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?
The only patients having their genome sequenced are those with certain cancers or rare diseases. In some cases, family members may also be asked to participate. To take part, a patient must first be referred by a consultant, before being taken through an extensive consent process to ensure they know what participation in the project means. As well as the genome sequence, Genomics England asks for access to a patient’s lifetime medical records so that links can be made between their genetics and their individual disease. The NHS has made it very clear that, for many participants, taking part in this project won’t help them treat their disease. But it is hoped that the information they provide will go on to help treat others in the future.
The 23rd pair of chromosomes is comprised of sex chromosomes – X and Y chromosomes that determine whether you’re male (XY) or female (XX). Traits like red-green color blindness, male pattern baldness and hemophilia are specifically linked to X or Y chromosomes and are called sex-linked characteristics. All of those examples, and most other sex-linked traits, are X-linked and more common in males, who only have one X chromosome. Many DNA tests isolate Y DNA in males to show consumers their paternal haplogroup. Since the Y chromosome is directly inherited from father to son, it is possible to trace direct paternal lineage for many generations.
When I took my first DNA test in 2016 I was disappointed, in part because I didn’t do my research, so my goal in this review is help others avoid that scenario. Beyond ancestry tests, there are companies that recommend wines or exercise regimens based on your DNA. With all the available options, it’s easy to default to a recognizable name, which isn’t necessarily bad. But certain tests do specific things better. Our goal is to match your expectations with the test that fits best.
Gteat article! Thank you so much. I am Jewish American. Both sides of my family immigrated from Eastern Europe/Russia about 5 generations ago. I would really like to try and find out more about exactly where they came from, identify potential living and deceased distant relatives in the USA and abroad and ultimately start creating an extensive family tree. Which test would you suggest?
There are mixed reactions to the use of ancestry DNA databases in criminal cases. On one hand, the rise of readily-available DNA information for millions of people has led to the arrests of several suspects related to long-cold cases, including the arrest of the Golden State Killer. On the other hand, law enforcement accessing private databases of genetic information from consumers raises several questions regarding privacy and ethical issues.
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.

If you opt in to DNA Relatives, you will be able to send and receive invitations to connect with other customers who share DNA with you. You can choose whether to respond to these invitations or not, and your DNA relatives have the same choice. We cannot guarantee that they will respond to your sharing invitations or messages. Regardless of whether you both agree to share, you will be able to see their birthplace, locations of their ancestors and surnames, if they have chosen to add this information to their profile. If you both accept sharing invitations, you will be able to see ancestry reports and overlapping chromosome segments.
*Substantiated by AncestryDNA, May 2018 report. WARNING: AncestryDNA highly discourages the purchase of our DNA kit from unauthorized resellers. To ensure the best experience and service, please purchase directly from AncestryDNA Official. DNA kits that are fraudulently purchased and then resold through Amazon may be deactivated by AncestryDNA, and may not be eligible for a refund.
Hi Mark, Thank you for your article – very helpful. I am adopted from Asian country and live in Australia. I don’t know who my biological parents are and don’t know if I have any siblings. I have been researching through all these websites trying to decide which dna test to take – confused by it all. Your article has helped me to decide on FTDNA (family history and mtDNA) – hoping that it would give me ancestry makeup inherited from my bio parents and ancestry details on my mothers side (as I am female, limited to this test). In… Read more »
Pet DNA tests: Companies like Embark, Wisdom Panel and many others offer genetic health risk screenings, trait analyses and breed percentage information for dogs. These canine ancestry tests allow you to confidently state that your mutt is part Irish wolf hound and give you key information about your pet’s heritage for insights into potential health issues. For example, if you find out one of your rescue dog’s parents was likely a purebred boxer, you could speak with your vet about breed-specific needs. Basepaws DNA CatKit promises information about your cat’s breed and traits with just a hair sample, though it offers swab kits for hairless cats. The kit also tells you how closely related your kitty is to wild cats like lions, tigers and (bears, oh my!) ocelots.]
The 100,000 Genomes Project is an NHS initiative, run by Genomics England, and is the largest national genome sequencing project in the world. On entering, patients have their entire genome, of more than 3bn base pairs, sequenced. This is different from commercially available genetic testing kits, such as those from 23andMe, which only look at very small stretches of DNA in a process called genotyping. The hope of the NHS is that having so much genetic information, from so many different people, will allow “groundbreaking discoveries about how diseases work, who could be susceptible to them, how we can treat them, and what treatments might work”.
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.
The DNA tests we reviewed either require a saliva or cheek cell sample. Saliva-collecting kits include a tube that’s marked with a fill line and sample number. The tube often has a liquid-filled cap with a stabilizer that acts as a preservative to protect your DNA from degradation during transport. Cheek swab sample kits include one or two swabs for scraping the insides of your cheeks for 30 seconds to a minute to collect cheek cells and some sort of container to place the used swabs into after collection. This prevents contamination. Our testers found upsides to both types of kits but generally preferred saliva collection kits, even though they took longer.
Paternity tests: At-home paternity tests have been around much longer than other direct-to-consumer DNA tests. Most of them require you to collect cheek swab samples from a prospective father and child, which you then send off to a lab to determine paternity. For non-legal use, these tests can cost as little as $15, but tests that provide verified results that are admissible in court cost a few hundred dollars.
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.
You control your account privacy. Findmypast and Living DNA keep your data private unless you choose to share information, such as your family tree or DNA results. Your data is encrypted and stored on secure servers, only accessible by staff, vital service providers (such as our laboratory partners) and you. Living DNA has carefully chosen a European laboratory to conduct its DNA testing. Findmypast and Living DNA only disclose your data to third parties where we have appropriate agreements in place. For example, trusted third-party payment processing companies. Findmypast and Living DNA are ISO accredited for data and information security.
Most direct-to-consumer DNA test companies warn that the tests may reveal things you wish you didn’t know about your family. For example, you could find out that one of the people who raised you isn’t your biological parent or that there’s an entire branch of your family you didn’t know about. There isn’t a way to prepare for a shock like that, but you can opt out of a company’s family-matching services if you’d rather not know.
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)?
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