two who have partnered to sell access to their opted-in customers’ DNA results.

My Thoughts

I’ve been asked several times about my thoughts on this shift within the industry. I have refrained from saying much, because I think there has been way too much “hair on fire” clickbait reporting that is fanning the flames of fear, not only in the customer base, but in general.

I am sharing my thoughts, and while they are not entirely positive, in that there is clearly room for improvement, I want to emphasize that I am very upbeat about this industry as a whole, and this article ends very positively with suggestions for exactly that – so please read through.

Regardless of why, fewer new people are testing which of course results in fewer sales, and fewer new matches for us.

My suspicion is that each of the 4 reasons given above is accurate to some extent, and the cumulative effect plus a couple of other factors is the reason we’re seeing the downturn.

Let’s take a look at each one.

Market Saturation

Indeed, we’ve come a very long way from the time when DNA was a verboten topic on the old RootsWeb mailing lists and boards.

Early DNA adopters back then were accused of “cheating,” and worse. Our posts were deleted immediately. How times have changed!

As the technology matured, 23andMe began offering autosomal testing accompanied by cousin matching.

Ancestry initially stepped into the market with Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, but ultimately destroyed that database which included Y and mitochondrial DNA results from Relative Genetics, a company they had previously acquired. People in those databases, as well as who had irreplaceable samples in Sorenson, which Ancestry also purchased and subsequently took offline permanently have never forgotten.

Those genealogists have probably since tested at Ancestry, but they may be more inclined to test the rest of their family at places like Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage who have chromosome browsers and tools that support more serious researchers.

I think a contributing factor is that fewer “serious genealogists” are coming up in the ranks. The perception that all you need to do is enter a couple of generations and click on a few leaves, and you’re “done” misleads people as to the complexity and work involved in genealogical research. Not to mention how many of those hints are inaccurate and require analysis.

Having said that, I view each one of these people who are encouraged for the first time by an ad, even if it is misleading in its simplicity, as a potential candidate. We were all baby genealogists once, and some of us stayed for reasons known only to us. Maybe we have the genealogy gene😊

But yes, I would agree that the majority, by far, of serious genealogists have already tested someplace. What they have not done universally is transferred from 23andMe and Ancestry to the other companies that can help them, such as MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. If they had, the customer numbers at those companies would be higher. We all need to fish in every pond.

Advertising and Ethnicity

The DNA ads over the last few years have focused almost exclusively on ethnicity – the least reliable aspect of genetic genealogy – but also the “easiest” to understand if a customer takes their ethnicity percentages at face value. And of course, every consumer that purchases a test as a result of one of these ads does exactly that – spits or swabs, mails and opens their results to see what they “are” – full of excited anticipation.

Many people have absolutely no idea there’s more, like cousin matching – and many probably wouldn’t care.

The buying public who purchases due to these ads are clearly not early adopters, and most likely are not genealogists. One can hope that at least a few of them get hooked as a result, or at least enter a minimal tree.

Unfortunately, of the two companies experiencing layoffs, only Ancestry supports trees. Genealogy revolves around trees, pure and simple.

23andMe has literally had years to do so and has refused to natively support trees. Their FamilySearch link is not the same as supporting trees and tree matching. Their attempt at creating a genetic tree is laudable and has potential, but it’s not something that can be translated into a genealogical benefit for most people. I’m guessing that there aren’t any genealogists working for 23andMe, or they aren’t “heard” amid the vervre surrounding medical research.

All told, I’m not surprised that the two companies who are experiencing the layoffs are the two companies whose ads we saw most often focused on ethnicity, especially Ancestry. Who can forget the infamous kilt/leiderhosen ad that Ancestry ran? I still cringe.

Many people who test for ethnicity never sign on again – especially if they are unhappy with the results.

Ancestry and 23andMe spent a lot on ad campaigns, ramped up for the resulting sales, but now the ads are less effective, so not being run as much or at all. Sales are down. Who’s to say which came first, the chicken (fewer ads) or the egg (lower sales.)

This leads us to the next topic, add on sales.

No Repeat Sales

DNA testing, unless you have something else to offer customers is being positioned as a “one and done” sale, meaning that it’s a single purchase with no potential for additional revenue. While that’s offered as a reason for the downturn, it’s not exactly true for DNA test sales.

Ancestry clearly encourages customers to subscribe to their records database by withholding access to some DNA features without a subscription. For Ancestry, DNA is the bait for a yearly repeat sale of a subscription. Genealogists subscribe, of course, but people who aren’t genealogists don’t see the benefit.

Ancestry does not allow transfers into their database, which would provide for additional revenue opportunity. I suspect the reason is twofold. First, they want the direct testing revenue, but perhaps more importantly, in order to sell their customer’s DNA who have agreed to participate in research, or partner with research firms, those customers need to have tested on Ancestry’s custom chip. This holds true for 23andMe as well.

Through the 23andMe financial information in the earlier section, it’s clear that while the consumer only pays a one time fee to test, multiple research companies will pay over and over for access to that compiled consumer information.

Ancestry and 23andMe have the product, your opted-in DNA test that you paid for, and they can sell it over and over again. Hopefully, this revenue stream helps to fund development of genetic genealogical tools.

MyHeritage also provides access to advanced DNA tools by selling a subscription to their records database after a free trial. MyHeritage has integrated their DNA testing with genealogical records to provide their advanced Theories of Family Relativity tool, a huge boon to genealogists.

While Family Tree DNA doesn’t have a genealogical records database like Ancestry and MyHeritage, they provide Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, in addition to the autosomal Family Finder test. If more people tested Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, more genealogical walls would fall due to the unique inheritance path and the fact that neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA is admixed with DNA from the other parent.

Generally, only genealogists know about and are going to order Y DNA and mtDNA tests, or sponsor others to take them to learn more about their ancestral lines. These tests don’t provide yearly revenue like an ongoing subscription, but at least the fact that Family Tree DNA offers three different tests does provide the potential for at least some additional sales.

Both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA encourage uploads, and neither sell, lease or share your DNA for medical testing. You can find upload instructions, here.

In summary of this section, all of the DNA testing companies do have some sort of additional (potential) revenue stream from DNA testing, so it’s not exactly “one and done.”

Health Testing Products

As for health testing, 23andMe has always offered some level of health information for their customers. Health and research has always been their primary focus. Health and genealogy was originally bundled into one test. Today, DNA ancestry tests with the health option at 23andMe cost more than a genealogy-only test and are two separate products.

MyHeritage also offers a genealogy only DNA test and a genealogy plus health DNA test.

In 2019, both Ancestry and MyHeritage added health testing to their menu as upgrades for existing customers.

In November 2019, FamilyTreeDNA announced an alliance with Tovana for their customers to order a full exome grade medical test and accompanying report. I recently received mine and am still reviewing the results – they are extensive.

It’s clear that all four companies see at least some level of consumer interest in health and traits as a lucrative next step.

Medical Research and DNA Sales

Both Ancestry and 23andMe are pursuing and have invested in relationships with research institutions or Big Pharma. I have concerns with how this is handled. You may not.

I’m supportive of medical research, but I’m concerned that most people have no idea of the magnitude and scope of the contracts between Ancestry and 23andMe with Big Pharma and others, in part, because the details are not public. Customers may also not be aware of exactly what they are opting in to, what it means or where their DNA/DNA results are going.

As a consumer, I want to know where my DNA is, who is using it, and for what purpose. I don’t want my DNA to wind up being used for a nefarious purpose or something I don’t approve of. Think Uighurs in China by way of example. BGI Genetics, headquartered in China but with an Americas division and facilities in Silicon Valley has been a major research institute for years. I want to know what my DNA is being used for, and by whom. The fact that the companies won’t provide their customers with that information makes me makes me immediately wonder why not.

I would like to be able to opt-in for specific studies, not blindly for every use that is profitable to the company involved, all without my knowledge. No blank checks. For example, I opted out of 23andMe research when they patented the technology for designer babies.

Furthermore, I feel that if someone is going to profit from my DNA, it should be me since I paid for the sequencing. At minimum, a person whose DNA is used in these studies should receive some guarantee that they will be provided with any drug in which their DNA is used for development, in particular if their insurance doesn’t pay and they cannot afford the drug.

Drug prices have risen exponentially in the US recently, with many people no longer able to afford their medications. For example, the price of insulin has tripled over the last decade, causing people to ration or cut back on their insulin, if not go without altogether. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very people whose DNA was sold and used to create a drug had no access to it.

Of course, Ancestry and 23andMe are not required to inform consumers of which studies their DNA or DNA results are used for, so we don’t know. Always read all of the terms and conditions, and all links when authorizing anything.

Both companies indicate that your DNA results are anonymized before being shared, but we now know that’s not really possible anymore, because it’s relatively easy to re-identify someone. This is exactly how adoptees identify their biological parents through genetic matches. Dr. Yaniv Erlich reported in the journal Science November 2018 that more than 60% of Europeans could be reidentified through a genealogy database of only 1.28 million individuals.

I think greater transparency and a change in policy favoring the consumer would go a long way to instilling more confidence in the outside research relationships that both Ancestry and 23andMe pursue and maintain. It would probably increase their participation level as well if people could select the research initiatives to which they want to contribute their DNA.

Privacy Concerns

The news has been full of articles about genetic privacy, especially in the months since the Golden State Killer case was solved. That was only April 2018, but it seems like eons ago.

Unfortunately, much of what has been widely reported is inaccurate. For example, no company has ever thrown the data base open for the FBI or anyone to rummage through like a closet full of clothes. However, headlines and commentary like that attract outrage and hundreds of thousands of clicks. In the news and media industry, “it’s all about eyeballs.”

In one case, an article I interviewed for extensively in an educational capacity was written accurately, but the headline was awful. The journalist in question replied that the editors write the headlines, not the reporters.

One instance of this type of issue would be pretty insignificant, but the news in this vein hasn’t abated, always simmering just below the surface waiting for something to fan the flames. Outrage sells.

For the most part, those within the genealogy community at least attempt to sort out what is accurate reporting and what is not, but those people are the ones who have already tested.

People outside the genealogy community just know that they’ve now seen repeated headlines reporting that their genetic privacy either has been, could be or might be breached, and they are suspicious and leery. I would be too. They have no idea what that actually means, what is actually occurring, where, or that they are probably far more at risk on social media sites.

These people are not genealogists, and now they look at ads and think to themselves, “yes, I’d like to do that, but…”

And they never go any further.

People are frightened and simply disconnect from the topic – without testing.

If, as a consumer, you see several articles or posts saying that <fill in car model> is really bad, when you consider a purchase, even if you initially like that model, you’ll remember all of those negative messages. You may never realize that the source was the competition which would cause you to interpret those negative comments in a completely different light.

I think that some of the well-intentioned statements made by companies to reassure their existing and potential customers have actually done more harm than good by reinforcing that there’s a widespread issue. “You’re safe with us” can easily be interpreted as, “there’s something to be afraid of.”

Added to that is the sensitive topic of adoptee and unknown parent searches.

Reunion stories are wonderfully touching, and we all love them, but you seldom see the other side of the coin. Not every story has a happy ending, and many don’t. Not every parent wants to be found for a variety of reasons. If you’re the child and don’t want to find your parents, don’t test, but it doesn’t work the other way around. A parent can often be identified by their relatives’ DNA matches to their child.

While most news coverage reflects positive adoptee reunion outcomes, that’s not universal, and almost every family has a few lurking skeletons. People know that. Some people are fearful of what they might discover about themselves or family members and are correspondingly resistant to DNA testing. Realizing you might discover that your father isn’t your biological father if you DNA test gives people pause. It’s a devastating discovery and some folks decide they’d rather not take that chance, even though they believe it’s not possible.

The genealogical search techniques for identifying unknown parents or close relatives and the technique used by law enforcement to identify unknown people, either bodies or perpetrators is exactly the same. If you are in one of the databases, who you match can provide a very big hint to someone hunting for the identify of an unknown person.

People who are not genealogists, adoptees or parents seeking to find children placed for adoption may be becoming less comfortable with this idea in general.

Of course, the ability for law enforcement to upload kits to GedMatch/Verogen and Family Tree DNA, under specific controlled conditions, has itself been an explosive and divisive topic within and outside of the genealogy community since April 2018.

These law enforcement kits are either cold case remains of victims, known as “Does,” or body fluids from the scenes of violent crimes, such as rape, murder and potentially child abduction and aggravated assault. To date, since the Golden State Killer identification, numerous cases have produced a “solve.” ISOGG, a volunteer organization, maintains a page of known cases solved, here.

GEDmatch encourages people to opt-in for law-enforcement matching, meaning that their kit can be seen as a match to kits uploaded by law enforcement agencies or companies working on behalf of law enforcement agencies. If a customer doesn’t opt-in, their kit can’t be seen as a match to a law enforcement kit.

Family Tree DNA initially opted-out all EU kits from law enforcement matching, due to GDPR, and provides the option for their customers to opt-out of law-enforcement matching.

Neither MyHeritage, Ancestry nor 23andMe cooperate with law enforcment under any circumstances and have stated that they will actively resist all subpoenaes in court.

ISOGG provides a FAQ on Investigative Genetic Genealogy, here.

The two sides of the argument have rather publicly waged war on each other in an ongoing battle to convince people of the merits of their side of the equation, including working with news organizations.

Unfortunately, this topic is akin to arguing over politics. No one changes their mind, and everyone winds up mad.

Notice I’m not linking any articles here, not even my own. I do not want to fan these flames, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the topic of law enforcement usage itself, the on-going public genetic genealogy community war and resulting media coverage together have very probably contributed to the lagging sales. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that while a great division of opinion exists, and many people are opposed, there are also many people who are extremely supportive.

All of this, combined, intentionally or not, has introduced FUD, fear, uncertainty and doubt – a very old disinformation “sales technique.”

In a sense, for consumers, this has been like watching pigs mud-wrestle.

As my dad used to say, “Never mud-wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, you get muddy and the spectators can’t tell the difference.” The spectators in this case vote with their lack of spending and no one is a winner.

DNA Testing Was A FAD

Another theory is that genealogy DNA testing was just a FAD whose time has come and gone. I think the FAD was ethnicity testing, and that chicken has come home to roost.

Both 23andMe and Ancestry clearly geared up for testers attracted by their very successful ads. I was just recently on a cruise, and multiple times I heard people at another table discussing their ethnicity results from some unnamed company. They introduced the topic by saying, “I did my DNA.”

The discussion was almost always the same. Someone said that they thought their ethnicity was pretty accurate, someone else said theirs was awful, and the discussion went from there. Not one time did anyone ever mention a company name, DNA matching or any other functionality. I’m not even sure they understood there are different DNA testing companies.

If I was a novice listening-in, based on that discussion, I would have learned to doubt the accuracy of “doing my DNA.”

If most of the people who purchased ethnicity tests understood in advance that ethnicity testing truly is “just an estimate,” they probably wouldn’t have purchased in the first place. If they understood the limitations and had properly set expectations, perhaps they would not have been as unhappy and disenchanted with their results. I realize that’s not very good marketing, but I think that chicken coming home to roost is a very big part of what we’re seeing now.

The media has played this up too, with stories about how the ethnicity of identical twins doesn’t match. If people bother to read more than the headline, and IF it’s a reasonably accurate article, they’ll come to understand why and how that might occur. If not, what they’ll take away is that DNA testing is wrong and unreliable. So don’t bother.

Furthermore, most people don’t understand that ethnicity testing and cousin matching are two entirely different aspects of a DNA test. The “accuracy” of ethnicity is not related to the accuracy of cousin matching, but once someone questions the credibility of DNA testing – their lack of confidence is universal.

I would agree, the FAD is over – meaning lots of people testing primarily for ethnicity. I think the marketing challenge going forward is to show people that DNA testing can be useful for other things – and to make that easy.

Ethnicity was the low hanging fruit and it’s been picked.

Slowed Growth – Not Dead in the Water

The rate of growth has slowed. This does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that genetic genealogy or DNA testing is dead in the water. DNA fishes for us 365x24x7.

For example, just today, I received a message from 23andMe that 75 new relatives have joined 23andMe. I also received match notifications from Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.  Hey – calorie-free treats!!!

These new matches are nothing to sneeze at. I remember when I was thrilled over ONE new match.

I have well over 100,000 matches if you combine my matches at the four vendors.

Without advanced tools like triangulation, Phased Family Matching, Theories of Family Relativity, ThruLines, DNAPainter, DNAgedcom and Genetic Affairs, I’d have absolutely no prayer of grouping and processing this number of matches for genealogy.

Even if I received no new matches for the next year, I’d still not be finished analyzing the autosomal matches I already have.

This Too Shall Pass

At least I hope it will.

I think people will still test, but the market has corrected. This level of testing is probably the “new normal.”

Neither Ancestry or 23andMe are spending the big ad dollars – or at least not as big.

In order for DNA testing companies to entice customers into purchasing subscriptions or add-on products, tools need to be developed or enhanced that encourage customers to return to the site over and over. This could come in the form of additional results or functionality calculated on their behalf.

That “on their behalf” point is important. Vendors need to focus on making DNA fun, and productive, not work. New tools, especially in the last year or two, have taken a big step in that direction. Make the customer wonder every day what gift is waiting for him or her that wasn’t there yesterday. Make DNA useful and fun!

I would call this “DNA crack.” 😊

Cooking Up DNA Crack!

In order to assist the vendors, I’ve compiled one general suggestion plus what I would consider to be the “Big 3 Wish List” for each of their DNA products in term of features or improvements that would encourage customers to either use or return to their sites. (You’re welcome.)

I don’t want this to appear negative, so I’ve also included the things I like most about each vendor.

If you have something to add, please feel free to comment in a positive fashion.

Family Tree DNA

I Love: Y and Mitochondrial DNA, Phased Family Matching, and DNA projects

General Suggestion – Fix chronic site loading issues which discourage customers

  • Tree Matching – fix the current issues with trees and implement tree matching for DNA matches
  • Triangulation – including by match group and segment
  • Clustering – some form of genetic networks

MyHeritage

I Love: Theories of Family Relativity, triangulation, wide variety of filters, SmartMatches and Record Matches

General – Clarify confusing subscription options in comparative grid format

  • Triangulation by group and segment
  • View DNA matches by ancestor
  • Improved Ethnicity

Ancestry

I Love: Database size, ThruLines, record and DNA hints (green leaves)

General – Focus on the customers’ needs and repeated requests

  • Accept uploads
  • Chromosome Browser (yes, I know this is a dead horse, but that doesn’t change the need)
  • Triangulation (dead horse’s brother)

23andMe

I Love: Triangulation, Ethnicity quality, ethnicity segments identified, painted and available for download

General – Focus on genealogy tools if you’re going to sell a genealogy test

  • Implement individual customer trees – not Family Search
  • Remove 2000 match limit (which is functionally less after 23andMe hides the people not opted into matching)
  • DNA + Tree Matching

Summary

In summary, we, as consumers need to maintain our composure, assuring others that no one’s hair is on fire and the sky really is not falling. We need to calmly educate as opposed to frighten.

Just the facts.

Other approaches don’t serve us in the end. Frightening people away may “win” the argumentative battle of the day, but we all lose the war if people are no longer willing to test.

This is much like a lifeboat – we all succeed together, or we all lose.

Everybody row!

As genealogists, we need to:

  • Focus on verifying ancestors and solving genealogy challenges
  • Sharing those victories with others, including family members
  • Encourage our relatives to test, and transfer so that their testing investment provides as much benefit as possible
  • Offer to help relatives with the various options on each vendor’s platform
  • Share the joy

People share exciting good news with others, especially on Facebook and social media platforms, and feel personally invested when you share new results with them. Collaboration bonds people.

A positive attitude, balanced perspective and excitement about common ancestors goes a very, very long was in terms of encouraging others.

We have more matches now than ever before, along with more and better tools. Matches are still rolling in, every single day.

New announcements are expected at Rootstech in a couple short weeks.

There’s so much opportunity and work to do.

The sky is not falling. It rained a bit.

The seas may have been stormy, but as a genealogist, the sun is out and a rising tide lifts us all.

Rising tide

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2019: The Year and Decade of Change

2019 ends both a year and a decade. In the genealogy and genetic genealogy world, the overwhelmingly appropriate word to define both is “change.”

Everything has changed.

Millions more records are online now than ever before, both through the Big 3, being FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Ancestry, but also through multitudes of other sites preserving our history. Everyplace from National Archives to individual blogs celebrating history and ancestors.

All you need to do is google to find more than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve made more progress in the past decade that in all of the previous ones combined.

Just Beginning?

If you’re just beginning with genetic genealogy, welcome! I wrote this article just for you to see what to expect when your DNA results are returned.

If you’ve been working with genetic genealogy results for some time, or would like a great review of the landscape, let’s take this opportunity to take a look at how far we’ve come in the past year and decade.

It’s been quite a ride!

What Has Changed?

EVERYTHING

Literally.

A decade ago, we had Y and mitochondrial DNA, but just the beginning of the autosomal revolution in the genetic genealogy space.

In 2010, Family Tree DNA had been in business for a decade and offered both Y and mitochondrial DNA testing.

Ancestry offered a similar Y and mtDNA product, but not entirely the same markers, nor full sequence mitochondrial. Ancestry subsequently discontinued that testing and destroyed the matching database. Ancestry bought the Sorenson database that included Y, mitochondrial and autosomal, then destroyed that data base too.

23andMe was founded in 2006 and began autosomal testing in 2007 for health and genealogy. Genealogists piled on that bandwagon.

Family Tree DNA added autosomal to their menu in 2010, but Ancestry didn’t offer an autosomal product until 2012 and MyHeritage not until 2016. Both Ancestry and MyHeritage have launched massive marketing and ad campaigns to help people figure out “who they are,” and who their ancestors were too.

Family Tree DNA

2019 FTDNA

Family Tree DNA had a banner year with the Big Y-700 product, adding over 211,000 Y DNA SNPs in 2019 alone to total more than 438,000 by year end, many of which became newly defined haplogroups. You can read more here. Additionally, Family Tree DNA introduced the Block Tree and public Y and public mitochondrial DNA trees.

Anyone who ignores Y DNA testing does so at their own peril. Information produced by Y DNA testing (and for that matter, mitochondrial too) cannot be obtained any other way. I wrote about utilizing mitochondrial DNA here and a series about how to utilize Y DNA begins in a few days.

Family Tree DNA remains the premier commercial testing company to offer high resolution and full sequence testing and matching, which of course is the key to finding genealogy solutions.

In the autosomal space, Family Tree DNA is the only testing company to provide Phased Family Matching which uses your matches on both sides of your tree, assuming you link 3rd cousins or closer, to assign other testers to specific parental sides of your tree.

Family Tree DNA accepts free uploads from other testing companies with the unlock for advanced features only $19. You can read about that here and here.

MyHeritage

MyHeritage, the DNA testing dark horse, has come from behind from their late entry into the field in 2016 with focused Europeans ads and the purchase of Promethease in 2019. Their database stands at 3.7 million, not as many as either Ancestry or 23andMe, but for many people, including me – MyHeritage is much more useful, especially for my European lines. Not only is MyHeritage a genealogy company, piloted by Gilad Japhet, a passionate genealogist, but they have introduced easy-to-use advanced tools for consumers during 2019 to take the functionality lead in autosomal DNA.

2019 MyHeritage.png

You can read more about MyHeritage and their 2019 accomplishments, here.

As far as I’m concerned, the MyHeritage bases-loaded 4-product “Home Run” makes MyHeritage the best solution for genetic genealogy via either testing or transfer:

  • Triangulation – shows testers where 3 or more people match each other. You can read more, here.
  • Tree Matching – SmartMatching for both DNA testers and those who have not DNA tested
  • Theories of Family Relativity – a wonderful new tool introduced in February. You can read more here.
  • AutoClusters – Integrated cluster technology helps you to visualize which groups of people match each other.

One of their best features, Theories of Family Relativity connects the dots between people you DNA match with disparate trees and other documents, such as census. This helps you and others break down long-standing brick walls. You can read more, here.

MyHeritage encourages uploads from other testing companies with basic functions such as matching for free. Advanced features cost either a one-time unlock fee of $29 or are included with a full subscription which you can try for free, here. You can read about what is free and what isn’t, here.

You can develop a testing and upload strategy along with finding instructions for how to upload here and here.

23andMe

Today, 23andMe is best known for health, having recovered after having had their wings clipped a few years back by the FDA. They were the first to offer Health results, leveraging the genealogy marketspace to attract testers, but have recently been eclipsed by both Family Tree DNA with their high end full Exome Tovana test and MyHeritage with their Health upgrade which provides more information than 23andMe along with free genetic counseling if appropriate. Both the Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage tests are medically supervised, so can deliver more results.

23andMe has never fully embraced genetic genealogy by adding the ability to upload and compare trees. In 2019, they introduced a beta function to attempt to create a genetic tree on your behalf based on how your matches match you and each other.

2019 23andMe.png

These trees aren’t accurate today, nor are they deep, but they are a beginning – especially considering that they are not based on existing trees. You can read more here.

The best 23andMe feature for genealogy, as far as I’m concerned, is their ethnicity along with the fact that they actually provide testers with the locations of their ethnicity segments which can help testers immensely, especially with minority ancestry matching. You can read about how to do this for yourself, here.

23andMe generally does not allow uploads, probably because they need people to test on their custom-designed medical chip. Very rarely, once that I know of in 2018, they do allow uploads – but in the past, uploaders do not receive all of the genealogy features and benefits of testing.

You can however, download your DNA file from 23andMe and upload elsewhere, with instructions here.

Ancestry

Ancestry is widely known for their ethnicity ads which are extremely effective in recruiting new testers. That’s the great news. The results are frustrating to seasoned genealogists who get to deal with the fallout of confused people trying to figure out why their results don’t match their expectations and family stories. That’s the not-so-great news.

However, with more than 15 million testers, many of whom DO have genealogy trees, a serious genealogist can’t *NOT* test at Ancestry. Testers do need to be aware that not all features are available to DNA testers who don’t also subscribe to Ancestry’s genealogy subscriptions. For example, you can’t see your matches’ trees beyond a 5 generation preview without a subscription. You can read more about what you do and don’t receive, here.

Ancestry is the only one of the major companies that doesn’t provide a chromosome browser, despite pleas for years to do so, but they do provide ThruLines that show you other testers who match your DNA and show a common ancestor with you in their trees.

2019 Ancestry.png

ThruLines will also link partial trees – showing you ancestral descendants from the perspective of the ancestor in question, shown above. You can read about ThruLines, here.

Of course, without a chromosome browser, this match is only as good as the associated trees, and there is no way to prove the genealogical connection. It’s possible to all be wrong together, or to be related to some people through a completely different ancestor. Third party tools like Genetic Affairs and cluster technology help resolve these types of issues. You can read more, here.

You can’t upload DNA files from other testing companies to Ancestry, probably due to their custom medical chip. You can download your file from Ancestry and upload to other locations, with instructions here.

Selling Customers’ DNA

Neither Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage nor Gedmatch sell, lease or otherwise share their customers’ DNA, and all three state (minimally) they will not in the future without prior authorization.

All companies utilize their customers’ DNA internally to enhance and improve their products. That’s perfectly normal.

Both Ancestry and 23andMe sell consumers DNA to both known and unknown partners if customers opt-in to additional research. That’s the purpose of all those questions.

If you do agree or opt-in, and for those who tested prior to when the opt-in began, consumers don’t know who their DNA has been sold to, where it is or for what purposes it’s being utilized. Although anonymized (pseudonymized) before sale, autosomal results can easily be identified to the originating tester (if someone were inclined to do so) as demonstrated by adoptees identifying parents and law enforcement identifying both long deceased remains and criminal perpetrators of violent crimes. You can read more about re-identification here, although keep in mind that the re-identification frequency (%) would be much higher now than it was in 2018.

People are widely split on this issue. Whatever you decide, to opt-in or not, just be sure to do your homework first.

Always read the terms and conditions fully and carefully of anything having to do with genetics.

Genealogy

The bottom line to genetic genealogy is the genealogy aspect. Genealogists want to confirm ancestors and discover more about those ancestors. Some information can only be discovered via DNA testing today, distant Native heritage, for example, breaking through brick walls.

This technology, as it has advanced and more people have tested, has been a godsend for genealogists. The same techniques have allowed other people to locate unknown parents, grandparents and close relatives.

Adoptees

Not only are genealogists identifying people long in the past that are their ancestors, but adoptees and those seeking unknown parents are making discoveries much closer to home. MyHeritage has twice provided thousands of free DNA tests via their DNAQuest program to adoptees seeking their biological family with some amazing results.

The difference between genealogy, which looks back in time several generations, and parent or grand-parent searches is that unknown-parent searches use matches to come forward in time to identify parents, not backwards in time to identify distant ancestors in common.

Adoptee matching is about identifying descendants in common. According to Erlich et al in an October 2018 paper, here, about 60% of people with European ancestry could be identified. With the database growth since that time, that percentage has risen, I’m sure.

You can read more about the adoption search technique and how it is used, here.

Adoptee searches have spawned their own subculture of sorts, with researchers and search angels that specialize in making these connections. Do be aware that while many reunions are joyful, not all discoveries are positively received and the revelations can be traumatic for all parties involved.

There’s ying and yang involved, of course, and the exact same techniques used for identifying biological parents are also used to identify cold-case deceased victims of crime as well as violent criminals, meaning rapists and murderers.

Crimes Solved

The use of genetic genealogy and adoptee search techniques for identifying skeletal remains of crime victims, as well as identifying criminals in order that they can be arrested and removed from the population has resulted in a huge chasm and division in the genetic genealogy community.

These same issues have become popular topics in the press, often authored by people who have no experience in this field, don’t understand how these techniques are applied or function and/or are more interested in a sensational story than in the truth. The word click-bait springs to mind although certainly doesn’t apply equally to all.

Some testers are adamantly pro-usage of their DNA in order to identify victims and apprehend violent criminals. Other testers, not so much and some, on the other end of the spectrum are vehemently opposed. This is a highly personal topic with extremely strong emotions on both sides.

The first such case was the Golden State Killer, which has been followed in the past 18 months or so by another 100+ solved cases.

Regardless of whether or not people want their own DNA to be utilized to identify these criminals and victims, providing closure for families, I suspect the one thing we can all agree on is that we are grateful that these violent criminals no longer live among us and are no longer preying on innocent victims.

I wrote about the Golden State Killer, here, as well as other articles here, here, here and here.

In the genealogy community, various vendors have adopted quite different strategies relating to these kinds of searches, as follows:

  • Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage – have committed to fight all access attempts by law enforcement, including court ordered subpoenas.
  • MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch allow uploads, so forensic kits, meaning kits from deceased remains or rape kits could be uploaded to search for matches, the same as any other kit. Law Enforcement uploads violate the MyHeritage terms of service. Both Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch have special law enforcement procedures in place. All three companies have measures in place to attempt to detect unauthorized forensic uploads.
  • Family Tree DNA has provided a specific Law Enforcement protocol and guidelines for forensic uploads, here. All EU customers were opted out earlier in 2019, but all new or existing non-EU customers need to opt out if they do not want their DNA results available for matching to law enforcement kits.
  • GEDmatch was recently sold to Verogen, a DNA forensics company, with information, here. Currently GEDMatch customers are opted-out of matching for law enforcement kits, but can opt-in. Verogen, upon purchase of GEDmatch, required all users to read the terms and conditions and either accept the terms or delete their kits. Users can also delete their kits or turn off/on law enforcement matching at any time.

New Concerns

Concerns in late 2019 have focused on the potential misuse of genetic matching to potentially target subsets of individuals by despotic regimes such as has been done by China to the Uighurs.

You can read about potential risks here, here and here, along with a recent DoD memo here.

Some issues spelled out in the papers can be resolved by vendors agreeing to cryptographically sign their files when customers download. Of course, this would require that everyone, meaning all vendors, play nice in the sandbox. So far, that hasn’t happened although I would expect that the vendors accepting uploads would welcome cryptographic signatures. That pretty much leaves Ancestry and 23andMe. I hope they will step up to the plate for the good of the industry as a whole.

Relative to the concerns voiced in the papers and by the DoD, I do not wish to understate any risks. There ARE certainly risks of family members being identified via DNA testing, which is, after all, the initial purpose even though the current (and future) uses were not foreseen initially.

In most cases, the cow has already left that barn. Even if someone new chooses not to test, the critical threshold is now past to prevent identification of individuals, at least within the US and/or European diaspora communities.

I do have concerns:

  • Websites where the owners are not known in the genealogical community could be collecting uploads for clandestine purposes. “Free” sites are extremely attractive to novices who tend to forget that if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product. Please be very cognizant and leery. Actually, just say no unless you’re positive.
  • Fearmongering and click-bait articles in general will prevent and are already causing knee-jerk reactions, causing potential testers to reject DNA testing outright, without doing any research or reading terms and conditions.
  • That Ancestry and 23andMe, the two major vendors who don’t accept uploads will refuse to add crypto-signatures to protect their customers who download files.

Every person needs to carefully make their own decisions about DNA testing and participating in sharing through third party sites.

Health

Not surprisingly, the DNA testing market space has cooled a bit this past year. This slowdown is likely due to a number of factors such as negative press and the fact that perhaps the genealogical market is becoming somewhat saturated. Although, I suspect that when vendors announce major new tools, their DNA kit sales spike accordingly.

Look at it this way, do you know any serious genealogists who haven’t DNA tested? Most are in all of the major databases, meaning Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage and GedMatch.

All of the testing companies mentioned above (except GEDmatch who is not a testing company) now have a Health offering, designed to offer existing and new customers additional value for their DNA testing dollar.

23andMe separated their genealogy and health offering years ago. Ancestry and MyHeritage now offer a Health upgrade. For existing customers, FamilyTreeDNA offers the Cadillac of health tests through Tovana.

I would guess it goes without saying here that if you really don’t want to know about potential health issues, don’t purchase these tests. The flip side is, of course, that most of the time, a genetic predisposition is nothing more and not a death sentence.

From my own perspective, I found the health tests to be informative, actionable and in some cases, they have been lifesaving for friends.

Whoever knew genealogy might save your life.

Innovative Third-Party Tools

Tools, and fads, come and go.

In the genetic genealogy space, over the years, tools have burst on the scene to disappear a few months later. However, the last few years have been won by third party tools developed by well-known and respected community members who have created tools to assist other genealogists.

As we close this decade, these are my picks of the tools that I use almost daily, have proven to be the most useful genealogically and that I feel I just “couldn’t live without.”

And yes, before you ask, some of these have a bit of a learning curve, but if you are serious about genealogy, these are all well worthwhile:

  • GedMatch – offers a wife variety of tools including triangulation, half versus fully identical segments and the ability to see who your matches also match. One of the tools I utilize regularly is segment search to see who else matches me on a specific segment, attached to an ancestor I’m researching. GedMatch, started by genealogists, has lasted more than a decade prior to the sale in December 2019.
  • Genetic Affairs – a barn-burning newcomer developed by Evert-Jan Blom in 2018 wins this years’ “Best” award from me, titled appropriately, the “SNiPPY.”.

Genetic Affairs 2019 SNiPPY Award.png

Genetic Affairs offers clustering, tree building between your matches even when YOU don’t have a tree. You can read more here.

2019 genetic affairs.png

Just today, Genetic Affairs released a new cluster interface with DNAPainter, example shown above.

  • DNAPainter – THE chromosome painter created by Jonny Perl just gets better and better, having added pedigree tree construction this year and other abilities. I wrote a composite instructional article, here.
  • DNAGedcom.com and Genetic.Families, affiliated with DNAAdoption.org – Rob Warthen in collaboration with others provides tools like clustering combined with triangulation. My favorite feature is the gathering of all direct ancestors of my matches’ trees at the various vendors where I’ve DNA tested which allows me to search for common surnames and locations, providing invaluable hints not otherwise available.

Promising Newcomer

  • MitoYDNA – a non-profit newcomer by folks affiliated with DNAAdoption and DNAGedcom is designed to replace YSearch and MitoSearch, both felled by the GDPR ax in 2018. This website allows people to upload their Y and mitochondrial DNA results and compare the values to each other, not just for matching, which you can do at Family Tree DNA, but also to see the values that do and don’t match and how they differ. I’ll be taking MitoYDNA for a test drive after the first of the year and will share the results with you.

The Future

What does the future hold? I almost hesitate to guess.

  • Artificial Intelligence Pedigree Chart – I think that in the not-too-distant future we’ll see the ability to provide testers with a “one and done” pedigree chart. In other words, you will test and receive at least some portion of your genealogy all tidily presented, red ribbon untied and scroll rolled out in front of you like you’re the guest on one of those genealogy TV shows.

Except it’s not a show and is a result of DNA testing, segment triangulation, trees and other tools which narrow your ancestors to only a few select possibilities.

Notice I said, “the ability to.” Just because we have the ability doesn’t mean a vendor will implement this functionality. In fact, just think about the massive businesses built upon the fact that we, as genealogists, have to SEARCH incessantly for these elusive answers. Would it be in the best interest of these companies to just GIVE you those answers when you test?

If not, then these types of answers will rest with third parties. However, there’s a hitch. Vendors generally don’t welcome third parties offering advanced tools and therefore block those tools, even though they are being used BY the customer or with their explicit authorization to massage their own data.

On the other hand, as a genealogist, I would welcome this feature with open arms – because as far as I’m concerned, the identification of that ancestor is just the first step. I get to know them by fleshing out their bones by utilizing those research records.

In fact, I’m willing to pony up to the table and I promise, oh-so-faithfully, to maintain my subscription lifelong if one of those vendors will just test me. Please, please, oh pretty-please put me to the test!

I guess you know what my New Year’s Wish is for this and upcoming years now too😊

What About You?

What do you think the high points of 2019 have been?

How about the decade?

What do you think the future holds?

Do you care to make any predictions?

Are you planning to focus on any particular goal or genealogy problem in 2020?

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Disclosure

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

Genealogy Products and Services

Genealogy Research

Fun DNA Stuff

  • Celebrate DNA – customized DNA themed t-shirts, bags and other items

FamilyTreeDNA Thanksgiving Sale + New Comprehensive Health Report

FTDNA Thanksgiving.png

FamilyTreeDNA’s Thanksgiving Sale has begun. Almost everything is on sale. I don’t know about you, but I like to have all of my holiday planning and purchasing DONE before Thanksgiving. Some of the gifts I wanted for people this year are already sold out or backordered – but DNA testing is always available. The gift of history, and now of health too.

I wrote about the Big Y test and upgrades just a couple days ago, here, including the restructuring of the Big Y product resulting in a permanent $100 dollar reduction, in addition to sale prices.

FamilyTreeDNA has made a few product changes and introduced the new Tovana Health test.

I’ve included a special section of frequently asked questions (and answers) about tests and when upgrading does, and doesn’t, make sense.

Individual Tests

Let’s start with the sale prices for individual tests.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder (FF) $59 $79 $20
Y DNA 37 $99 $169 $70
Y DNA 111 *1 $199 $359 $160
Big Y-700 *2 $399 $649 $250
Mitochondrial Full Sequence *3 $139 $199 $60

*1 – You may notice that only the 37-marker and 111-marker tests are listed above. The 111-marker test was reduced to the 67-marker sale price, so, at least during the sale, the 67-marker test is not available. In other words, you get 111 markers for the price of 67.

*2 – The Big Y-700 test includes the Y 111 test plus another 589 STR markers (to equal or exceed 700 markers total) plus the SNP testing. You can read about the Big Y here.

*3 – The mitochondrial full sequence (FMS) aka mtFullSequence test is now the only mitochondrial DNA test available. I’m glad to see this change. The price of the mtFullSequence test has now dropped to the level of the less specific partial tests of yesteryear. Genealogists really need the granularity of the full test.

Bundles save even more – an additional $9 over purchasing the bundled items separately

Bundles

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Family Finder + mtFullSequence $189 $278 $89
Family Finder + Y-37 $149 $248 $188
Family Finder + Y111 $249 $438 $189
Y-37 + mtFullSequence $229 $368 $139
Y-111 + mtFullSequence $329 $558 $229
Family Finder + Y-37 + mtFull $279 $447 $170
Family Finder + Y-111 + mtFull $379 $637 $258

When Does Upgrading Make Sense?

Y DNA Q&A

Q – If I have several Y DNA matches, will upgrading help?

A – If you need more specific or granular information to tease your line out of several matches – upgrading will help refine your matches and determine who is a closer match, assuming some of your matches have tested at a higher level.

Q – If I have tested at a lower level of STR markers and have no matches, will I have matches at a higher level?

A – Sometimes, but not usually. If your mutations just happen to fall in the lower panels, you may have matches on higher panels that allow for more mutations. If you do have matches on a higher test in this circumstance, the person may or may not have your surname. You can also join haplogroup and surname projects where thresholds are slightly lower for matching within projects.

If you don’t test, you’ll never know.

Q – If I have no matches on STR markers, meaning 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111, will upgrading to the Big Y be beneficial?

A – Possibly to probably – and here’s why, even if you don’t initially have matches:

  • The Big Y-700 provides multiple tools including matches at the SNP level, not just the STR level, so you are matched in two entirely different ways.
  • You may have same-surname matches at the SNP level that you do not have at the STR level which are further back in time, but still valuable and relevant to your family history.
  • You may have SNP matches that aren’t STR matches that are not your surname, but reflect your family history before the advent of surnames. These matches can tell you where your family came from before you can locate them in records. In fact, this is the ONLY way you can track your family before the advent of surnames.
  • Even if you don’t have matches, you’ll receive all of your SNP markers that allow you to view your results on the Block Tree, which is in essence a migration map back through time. You can read about the Block Tree here.
  • Your test contributes to building the phylotree – meaning the Y DNA tree of man – which benefits all genealogists. In just the first 10 months of 2019, 32,000 new SNPs have been placed on the tree, resulting in about 5,000 new individual branches. All because of Big Y-700
  • New people test every day and your DNA tests fish for you every minute of every day.

Mitochondrial DNA Q&A

If you’ve previously taken lower level mitochondrial HVR1 and HVR2 tests, now is the perfect time to upgrade.

Q – I have 5,000 <or fill in large number here> HVR1 level matches. Will upgrading reduce the number of matches to those that are more meaningful?

A – Absolutely! Your most genealogically relevant matches, meaning closest in time, are those that match you exactly at the full sequence level.

Q – I don’t know where my ancestor was from. Can a full sequence test help me?

A – Yes. You can use the Matches Map and see where the ancestors of your closest matches were from. That’s a huge hint. You can also utilize your haplogroup, which, in some instances, will point to a specific continent such as Africa, Europe, Asia or Native American and Jewish populations.

Q – If I have no matches at the HVR1 or HVR2 level? Will an upgrade help me?

A – Possibly. Both the HVR1 and HVR2 (now obsolete) tests only allowed for one mutation difference to be considered a match. The full sequence allows for many more differences. If you were unlucky and your mutations just happened to fall in the HVR1 or HVR2 levels, it would prevent a match which will occur at a higher level. Either way, you’ll receive information about your rare mutations – which may well explain why you don’t have matches (yet)! You’ll also receive a full haplogroup which will be useful, allowing you to use the mitochondrial haplotree to track back in time, which I wrote about here.

There are so many ways to obtain useful information. I wrote a step-by-step guide to using mitochondrial DNA, here.

Upgrade Options

Please note that if you are considering an upgrade, it maybe beneficial to upgrade to the maximum test available for either the Y or mitochondrial DNA, especially if you cannot obtain more of the sample. Of course, if it’s your own sample, you can always swab again, but others can’t.

Every time a vial is opened for testing, more DNA is used, until there is none left. Additionally, DNA degrades with time, depending on the quality of the original scraping and the amount of bacteria in the sample. Generally, the sample is viable for at least 5 years, but not always. Some older samples remain viable for many years. There’s no way to know in advance.

Test Sale Price Regular Price Savings
Y-12 to Y-37 $79 $109 $30
Y-12 to Y-67 $149 $199 $50
Y-12 to Y-111 $169 $359 $190
Y-25 to Y-37 $49 $59 $10
Y-25 to Y-67 $119 $159 $40
Y-25 to Y-111 $149 $269 $120
Y-37 to Y-67 $69 $109 $40
Y-37 to Y-111 $119 $228 $109
Y-67 to Y-111 $69 $99 $30
Y-12 to Big Y-700 $359 $629 $270
Y-25 to Big Y-700 $349 $599 $250
Y-37 to Big Y-700 $319 $569 $250
Y-67 to Big Y-700 $259 $499 $240
Y-111 to Big Y-700 $229 $499 $270
Big Y-500 to Big Y-700 $189 $249 $60
HVR1 to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60
mtDNA Plus to mtFullSequence $99 $159 $60

Tovana – A New Limited Availability Exome Medical Report 

Recently, FamilyTreeDNA did a limited announcement about a medically supervised health exome health test for a subset of customers, specifically customers who:

  • Don’t live in Pennsylvania, New York, California or Maryland, due to state law restrictions.
  • Took the Family Finder test since October 2015 – meaning no transfers. The Family Finder test is used in conjunction with the exome chip to generate the customer report.

If you took the Family Finder test before October 2015, you are eligible but the rollout is being done in stages and your kit will be eligible in December.

This Tovana Genome Report is focused towards people who are health and wellness conscious. Meaning those who don’t want to die a premature death that might be preventable.

All genetic health tests focus on predispositions. You may or may not develop the condition, with a few notable exceptions, but forewarned is forearmed.

You might, however, be VERY interested in intervening, one way or another, BEFORE you develop potentially life-threatening conditions, or taking preventative actions to avoid developing those conditions. At the very least, you can be aware and monitor your health to catch them early, when they are treatable, manageable or potentially curable.

It only takes one, ONE, terrifying experience to convince you that health testing might make a difference.

Once you’re embroiled in that health nightmare, there is no going back in time to take a test and enact preventative measures.

My mother might still be with us had we known she was susceptible to blood clots. My sister had metastatic breast cancer.

Let me show you something from a Tovana report.

FTDNA Tovana.png

This portion of a page from an actual customer report shows this individual is positive for a mutation for a clotting disorder where clots are formed that can cause strokes, pulmonary embolisms and DVTs (deep vein thrombosis).

I’d give anything, any amount of money – to have had advance warning so we could have watched my mother more vigilantly and taken simple proactive measures that might have prevented her stroke and resulting death.

What would another 10 or 15 years with her have been worth?

We could have and would have discussed this with her doctors and asked about preventative measures, like taking aspirin or other measures as indicated by her health and other medications. (Please do not self-diagnose or medicate without discussing with your physician as drugs interact in ways patients may not be aware of.)

Compared to hospital (or funeral) bills, not to mention the sheer agony…the cost of this test at $799 is irrelevant. What better way to say, “I love you”?

I would pick up bottles by the side of the road, if I needed to, to be able to purchase this test for my Mom 15 years ago. Sadly, this type of testing wasn’t available then, but it is now.

Ignorance is not bliss.

I want to know if I or my children carry these predispositions so that we can take action.

The Tovana Test is Different

The Tovana test is different from and much more comprehensive than the tests offered by Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe that utilize only your autosomal genealogy test.

To begin with, the Tovana test is run on an exome chip that tests over 50 million locations in addition to the 700,000+ locations tested in the Family Finder test.

The completed report that I viewed was 128 pages in length, with lots of graphics. This  explain explains autosomal dominant inheritance.

FTDNA Tovana autosomal dominant.png

The report is very user-friendly, including drawings, a risk-meter for polygenic conditions that involve more than a simple yes or no answer, explanations and recommendations for each condition reported.

FTDNA Tovana risk meter.png

And yes, in case you’re wondering, the report also includes the fun traits like ear wax and such that you can discuss if you’re bored beyond imagination at a cocktail party.

Each report is centered around and tailored to the family information you provide, such as known Jewish heritage, or known cases of cancer.

FTDNA Tovana Table of Contents.png

Comparisons

I’ve compiled a chart with some comparison details – although this test is in a class by itself where the other three tests compete directly with each other.

I’ve personally taken the other tests, except for the Ancestry upgrade. I also took an early exome test a few years ago, but THAT ONE CAME WITH NO REPORT OR EXPLANATIONS.

  23andme Ancestry Health Core MyHeritage Family Tree DNA Tovana Test
# DNA locations tested About 700,000 About 700,000 About 700,000 >50 million plus the 700,000 in the Family Finder test
# Results Provided to Customer 78 health + polygenic diabetes +34 traits such as freckles 84 88+ polygenic heart, diabetes, breast cancer 3000+ including many polygenic diseases including heart, diabetes & 35 genes associated with breast cancer
Physician Oversight No PWNHealth PWNHealth Tovana
Personal Clinical Analysis No No No Yes
Analysis, Interpretation by board certified geneticist No No No Yes
Genetic Counseling No Yes, limited Yes, limited $50 for 30-minute session
Updates Yes, episodic depending on test level, may not receive, sometimes have to purchase new test No, one time results only Yes, free for first year then with $99 per year subscription Not at this time, but under consideration
Cost – Initial Purchase $149 upgrade only after DNA test $199 new purchase -combined health plus ancestry $799 introductory price
Upgrade if Already Tested No $49 upgrade if have already tested $120 to upgrade if already tested, plus $99 year subscription after year 1 Not relevant
Requirements None This is an upgrade from an existing Ancestry test Must test with MyHeritage, not a transfer kit

Are You Eligible?

To see if you are one of the customers eligible to purchase the Tovane Genome Report, sign in, here, and then check your personal page under “Additional Features” to see if the Tovana Genome Report is available. If so, click for more information or to order.

FTDNA Tovana order.png

You’ve probably guessed what my family is receiving for Christmas😊. No one else is going to suffer from or die from something preventable if I can help it.

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Disclosure

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

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Whole Genome Sequencing – Is It Ready for Prime Time?

Dante Labs is offering a whole genomes test for $199 this week as an early Black Friday special.

Please note that just as I was getting ready to push the publish button on this article, Veritas Genetics also jumped on the whole sequencing bandwagon for $199 for the first 1000 testers Nov. 19 and 20th. In this article, I discuss the Dante Labs test. I have NOT reviewed Veritas, their test nor terms, so the same cautions discussed below apply to them and any other company offering whole genome sequencing. The Veritas link is here.

Update – Veritas provides the VCF file for an additional $99, but does not provide FASTQ or BAM files, per their Tweet to me.

I have no affiliation with either company.

$199 (US) is actually a great price for a whole genome test, but before you click and purchase, there are some things you need to know about whole genome sequencing (WGS) and what it can and can’t do for you. Or maybe better stated, what you’ll have to do with your own results before you can utilize the information for genealogical purposes.

The four questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Why do you want to consider whole genome testing?
  • What question(s) are you trying to answer?
  • What information do you seek?
  • What is your testing goal?

I’m going to say this once now, and I’ll say it again at the end of the article.

Whole genome sequencing tests are NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR GENEALOGICAL DNA TESTS for mitochondrial, Y or autosomal testing. Whole genome sequencing is not a genealogy magic bullet.

There are both pros and cons of this type of purchase, as with most everything. Whole genome tests are for the most experienced and technically savvy genetic genealogists who understand both working with genetics and this field well, who have already taken the vendors’ genealogy tests and are already in the Y, mitochondrial and autosomal comparison data bases.

If that’s you or you’re interested in medical information, you might want to consider a whole genome test.

Let’s start with some basics.

What Is Whole Genome Sequencing?

Whole Genome Sequencing will sequence most of your genome. Keep in mind that humans are more than 99% identical, so the only portions that you’ll care about either medically or genealogically are the portions that differ or tend to mutate. Comparing regions where you match everyone else tells you exactly nothing at all.

Exome Sequencing – A Subset of Whole Genome

Exome sequencing, a subset of whole genome sequencing is utilized for medical testing. The Exome is the region identified as the portions most likely to mutate and that hold medically relevant information. You can read about the benefits and challenges of exome testing here.

I have had my Exome sequenced twice, once at Helix and once at Genos, now owned by NantOmics. Currently, NantOmics does not have a customer sign-in and has acquired my DNA sequence as part of the absorption of Genos. I’ll be writing about that separately. There is always some level of consumer risk in dealing with a startup.

Helix sequences your Exome (plus) so that you can order a variety of DNA based or personally themed products from their marketplace, although I’m not convinced about the utility of even the legitimacy of some of the available tests, such as the “Wine Explorer.”

On the other hand, the world-class The National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project now utilizes Helix for their testing, as does Spencer Well’s company, Insitome.

You can also pay to download your Exome sequence data separately for $499.

Autosomal Testing for Genealogy

Both whole genome and Exome testing are autosomal testing, meaning that they test chromosomes 1-22 (as opposed to Y and mitochondrial DNA) but the number of autosomal locations varies vastly between the various types of tests.

The locations selected by the genealogy testing companies are a subset of both the whole genome and the Exome. The different vendors that compare your DNA for genealogy generally utilize between 600,000 and 900,000 chip-specific locations that they have selected as being inclined to mutate – meaning that we can obtain genealogically relevant information from those mutations.

Some vendors (for example, 23andMe and Ancestry) also include some medical SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) on their chips, as both have formed medical research alliances with various companies.

Whole genome and Exome sequencing includes these same locations, BUT, the whole genome providers don’t compare the files to other testers nor reduce the files to the locations useful for genealogical comparisons. In other words, they don’t create upload files for you.

The following chart is not to scale, but is meant to convey the concept that the Exome is a subset of the whole genome, and the autosomal vendors’ selected SNPs, although not the same between the companies, are all subsets of the Exome and full genome.

I have not had my whole genome sequenced because I have seen no purpose for doing so, outside of curiosity.

This is NOT to imply that you shouldn’t. However, here are some things to think about.

Whole Genome Sequencing Questions

Coverage – Medical grade coverage is considered to be 30X, meaning an average of 30 scans of every targeted location in your genome. Some will have more and some will have less. This means that your DNA is scanned thirty different times to minimize errors. If a read error happens once or twice, it’s unlikely that the same error will happen several more times. You can read about coverage here and here.

Genomics Education Programme [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.

Here’s an example where the read length of Read 1 is 18, and the depth of the location shown in light blue is 4, meaning 4 actual reads were obtained. If the goal was 30X, then this result would be very poor. If the goal was 4X then this location is a high quality result for a 4X read.

In the above example, if the reference value, meaning the value at the light blue location for most people is T, then 4 instances of a T means you don’t have a mutation. On the other hand, if T is not the reference value, then 4 instances of T means that a mutation has occurred in that location.

Dante Labs coverage information is provided from their webpage as follows:

Other vendors coverage values will differ, but you should always know what you are purchasing.

Ownership – Who owns your data? What happens to your DNA itself (the sample) and results (the files) under normal circumstances and if the company is sold. Typically, the assets of the company, meaning your information, are included during any acquisition.

Does the company “share, lease or sell” your information as an additional revenue stream with other entities? If so, do they ask your permission each and every time? Do they perform internal medical research and then sell the results? What, if anything, is your DNA going to be used for other than the purpose for which you purchased the test? What control do you exercise over that usage?

Read the terms and conditions carefully for every vendor before purchasing.

File Delivery – Three types of files are generated during a whole genome test.

The VCF (Variant Call Format) which details your locations that are different from the reference file. A reference file is the “normal” value for humans.

A FASTQ file which includes the nucleotide sequence along with a corresponding quality score. Mutations in a messy area or that are not consistent may not be “real” and are considered false positives.

The BAM (Binary Alignment Map) file is used for Y DNA SNP alignment. The output from a BAM file is displayed in Family Tree DNA’s Big Y browser for their customers. Are these files delivered to you? If so, how? Family Tree DNA delivers their Big Y DNA BAM files as free downloads.

Typically whole genome data is too large for a download, so it is sent on a disc drive to you. Dante provides this disc for BAM and FASTQ files for 59 Euro ($69 US) plus shipping. VCF files are available free, but if you’re going to order this product, it would be a shame not to receive everything available.

Version – Discoveries are still being made to the human genome. If you thought we’re all done with that, we’re not. As new regions are mapped successfully, the addresses for the rest change, and a new genomic map is created. Think of this as street addresses and a new cluster of houses is now inserted between existing houses. All of the houses are periodically renumbered.

Today, typically results are delivered in either of two versions: hg19(GRVH37) or hg38(GRCH38). What happens when the next hg (human genome) version is released?

When you test with a vendor who uses your data for comparison as a part of a product they offer, they must realign your data so that the comparison will work for all of their customers (think Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, for example), but a vendor who only offers the testing service has no motivation to realign your output file for you. You only pay for sequencing, not for any after-the-fact services.

Platform – Multiple sequencing platforms are available, and not all platforms are entirely compatible with other competing platforms. For example, the Illumina platform and chips may or may not be compatible with the Affymetrix platform (now Thermo Fisher) and chips. Ask about chip compatibility if you have a specific usage in mind before you purchase.

Location – Where is your DNA actually being sequenced? Are you comfortable having your DNA sent to that geographic location for processing? I’m personally fine with anyplace in either the US, Canada or most of Europe, but other locations maybe not so much. I’d have to evaluate the privacy policies, applicable laws, non-citizen recourse and track record of those countries.

Last but perhaps most important, what do you want to DO with this file/information?

Utilization

What you receive from whole genome sequencing is files. What are you going to do with those files? How can you use them? What is your purpose or goal? How technically skilled are you, and how well do you understand what needs to be done to utilize those files?

A Specific Medical Question

If you have a particular question about a specific medical location, Dante allows you to ask the question as soon as you purchase, but you must know what question to ask as they note below.

You can click on their link to view their report on genetic diseases, but keep in mind, this is the disease you specifically ask about. You will very likely NOT be able to interpret this report without a genetic counselor or physician specializing in this field.

Take a look at both sample reports, here.

Health and Wellness in General

The Dante Labs Health and Wellness Report appears to be a collaborative effort with Sequencing.com and also appears to be included in the purchase price.

I uploaded both my Exome and my autosomal DNA results from the various testing companies (23andMe V3 and V4, Ancestry V1 and V2, Family Tree DNA, LivingDNA, DNA.Land) to Promethease for evaluation and there was very little difference between the health-related information returned based on my Exome data and the autosomal testing vendors. The difference is, of course, that the Exome coverage is much deeper (and therefore more reliable) because that test is a medical test, not a consumer genealogy test and more locations are covered. Whole genome testing would be more complete.

I wrote about Promethease here and here. Promethease does accept VCF files from various vendors who provide whole genome testing.

None of these tests are designed or meant for medical interpretation by non-professionals.

Medical Testing

If you plan to test with the idea that should your physician need a genetics test, you’re already ahead of the curve, don’t be so sure. It’s likely that your physician will want a genetics test using the latest technology, from their own lab, where they understand the quality measures in place as well as how the data is presented to them. They are unlikely to accept a test from any other source. I know, because I’ve already had this experience.

Genealogical Comparisons

The power of DNA testing for genealogy is comparing your data to others. Testing in isolation is not useful.

Mitochondrial DNA – I can’t tell for sure based on the sample reports, but it appears that you receive your full sequence haplogroup and probably your mutations as well from Dante. They don’t say which version of mitochondrial DNA they utilize.

However, without the ability to compare to other testers in a database, what genealogical benefit can you derive from this information?

Furthermore, mitochondrial DNA also has “versions,” and converting from an older to a newer version is anything but trivial. Haplogroups are renamed and branches sawed from one part of the mitochondrial haplotree and grafted onto another. A testing (only) vendor that does not provide comparisons has absolutely no reason to update your results and can’t be expected to do so. V17 is the current build, released in February 2016, with the earlier version history here.

Family Tree DNA is the only vendor who tests your full sequence mitochondrial DNA, compares it to other testers and updates your results when a new version is released. You can read more about this process, here and how to work with mtDNA results here.

Y DNA – Dante Labs provides BAM files, but other whole genome sequencers may not. Check before you purchase if you are interested in Y DNA. Again, you’ll need to be able to analyze the results and submit them for comparison. If you are not capable of doing that, you’ll need to pay a third party like either YFull or FGS (Full Genome Sequencing) or take the Big Y test at Family Tree DNA who has the largest Y Database worldwide and compares results.

Typically whole genome testers are looking for Y DNA SNPs, not STR values in BAM files. STR (short tandem repeat) values are the results that you receive when you purchase the 37, 67 or 111 tests at Family Tree DNA, as compared to the Big Y test which provides you with SNPs in order to resolve your haplogroup at the most granular level possible. You can read about the difference between SNPs and STRs here.

As with SNP data, you’ll need outside assistance to extract your STR information from the whole genome sequence information, none of which will be able to be compared with the testers in the Family Tree DNA data base. There is also an issue of copy-count standardization between vendors.

You can read about how to work with STR results and matches here and Big Y results here.

Autosomal DNA – None of the major providers that accept transfers (MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA, GedMatch) accept whole genome files. You would need to find a methodology of reducing the files from the whole genome to the autosomal SNPs accepted by the various vendors. If the vendors adopt the digital signature technology recently proposed in this paper by Yaniv Erlich et al to prevent “spoofed files,” modified files won’t be accepted by vendors.

Summary

Whole genome testing, in general, will and won’t provide you with the following:

Desired Feature Whole Genome Testing
Mitochondrial DNA Presumed full haplogroup and mutations provided, but no ability for comparison to other testers. Upload to Family Tree DNA, the only vendor doing comparisons not available.
Y DNA Presume Y chromosome mostly covered, but limited ability for comparison to other testers for either SNPs or STRs. Must utilize either YFull or FGS for SNP/STR analysis. Upload to Family Tree DNA, the vendor with the largest data base not available when testing elsewhere.
Autosomal DNA for genealogy Presume all SNPs covered, but file output needs to be reduced to SNPs offered/processed by vendors accepting transfers (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, GedMatch) and converted to their file formats. Modified files may not be accepted in the future.
Medical (consumer interest) Accuracy is a factor of targeted coverage rate and depth of actual reads. Whole genome vendors may or may not provide any analysis or reports. Dante does but for limited number of conditions. Promethease accepts VCF files from vendors and provides more.
Medical (physician accepted) Physician is likely to order a medical genetics test through their own institution. Physicians may not be willing to risk a misdiagnosis due to a factor outside of their control such as an incompatible human genome version.
Files VCF, FASTQ and BAM may or may not be included with results, and may or may not be free.
Coverage Coverage and depth may or may not be adequate. Multiple extractions (from multiple samples) may or may not be included with the initial purchase (if needed) or may be limited. Ask.
Updates Vendors who offer sequencing as a part of a products that include comparison to other testers will update your results version to the current reference version, such as hg38 and mitochondrial V17. Others do not, nor can they be expected to provide that service.
Version Inquire as to the human genome (hg) version or versions available to you, and which version(s) are acceptable to the third party vendors you wish to utilize. When the next version of the human genome is released, your file will no longer be compatible because WGS vendors are offering sequencing only, not results comparisons to databases for genealogy.
Ownership/Usage Who owns your sample? What will it be utilized for, other than the service you ordered, by whom and for what purposes? Will you we able to authorize or decline each usage?
Location Where geographically is your DNA actually being sequenced and stored? What happens to your actual DNA sample itself and the resulting files? This may not be the location where you return your swab kit.

The Question – Will I Order?

The bottom line is that if you are a genealogist, seeking genetic information for genealogical purposes, you’re much better off to test with the standard and well know genealogy vendors who offer compatibility and comparisons to other testers.

If you are a pioneer in this field, have the technical ability required to make use of a whole genome test and are willing to push the envelope, then perhaps whole genome sequencing is for you.

I am considering ordering the Dante Labs whole genome test out of simple curiosity and to upload to Promethease to determine if the whole genome test provides me with something potentially medically relevant (positive or negative) that autosomal and Exome testing did not.

I’m truly undecided. Somehow, I’m having trouble parting with the $199 plus $69 (hard drive delivery by request when ordering) plus shipping for this limited functionality. If I was a novice genetic genealogist or was not a technology expert, I would definitely NOT order this test for the reasons mentioned above.

A whole genome test is not in any way a genealogical replacement for a full sequence mitochondrial test, a Y STR test, a Y SNP test or an autosomal test along with respective comparison(s) in the data bases of vendors who don’t allow uploads for these various functions.

The simple fact that 30X whole genome testing is available for $199 plus $69 plus shipping is amazing, given that 15 years ago that same test cost 2.7 billion dollars. However, it’s still not the magic bullet for genealogy – at least, not yet.

Today, the necessary integration simply doesn’t exist. You pay the genealogy vendors not just for the basic sequencing, but for the additional matching and maintenance of their data bases, not to mention the upgrading of your sequence as needed over time.

If I had to choose between spending the money for the WGS test or taking the genealogy tests, hands down, I’d take the genealogy tests because of the comparisons available. Comparison and collaboration is absolutely crucial for genealogy. A raw data file buys me nothing genealogically.

If I had not previously taken an Exome test, I would order this test in order to obtain the free Dante Health and Wellness Report which provides limited reporting and to upload my raw data file to Promethease. The price is certainly right.

However, keep in mind that once you view health information, you cannot un-see it, so be sure you do really want to know.

What do you plan to do? Are you going to order a whole genome test?

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some (but not all) 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.

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2017 – The Year of DNA

Every year for the past 17 years has been the year of DNA for me, but for many millions, 2017 has been the year of DNA. DNA testing has become a phenomenon in its own right.

It was in 2013 that Spencer Wells predicted that 2014 would be the “year of infection.” Spencer was right and in 2014 DNA joined the ranks of household words. I saw DNA in ads that year, for the first time, not related to DNA testing or health as in, “It’s in our DNA.”

In 2014, it seemed like most people had heard of DNA, even if they weren’t all testing yet. John Q. Public was becoming comfortable with DNA.

In 2017 – DNA Is Mainstream  

If you’re a genealogist, you certainly know about DNA testing, and you’re behind the times if you haven’t tested.  DNA testing is now an expected tool for genealogists, and part of a comprehensive proof statement that meets the genealogical proof standard which includes “a reasonably exhaustive search.”  If you haven’t applied DNA, you haven’t done a reasonably exhaustive search.

A paper trail is no longer sufficient alone.

When I used to speak to genealogy groups about DNA testing, back in the dark ages, in the early 2000s, and I asked how many had tested, a few would raise their hands – on a good day.

In October, when I asked that same question in Ireland, more than half the room raised their hand – and I hope the other half went right out and purchased DNA test kits!

Consequently, because the rabid genealogical market is now pretty much saturated, the DNA testing companies needed to find a way to attract new customers, and they have.

2017 – The Year of Ethnicity

I’m not positive that the methodology some of the major companies utilized to attract new consumers is ideal, but nonetheless, advertising has attracted many new people to genetic genealogy through ethnicity testing.

If you’re a seasoned genetic genealogist, I know for sure that you’re groaning now, because the questions that are asked by disappointed testers AFTER the results come back and aren’t what people expected find their way to the forums that genetic genealogists peruse daily.

I wish those testers would have searched out those forums, or read my comparative article about ethnicity tests and which one is “best” before they tested.

More ethnicity results are available from vendors and third parties alike – just about every place you look it seems.  It appears that lots of folks think ethnicity testing is a shortcut to instant genealogy. Spit, mail, wait and voila – but there is no shortcut.  Since most people don’t realize that until after they test, ethnicity testing is becoming ever more popular with more vendors emerging.

In the spring, LivingDNA began delivering ethnicity results and a few months later, MyHeritage as well.  Ethnicity is hot and companies are seizing a revenue opportunity.

Now, the good news is that perhaps some of these new ethnicity testers can be converted into genealogists.  We just have to view ethnicity testing as tempting bait, or hopefully, a gateway drug…

2017 – The Year of Explosive Growth

DNA testing has become that snowball rolling downhill that morphed into an avalanche.  More people are seeing commercials, more people are testing, and people are talking to friends and co-workers at the water cooler who decide to test. I passed a table of diners in Germany in July to overhear, in English, discussion about ethnicity-focused DNA testing.

If you haven’t heard of DTC, direct to consumer, DNA testing, you’re living under a rock or maybe in a third world country without either internet or TV.

Most of the genetic genealogy companies are fairly closed-lipped about their data base size of DNA testers, but Ancestry isn’t.  They have gone from about 2 million near the end of 2016 to 5 million in August 2017 to at least 7 million now.  They haven’t said for sure, but extrapolating from what they have said, I feel safe with 7 million as a LOW estimate and possibly as many as 10 million following the holiday sales.

Advertising obviously pays off.

MyHeritage recently announced that their data base has reached 1 million, with only about 20% of those being transfers.

Based on the industry rumble, I suspect that the other DNA testing companies have had banner years as well.

The good news is that all of these new testers means that anyone who has tested at any of the major vendors is going to get lots of matches soon. Santa, it seems, has heard about DNA testing too and test kits fit into stockings!

That’s even better news for all of us who are in multiple data bases – and even more reason to test at all of the 4 major companies who provide autosomal DNA matching for their customers: Family Tree DNA, Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe.

2017 – The Year of Vendor and Industry Churn

So much happened in 2017, it’s difficult to keep up.

  • MyHeritage entered the DNA testing arena and began matching in September of 2016. Frankly, they had a mess, but they have been working in 2017 to improve the situation.  Let’s just say they still have some work to do, but at least they acknowledge that and are making progress.
  • MyHeritage has a rather extensive user base in Europe. Because of their European draw, their records collections and the ability to transfer results into their data base, they have become the 4th vendor in a field that used to be 3.
  • In March 2017, Family Tree DNA announced that they were accepting transfers of both the Ancestry V2 test, in place since May of 2016, along with the 23andMe V4 test, available since November 2013, for free. MyHeritage has since been added to that list. The Family Tree DNA announcement provided testers with another avenue for matching and advanced tools.
  • Illumina obsoleted their OmniExpress chip, forcing vendors to Illumina’s new GSA chip which also forces vendors to use imputation. I swear, imputation is a swear word. Illumina gets the lump of coal award for 2017.
  • I wrote about imputation here, but in a nutshell, the vendors are now being forced to test only about 20% of the DNA locations available on the previous Illumina chip, and impute or infer using statistics the values in the rest of the DNA locations that they previously could test.
  • Early imputation implementers include LivingDNA (ethnicity only), MyHeritage (to equalize the locations of various vendor’s different chips), DNA.Land (whose matching is far from ideal) and 23andMe, who seems, for the most part, to have done a reasonable job. Of course, the only way to tell for sure at 23andMe is to test again on the V5 chip and compare to V3 and V4 chip matches. Given that I’ve already paid 3 times to test myself at 23andMe (V2, 3 and 4), I’m not keen on paying a 4th time for the V5 version.
  • 23andMe moved to the V5 Illumina GSA chip in August which is not compatible with any earlier chip versions.
  • Needless to say, the Illumina chip change has forced vendors away from focusing on new products in order to develop imputation code in order to remain backwards compatible with their own products from an earlier chip set.
  • GedMatch introduced their sandbox area, Genesis, where people can upload files that are not compatible with the traditional vendor files.  This includes the GSA chip results (23andMe V5,) exome tests and others.  The purpose of the sandbox is so that GedMatch can figure out how to work with these files that aren’t compatible with the typical autosomal test files.  The process has been interesting and enlightening, but people either don’t understand or forget that it’s a sandbox, an experiment, for all involved – including GedMatch.  Welcome to living on the genetic frontier!

  • I assembled a chart of who loves who – meaning which vendors accept transfers from which other vendors.

  • I suspect but don’t know that Ancestry is doing some form of imputation between their V1 and V2 chips. About a month before their new chip implementation in May of 2016, Ancestry made a change in their matching routine that resulting in a significant shift in people’s matches.

Because of Ancestry’s use of the Timber algorithm to downweight some segments and strip out others altogether, it’s difficult to understand where matching issues may arise.  Furthermore, there is no way to know that there are matching issues unless you and another individual have transferred results to either Family Tree DNA or GedMatch, neither of which remove any matching segments.

  • Other developments of note include the fact that Family Tree DNA moved to mitochondrial DNA build V17 and updated their Y DNA to hg38 of the human reference genome – both huge undertakings requiring the reprocessing of customer data. Think of both of those updates as housekeeping. No one wants to do it, but it’s necessary.
  • 23andMe FINALLY finished transferring their customer base to the “New Experience,” but many of the older features we liked are now gone. However, customers can now opt in to open matching, which is a definite improvement. 23andMe, having been the first company to enter the genetic genealogy autosomal matching marketspace has really become lackluster.  They could have owned this space but chose not to focus on genealogy tools.  In my opinion, they are now relegated to fourth place out of a field of 4.
  • Ancestry has updated their Genetic Communities feature a couple of times this year. Genetic Communities is interesting and more helpful than ethnicity estimates, but neither are nearly as helpful as a chromosome browser would be.

  • I’m sure that the repeated requests, begging and community level tantrum throwing in an attempt to convince Ancestry to produce a chromosome browser is beyond beating a dead horse now. That dead horse is now skeletal, and no sign of a chromosome browser. Sigh:(
  • The good news is that anyone who wants a chromosome browser can transfer their results to Family Tree DNA or GedMatch (both for free) and utilize a chromosome browser and other tools at either or both of those locations. Family Tree DNA charges a one time $19 fee to access their advanced tools and GedMatch offers a monthly $10 subscription. Both are absolutely worth every dime. The bad news is, of course, that you have to convince your match or matches to transfer as well.
  • If you can convince your matches to transfer to (or test at) Family Tree DNA, their tools include phased Family Matching which utilizes a combination of user trees, the DNA of the tester combined with the DNA of family matches to indicate to the user which side, maternal or paternal (or both), a particular match stems from.

  • Sites to keep your eye on include Jonny Perl’s tools which include DNAPainter, as well as Goran Rundfeldt’s DNA Genealogy Experiment.  You may recall that in October Goran brought us the fantastic Triangulator tool to use with Family Tree DNA results.  A few community members expressed concern about triangulation relative to privacy, so the tool has been (I hope only temporarily) disabled as the involved parties work through the details. We need Goran’s triangulation tool! Goran has developed other world class tools as well, as you can see from his website, and I hope we see more of both Goran and Jonny in 2018.
  • In 2017, a number of new “free” sites that encourage you to upload your DNA have sprung up. My advice – remember, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.  Ask yourself why, what’s in it for them.  Review ALL OF THE documents and fine print relative to safety, privacy and what is going to be done with your DNA.  Think about what recourse you might or might not have. Why would you trust them?

My rule of thumb, if the company is outside of the US, I’m immediately slightly hesitant because they don’t fall under US laws. If they are outside of Europe or Canada, I’m even more hesitant.  If the company is associated with a country that is unfriendly to the US, I unequivocally refuse.  For example, riddle me this – what happens if a Chinese (or fill-in-the-blank country) company violates an agreement regarding your DNA and privacy?  What, exactly, are you going to do about it from wherever you live?

2017 – The Year of Marketplace Apps

Third party genetics apps are emerging and are beginning to make an impact.

GedMatch, as always, has continued to quietly add to their offerings for genetic genealogists, as had DNAGedcom.com. While these two aren’t exactly an “app”, per se, they are certainly primary players in the third party space. I use both and will be publishing an article early in 2018 about a very useful tool at DNAGedcom.

Another application that I don’t use due to the complex setup (which I’ve now tried twice and abandoned) is Genome Mate Pro which coordinates your autosomal results from multiple vendors.  Some people love this program.  I’ll try, again, in 2018 and see if I can make it all the way through the setup process.

The real news here are the new marketplace apps based on Exome testing.

Helix and their partners offer a number of apps that may be of interest for consumers.  Helix began offering a “test once, buy often” marketplace model where the consumer pays a nominal price for exome sequencing ($80), significantly under market pricing ($500), but then the consumer purchases DNA apps through the Helix store. The apps access the original DNA test to produce results. The consumer does NOT receive their downloadable raw data, only data through the apps, which is a departure from the expected norm. Then again, the consumer pays a drastically reduced price and downloadable exome results are available elsewhere for full price.

The Helix concept is that lots of apps will be developed, meaning that you, the consumer, will be interested and purchase often – allowing Helix to recoup their sequencing investment over time.

Looking at the Helix apps that are currently available, I’ve purchased all of the Insitome products released to date (Neanderthal, Regional Ancestry and Metabolism), because I have faith in Spencer Wells and truthfully, I was curious and they are reasonably priced.

Aside from the Insitome apps, I think that the personalized clothes are cute, if extremely overpriced. But what the heck, they’re fun and raise awareness of DNA testing – a good thing! After all, who am I to talk, I’ve made DNA quilts and have DNA clothing too.

Having said that, I’m extremely skeptical about some of the other apps, like “Wine Explorer.”  Seriously???

But then again, if you named an app “I Have More Money Than Brains,” it probably wouldn’t sell well.

Other apps, like Ancestry’s WeRelate (available for smartphones) is entertaining, but is also unfortunately EXTREMELY misleading.  WeRelate conflates multiple trees, generally incorrectly, to suggest to you and another person on your Facebook friends list are related, or that you are related to famous people.  Judy Russell reviews that app here in the article, “No, actually, we’re not related.” No.  Just no!

I feel strongly that companies that utilize our genetic data for anything have a moral responsibility for accuracy, and the WeRelate app clearly does NOT make the grade, and Ancestry knows that.  I really don’t believe that entertaining customers with half-truths (or less) is more important than accuracy – but then again, here I go just being an old-fashioned fuddy dud expecting ethics.

And then, there’s the snake oil.  You knew it was going to happen because there is always someone who can be convinced to purchase just about anything. Think midnight infomercials. The problem is that many consumers really don’t know how to tell snake oil from the rest in the emerging DNA field.

You can now purchase DNA testing for almost anything.  Dating, diet, exercise, your taste in wine and of course, vitamins and supplements. If you can think of an opportunity, someone will dream up a test.

How many of these are legitimate or valid?  Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m exceedingly suspicious of a great many, especially those where I can find no legitimate scientific studies to back what appear to be rather outrageous claims.

My main concern is that the entire DTC testing industry will be tarred by the brush of a few unethical opportunists.

2017 – The Year of Focus on Privacy and Security

With increased consumer exposure comes increased notoriety. People are taking notice of DNA testing and it seems that everyone has an opinion, informed or not.  There’s an old saying in marketing; “Talk about me good, talk about me bad, just talk about me.”

With all of the ads have come a commensurate amount of teeth gnashing and “the-sky-is-falling” type reporting.  Unfortunately, many politicians don’t understand this industry and open mouth only to insert foot – except that most people don’t realize what they’ve done.  I doubt that the politicians even understand that they are tasting toe-jam, because they haven’t taken the time to research and understand the industry. Sound bites and science don’t mix well.

The bad news is that next, the click-bait-focused press picks up on the stories and the next time you see anyone at lunch, they’re asking you if what they heard is true.  Or, let’s hope that they ask you instead of just accepting what they heard as gospel. Hopefully if we’ve learned anything in this past year, it’s to verify, verify, verify.

I’ve been an advocate for a very long time of increased transparency from the testing companies as to what is actually done with our DNA, and under what circumstances.  In other words, I want to know where my DNA is and what it’s being used for.  Period.

Family Tree DNA answered that question succinctly and unquestionably in December.

Bennett Greenspan: “We could probably make a lot of money by selling the DNA data that we’ve been collecting over the years, but we feel that the only person that should have your DNA information is you.  We don’t believe that it should be sold, traded or bartered.”

You can’t get more definitive than that.

DTC testing for genetic genealogy must be a self-regulating field, because the last thing we need is for the government to get involved, attempting to regulate something they don’t understand.  I truly believe government interference by the name of regulation would spell the end of genetic genealogy as we know it today.  DNA testing for genetic genealogy without sharing results is entirely pointless.

I’ve written about this topic in the past, but an update is warranted and I’ll be doing that sometime after the first of the year.  Mostly, I just need to be able to stay awake while slogging through the required reading (at some vendor sites) of page after page AFTER PAGE of legalese😊

Consumers really shouldn’t have to do that, and if they do, a short, concise summary should be presented to them BEFORE they purchase so that they can make a truly informed decision.

Stay tuned on this one.

2017 – The Year of Education

The fantastic news is that with all of the new people testing, a huge, HUGE need for education exists.  Even if 75% of the people who test don’t do anything with their results after that first peek, that still leaves a few million who are new to this field, want to engage and need some level of education.

In that vein, seminars are available through several groups and institutes, in person and online.  Almost all of the leadership in this industry is involved in some educational capacity.

In addition to agendas focused on genetic genealogy and utilizing DNA personally, almost every genealogy conference now includes a significant number of sessions on DNA methods and tools. I remember the days when we were lucky to be allowed one session on the agenda, and then generally not without begging!

When considering both DNA testing and education, one needs to think about the goal.  All customer goals are not the same, and neither are the approaches necessary to answer their questions in a relevant way.

New testers to the field fall into three primary groups today, and their educational needs are really quite different, because their goals, tools and approaches needed to reach those goals are different too.

Adoptees and genealogists employ two vastly different approaches utilizing a common tool, DNA, but for almost opposite purposes.  Adoptees wish to utilize tests and trees to come forward in time to identify either currently living or recently living people while genealogists are interested in reaching backward in time to confirm or identify long dead ancestors. Those are really very different goals.

I’ve illustrated this in the graphic above.  The tester in question uses their blue first cousin match to identify their unknown parent through the blue match’s known lineage, moving forward in time to identify the tester’s parent.  In this case, the grandparent is known to the blue match, but not to the yellow tester. Identifying the grandparent through the blue match is the needed lynchpin clue to identify the unknown parent.

The yellow tester who already knows their maternal parent utilizes their peach second cousin match to verify or maybe identify their maternal great-grandmother who is already known to the peach match, moving backwards in time. Two different goals, same DNA test.

The three types of testers are:

  • Curious ethnicity testers who may not even realize that at least some of the vendors offer matching and other tools and services.
  • Genealogists who use close relatives to prove which sides of trees matches come from, and to triangulate matching segments to specific ancestors. In other words, working from the present back in time. The peach match and line above.
  • Adoptees and parent searches where testers hope to find a parent or siblings, but failing that, close relatives whose trees overlap with each other – pointing to a descendant as a candidate for a parent. These people work forward in time and aren’t interested in triangulation or proving ancestors and really don’t care about any of those types of tools, at least not until they identify their parent.  This is the blue match above.

What these various groups of testers want and need, and therefore their priorities are different in terms of their recommendations and comments in online forums and their input to vendors. Therefore, you find Facebook groups dedicated to Adoptees, for example, but you also find adoptees in more general genetic genealogy groups where genealogists are sometimes surprised when people focused on parent searches downplay or dismiss tools such as Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA and chromosome browsers that form the bedrock foundation of what genealogists need and require.

Fortunately, there’s room for everyone in this emerging field.

The great news is that educational opportunities are abundant now. I’m listing a few of the educational opportunities for all three groups of testers, in addition to my blog of course.😊

Remember that this blog is fully searchable by keyword or phrase in the little search box in the upper right hand corner.  I see so many questions online that I’ve already answered!

Please feel free to share links of my blog postings with anyone who might benefit!

Note that these recommendations below overlap and people may well be interested in opportunities from each group – or all!!

Ethnicity

Adoptees or Parent Search

Genetic Genealogists

2018 – What’s Ahead? 

About midyear 2018, this blog will reach 1000 published articles. This is article number 939.  That’s amazing even to me!  When I created this blog in July of 2012, I wasn’t sure I’d have enough to write about.  That certainly has changed.

Beginning shortly, the tsunami of kits that were purchased during the holidays will begin producing matches, be it through DNA upgrades at Family Tree DNA, Big Y tests which were hot at year end, or new purchases through any of the vendors.  I can hardly wait, and I have my list of brick walls that need to fall.

Family Tree DNA will be providing additional STR markers extracted from the Big Y test. These won’t replace any of the 111 markers offered separately today, because the extraction through NGS testing is not as reliable as direct STR testing for those markers, but the Big Y will offer genealogists a few hundred more STRs to utilize. Yes, I said a few hundred. The exact number has not yet been finalized.

Family Tree DNA says they will also be introducing new “qualify of life improvements” along with new privacy and consent settings.  Let’s hope this means new features and tools will be released too.

MyHeritage says that they are introducing new “Discoveries” pages and a chromosome browser in January.  They have also indicated that they are working on their matching issues.  The chromosome browser is particularly good news, but matching must work accurately or the chromosome browser will show erroneous information.  Let’s hope January brings all three features.

LivingDNA indicates that they will be introducing matching in 2018.

2018 – What Can You Do?

What can you do in 2018 to improve your odds of solving genealogy questions?

  • Test relatives
  • Transfer your results to as many data bases as possible (among the ones discussed above, after reading the terms and conditions, of course)
  • If you have transferred a version of your DNA that does not produce full results, such as the Ancestry V2 or 23andMe V4 test to Family Tree DNA, consider testing on the vendor’s own chip in order to obtain all matches, not just the closest matches available from an incompatible test transfer.
  • Test Y and mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA.
  • Find ways to share the stories of your ancestors.  Stories are cousin bait.  My 52 Ancestors series is living proof.  People find the stories and often have additional facts, information or even photos. Some contacts qualify for DNA testing for Y or mtDNA lines. The GREAT NEWS is that Amy Johnson Crow is resuming the #52Ancestors project for 2018, providing hints and tips each week! Who knows what you might discover by sharing?! Here’s how to start a blog if you need some assistance.  It’s easy – really!
  • Focus on the brick walls that you want to crumble and then put together both a test and analysis plan. That plan could include such things as:

o   Find out if a male representing a Y line in your tree has tested, and if not, search through autosomal results to see if a male from that paternal surname line has tested and would be amenable to an upgrade.

o   Mitochondrial DNA test people who descend through all females from various female ancestors in order to determine their origins. Y and mtDNA tests are an important part of a complete genealogy story – meaning the reasonably exhaustive search!

o   Autosomal DNA test family members from various lines with the hope that matches will match you and them both.

o   Test family members in order to confirm a particular ancestor – preferably people who descend from another child of that ancestor.

o   Making sure your own DNA is in all 4 of the major vendors’ data bases, plus GedMatch. Look at it this way, everyone who is at GedMatch or at a third party (non-testing) site had to have tested at one of the major 4 vendors – so if you are in all of the vendor’s data bases, plus GedMatch, you’re covered.

Have a wonderful New Year and let’s make 2018 the year of newly discovered ancestors and solved mysteries!

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Disclosure

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

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

2016 Genetic Genealogy Retrospective

In past years, I’ve written a “best of” article about genetic genealogy happenings throughout the year. For several years, the genetic genealogy industry was relatively new, and there were lots of new tools being announced by the testing vendors and others as well.

This year is a bit different. I’ve noticed a leveling off – there have been very few announcements of new tools by vendors, with only a few exceptions.  I think genetic genealogy is maturing and has perhaps begun a new chapter.  Let’s take a look.

Vendors

Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA leads the pack this year with their new Phased Family Matches which utilizes close relatives, up to third cousins, to assign your matches to either maternal or paternal buckets, or both if the individual is related on both sides of your tree.

Both Buckets

They are the first and remain the only vendor to offer this kind of feature.

Phased FF2

Phased Family Matching is extremely useful in terms of identifying which side of your family tree your matches are from. This tool, in addition to Family Tree DNA’s nine other autosomal tools helps identify common ancestors by showing you who is related to whom.

Family Tree DNA has also added other features such as a revamped tree with the ability to connect DNA results to family members.  DNA results connected to the tree is the foundation for the new Phased Family Matching.

The new Ancient Origins feature, released in November, was developed collaboratively with Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona Hammer Lab.

Ancient European Origins is based on the full genome sequencing work now being performed in the academic realm on ancient remains. These European results fall into three primary groups of categories based on age and culture.  Customer’s DNA is compared to the ancient remains to determine how much of the customer’s European DNA came from which group.  This exciting new feature allows us to understand more about our ancestors, long before the advent of surnames and paper or parchment records. Ancient DNA is redefining what we know, or thought we knew, about population migration.

2016-ancient-origins

You can view Dr. Hammer’s presentation given at the Family Tree DNA Conference in conjunction with the announcement of the new Ancient Origins feature here.

Family Tree DNA maintains its leadership position among the three primary vendors relative to Y DNA testing, mtDNA testing and autosomal tools.

Ancestry

In May of 2016, Ancestry changed the chip utilized by their tests, removing about 300,000 of their previous 682,000 SNPs and replacing them with medically optimized SNPs. The rather immediate effect was that due to the chip incompatibility, Ancestry V2 test files created on the new chip cannot be uploaded to Family Tree DNA, but they can be uploaded to GedMatch.  Family Tree DNA is working on a resolution to this problem.

I tested on the new Ancestry V2 chip, and while there is a difference in how much matching DNA I share with my matches as compared to the V1 chip, it’s not as pronounced as I expected. There is no need for people who tested on the earlier chip to retest.

Unfortunately, Ancestry has remained steadfast in their refusal to implement a chromosome browser, instead focusing on sales by advertising the ethnicity “self-discovery” aspect of DNA testing.

Ancestry does have the largest autosomal data base but many people tested only for ethnicity, don’t have trees or have private trees.  In my case, about half of my matches fall into that category.

Ancestry maintains its leadership position relative to DNA tree matching, known as a Shared Ancestor Hint, identifying common ancestors in the trees of people whose DNA matches.

ancestry-common-ancestors

23andMe

23andMe struggled for most of the year to meet a November 2015 deadline, which is now more than a year past, to transition its customers to the 23andMe “New Experience” which includes a new customer interface. I was finally transitioned in September 2016, and the experience has been very frustrating and extremely disappointing, and that’s putting it mildly. Some customers, specifically international customers, are still not transitioned, nor is it clear if or when they will be.

I tested on the 23andMe older V3 chip as well as their newer V4 chip. After my transition to the New Experience, I compared the results of the two tests. The new security rules incorporated into the New Experience meant that I was only able to view about 25% of my matches (400 of 1651(V3) matches or 1700 (V4) matches). 23andMe has, in essence, relegated themselves into the non-player status for genetic genealogy, except perhaps for adoptees who need to swim in every pool – but only then as a last place candidate. And those adoptees had better pray that if they have a close match, that match falls into the 25% of their matches that are useful.

In December, 23andMe began providing segment information for ethnicity segments, except the parental phasing portion does not function accurately, calling into question the overall accuracy of the 23andme ethnicity information. Ironically, up until now, while 23andMe slipped in every other area, they had been viewed at the best, meaning most accurate, in terms of ethnicity estimates.

New Kids on the Block

MyHeritage

In May of 2016, MyHeritage began encouraging people who have tested at other vendors to upload their results. I was initially very hesitant, because aside from GedMatch that has a plethora of genetic genealogy tools, I have seen no benefit to the participant to upload their DNA anyplace, other than Family Tree DNA (available for V3 23andMe and V1 Ancestry only).

Any serious genealogist is going to test at least at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, both, and upload to GedMatch. My Heritage was “just another upload site” with no tools, not even matching initially.

However, in September, MyHeritage implemented matching, although they have had a series of what I hope are “startup issues,” with numerous invalid matches, apparently resulting from their usage of imputation.

Imputation is when a vendor infers what they think your DNA will look like in regions where other vendors test, and your vendor doesn’t. The best example would be the 300,000 or so Ancestry locations that are unique to the Ancestry V2 chip. Imputation would result in a vendor “inferring” or imputing your results for these 300,000 locations based on…well, we don’t exactly know based on what. But we do know it cannot be accurate.  It’s not your DNA.

In the midst of this, in October, 23andMe announced on their forum that they had severed a previous business relationship with MyHeritage where 23andMe allowed customers to link to MyHeritage trees in lieu of having customer trees directly on the 23andMe site.  This approach had been problematic because customers are only allowed 250 individuals in their tree for free, and anything above that requires a MyHeritage subscription.  Currently 23andMe has no tree capability.

It appears that MyHeritage refined their DNA matching routines at least somewhat, because many of the bogus matches were gone in November when they announced that their beta was complete and that they were going to sell their own autosomal DNA tests. However, matching issues have not disappeared or been entirely resolved.

While Family Tree DNA’s lab will be processing the MyHeritage autosomal tests, the results will NOT be automatically placed in the Family Tree DNA data base.

MyHeritage will be doing their own matching within their own database. There are no comparison tools, tree matching or ethnicity estimates today, but My Heritage says they will develop a chromosome browser and ethnicity estimates. However, it is NOT clear whether these will be available for free to individuals who have transferred their results into MyHeritage or if they will only be available to people who tested through MyHeritage.

2016-myheritage-matches

For the record, I have 28 matches today at MyHeritage.

2016-myheritage-second-match

I found that my second closest match at MyHeritage is also at Ancestry.

2016-myheritage-at-ancestry

At MyHeritage, they report that I match this individual on a total of 64.1 cM, across 7 segments, with the largest segment being 14.9 cM.

Ancestry reports this same match at 8.3 cM total across 1 segment, which of course means that the longest segment is also 8.3 cM.

Ancestry estimates the relationship as 5th to 8th cousin, and MyHeritage estimates it as 2nd to 4th.

While I think Ancestry’s Timber strips out too much DNA, there is clearly a HUGE difference in the reported results and the majority of this issue likely lies with the MyHeritage DNA imputation and matching routines.

I uploaded my Family Tree DNA autosomal file to MyHeritage, so MyHeritage is imputing at least 300,000 SNPs for me – almost half of the SNPs needed to match to Ancestry files.  They are probably imputing that many for my match’s file too, so that we have an equal number of SNPs for comparison.  Combined, this would mean that my match and I are comparing 382,000 actual SNPs that we both tested, and roughly 600,000 SNPs that we did not test and were imputed.  No wonder the MyHeritage numbers are so “off.”

My Heritage has a long way to go before they are a real player in this arena. However, My Heritage has potential, as they have a large subscriber base in Europe, where we desperately need additional testers – so I’m hopeful that they can attract additional genealogists that are willing to test from areas that are under-represented to date.

My Heritage got off to a bit of a rocky start by requiring users to relinquish the rights to their DNA, but then changed their terms in May, according to Judy Russell’s blog.

All vendors can change their terms at any time, in a positive or negative direction, so I would strongly encourage all individuals considering utilizing any testing company or upload service to closely read all the legal language, including Terms and Conditions and any links found in the Terms and Conditions.

Please note that MyHeritage is a subscription genealogy site, similar to Ancestry.  MyHeritage also owns Geni.com.  One site, MyHeritage, allows individual trees and the other, Geni, embraces the “one world tree” model.  For a comparison of the two, check out Judy Russell’s articles, here and here.  Geni has also embraced DNA by allowing uploads from Family Tree DNA of Y, mitochondrial and autosomal, but the benefits and possible benefits are much less clear.

If the MyHeritage story sounds like a confusing soap opera, it is.  Let’s hope that 2017 brings both clarity and improvements.

Living DNA

Living DNA is a company out of the British Isles with a new test that purports to provide you with a breakdown of your ethnicity and the locations of your ancestral lines within 21 regions in the British Isles.  Truthfully, I’m very skeptical, but open minded.

They have had my kit for several weeks now, and testing has yet to begin.  I’ll write about the results when I receive them.  So far, I don’t know of anyone who has received results.

2016-living-dna

Genos

I debated whether or not I should include Genos, because they are not a test for genealogy and are medically focused. However, I am including them because they have launched a new model for genetic testing wherein your full exome is tested, you receive the results along with information on the SNPs where mutations are found. You can then choose to be involved with research programs in the future, if you wish, or not.

That’s a vastly different model that the current approach taken by 23andMe and Ancestry where you relinquish your rights to the sale of your DNA when you sign up to test.  I like this new approach with complete transparency, allowing the customer to decide the fate of their DNA. I wrote about the Genos test and the results, here.

Third Parties

Individuals sometimes create and introduce new tools to assist genealogists with genetic genealogy and analysis.

I have covered these extensively over the years.

GedMatch, WikiTree, DNAGedcom.com and Kitty Cooper’s tools remain my favorites.

I love Kitty’s Ancestor Chromosome Mapper which maps the segments identified with your ancestors on your chromosomes. I just love seeing which ancestors’ DNA I carry on which chromosomes.  Somehow, this makes me feel closer to them.  They’re not really gone, because they still exist in me and other descendants as well.

Roberta's ancestor map2

In order to use Kitty’s tool, you’ll have to have mapped at least some of your autosomal DNA to ancestors.

The Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer written by Don Worth and available at DNAGedcom is still one of my favorite tools for quick, visual and easy to understand segment matching results.

ADSA Crumley cluster

GedMatch has offered a triangulation tool for some time now, but recently introduced a new Triangulation Groups tool.

2016-gedmatch-triangulation-groups

I have not utilized this tool extensively but it looks very interesting. Unfortunately, there is no explanation or help function available for what this tool is displaying or how to understand and interpret the results. Hopefully, that will be added soon, as I think it would be possible to misinterpret the output without educational material.

GedMatch also introduced their “Evil Twin” tool, which made me laugh when I saw the name.  Using parental phasing, you can phase your DNA to your parent or parents at GedMatch, creating kits that only have your mother’s half of your DNA, or your father’s half.  These phased kits allow you to see your matches that come from that parent, only.  However, the “Evil Twin” feature creates a kit made up of the DNA that you DIDN’T receive from that parent – so in essence it’s your other half, your evil twin – you know, that person who got blamed for everything you “didn’t do.”  In any case, this allows you to see the matches to the other half of your parent’s DNA that do not show up as your matches.

Truthfully, the Evil Twin tool is interesting, but since you have to have that parent’s DNA to phase against in the first place, it’s just as easy to look at your parent’s matches – at least for me.

Others offer unique tools that are a bit different.

DNAadoption.com offers tools, search and research techniques, especially for adoptees and those looking to identify a parent or grandparents, but perhaps even more important, they offer genetic genealogy classes including basic and introductory.

I send all adoptees in their direction, but I encourage everyone to utilize their classes.

WikiTree has continued to develop and enhance their DNA offerings.  While WikiTree is not a testing service nor do they offer autosomal data tools like Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, they do allow individuals to discover whether anyone in their ancestral line has tested their Y, mitochondrial or autosomal DNA.

Specifically, you can identify the haplogroup of any male or female ancestor if another individual from that direct lineage has tested and provided that information for that ancestor on WikiTree.  While I am generally not a fan of the “one world tree” types of implementations, I am a fan of WikiTree because of their far-sighted DNA comparisons, the fact that they actively engage their customers, they listen and they expend a significant amount of effort making sure they “get it right,” relative to DNA. Check out WikiTree’s article,  Putting DNA Results Into Action, for how to utilize their DNA Features.

2016-wikitree-peter-roberts

Thanks particularly to Chris Whitten at WikiTree and Peter Roberts for their tireless efforts.  WikiTree is the only vendor to offer the ability to discover the Y and mtDNA haplogroups of ancestors by searching trees.

All of the people creating the tools mentioned above, to the best of my knowledge, are primarily volunteers, although GedMatch does charge a small subscription service for their high end tools, including the triangulation and evil twin tools.  DNAGedcom does as well.  Wikitree generates some revenue for the site through ads on pages of non-members. DNAAdoption charges nominally for classes but they do have need-based scholarships. Kitty has a donation link on her website and all of these folks would gladly accept donations, I’m sure.  Websites and everything that goes along with them aren’t free.  Donations are a nice way to say thank you.

What Defined 2016

I have noticed two trends in the genetic genealogy industry in 2016, and they are intertwined – ethnicity and education.

First, there is an avalanche of new testers, many of whom are not genetic genealogists.

Why would one test if they weren’t a genetic genealogist?

The answer is simple…

Ethnicity.

Or more specifically, the targeted marketing of ethnicity.  Ethnicity testing looks like an easy, quick answer to a basic human question, and it sells kits.

Ethnicity

“Kim just wanted to know who she was.”

I have to tell you, these commercials absolutely make me CRINGE.

Yes, they do bring additional testers into the community, BUT carrying significantly misset expectations. If you’re wondering about WHY I would suggest that ethnicity results really cannot tell you “who you are,” check out this article about ethnicity estimates.

And yes, that’s what they are, estimates – very interesting estimates, but estimates just the same.  Estimates that provide important and valid hints and clues, but not definitive answers.

ESTIMATES.

Nothing more.

Estimates based on proprietary vendor algorithms that tend to be fairly accurate at the continental level, and not so much within continents – in particular, not terribly accurate within Europe. Not all of this can be laid a the vendor’s feet.  For example, DNA testing is illegal in France.  Not to mention, genetic genealogy and population genetics is still a new and emerging field.  We’re on the frontier, folks.

The ethnicity results one receives from the 3 major vendors (Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe) and the various tools at GedMatch don’t and won’t agree – because they use different reference populations, different matching routines, etc.  Not to mention people and populations move around and have moved around.

The next thing that happens, after these people receive their results, is that we find them on the Facebook groups asking questions like, “Why doesn’t my full blooded Native American grandmother show up?” and “I just got my Ancestry results back. What do I do?”  They mean that question quite literally.

I’m not making fun of these people, or light of the situation. Their level of frustration and confusion is evident. I feel sorry for them…but the genetic genealogy community and the rest of us are left with applying ointment and Band-Aids.  Truthfully, we’re out-numbered.

Because of the expectations, people who test today don’t realize that genetic testing is a TOOL, it’s not an ANSWER. It’s only part of the story. Oh, and did I mention, ethnicity is only an ESTIMATE!!!

But an estimate isn’t what these folks are expecting. They are expecting “the answer,” their own personal answer, which is very, very unfortunate, because eventually they are either unhappy or blissfully unaware.

Many become unhappy because they perceive the results to be in error without understanding anything about the technology or what information can reasonably be delivered, or they swallow “the answer” lock stock and barrel, again, without understanding anything about the technology.

Ethnicity is fun, it isn’t “bad” but the results need to be evaluated in context with other information, such as Y and mitochondrial haplogroups, genealogical records and ethnicity results from the other major testing companies.

Fortunately, we can recruit some of the ethnicity testers to become genealogists, but that requires education and encouragement. Let’s hope that those DNA ethnicity results light the fires of curiosity and that we can fan those flames!

Education

The genetic genealogy community desperately needs educational resources, in part as a result of the avalanche of new testers – approximately 1 million a year, and that estimate may be low. Thankfully, we do have several education options – but we can always use more.  Unfortunately, the learning curve is rather steep.

My blog offers just shy of 800 articles, all key word searchable, but one has to first find the blog and want to search and learn, as opposed to being handed “the answer.”

Of course, the “Help” link is always a good place to start as are these articles, DNA Testing for Genealogy 101 and Autosomal DNA Testing 101.  These two articles should be “must reads” for everyone who has DNA tested, or wants to, for that matter.  Tips and Tricks for Contact Success is another article that is immensely helpful to people just beginning to reach out.

In order to address the need for basic understanding of autosomal DNA principles, tools and how to utilize them, I began the “Concepts” series in February 2016. To date I offer the following 15 articles about genetic genealogy concepts. To be clear, DNA testing is only the genetic part of genetic genealogy, the genealogical research part being the second half of the equation.

My blog isn’t the only resource of course.

Kelly Wheaton provides 19 free lessons in her Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy.

Other blogs I highly recommend include:

Excellent books in print that should be in every genetic genealogist’s library:

And of course, the ISOGG Wiki.

Online Conference Resources

The good news and bad news is that I’m constantly seeing a genetic genealogy seminar, webinar or symposium hosted by a group someplace that is online, and often free. When I see names I recognize as being reputable, I am delighted that there is so much available to people who want to learn.

And for the record, I think that includes everyone. Even professional genetic genealogists watch these sessions, because you just never know what wonderful tidbit you’re going to pick up.  Learning, in this fast moving field, is an everyday event.

The bad news is that I can’t keep track of everything available, so I don’t mean to slight any resource.  Please feel free to post additional resources in the comments.

You would be hard pressed to find any genealogy conference, anyplace, today that didn’t include at least a few sessions about genetic genealogy. However, genetic genealogy has come of age and has its own dedicated conferences.

Dr. Maurice Gleeson, the gentleman who coordinates Genetic Genealogy Ireland films the sessions at the conference and then makes them available, for free, on YouTube. This link provides a list of the various sessions from 2016 and past years as well. Well worth your time!  A big thank you to Maurice!!!

The 19 video series from the I4GG Conference this fall is now available for $99. This series is an excellent opportunity for genetic genealogy education.

As always, I encourage project administrators to attend the Family Tree DNA International Conference on Genetic Genealogy. The sessions are not filmed, but the slides are made available after the conference, courtesy of the presenters and Family Tree DNA. You can view the presentations from 2015 and 2016 at this link.

Jennifer Zinck attended the conference and published her excellent notes here and here, if you want to read what she had to say about the sessions she attended. Thankfully, she can type much faster and more accurately than I can! Thank you so much Jennifer.

If you’d like to read about the unique lifetime achievement awards presented at the conference this year to Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, the founders of Family Tree DNA, click here. They were quite surprised!  This article also documents the history of genetic genealogy from the beginning – a walk down memory lane.

The 13th annual Family Tree DNA conference which will be held November 10-12, 2017 at the Hyatt Regency North Houston. Registration is always limited due to facility size, so mark your calendars now, watch for the announcement and be sure to register in time.

Summary

2016 has been an extremely busy year. I think my blog has had more views, more comments and by far, more questions, than ever before.

I’ve noticed that the membership in the ISOGG Facebook group, dedicated to genetic genealogy, has increased by about 50% in the past year, from roughly 8,000 members to just under 12,000. Other social media groups have been formed as well, some focused on specific aspects of genetic genealogy, such as specific surnames, adoption search, Native American or African American heritage and research.

The genetic aspect of genealogy has become “normal” today, with most genealogists not only accepting DNA testing, but embracing the various tools and what they can do for us in terms of understanding our ancestors, tracking them, and verifying that they are indeed who we think they are.

I may have to explain the three basic kinds of DNA testing and how they are used today, but no longer do I have to explain THAT DNA testing for genealogy exists and that it’s legitimate.

I hope that each of us can become an ambassador for genetic genealogy, encouraging others to test, with appropriate expectations, and helping to educate, enlighten and encourage. After all, the more people who test and are excited about the results, the better for everyone else.

Genetic genealogy is and can only be a collaborative team sport.

Here’s wishing you many new cousins and discoveries in 2017.

Happy New Year!!!

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Disclosure

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.

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Genos – A Medically Focused DNA Exome Test

Update: As of July 2019, this test and my results are now at https://genos.co after Genos was sold. Original article follows below.

On June 21, 2016, I placed an order for a DNA test with a new company, Genos at http://www.genosresearch.com. The first week of October I received my results.

Genos is a new type of testing company, focused not on genealogy, but on the human exome and medical conditions. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the genetic genealogy community might not find a way to utilize these tests in the future – but today this test is not useful genealogically.

A typical genetic genealogy autosomal test tests between roughly 500,000 and 900,000 locations to compare to others to determine kinship. These are the most variable locations in our genome, the ones most likely to differ from each other and be genealogically useful.

Exome testing, on the other hand, tests 50 million locations – the ones most often medically relevant and the ones we know the most about. Testing the 99% or so of our genome that is exactly like every other human is pointless, for either genetic genealogy or medicine.

What is an Exome?

What is the exome? Genos explains.

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Let’s step through the ordering process, then look at my results. They are very interesting.

What is Genos?

Before ordering, I did a bit of research on what Genos offers, what makes them different, and what kind of potential they might have to help me understand my own genes and conditions that makes me unique.

Let’s take a look.

Founders

Genos was founded by these two men.

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The next tab is Values, and I’m really impressed, especially with number 4, below.

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And the Genos Vision:

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Let’s move to the Product page.

Product

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Ordering

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Your DNA at Genos is yours, entirely, and you can choose when, where and if you want to participate in studies, unlike Ancestry and 23andMe where the consent you MUST AGREE TO in order to activate your kit includes allowing them to sell and profit from your DNA.

Family Tree DNA does NOT sell your DNA. Family Tree DNA does not want the genetic genealogy community to associate genetic genealogy testing with medical testing, because of concerns that it might discourage some people from testing for genealogy.

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Before ordering, as with any DNA sequencing product or service, please read the Genos Terms of Service here. The Privacy Policy is here and the Terms of Use are here. These are all actually different parts of one larger document titled “Genos Legal Policies.”

As far as I’m concerned, this is the overarching important sentence:

We do not sell, lease, or rent your User Information without your explicit consent.

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Also keep in mind that as with all companies, policies can and do change over time – and it’s the consumer’s responsibility to stay current with the policies of any company you do business with.

A New Business Model

Genos is trying a new business model both in terms of testing the entire exome and in terms of allowing participants to actively participate in selecting research projects, so I decided to be on the frontier of this brave new world. You pay for the sequencing, but the results are yours, forever, whether you participate in medical research projects or not, and Genos doesn’t sell your DNA or otherwise share your DNA results without your permission. You own it and you control it. Period.

I want to contribute to and facilitate research, but I want to select the research projects in which I choose to participate. I don’t feel that it’s ethically or morally right for a company to in essence capture and co-opt my DNA by holding forth the lure of my ancestors as bait. Both Ancestry and 23andMe participate in this unsavory practice. The Genos model very specifically does NOT do that.

Right now, the Genos Exome sequencing product and services are in BETA.

I was the 98th person to order this test, although I’m sure many more have ordered since June.

Let’s take a look at my results.

My Personal Logo

The first thing Genos does is to introduce you to your genome by creating a personal logo for you, if you select that option. I did, of course.

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The circle twirled and locations on my chromosome lit up, like tiny fireflies. I wish I had taken a video.

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Next, my unique logo, derived from my DNA, was displayed beside my name.

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OK, that was fun, but now, let’s look at the data and what, as a consumer, I receive.

The Four Options

Your results are broken down into 4 categories. You can explore your genome, click on Health Identity, view the News or look at the educational Genomics 101 section.

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I first spent a few minutes looking at Genomics 101 which is professional and well written. It includes chapters covering questions like, “What is a gene?”

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The News section includes links to articles you may find of interest. Of course, I was dying to see my results, so I quickly moved on to the “Explore Genome” tab, where I saw the Map Your Genome page. So, let’s map my genome.

Map Your Genome

Genos compares your genome of the standardized Genome Reference Consortium reference model.

On the page, below, Genos shows me the 44,154 locations where I vary from the reference model, of which only 773 of these have known medical affiliations or mentions in medical papers. The key word here, of course, is KNOWN. The rest of the variants could be family differences, recently introduced or perhaps from generations back in time. Those locations may not be medically significant, or they may be, but we just don’t know how yet. Time and research will tell.

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Out of the 50 million loci (locations) sequenced, I have 773 variants which are certainly of interest and may or may not be relevant medically.

I wondered what happens when a new variant is discovered to be medically relevant or found in a new paper. Would my 773 become 774, or is this a static page, really only relevant to today? I wrote and asked Genos, and discovered that their customer support is very prompt, courteous and helpful. Here’s what they had to say.

At no additional cost to you, as the information in ClinVar (the NIH sponsored database) is updated with new assessments and new discoveries, your data will be automatically updated through our digital experience. This ensures that you are always aware of the latest literature available.

This is great news, making this product infinitely useful (medically) into the future.

You can view all of your chromosomes with the chromosome number and the number of identified variants present on each chromosome, below.  Please note that you can click on any image to see a larger version.

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Genos allows you to browse your medically relevant variants and what they may mean. The results are broken down into “Conditions” and “Traits,” as seen at right, above.

The Conditions are health related, but just because you have a mutation that may be associated in literature with a particular condition, that does NOT mean you have or will ever be diagnosed with that condition. In fact, as you can see, the literature itself is often contradictory. We don’t always understand what makes one person get a disease while another person does not.

For this reason, nearly every page that involves conditions also contains a link to genetic counselors along with cautionary messages that succinctly warn people against assuming that variant=disease. It doesn’t.

Individual Chromosomes

You can explore each chromosome individually.

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I clicked on variant 1, on chromosome 1, above.

If I click on the NEXN with the right arrow, I see the display below.

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If I click on the G>A which means the normal G nucleotide at this location has been replaced with an A in my case, I see the following:

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I can then read more about this gene and the mutational variant.

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I must tell you that I feel very empowered by having my own genetic information at my fingertips that was previously entirely unavailable to me, or available only through a medical provider, if at all.

Conditions

Moving now to the Conditions link on the right hand side of the main page, I can see the following conditions, grouped by category.

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You can explore the Conditions link for conditions associated with your variants, the Traits or the Variants themselves.

By clicking on the icons, you can see how many variants you have in each category. The first category is allergies.

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For example, here is one of my Conditions. I’ve chosen to share this one because you can tell by looking at my picture that I am clearly NOT albino.

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Still, I carry at least one mutation associated with this condition.

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Almost every single page carries this warning verbiage, which is proven by my albinism mutation and my somewhat younger photo when my hair was still its original color!

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Variants

Variants are divided into groups.

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Most of my findings are benign. Whew!!!

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This is an example of one of my benign variants.

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You can see that while this mutation is mostly benign, or green, some papers show it to fall into the other risk categories.

Please note the verbiage at the bottom of the screen.

“What is believed to be true today may be disproven tomorrow.” That’s part of why I’m participating in this type of testing.

The screen for each variant goes on to provide the links to the studies themselves, which may or may not agree, so you can read and digest for yourself. Please, unless you’re an MD, do not attempt to be your own doctor!

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Traits

The Traits at Genos are the same traits that are tested and reported by other testing firms as well.

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Like other genetic values, variants and results, these may or may not be accurate. My hair is very thick, as you can see from my photo, I taste bitter very well, unfortunately, and my skin is not light…at least not for someone primarily Caucasian. Some of these traits are clearly subjective. They make for interesting party conversation.

Health Identity

The next section of the website if for Health Identity. This is where you provide information about yourself and your health history. 

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If you’re going to participate in this type of endeavor, it’s important to provide Genos with as much information as possible. That’s one avenue for Genos to know who would might be a good candidate for specific kinds of research.

Research

While there aren’t any research projects yet underway today, there will be in the future.

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And last but not least…

Genetic Counselors

If you discover something you would like to know more about, or that concerns you, you can make contact with a genetic counselor through the Genos site.

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Caveat

I am, personally, very much an advocate of genetic research, when it is preformed ethically, transparently and with full disclosure. As far as I’m concerned, Genos absolutely fits that bill.

However, if someone were prone to anxiety or hypochondria, this type of testing might not be a good fit.

I’m not prone to either, and I have a very high risk tolerance level, but I still am inclined to spend quite a bit of time looking at the variants that aren’t benign. If you are in the “don’t want to know” camp, then don’t test. Bottom line.

Let me say this again.

Don’t test if you really don’t want to know.

You cannot put the genic back into the bottle once it’s out.

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Exome testing is different than genetic genealogy testing and has the potential to reveal information which may be frightening or distressing to some people, which is why I shared my results with you in such detail.

Looking to the Horizon

Having said that, I find exome testing absolutely fascinating. I would like to see if my children have the same variants that I do. Did they inherit those from me or did those variants bite the dust in my generation? Are there variants that I carry one of and my children have two, meaning their father contributed one as well? What does this mean, health-wise, potentially, for my grandchildren?  What did they inherit?

Of course, today, exome comparisons between individuals are not possible at Genos (or elsewhere), but perhaps in the future?

Could this type of testing be a step forward in identifying conditions and diseases not yet “discovered” as we define them today? Some mutations affect particular individual family lines negatively, and sometimes fatally. Can exome testing help these families, if not today, then tomorrow? Exome testing certainly has that and a lot more potential.

I’m excited about being able to select and participate in research studies with the ability for the researchers to contact me to follow up many years into the future, if need be. The new Genos model allows citizens willing to have their exome sequenced the opportunity to help shape the future of medical understanding and potentially, contribute to treatments and cures – in addition to learning a great deal about their own DNA and literally what makes them tick.  Which studies you participate in and what happens to your DNA is entirely within your control.

I hope that a research project (or projects) that I participate in eradicates a disease or diseases so that my descendants will only read about the disease in history books and will hopefully know that their ancestor played a small role in disease extermination.

In the mean time, I’m very actively participating in exome testing to attempt to track and identify a fatal family mutation that has plagued one family for at least 4 generations.  Of course, we don’t yet know how successful we will be.  However, exome testing, especially at this price, holds promise that was never available before. I hope that what today is literally a life and death experiment will one day be a standard testing routine available to any family with this type of issue.  I’ll let you know the outcome in a few months.

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Disclosure

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

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research