AncestryDNA vs 23andMe vs FamilyTreeDNA vs Living DNA
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.
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.
Worried about DNA privacy? You should be. Now, Nebula Genomics allows you to learn about your DNA without giving it away. They even offer anonymous DNA testing.
It sounds like the fellow providing the DNA was from somewhere over there.
Try a dartboard next time. It’s very specific.
With a company like Ancestry, you wonder how much they are using things like last names as well. Let’s just say that you didn’t need to use a genetic test to figure out the subject had Lithuanian origins. It was still an interesting exercise though.
My children are adopted, so last name was arbitrary from the perspective of the test. After receiving their ancestry test I then did their biological family tree using the information we had and documents to support the research. Turns out ancestry got it right! I was pleasantly surprised.
Thank you for sharing your experience Lynnette. It must have been pretty amazing to see for the first time!
One way Ancestry is unique from the other test providers is their massive genealogy data set. As a stand-alone product it is certainly the most comprehensive the world, and would no doubt be pretty effective even without doing the DNA test. Ancestry has been operating for 34 years now and has billions of records to draw from.
I was disappointed with Ancestry on this aspect. They so obviously used my family tree to extrapolate my “genetic communities”. As you pointed out, not even needing to refer to my DNA test. At least their traditional ethnicity prediction is presumably based on an analysis of markers and a long span of time (despite very biased and paltry reference samples). However, these ‘genetic communities” are nothing more than a gimmick that get people nodding their heads.
Thank you for commenting JT.
There’s certainly one way to find out. Send them the same sample again but use a different last name 🙂 It’s hard to say though because they could always do a check for duplicates. We may have to run another experiment soon!
You do have the option to use their service without a DNA sample. Also, if your goal is to find out as much information as possible then you shouldn’t have an issue with them using all the information on hand.
Living DNA has done very well. All of the 49.9% East European is probably from the father. The combination of Northern Italian, the French, German and unassigned European is probably from the mother, which works as they all border each other.. The other tests all seem to give to much weight to Eastern Europe, apart from 23andme, but that misses the Italian completely.
Thanks for the comment Georges.
This excerpt says a bit about them:
The team is led by DNA Worldwide Group, a DNA testing company, whose services are used by every court in the UK. The company is run by David Nicholson and Hannah Morden who saw an opportunity to show humanity that we are all made up of all of us, dissolving the concept of race. It was launched in 2016 after two years of intensive development but its parent company DNA Worldwide Group has been operating since 2004, and employs over 35 people from its head office in Somerset, UK.
They are brand new to the scene but pretty impressed so far. We’re going to do a deep dive on them in a future article. What’s worth noting is that as soon as you login they say something to the extent of “We’re new. Stay tuned for more features coming online as time progresses”. They really seem solid.
this was a very entertaining article. Having done a Y DNA test on mybroher way way back in late 2004, can say that ithas been ver interesting to date. Attemtping to try to figure out how the other 3males he matched, are/were related t him.
Yes, each testing company has its own data base of which to compare raw data DNA results.
NO, it is NOT going to match to any other company. As they each, in turn, have their own source and customers base. .
NO one of the 4 of them are going to have the SAME EXACT customers. Nor are the DNA results going to be any where EXACT to this party who was the subject of your comparison for services.
He got exactly what he wanted from each company. What was his origins, albeit, compared to each companies data base participants.
No, THEY ARE NOT GOING TO BE EXACTLY THE SAME.
And too, not every one of those people who shared teir family tree aong with their DNA sampel are professional genealogists. All make mistakes and pick up the icorect ancestors along the way.
SO using say ANCESTRY.com’s extensive PUBLIC trees are a good idea. MOST if not all of the files ont hat site
‘are FRAUGHT with errors. I know, every file I happen upon are so in error it is so sad.
Most of those people NEVER reply to any of my requests for clarity when I point out a GLARING error, like
the son born 1693 and the father born 1812. as an example. And many other ridiculous files showing that the father had children from 1700 to 1900. NO WAY can that be. NO person has lived 200 years.
NO WAY can that file be even considered useful.
So NO, you did a good thing. You did a great compare for service between the BIG 3 DNA lab sites, and
the one new comer, LIVNG DNA.
They each had the person’s ancestor in the near area, ball park. It is up to the person to do his paper trail family tree, first.
Then when stumped or run into a BRICK WALL, do a DNA test. That can help get over it.
Or in this case, today, a great conversation piece at the Friday night neighborhood cocktail party.
We cannot speak to each companies method or protocol or output of data, reports, etc. It is their design, their thinking of what is helpful to each person’s research.(from their point of view.) What worked for them may not work for some one else.
It is up to the CUSTOMER to “BEWARE of what they are getting for their BUCK”.
A purchase made in haste is always regretted at leisure.
So far, I have been satisficed with the out put from each of the tests that my brother has consented to do for me . And have been satisfied with the additional testing results on my son and myself.
Having shared all of our raw data to the 3rd party web site, http://www.GEDMATCH.COM, as well.
And NO< NO ONE from that site has contacted me to say that we are a match.
But then, that is NOT uncommon. Our ancestors trail of emigration may NOT be the same as so many others since day one of this country coming into existence.
My family has been very mobile, and not every one else is going to match up with the many miles of traveling that they have done.
I have heard seen read that many people have traced their genealogy to specif people: presidents, kings.. I assume that is through their on research and not these tests?
You know they have these groups where people who remember previous lives get together and drink tea. It’s funny how when you go to these groups, every single person used to be someone notable. Not only that, but usually someone who speaks English. How is that possible? Where are all the people who say “I used to be a Chinese farmer in Lijiang and I died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 because life sucked back then?” End of rant.
Yes, that would likely be through their own research and possibly supported by by the massive genealogy data sets held by Ancestry.com.
That is so astonishing.
My family were farmers in a Jewish village in Ki Fang who were wiped out when the river overflowed.
My ex-husband never knew who his father was, We had only a first name. We did his DNA with Ancestry, and only had his basic opening account, with him as the only ‘tree’ member, as well as his last name coming from a simple name change to his step fathers name (no formal adoption even). It took about 5 hours of digging through his DNA Matches provided by Ancestry, with the results of his test, and low and behold…. we found his BIOLOGICAL father. Granted, it was somewhat of a miracle, using only 2 of the hundreds of matches (one containing only 5 entries on her ‘tree’), but we found him! We now have pictures, background info, newspaper articles and 100% proof of his lineage. He will be meeting his newly found brother this summer. At 71 years of age, he never thought he’d have this answer. I am so happy for him, and my daughter, to finally have answers. I stand behind and am so thankful for what Ancestry provides!!
Whether intentional corruption or not people are leaving out other sites. Like vitagene dot com offers the public Health and Ancestry with 700,000 variants for $99 dollars. They are located inside the USA and ship your sample to Texas. Their ancestry test goes back over 1000 years. I hear nothing on websites and rarely see it advertised on the internet. Which could be illegal because of corruption.
Thank you for the mention of Vitagene, however we deleted that plug you put in there for the second company which looked all of a scam. People don’t need to hunt around for a genetic test where there are already some very decent test providers. New companies better have some big players behind them to compete. Also, your comment about “going back 1,000 years” sounds like what an OTC company would say.
I really enjoyed your comparison. Very enlightening.
Okay well I have a web site right here that did a comparison with ancestry, vitagene, 23andme, and viamedex and they claim vitagen is very very impressive and with the ancestry test saying it does go back past 1000 years.
theguidr. best- dna- ancestry- test- kit- reviews/
The Viamedex dot com complete health says they test everything. You name it they are offering it and they say they were seen and recommended by PBS.
I enjoyed your site.
Found hosted projects with FTDNA compliment Ancestry genetic communities well confirmed with Gedmatch. Maternal Irish ancestry is related to county Donegal, surnames associated with Inishowen peninsula. Ancestry genetic communities show Ulster region with 600+ matches from Inishowen /Derry. The Donegal DNA project hosted on FTDNA is restricted to local population, samples who have both family lines from Donegal, have about a dozen matches from this project on Gedmatch. Another contributing factor is the geographic and cultural isolation of Donegal. 23andMe was pretty useless, As far as Y and MT DNA results they provide the Haplogroup no subclades. looking at trying LivingDNA next.
Really enjoyed your article…
Thanks for the interesting write-up, but I suspect you were expecting the impossible when you made those ‘clear as mud’ comments. Of course the geographical area’s going to widen greatly when you ask for higher confidence, that’s just how statistics works.
Is there any site that can track native American blood from the mothers side? Everything I have seen tracks only from the males.