As it happens, most of the data on 23andMe seems harmless and fun. There are the “Neanderthal variants” (I have fewer of them than 58% of 23andMe customers, thank you very much), the bizarre earwax/earlobes-type data and, apparently, I have the muscle composition generally found in “elite athletes” (fancy). On the downside, my lineage isn’t as exotic as I’d hoped: 99.1% north-western Europe, of which 71% is British/Irish, with just 0.01% “Ashkenazi Jewish” to offset the genetic monotony. At £149, the 23andMe kit isn’t cheap and I’m quite tempted to demand a recount.
When asked about how database size affects ancestry results, David Nicholson, co-founder of Living DNA, told us, “The tests absolutely rely on the reference database. If you have Polish ancestry but there are no people in the database who are Polish, then what the test will do is show what the next closest group is next to Polish, like German or Eastern European ancestry.” Each ancestry DNA service has its own sample database and reference panel made of the DNA samples collected from their users and information collected from sources like the 1000 Genomes Project. The database consists of all this information collectively. A reference panel is made of certain curated samples with known family history and roots in a specific place. The services use insights gleaned from the reference panel to give you geographical ancestry results. In theory, a larger database leads to more information available to create a good reference panel, which then leads to better results for customers.
We provide sample collection kits for all our tests. Paternity testing, relationship tests and most of our other tests entail the easiest and most painless method of sample collection using oral swab samples. Visit our collection guide for information about how to collect your own samples from home using our DNA test kit. Thanks to state-of-the-art genetic identification systems we are able to perform testing with many other samples such as hair, garments and toothbrushes. The discreet DNA samples section has more information on the types of totally non-invasive samples that can be tested.
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Some services include shipping costs in the cost of the kit; AncestryDNA's $99 fee includes two-way shipping. National Geographic's Genographic Project ships the kits for free, but you have to purchase postage when you send your kit to their lab. 23andMe tacks on a two-way shipping fee of $9.95 for the first kit and $5 for each additional one. HomeDNA includes a prepaid envelope to return your sample and offers three shipping options: $7 for two-day shipping, $14 for overnight, and free shipping that takes 7 to 12 business days. Finally, MyHeritage charges $12 for shipping; if you order two kits, you pay $6, and if you order three or more, you get free shipping.
More controversially, some of these kits profess to tell you your biological (as opposed to actual age) by measuring the length of your telomeres (in basic terms, the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect chromosomes, like plastic tips at the end of shoelaces). Other tests, such as 23andMe, predict higher risks of developing serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, including the test for BRCA1/BRCA2 (breast and ovarian cancer) that Angelina Jolie famously underwent, going on to have a preventative double mastectomy and surgery to remove her ovaries.