Our testers took multiple DNA ancestry tests, and the services returned slightly different results for each person. This doesn’t necessarily mean that any one company is more accurate than another. Every DNA testing service uses its own algorithm and data set – different reference populations drawn from different databases. Nacho Esteban of 24Genetics told us, “Ancestry is not an exact science. The top five companies in the world would show very similar results when talking about continents; the similarity is smaller when talking about countries. In regional ancestry, some border regions are difficult to identify and sometimes there may be discrepancies. So we cannot take the information as something 100% sure. But at the end, it gives a great picture of where our ancestors were from.”
It’s easy to do these tests; it’s usually just a case of collecting your own samples at home, filling in short, basic questionnaires, posting the packages, and then logging on to interactive websites for confidential results (all the kits I tested used outside laboratories). With an array of price ranges and options, from one-off DNA-blitzes to targeting specific health areas, to fitness/wellness tracking, it’s no surprise that these kits are proving to be very big business and the field is primed to get even bigger, with a global market estimated to be worth around £7.7bn by 2022.
The first kit I try is Thriva’s baseline test (£49), which, like all its products, checks your blood. The box arrives promptly enough (containing spring-loaded needles, a little collection tube, antiseptic wipes, plasters, etc), but there’s a problem. The idea is to prick your finger and massage blood into the tube, but I just end up making my fingers sore and what I get out barely smears the top of the phial. Maybe it’s just me, but it turns into a right faff. In the end, I take advantage of Thriva’s service to send someone out to take a sample of blood from my arm.
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.  
Newman says that there’s a basic lack of “literacy” and understanding about genetic testing, among the public and even other health professionals. People are given false reassurances or made to panic (just because you have certain genetic variants, it doesn’t mean that you will develop a particular condition). Newman also makes the point that, in his field, counselling happens before and after testing and, while people with cancer or heart issues nearly always opt to have the test (as they can then take action to varying degrees), often people with conditions such as Huntington’s disease in their family decide not to go ahead because a diagnosis would change nothing for them. In any event, Newman says that, with genetic testing, while there are different levels, intensive counselling is always “absolutely key”.
Which is all very well, but do these kits work and deliver the service they promise and what about the wider ethics and implications of home genetic testing? Is it always wise for generally under-informed, under-prepared consumers to meddle in the highly complex, nuanced arena of genetics, risking confusion, complacency or even outright panic and anxiety when confronted with ostensible “bad news” (which may not even be true)?
23andMe started out by testing for genetic markers of diseases and medical conditions before rolling that back in response to the governmental concerns. It has since started slowly adding more health-related features with approval from the FDA. In April, 23andMe got approval to offer risk analysis for ten genetically linked diseases. The company now offers two options: Health + Ancestry ($199) and Ancestry ($99). The Health + Ancestry plan includes testing for genetic health risks and carrier status, as well as reports on your genetic weight, hair loss, and other traits.
There are many places you can upload your raw DNA, and several of them are free. Popular third-party DNA analysis tools include GEDmatch and Promethese. GEDmatch is a free, open database and genealogy site that gives additional DNA relative matching and trait results. This tool has information from users of multiple different testing companies. Promethease compares your raw DNA information against scientific reports that link certain markers to health conditions, though you should take these results with a grain of salt as genetic links do not equal a diagnosis.
As a postscript, I eventually end up having an interesting chat with Titanovo about my “bioinformatics” (distilled from my 23andMe data). One of the first things I’m told is that my eyes are green (they’re brown). However, the bioinformatics got my skin type and frame/weight generally right and had interesting (albeit occasionally generic) things to say about exercise, diet, goals, steering clear of too much sugar and so on.
DNA Diagnostics Centre offers a range of exciting ancestry testing services. Whether you’re looking to discover the origins of the maternal or paternal side of your family or you wish to determine your genetic profile and learn how much ancestral DNA you have from European, African, indigenous American or Asian peoples, we have the right test for you.
I would like to know about the paternal side of my father’s family. My problem is that there are no living males. (My father’s sister had a son that is still living, however, if he does a Y-dna test I believe that will only give out HIS father’s information). I wonder if I should have this male cousin take the mtDNA test instead. That way I could at least find out more about the maternal side of my father’s family. Any advice?

Rather than simply looking at your DNA in isolation, the Findmypast DNA test analyses unique combinations of linked DNA. This proprietary method delivers a level of detail impossible with other ancestry DNA tests. It also uses the latest technology, which is constantly updated in response to the latest industry innovations and peer-reviewed research. As the technology evolves so too does the detail of your test results, which will receive free ongoing upgrades.

Although FamilyTreeDNA is the only DNA testing company openly working with law enforcement, other DNA companies don’t necessarily keep your DNA information private. Many direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies sell your data to third parties. For example, 23andMe shares customer data with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which uses the information to develop medical treatments. In this case, you can opt out of having your DNA information used for research, and the data is shared only in aggregate.
Another key customer type could be people like myself, hurtling through middle age, perhaps just starting to feel the cold bony hand of mortality clamp down on their shoulder. People, who, in the past, may not have exactly prioritised their health, who are starting to wonder what may be in store for them and who are in the (“Hypochondriacs R Us”) market for some hard-core insight and advice.
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