With the cost of gene sequencing plummeting each year, personal genetic tests are the latest fad with genetic test providers like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, Living DNA, and FamilyTreeDNA all competing to
get their hands in your wallet provide you with amazing insights about your ancestors. With tests ranging from how much neanderthal you have in you to which exercises will be most effective at the gym, some people are questioning just how accurate these tests are and the usefulness of the information they provide. We’ve reviewed a number of these hereditary genetic tests before, and one of the most frequently raised questions by our lovely readers is what are the differences and similarities between test results.
The motivation behind this question is that if the results between genetic test providers are quite varied, then we would question the overall usefulness of hereditary genetic tests. In order to get down to the bottom of this, we decided to perform our own experiment and selected an impartial test subject who kindly agreed to lend us his DNA for four popular genetic test providers. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, Living DNA and FamilyTreeDNA. We bought all four hereditary genetic tests and opened them up as seen below:
There are two main reasons to take a hereditary genetic test. The first, is so that you can see if you are related to other people in the test provider’s database. The second reason is that you want to see what sort of observations the test provider can make about where your ancestors came from. For the purposes of our experiment, we focused on what observations the tests could make about where our subject’s ancestors came from. One advantage that we have here, is that the test subject has a very detailed knowledge of his ancestry.
The test subject we used is a Caucasian male in his early 60s with a very specific pedigree. His grandparents on his father’s side migrated to the U.S. from two small towns in Lithuania in the year 1910 and his grandparents on his mother’s side both came from Salcedo, Italy in the year 1926. Both sides planted roots in Chicago, Illinois where they then had offspring who married and had our test subject (his father was 100% Lithuanian and his mother was 100% Italian). We can say with a great degree of certainty that his ethnicity should be some combination of Eastern European with a heavy dash of Italian descent. Let’s see what the following companies had to say about it.
Let’s start with the most popular company Ancestry.com which boasts the largest online collection of family documentation at a whopping 20 billion records stored and 3 million users. The percentages appear to be quite accurate based on the information we know about our subject’s ethnicity. The test absolutely nailed his Lithuanian heritage as seen below:
What’s interesting about the next two results are that they reference Slavs and Italians. For us Americans who lack a basic knowledge of global geography, the Slavs are actually Croatians, Serbians, Slovenians, and Hungarians who all lived and worked together for many generations in southeastern Europe. Below you can see the regions in Europe which the Slavs inhabited:
Above marked with a white “X” is the town of Salcedo, Italy where the subject’s mother was from. The test correctly identified the geographic regions that we would have expected it to. Below we can see the total weight being 100% with 76% Eastern Europe and 13% being Italy/Greece:
We added two red arrows pointing to the location of the expected locations of the subject’s ancestors. We would consider this test to have provided some very useful information should we have not already known the subject’s past. We also notice the <1% Scandinavian and European Jewish heritage (which comes up again later).
In addition to these percentages we are provided with a historical overview beginning in the year 1800-1950 marking the milestones that affected the subject’s ancestors. With just a couple clicks we are offered additional, in-depth information regarding each country’s history. The amount of time between sending the kit back and receiving the results was roughly 12 weeks. You can buy an AncestryDNA kit for $99 and get free shipping right now when you order a test by clicking this link and entering the code FREESHIPDNA.
Next we have 23andMe which came back after only 6 weeks of waiting which was the fastest of all test providers. 23andMe offers similar features such as an ancestry timeline, ethnic mix profile and DNA matches, but in addition to these tools is a metric called “Neanderthal percentage” of which he scored 277:
So the test subject scores less than 52% of 23andMe customers and has 277 Neanderthal variants? That’s then followed by such gems as “you’re less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate” and “you have straighter hair”. That’s about as useful to us as a screen door in a submarine, so we quickly move on to the meat of the analysis which can be seen below:
We can see a similar percentage of European (99.6%) but strangely we see some Asians and North Africans creeping into the picture as well. The above is the actual screenshots from 23andMe (artisenal annotations in red text are our own). Given that Europe has 44 countries, saying that our test subject is “Broadly European” or even “Broadly Northwest European” tells us very little. So 23% of the results are virtually worthless if we include the “Unassigned” bucket. 61% are what we expected (Eastern European and Southern European) and then 18.2% are Northwestern Europe which doesn’t seem to match what we know. Now here’s where things take a turn for the worse.
As it turns out, those test results can be adjusted for “confidence”. This means a low confidence is more speculative and a high confidence is more likely to be accurate. So, we just jammed that lever all the way up to 90% confidence from the rather dismal 50% confidence it defaulted to, and “you won’t believe what happens next” as they say:
So now we can say with a 90% certainty that our subject’s DNA was 92.5% “Broadly European”? That observation isn’t very helpful, so we move on to the next part of the test which is an interesting timeline that shows when everyone “came into the picture” as it were:
Then what follows is some interesting haplogroup stuff which provides insights like the following:
Overall 23andMe provided a great deal of functionality alongside our test but we still can’t get over that whole “broadly” thing. The 23andMe hereditary genetic test runs $99.00 plus shipping or you can opt for the health add-on and pay $199 for the total package.
Moving on to our third test provider, FamilyTreeDNA had test results back to our subject in 8 weeks. The results show that the European blood line is yet again confirmed, but we have some Jews of Spanish or Portugese descent coming into the picture.
Here we can see that FamilyTreeDNA claims 95% East European. If you’re looking for some additional color on “where exactly in East Europe”, how about this big yellow blob pasted across most of Europe as seen below:
That’s about as clear as mud, so let’s move onto the “Ancient Origins” part of the test seen below:
So you’re saying there is a 13% chance our test subject was a Metal Age Invader? Fcuk yes. In addition to valuable insights like that one, Family Tree DNA is the test to take if you are serious about researching your genealogy because you can import test results from 23andMe and AncestryDNA to see how many relatives you can find from all the databases combined. Order the basic autosomal test here for $79 plus shipping.
Living DNA Review
Now we move on to our last test provider who is also the most recent test provider in the group. Living DNA offers that in-depth information we are looking for and like their competition (with the exception of FamilyTreeDNA), gives access to the maternal/paternal haplogroups, migration maps and history of origin regions which can be seen below:
Once that’s out of the way, we can move on to looking at things like migration maps, phylogenic trees, and haplogroups:
The last thing to note here is that the haplogroup for the subject’s father was different between 23andMe and Living DNA. Living DNA claims to be “the world’s most advanced DNA test, offering twice the detail of other ancestry tests“. We’re looking forward to seeing what additional functionality come online for Living DNA and you can pick up a hereditary genetic test like the one above for $139 on sale today.
Millions of people have ordered a testing kit, and excitedly sent their kit back in hopes of finding out what their DNA will say about them. Sometimes though, things aren’t that simple. Consider the man who wrote an article titled “With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce“. Apparently he gave both parents a couple of 23andMe tests as gifts and when he compared it to his own things became “confusing”… After his parents divorced, he dispensed some words of wisdom:
I’m not sure all your customers realize that when they participate in your family finder program, they’re participating in what are essentially really advanced paternity tests.
Just remember that in all cases you need to explicitly say if you want your DNA shared. If you don’t want to open any cans of worms, a single test can tell you a wealth of information as we’ve just learned from our genetic testing comparison of all four test providers.
If you’re leaning towards AncestryDNA, you can get free shipping right now when you order a test by clicking this link and entering the code FREESHIPDNA.