Having given these questions much thought, I thought a good starting point would be to look back and start researching my own family history. When I was young I always thought I was 100% British. My Dad was born in Edgware and my mum in Hampshire. Of course, none of us are truly 100% British and as I got older I learnt that my Dad had Russian great-grandparents on one side and German on the other, and that my great grand-parents on my mother’s side were Greek. So I suppose this is when I started considering how much of my identity was defined by my family history.
Haplogroups are a different story. Your maternal line haplogroup assignment is derived from a separate piece of DNA called the mitochondria. Since mitochondria is passed on only by mothers to their children, your maternal line haplogroup assignment only tells you about your mother's side of the family. Similarly, the paternal line haplogroup assignment is derived from a different, separate piece of DNA called the Y chromosome. The Y chromosome is only passed from fathers to sons and only traces the paternal line.
You might want to stay away from DNA tests if you or any of your close relatives have committed a crime. Although ancestry DNA testing companies don’t typically share database information with law enforcement, consumer DNA tests may result in future identification. For example, FamilyTreeDNA, which has a database of close to a million samples, has agreed to give the FBI limited access to the company's DNA database. This access consists mainly of consumer-level insights, like matches with other members of the FamilyTreeDNA community who have enabled family matching; by law, however, more in-depth investigation requires a subpoena.
Note that DNA testing isn't the only kind of kit that collects physical evidence from you these days. Ubiome is one noteworthy example. The service evaluates your microbiome—basically the bacteria that live in and on you. In our review, we took its gut biome test, which required our intrepid reviewer to send in a poop sample (insert poop emoji here).
Every company providing DNA testing has their own database of DNA samples. These are called AIM’s or ancestry informative markers. These markers were derived from the current populations of America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Every database is looking for a pair of genes located on a specific chromosome in a specific position. The way the DNA is evaluated is through the SNP’s or the single nucleotide polymorphisms. The SNP’s are chosen according to the frequency in a specific geographical population. Your SNP’s are compared to the most common SNP’s for the various populations in the company’s reference database. The results are not conclusive because they are based on common genetic variations. The probability for your DNA being from a certain country is based on a comparison between your DNA and the database. If you used a different company, they would have a different database. This means your results would most likely differ. According to studies, the lowest concordance is with individuals of South Asian, East Asian and Hispanic descent.
In fairness to 23andME, it leaves it up to the customer to unlock the more serious results – or not. When I unlock mine, I discover that, while I’m not genetically predisposed to such things as the BRAC1 or BRAC2 variant, Parkinson’s or MS, I have one of the variants for late-onset (mid-80s) Alzheimer’s. However, I don’t have any other markers for Alzheimer’s or family history or conditions associated with it or anything else listed in the rather lengthy disclaimer, which also stresses that it’s not a diagnostic result and to seek further advice from your GP if you are concerned.
If you have the Health + Ancestry Service you have access to the full 23andMe experience. If you only have the Ancestry Service, you can easily upgrade to the Health + Ancestry Service for £90 which gives you access to all 125+ reports on ancestry, traits and health. You are eligible to upgrade once you have received your Ancestry reports. To upgrade, log in to your 23andMe account and navigate to the Settings page. You will receive immediate access to your new health reports.
Thank you for such detailed information. I’m considering buying a DNA ancestry kit for my wife for Christmas (and buying one for myself as well). After reading your article (and many of the wonderful comments), I’m leaning towards the one from Ancestry.com. However, would I still get complete results without a subscription? I looked on their website and it doesn’t say.
Some of the companies providing ancestry DNA testing have an option that will reveal information regarding any individual with similar SNP’s. It is even possible to acquire a list of individuals who may be included in the ancestry of your family. Once permission has been given, they are able to contact you and you can contact them as well. This may sound entertaining and harmless at first, but raises a lot of questions about what information people may not be ready to hear. You may already know specifically where you come from. Now imagine if you found out your real mother was actually your grandmother. Perhaps you were raised as you birth mother’s sister. You have to ask yourself if you could handle that type of information. Prior to signing up for an ancestry DNA service, you must be aware of all the potential implications that may be revealed.
If you wanted to learn about a specific side of your family, you must consider your genetic markers. A good example is if an individual wanted to know the origins of the African-American part of the family. Some luck would be required to retrieve this information. This person may be able to learn the percentage of genetic markers that favorably match certain regions of Africa. This is dependent on if different regions can be distinguished by the AIM’s. The most commonly used African AIM’s for determining African ancestry come from West Africa.
I am not sure how Ancestry get their results. Mine is 49% British and 49% German. This means one of my parents must have been British and the other German. I moved to the UK 15 years ago. But both my parents where German as where my 4 grandparents and my 8 great-grandparents. It seems to me they have rolled the dice and assumed that if you send a sample from the UK you must have British ancestry. No science behind it at all. I could have gone to the oracle at the fun fair.
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.