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.
Most of this trait data tells you things you already know, like your hair and eye color, but it is fun to see them compared to your genetic relatives and the world at large. We also found it fascinating to learn more about how these physical traits are genetically determined. For example, finger length ratio is determined by hormonal exposure in the womb, with higher testosterone exposure resulting in a better chance of having a longer ring finger. 23andMe’s Health report for finger length ratio looks at 15 gene markers to estimate your likelihood of having longer ring fingers or index fingers.
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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.
An ancestry DNA test uses a saliva sample to determine which areas of the world your DNA can be traced back to. DNA kits have become very popular during the last few years. This has led to many people having numerous questions. You may be wondering if your genetic information will be used for research or sold and how this impacts your privacy. You may also be concerned regarding the accuracy of this test or have numerous additional questions. The first thing you must realize is the question of your DNA is complex and there may not be a simple answer. The majority of people in the world have DNA from numerous different regions. You may perceive this combination as unique or you may see it is odd. Either way, you need to be open and prepared for a surprise.
HomeDNA has the simplest DNA extraction process; just swab each cheek twice with a cotton swab, and place the swabs in the included envelope. The National Geographic Genographic Project sent a scraper that you use on each cheek for 45 seconds, and then place in a vial with stabilizing liquid. MyHeritage DNA has a similar process. 23andMe and AncestryDNA require that you spit into a tube up to the fill line (harder than it sounds), and ship it back with stabilization liquid. Most of the services said not to eat, drink, or smoke for 30 minutes to an hour prior to testing to get the best possible sample.
All this comes into sharp focus with the comprehensive kits such as the one provided by 23andMe: the one I drool into a tube for (incidentally, 23andMe doesn’t test for Huntington’s disease). Most people, like myself, have a low understanding of genetic variants, what phrases such as “higher risk” or “probability” actually mean or how to interpret our results correctly. Is it right that ordinary members of the public must navigate potentially frightening and/or misleading results alone?
Whether it’s an autosomal test, a Y-DNA test or an mtDNA test, virtually all providers use the same science. Some providers offer an ‘off the peg’ solution such as Ancestral Origins™ or AncestrybyDNA™, so if you’re interested in these you should shop around for the lowest price. Most providers offer a test that interprets and presents the results in a unique way, so if one of these catches your eye, look for examples of how the results are presented on their website before you buy.