If you’re looking to either kickstart or enhance your understanding of your family history, a DNA test can help you identify close relatives all the way back to your earliest ancestors. Though a controversial and thorny topic, some tests claim to reveal your “ethnicity,” and some services can shed light on your genetic predisposition for diseases and physiological traits ranging from eye color to your tolerance for cilantro.
Over the past 20 years, DNA testing has entered the mainstream, driven by higher visibility, lower prices and improving science. Back in the aughts, a do-it-yourself DNA test cost about $1,000. But in recent years, the kits have become very affordable, with a wide range of DNA testing companies — from trailblazers such as 23andMe and Ancestry to upstarts such as Living DNA — offering rather sophisticated analysis of your genetic makeup for as little as $75 — or less, if you can find a deal on Black Friday or during the periodic holiday discounts throughout the year.
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There are three types of DNA tests — each with its own particular strengths, limitations and rationales.
- An autosomal DNA test is the best investment for most beginners; it can identify relatives between five and seven generations back, across both maternal and paternal lines.
- Only men can effectively use a Y-DNA test, which identifies male relatives on the paternal line reaching back 60,000 years; if you’re looking to trace the history of your family’s surname, this is the test to use.
- And mitochondrial DNA testing, also known as mtDNA testing, can determine genetic relationships on a maternal line from up to 150,000 years ago; both men and women can take this type of test.
Once you’ve been tested, each company will present you with an analysis of your geographical origin; some claim to be able to pinpoint a specific country, town or even “tribe.” Some will also serve up “matches” from their DNA databases, which will give you a head start on connecting with possible relatives, and offer some degree of family tree research support. AncestryDNA, for example, offers a subscription service that includes access to hundreds of databases containing birth, death and marriage announcements, census documents, newspaper archives and other historical records.
Some companies sell tests designed for specific ethnicities or specialized kits that claim to shed light on your optimal skin care regimen or weight; others offer tests designed to identify the genetic makeup of your cat or dog. The experts I spoke to were dubious of the efficacy and value of these tests and recommended avoiding them.
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Though there’s no blood involved with modern DNA testing — you either swab the inside of your cheek or fill a small test tube with your saliva — there are plenty of reasons to be leery of the companies that sell these kits. Your success in DNA test genealogy is largely dependent on supplying highly personal information about yourself and your relatives — from your genetic data to your mother’s maiden name, that traditional cornerstone of password security.
Concerns over data privacy and security are well-founded, and experts warn that regulation — especially in the US — lags far behind the technology. And you should know that some DNA testing companies may share data with pharmaceutical companies and law enforcement agencies. Bottom line: Think critically before volunteering information about your health history and familial connections to any DNA testing company or organization.
Read more: In the future, not even your DNA will be sacred
DNA testing, and genealogy more broadly, involves a complicated mixture of genetics, probabilities and guesswork. The various DNA testing services use different labs, algorithms, equipment and criteria to analyze your genetic material; though you should expect some degree of overlap between analyses from different companies, they may differ significantly. There’s also an element of critical mass — the larger the company’s database, the larger the sample they use to analyze your results, and the more accurate your test result should be.
We tried some of the top DNA testing services, assessing the breadth and depth of their offerings, methodologies, reputation and price. Take a look at our recommendations below. And if you’ve taken any of these DNA tests, tell me about your experience with it in the comments below.
Looking for more in-depth info on DNA testing services in general? Jump to our DNA test kit explainer.
Founded in 2006, 23andMe is one of the pioneers of DNA testing for consumers. In 2017 it became the first such service to win the FDA’s approval as a risk screener for diseases. It has become one of the most well-known DNA testing companies — and well-funded, since taking in a $300 million stake from GlaxoSmithKline, which uses the company’s customer data to research and design new drugs. Still, the company recently announced a round of layoffs, citing a slowdown in the DNA testing market likely caused by increasing concerns about privacy.
23andMe segments its analysis into three main categories — health, ancestry and traits. The basic ancestry and traits test, which costs $99, includes an analysis of your genetic makeup including your regions of origin, maternal and paternal lineage and Neanderthal ancestry. Once you opt in, the company’s match database — which has more than 10 million profiles — will identify and offer to connect you with people who share a DNA match with you.
The company’s DNA health test, which starts at $199, adds information about your genetic predisposition for late-onset Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases. The service also includes analysis of your carrier status as a potential genetic carrier for disorders like Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell Anemia as well as indicators for lactose intolerance and other “wellness” issues. The $499 VIP Health and Ancestry package provides priority lab processing, premium customer support and a personalized walkthrough of your results.
I found 23andMe’s website and mobile app very easy to navigate and brimming with interesting, comprehensible information about both my ancestry and health as well as the science of genetics and genealogy. The main dashboard offers intuitive links to exploring your ancestry, learning about the genetic risks for health conditions, building out a family tree and connecting with relatives. Among all of the DNA tests I tried, 23andMe delivered the best introduction to my recent and ancient genealogy along with analysis of my genetic health. The only real drawback is that it does not offer integrated access to historical documents.
23andMe does provide easy access to a full range of privacy preferences and consent options, however. (That noted, 23andMe’s terms of service and privacy statement is among the most extensive, exceeding 20,000 words.) You can ask the company to store your saliva sample indefinitely for future testing or have them discard it. Having signed off when I first signed up, I subsequently changed my mind about giving the company permission to share my data with researchers outside of 23andMe, and was able to retract my consent with the click of a button.
Read more: Ancestry vs. 23andMe: Which DNA testing kit is best for tracing your family history?
Founded in Utah in the 1990s, Ancestry.com — the parent company of AncestryDNA — started out as a publishing and genealogy company. Since then, it has had a somewhat tumultuous corporate existence, having been bought, sold, publicly traded and then purchased by private equity groups.
The company’s basic DNA kit service, which costs $99, provides you with an “ethnicity estimate” derived from its proprietary sequencing techniques. It’s noteworthy that the company’s genetic testing, which is outsourced to Quest Diagnostics, is distinct from most other companies that use paternal Y chromosome and/or maternal mitochondrial DNA methodologies, and less is known about the particular criteria it uses.
That noted, AncestryDNA says its database contains more than 18 million profiles, making it the largest of all of the testing services. The company also maintains a powerful tool for searching through hundreds of historical document databases — but any substantive research will quickly bring you to a paywall. Ancestry’s databases are further bolstered by its partnership with FamilySearch.org, a genealogical records site run by the Mormon church.
An entry-level membership, which provides access to more than 6 billion records in the US, costs $99 for six months or $25 per month, after a free two week trial. The “World Explorer” membership, for $40 per month, broadens your access to the company’s 27 billion international records, and the “All Access” tier, starting at $50 per month, includes unlimited access to Ancestry’s historical and contemporary database of more than 15,000 newspapers and military records from around the world.
AncestryDNA offers a personalized health report with “actionable insights,” access to genetic counseling resources, an online tool to help you map your family’s health over generations and, starting in August 2020, a $179 next-generation sequencing service for screening your genetic risk for heart disease, some cancers and blood disorders. Still, the results are not diagnostic — though the test result must be approved by one of the company’s physicians — and the service does not have FDA approval. For now, 23andMe maintains the advantage when it comes to introductory DNA testing for health risks and genetic screening. But AncestryDNA’s service is particularly well-suited for leveraging an introductory DNA analysis into deep historical research to build out a family tree.
AncestryDNA allows you to download your full DNA results profile and upload the raw data into other tools, and it provides reasonably good control over your privacy preferences, though the options are not as granular as others.
Read more: What AncestryDNA taught me about DNA, privacy and the complex world of genetic testing
Founded in 2000, FamilyTreeDNA offers a comprehensive suite of reports and interactive tools to analyze your DNA and build a family tree. With a credible claim to “the world’s most comprehensive DNA matching database,” FamilyTreeDNA offers all three types of tests — autosomal DNA, Y-DNA and mtDNA. And it’s the sole company to own and operate its own testing facility: The Gene-by-Gene genetic lab, located in Houston.
The company’s entry-level “family ancestry” package costs $79 — though it’s frequently discounted to $59. The test results provide information about your ethnic and geographic origins, identifies potential relatives and offers access to the company’s massive DNA database. I paid $275 for a broad DNA test that included analysis of my mtDNA and Y-DNA — tests that cost $119 and $159, respectively, when you buy them individually — as well as the “Family Finder,” the company’s autosomal test.
Though the user interface is a bit more complicated than what you’ll find on other sites, FamilyTreeDNA provides the most complete suite of introductory tools of any provider I tested. For each type of test, you are presented with matches — I got more than 22,000 for my autosomal DNA test — a chromosome browser, migration maps, haplogroups and connections to ancestral reference populations, information about mutations and a link that allows you to download your raw data. Suffice to say, there are numerous threads to pull on to learn about yourself, your family and your health.
FamilyTree also offers a number of higher-end tests, for those interested in digging deeper, including a range of Y-DNA tests that will trace the path of your male ancestors and the history of your surname. The company also allows you to upload raw DNA data files from other services and transfer your autosomal information to its database to expand your universe of matches and relationships.
From a data security and privacy perspective, there are several things I find appealing about FamilyTreeDNA. The company does its own DNA testing in house, processing and storing your sample in its lab. Posted prominently on the front page of its website is a promise that the company will never sell your DNA to third parties. Like most other companies, however, FamilyTreeDNA may use your aggregate genetic information for internal research and may comply with requests from law enforcement — unless you opt out.
Other DNA testing options
The three services above are our top choices for the best DNA test. But they weren’t the only ones we tested. What follows are some additional options, none of which eclipsed the 23andMe, Ancestry or FamilyTreeDNA in any significant fashion.
Based in Israel, MyHeritage was founded in 2003, and like a number of other services profiled here, started out as a genealogy software platform. Over time, it acquired a number of historical databases and eventually added DNA testing in 2016. (MyHeritage outsources its DNA analysis to FamilyTreeDNA.) In 2018, MyHeritage experienced a security breach, exposing the email addresses and hashed passwords of more than 92 million users.
MyHeritage offers a free tier of service that includes some basic family tree-building and access to excerpts of historical documents. It won’t get you too far.
The basic DNA testing and analysis service, which starts at $79, includes the usual fare — a report of your genetic makeup across the company’s 42 supported ethnicities, the identification of relatives and connections to them where possible. All things considered, I preferred FamilyTreeDNA’s presentation of my DNA information. But MyHeritage highlighted a first cousin living in the US, with whom I shared about 15% of my DNA, and offered to show me her family tree — if I paid a $209 annual subscription fee.
Yes, that’s expensive — a free 14-day trial is available — but the company maintains an impressive online database of historical documents that includes 3.5 billion profiles in addition to information about over 100 million subscribers and their collective 46 million family trees. This enormous database is powered by Geni.com, a genealogy social media site that’s also MyHeritage’s parent company. According to the bioreports, Geni.com has assembled “the world’s largest, scientifically vetted family tree.”
In 2019, MyHeritage launched a health screening test similar to the one offered by 23andMe. As part of this effort, the company partnered with PWNHealth, a network of US physicians who oversee the process. I was required to complete a personal and family health history questionnaire — it was 16 questions — which was then ostensibly reviewed by a doctor. Though the company says it may recommend a “genetic counseling” session administered by PWNHealth, my health results were simply delivered along with my ancestry analysis.
On the plus side, I like MyHeritage’s straightforward access to a range of comprehensible privacy preferences. Still, overall, I found MyHeritage’s user interface far less intuitive and more difficult to navigate than others. Though the company’s offering is broad — it’s one of the few to offer a comprehensive research database of historical documents, DNA analysis and health screening — I found the integration among them to be a bit clumsy.
Living DNA describes itself as a “consumer genealogy DNA service that does not sell or share customers’ DNA or data with third parties,” which gives you a sense of its priorities — or, at least, its sense of customers’ concerns. LivingDNA’s headquarters in the UK may also be a factor in its distinctive mission statement, as it’s subject to the more stringent data and privacy regulations of the GDPR.
LivingDNA divides its offerings in a different way than others. A $49 starter kit provides a “taster” with an introductory overview of your ancestry in eight geographical regions and access to the company’s genetic matching tool, in addition to some data about personal fitness and nutrition. The full autosomal DNA testing kit costs $99 and expands the percentage-based ancestry breakdown to 80 regions and features information about maternal and paternal haplogroups. The “wellbeing package” includes reports about your physiological compatibility with vitamins, foods and exercise. And the $149 deluxe package incorporates all of this.
Recent ancestry results are presented with a breakdown of percentage by country as well as the percentage attributable to more detailed regions, as well as the origin and migration path of haplogroups. In February 2020, LivingDNA introduced an African Ancestry DNA test report that features data on 72 regions in Africa and, according to the company, “five times the detail of any other test on the market.” The report is available for free to existing customers.
That noted, the company has a very limited family match database; a company representative declined to give me a specific number but said that it contained less than 1 million profiles. My wife, who took the test, returned exactly zero matches. So, if you’re looking to identify and make connections with relatives, there are better choices in the market. That noted, LivingDNA has a very solid reputation for both the quality of its DNA analysis and privacy terms among experienced genealogists.
For experts only: Whole genome sequencing
There are a number of companies — including Full Genomes, Veritas Genetics, Nebula Genomics and Dante Labs — that can sequence all of your DNA, otherwise known as your genome. This level of analysis is appropriate for advanced users only. Not only is it expensive — these tests can run into the thousands of dollars, in some cases — it requires a sophisticated understanding of both genetics and a range of technical tools required to explore and interpret your results.
The least expensive whole genome tests cost about $300. For example, Full Genome’s 30X test — which scans every targeted location of your genome 30 times on average — is considered the standard for a clinical analysis. It costs $1,800.
For most people, the main rationale for sequencing the whole genome is to dive deep into your genetic health outlook. You can glean your personal risk factors for diseases, drug sensitivities and your status as a carrier; that is, what you might pass on to your kids. But there are also plenty of applications for advanced genealogical projects.
All of these efforts can also be undertaken — to a less intense degree — with some of the more affordable options outlined above. But whole genome sequencing provides a significantly more comprehensive, accurate and high resolution analysis.
If you want to dip your toe into this realm. you might want to start with Nebula Genomics. You can also upload an existing DNA sequence from Ancestry or 23andMe’s DNA database and get Nebula’s reports at a reduced price.
DNA tests we’d avoid
HomeDNA sells testing kits under a number of brands, including DNA Origins, and has a retail presence at Walmart, CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. The company’s tests claim to combine genetic research and “ancestral tracking” techniques that can identify the town or village where your ancestors originated with a high degree of accuracy. Many experts dispute these claims.
The company offers a range of ancestry testing services starting at $69. That’s the price point for the maternal and paternal lineage kits and the “Starter Ancestry Test,” which uses DNA markers to develop an estimate of your origins in Europe, Indigenous America, East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa — and shows you the modern population groups that share your DNA. The $124 “Advanced Ancestry Test” expands the analysis to 80,000 autosomal genetic markets, 1,000 reference populations and 41 gene pools.
I’ll note that the HomeDNA test kit contained no warning about not eating or drinking for any period of time prior to taking the test — unlike every other kit I used. And of the four swabs the company sent, one broke. The test kit just didn’t seem as rigorously hygienic as the others.
For $199, HomeDNA claims that the Asian Edition of its GPS Origins Ancestry Test can analyze 17 Asia-specific gene pools and hundreds of Asia-specific reference populations. In addition to a $164 paternity kit, the company also sells a variety of specific kits to determine your sensitivities to particular animals and foods, one to help you achieve a healthy weight, and another that promises to “unlock your skin’s full potential.”
For $39, the company will allow you to upload a raw data file from another DNA testing service and pinpoint your origin to a particular town or city. There are also kits to help you identify you screen your dog or cat for genetic diseases and traits.
But this company doesn’t have a sterling reputation in the genetic genealogy world. When we recently spoke with Debbie Kennett, a genetic genealogist from University College London, she referenced the company’s notoriety for delivering “bizarre results” and expressed doubt about the efficacy of its specialized tests for particular ethnic groups. HomeDNA did not respond to Bioreports’s inquiry about its testing process or results.
And the HomeDNA reports don’t stack up particularly well against those returned by other companies. Results are summarized on a single webpage, though you also get a PDF that certifies that you’ve “undergone DNA testing” and shows the continents and countries where your DNA originates. The company also throws in a boilerplate 20-page explainer about DNA science and technology. HomeDNA does not offer access to any matching databases — so there’s no obvious next step or any actionable data that comes with your results. Given this, I’d recommend choosing a different DNA testing service.
Claiming to have the most comprehensive database of African lineages, African Ancestry promises to trace its customers’ ancestry back to a specific country and identify their “ethnic group origin.” But a number of experienced genealogists have cited issues with this company’s marketing claims and science.
Unlike most other companies, African Ancestry doesn’t offer an autosomal DNA test. Instead, it offers an mtDNA test or a Y-DNA test (for males only). In contrast to your standard DNA analysis, African Ancestry’s report doesn’t provide the percentage of DNA that’s likely to have originated across a range of regions. Instead, African Ancestry claims to trace your DNA to a specific region of Africa.
According to experts, however, African Ancestry’s DNA tests come up short. As explained in a blog post by African American genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas, the company’s methodology simply doesn’t analyze a sufficient number of DNA markers to deliver on its marketing promises.
Furthermore, he writes, “Ethnicity is a complex concept, a concept not as rooted in genetics as it is in sociopolitical and cultural constructs. There is no DNA test that can assign anyone to an African ethnic group or what some refer to as an ‘African tribe.”http://www.Bioreports.com/” African Ancestry isn’t the only company that claims to be able to determine your ethnicity or “ethnic group of origin.” But its claim to narrow things down to a single “tribe” of origin is overblown, as any African tribe would ostensibly contain multiple haplogroups.
In an email to Bioreports, African Ancestry responded: “African Ancestry makes it clear that ethnic groups are social and cultural groupings, not genetic ones. However, based on extensive genetic research of African lineages performed by African Ancestry’s co-founder and Scientific Director (who holds a Ph.D. in Biology and specializes in human genetics), we find that contrary to laymen’s beliefs, there are ethnic groups that share genetic lineages. Our results pinpoint genetic lineages that share the same genetics as our test takers. Given the vast number of lineages in our African Lineage Database, we are able to provide the ethnic groups of the people with that shared lineage.”
The company’s PatriClan Test analyzes eight Y-chromosome STRs and the YAP, which it says is a critical identifier for African lineages; and the MatriClan Test analyzes three regions of the mitochondrial DNA: HVS1, HVS2 and HVS3. But though these tests offer lower-resolution results than others, African Ancestry’s services are considerably more expensive. The company’s Y-DNA test and mtDNA tests cost $299 each — or you can take them both, and get an eight-pack of “certificates of ancestry” and a four-pack of t-shirts, for $679.
On the plus side, African Ancestry says that it does not maintain a database of customer information and that it will not share or sell your DNA sequence or markers with any third party — including law enforcement agencies. The company’s terms and conditions run to just over 2,200 words, making them considerably more concise than the disclosure statements of most other companies we included in this roundup. And African Ancestry promises to destroy your DNA sample after your test results are delivered.
That said, even if you accept the company’s take on tribal and ethnic genetic markers, African Ancestry remains too expensive to recommend at its current price.
DNA testing: What you need to know
If you’re using a home DNA testing service, you’re likely looking for one of three things:
Ancestry and family history: The first big draw of a full DNA test is that you’ll get a detailed breakdown on ancestry and ethnicity, and the migration patterns of your common ancestors. Spoiler alert: Your ethnic background may be radically different than you think it is. You’ll also find out what a haplogroup is.
Relative identification: With your permission, some DNA services will let you connect with relatives you never knew you had — other folks with matching DNA who have used the service and likewise given their permission to connect to possible relations.
Health and disease info: DNA testing can also indicate which conditions for which you may have a preponderance. It’s a controversial feature, to be sure. Knowing that you have a genetic predisposition to a certain form of cancer may make you more vigilant for testing, but it may also lead to increased stress — worrying about a potential health condition that may never develop, even if you’re “genetically susceptible” to it. The possibility of false positives and false negatives abound — any such information should be discussed with your doctor before you act upon it.
How DNA tests work
Afraid of needles and drawing blood? Good news: That’s not an issue with these tests. All you need to do is spit into a vial or rub a swab in your mouth — all the genetic data needed for these tests is present in your saliva — and ship the DNA sample to the company for analysis.
The reason that a saliva sample works as well as blood (or hair follicles or skin samples) is that your DNA — which is short for deoxyribonucleic acid — is present in all of them. It’s the basic genetic code present in all of your cells that makes up your key attributes, from the color of your eyes to the shape of your ears to how susceptible you are to cholesterol.
The key terms you need to know when comparing DNA testing services are:
SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism): Genotyping is done by measuring genetic variation. One of the more common is SNP genotyping, which measures the variations of a single nucleotide polymorphism. The more of these a company measures, the more granular the analysis.
Autosomal DNA testing: An autosomal test that’s effective for men and women, and which traces lineage back through both maternal and paternal bloodlines.
Y-DNA: The Y-DNA test can only be administered to men, and traces DNA back through the patrilineal ancestry — basically from father to grandfather to great grandfather and so on.
mtDNA: The mtDNA is matrilineal and lets you trace your ancestry back through your mother, grandmother, great grandmother and so on.
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David Gewirtz contributed to this story. The current version is a major update of past revisions, and includes hands-on impressions of most of the services listed.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.