Choosing a DNA Testing Kit for Ancestry, Genealogy, and Family

Updated on December 30, 2017
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Author Kathy Batesel writes about topics she has experienced, worked with, or researched thoroughly.

Why I Ordered a DNA Test

I have a sneaking suspicion that all of us have, at some point in our childhoods, secretly believed that we were accidentally switched at birth or were abducted from our "real," undoubtedly famous or very rich, families. Then we grew up and forgot all about the fantasy we briefly harbored.

Today, DNA testing is showing some people that their fantasies may have been closer to the truth than they realized!

In my case, I have always wanted to know more about my mother's side of the family, but facts were hard to come by. My grandmother told me bits and pieces about my grandfather's affair that, according to one story, resulted in a woman showing up on her doorstep asking what to do about her very-pregnant belly.

I was blessed that my grandma and I had the kind of close relationship where I never felt ashamed to ask questions, such as, "Well, who was the woman?"

"She worked at the furniture store, and hung out at the bar over on 5th St.," she said. "She died in a Seattle mental institute because of her alcoholism."

I had more questions than answers.

Did that mean I would be predisposed to alcoholism, too? What other health problems might she have? Was she related to a famous movie star? (This was all very close to Hollywood, after all!)

My journey to an answer took some surprising twists and turns that ultimately found answers through DNA testing. I discovered that I am not the only one to be surprised by their test results, either!


DNA Test Comparison Chart

 
Ancestry.com
23andMe.com
FamilyTreeDNA.com
MyHeritage.com
 
 
 
 
 
Test Types
Ancestry
Ancestry / Ancestry + Health
Ethnicity / Ancestry / Mitochondrial
Ancestry
Retail Cost
$99
$99 / $199
$59 / $129 / $169
$99
Matching to Other Test Kits?
YES
YES
YES
YES
Database size (in Aug 2017)
> 5,000,000
appx 2,000,000
appx 500,000
Unknown
Pay to See People Matched?
NO
YES
NO
LIMITED
Upload Results Tested Elsewhere?
NO
NO
YES
YES
Genealogy Research Tools
Requires Paid Membership
Requires Paid Membership
Limited Free "Project" Tools
Free Tools

How to Use DNA Results & Other Research Tools

We all need to pay attention to our health, and the 23andMe test is one way to do it, but it's not the only way. I learned that I could use my DNA test results to gather a huge amount of additional information for free or nearly-free using two additional websites.

GEDMatch provides fun tools for amateurs and sophisticated ones for professionals. The site offers a "one to many" comparison that allows members to upload their data to see who matches them. It describes the degree of the match (beginners will need to learn about "SNPs" and "cMs" - single nucleus peptides and centimorgans - to make any sense at all of the results, but armed with a very basic understanding of the concepts, one can figure out close matches and locate their email addresses.

Promethease offers tools for identifying health risks. It can be scary to see genetic markers for debilitating conditions, so it's important to remember that any characteristic isn't automatically present! The Prometheas data is based entirely on published findings from a variety of research sources. The sources may or may not be accurate and able to be repeated, so use this with care! Nonetheless, I found it very interesting to see how many markers I had for cancer, heart conditions, and so on. This tool can help a person figure out which well-meant health advice really does need to be followed!

Using Promethease did reveal a flaw to Ancestry's test results, though. Quite a high number of the SNPs that described poor health conditions were identified as "miscalls" by Ancestry. This means that a condition that might happen once in every 10,000 people (a .001% risk) is being reported by too many people to be believable. If it happens only once in every 10,000 people, but one in every hundred shows the result (and other services' tests show 1 of every 9,000-10,000), then Promethease has labelled it as a miscall. There were MANY of these in my results!

Finally, some DNA tests reveal something known as "haplogroups." This is related to ethnicity. Everyone within a particular haplogroup shares the same common ancestor. Most methods for identifying a haplogroup use the Y-Chromosome, which women do not have. In order for women to identify their haplogroups, they must have a mitochondrial DNA test or rely on a male relative to provide DNA for analysis. Men can locate results by downloading their results and then submitting them according to the directions found here.

Ethnic background, health, and genealogy research top the reasons for ordering a DNA test kit.
Ethnic background, health, and genealogy research top the reasons for ordering a DNA test kit. | Source

Other Reasons to Get Tested

I was hoping to find a missing side of my family - an entire group of people who probably had no idea I existed. Many people who were adopted or are the children of adoptees have probably wondered if a DNA test would help them find answers. Although many states have agencies and social resources for helping to gather information, in some states - California being one of them - the records stay tightly sealed and locating genetically related people can help circumvent the red tape.

But sometimes something else happens. My friend Ted ordered a test. He says he always felt like he was a bit of an outsider in his own family, but never anticipated the results he found. He discovered that his brother and sister are actually half-siblings, and one of his parents wasn't his parent at all! This discovery has affected him profoundly. Like me, he is middle-aged, which means there may not be much time to locate his other birth parent (if that person is still alive!) His discovery has raised more questions than answers. If he confronts the matter within his family, it could have devastating effects, but if he doesn't, he may continue to struggle with feelings of betrayal and alienation that have settled on him now that he knows this information.

Ted wasn't in search of missing family. He simply wanted to build on a genealogical interest that started during his childhood, when he first started researching his family tree based on stories he was told about his distant cousins and great-great-relatives.

There are a few reasons people might want to get DNA testing done:

  • to confirm or disprove a relationship (such as a paternity test)
  • to identify a relationship (as I did when I sought more info about my mother's branch on my family tree)
  • to confirm or fill in genealogical details in an existing family tree
  • to locate ethnic ancestral roots
  • to discover chromosomal or genetic traits that can be medically important
  • to gather information to fill in vibrant details about a familial history (I'm still amazed at what my research revealed!)

Once there is a good reason to get tested, though, the real struggle begins - determining how and where to order.

How DNA Testing Is Done

I was a little daunted by the idea of a DNA test. I knew that in the military, my DNA had been typed and kept on record with a blood test, but I had no idea whether I would have to go let a lab draw blood or.... what!?

The answer was simple: Ancestry sent me a box with a little tube that I spit into until there was a sufficient amount for testing. I followed the instructions (cap it off, seal it up, put in the pre-addressed box they provided, and shove it into the mailbox) and registered for the mandatory online account where my kit number would be keyed to my email address so I could receive notices about processing and a notification when the results were in.

The instructions said it could take as many as six weeks to process, but it took longer than promised - it was ten weeks from the date they received my order to the date they notified me that my results were published.


Choosing the Best DNA-Testing Service

Before you choose a test, you should consider your reasons for ordering it. Consumers will find a variety of tests that can be confusing for us non-scientists. I didn't know the difference when I plunked down a hundred bucks for an Ancestry.com test (and another significant, possibly unnecessary, fee for membership when I wanted to actually research my results!)

Also, it's vital to recognize what security measures a company has in place and how the DNA results will be used. I wasn't concerned about this at first (remember, my DNA had already been typed by the U.S. Army!) but then I found out that the results could theoretically be used by insurance companies to deny treatment for illnesses that can be identified by genetic markers simply by claiming the illness as a pre-existing condition! Today, the police are also using DNA results to collar criminal suspects, too.

Take a look at this video about how the police used a DNA database to hone in on a killer by using the killer's family member's DNA without a warrant of any kind, and what happens today:

How Police Used a DNA Database to Locate a Killer

More DNA Privacy Concerns

In the case discussed in the video, police had the killer's DNA from the crime scene and submitted it as if they were an individual wanting to test himself. Some might say that it's unethical or a breach of privacy to do so, while others believe it's justified, a philosophy that equally endorses undercover operations for drug or sex crime investigations.

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says police have been going a little wild with DNA collection, asking people who are not considered suspects to voluntarily provide DNA that could be held indefinitely.

Similarly, medical insurance companies could access the information if they later acquire the companies who have the databases. What if United Healthcare or Blue Cross one day purchased Ancestry.com? Would they be able to write new policy exclusions to prevent treating expensive but common ailments? Or to deny treatment because a genetic marker means the ailment is pre-existing?

Before you order any DNA test kit, you should consider carefully whether or not it's a risk you're willing to take. Science has only just begun to decipher the mysteries of our genetics. We can't predict what else our samples will reveal in the future. I personally didn't feel too worried about it, but I wouldn't fault someone for deciding not to take part!

So, if you're still keen on the idea, the next step is determining which service and kit will meet your needs. Here's what I found:

SHOCKING NEWS!

I was completely stunned by the information that flowed within days of seeing my DNA results.
I was completely stunned by the information that flowed within days of seeing my DNA results. | Source

So.... What Were the Surprises I Mentioned?

By now, you've probably figured out that DNA testing can produce a HUGE amount of information, some of which is extremely technical. You already knew that it can be used for solving crimes and identifying or excluding people as relatives. If you didn't consider its use for finding lost relatives, now you have, and I'll finish the tale of what happened with my results. (This is the short version, by the way. I'll write more later, because the full story deserves a Hollywood screenplay!)

Several years before I tested, I met a woman who was from the same city as my mother. She sort of looked like my mother, too, though not enough to consider the possibility of being related at first. I happened to tell her about my mother being an adoptee and how I wanted to find my family. As it happened, she told me about her mother's twin sister, who had a baby named Rose that disappeared as an infant. We compared notes. We were shocked at the number of similarities between that baby's origins and my mother, but I knew my mother couldn't be that child because my grandmother had never mentioned my mother having a twin or being born to someone who had a twin, and I'd had three children (no twins, and my mother had three children, no twins.) My mother's name wasn't Rose, and I'd never heard that name from my grandmother.

Test results suddenly put me in contact with a second cousin in Seattle, the location where my mother's bio-mom had reportedly died. He knew my biological grandmother well, and confirmed that she was an alcoholic but not in an asylum at all. She and her twin sister used to hang out at the bar my grandfather frequented - the one my grandma had told me about.

"One day, she took Rose when she left the house and she came back without her. She said two men had taken her."

I visited my second cousin in Seattle and he filled in some more answers, and has become a great friend in the process.

I wonder what other surprises will pop up from the ongoing notifications as Ancestry notifies me about new DNA matches that are found as more customers order their kits in the years to come!



Questions & Answers

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    • jellygator profile image
      Author

      jellygator 3 months ago from USA

      Thank you, Dianna!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 months ago

      You hear more about these kits today than ever before. I can see how it would help some people to connect with family. Interesting write on this topic.

    • jellygator profile image
      Author

      jellygator 4 months ago from USA

      Thanks, Glenn! I think there was a similar option at Ancestry. I didn't want to err on reporting what the sites do, so I left that out, but I hope anyone who considers a test will read up on how it will be treated before deciding!

    • jellygator profile image
      Author

      jellygator 4 months ago from USA

      Thank you, Nadine!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 months ago from Long Island, NY

      What an interesting story! You’re right — you definitely should write a screenplay based on that. You can sell it to a movie producer.

      I used 23andMe for my DNA test. They give you the raw data file which can be used with other firms to analyze further, as you had mentioned.

      I didn’t have any surprises like you had, but it did confirm a lot of things that I always wondered about.

      As for worrying about what may be discovered in the future, 23andMe gives you the option to have them destroy your DNA after sending you the results. I chose to let them keep it, since they continue to send me new information as new discoveries are made.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 4 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Wow what an interesting article, and great content ideas for story writers. Well done

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