Paul Woodbury is a DNA team lead and professional researcher at Legacy Tree Genealogists where he has helped to solve hundreds of genetic genealogy cases. In this article, a reprint from an issue of NGS Magazine, Paul discusses four major DNA testing companies’ tools and their benefits. The article is published here with permission.
Four major DNA testing companies offer genetic genealogy testing—23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage— and there are several smaller testing companies. Each company has unique benefits, advantages, and insights to offer the serious genealogist.
This article reviews (in alphabetical order) each of the major companies and some of the features they offer as of late 2020. For more detailed and continually updated comparisons of testing companies, read the International Society of Genetic Genealogy’s “Autosomal DNA Testing Comparison Chart.”*
23andMe provides a $99 autosomal DNA test dedicated to ancestry analysis and a health + ancestry test for $199. Though the main focus of the ancestry test is autosomal DNA, 23andMe tests also include data regarding the X-chromosome, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. More detailed analysis of the underlying data is possible through the browse raw data and download raw data functions.
With twelve million customers, 23andMe maintains the second largest database of tested users. The company sells kits in fifty-six countries leading to decent representation from international populations. Connecting with users who have tested at 23andMe is possible by opting into the DNA Relatives features of the database. In establishing a profile, users have significant control over the information that is available to matches.
Ethnicity estimates at 23andMe are widely regarded as among the most useful for genealogical research given their general accuracy and the company’s ethnicity chromosome painting which enables the formulation of hypotheses of relationship. For example, if two large segments of DNA in the same overlapping region on both of an individual’s chromosomes are assigned the same ethnicity admixture, it is likely that both parents have ancestry from that region. Alternatively, if a particular ethnicity is only found in long segments on a single copy of each chromosome pair, it is likely that only one parent has admixture from that particular region.
Ethnicity assignments on the X-chromosome or X-chromosomes can help in understanding which lines may be the source of DNA from unique ethnic regions. Recent updates have aided in tying ethnicity estimates to specific countries, regions, and communities. The company permits users to download segment data associated with ethnicity estimates.
The 23andMe match list is currently capped at fifteen hundred matches. For more matches, it is necessary to purchase an upgrade. Filters for the match list enable users to search for individuals not only by username, surname, ancestral surname, or ancestral location, but also by haplogroup, though some filters are currently only available in the upgraded version. Other unique features of the 23andMe interface include its Family Tree view of a match list which incorporates amounts of shared DNA and haplogroup data to estimate how matches might fit into a larger family tree, thus offering a head start on hypothesized relationships.
One of the strengths of the 23andMe platform is the ability to determine which genetic cousins are shared in common with a test subject and the amounts of DNA they share with each other. Another advantage is the ability to perform direct shared segment comparisons between individuals who are sharing genomes with a test subject or who are participating in open sharing.
In terms of segment analysis, 23andMe is the only testing company to report the presence of fully identical regions shared between two individuals, which assists in the evaluation of sibling relationships. These features of chromosome comparisons make 23andMe particularly helpful when working with the test results of individuals belonging to endogamous populations.
The $99 AncestryDNA test is an autosomal test dedicated to ancestry analysis. An AncestryHealth test which includes all ethnicity and matching features is available as an upgrade from the AncestryDNA test or as a separate kit option. While the test includes markers from the X-chromosome, Y-chromosome, and mtDNA, only autosomal DNA is utilized in the creation of reports. Raw data is downloadable from Ancestry, but match list data is not.
With more than eighteen million customers, AncestryDNA has the largest database of tested users. AncestryDNA kits are sold in thirty-four countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. Currently, its strongest markets are in English-speaking countries.
Connecting with other users who have tested is possible through Ancestry’s messaging system and inclusion in match lists. Unlike other companies, AncestryDNA does not share information regarding the exact underlying segments of DNA shared between a test taker and matches—a feature that some consider an advantage given the medical, physical, and other traits that can sometimes be inferred based on shared segment data.
AncestryDNA offers easy and straightforward means of sharing match list information with collaborators working on the same research problems. Descendants of a research subject inherit different portions of that individual’s DNA, so obtaining access to the test results of multiple descendants can help in achieving a clearer picture of relationship patterns.
AncestryDNA’s ethnicity estimates are helpful for genealogists given their continuous development and improvement in accuracy. In particular, the Genetic Communities feature is helpful for identifying recent migrations and groups with which an individual’s ancestors may have been associated.
Match lists at AncestryDNA are limited to those sharing more than 8 centimorgans of DNA with a test subject. Sophisticated matching algorithms help to prioritize the most pertinent matches based on shared DNA and cutting out shared DNA on unreliable segments or in pile-up regions. Recently, as part of the match list experience, AncestryDNA also has provided information on pre-algorithm total shared DNA, longest segments, and probabilities of relationship based on shared DNA.
AncestryDNA includes features for sorting, labeling, clustering, and otherwise organizing DNA matches using colored dots. Using these labels, it is possible to organize matches based on their relationships to each other into clusters of related individuals. Once organized, these groups can be further explored to identify common ancestors, surnames, locations, or populations connecting the members of a group.
Because AncestryDNA is part of the Ancestry company, the integration of records, family trees, and matching technologies greatly enhances the AncestryDNA experience. When users attach family trees to their test results, these trees generate shared ancestor hints and shared surname and location hints. The ThruLines feature enables discovery of relationship hypotheses based on family trees of genetic cousins regardless of the size of those trees. Even if a match’s family tree is limited, Ancestry can use data from its large collection of user-submitted trees to extend ancestral lines to identify possible connections and hints for review.
FamilyTreeDNA is the only genetic genealogy testing company to offer Y-DNA tests and mitochondrial DNA tests that are genealogically conclusive; it also offers tools for interpretation and evaluation of Y-DNA and mtDNA evidence. Its most advanced Y-DNA test, Big-Y, enables customers to participate in ongoing research and refinement of the human Y-chromosome phylogenetic tree. Besides Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, the company offers a $79 Family Finder autosomal DNA test. While it has not entered the health testing market, FamilyTreeDNA has opened up to collaboration with various law enforcement agencies. Though this development has raised concerns for some, others deem this development an advantage and a benefit.
Although FamilyTreeDNA maintains a smaller database of autosomal DNA test results (just over one million customers), the fact that its test is sold in most countries and territories results in a more international customer base. The ability to transfer test results to FamilyTreeDNA from other testing companies provides an easy and cost-effective way of exploring another testing pool or taking advantage of segment analysis tools not available elsewhere. While other companies limit communication with matches to in-house systems, FamilyTreeDNA enables connection between researchers through direct contact information.
Recent updates to FamilyTreeDNA ethnicity admixture reports have improved the estimates. In contrast to other companies that report shared ethnicities between matches as part of the match list, FamilyTreeDNA includes this information in its ethnicity report.
In addition to filters and sorting mechanisms available at some other companies, the FamilyTreeDNA matchlist enables sorting by largest segment, matches shared in common with a subject and a match, and matches not shared in common with a subject and a match. Filtering by largest segment can be helpful when working with test results for individuals in endogamous populations. Filtering match lists by individuals shared in common or not in common with a particular match can be helpful for quickly identifying other individuals likely related through the same ancestral line as the match as well as ancestral lines other than the line on which the match is related.
FamilyTreeDNA’s chromosome browser offers the opportunity to compare segment data (including X-DNA) and permits application of different centimorgan thresholds. This application is useful for cutting out the small segments FamilyTreeDNA includes in the calculations of total shared DNA and for raising thresholds to higher levels for evaluation of pertinent matches in endogamous populations. The chromosome browser also enables downloads of all segment data shared with genetic cousins which can be analyzed in spreadsheets.
FamilyTreeDNA offers platforms for collaborative group projects run by volunteer administrators. The subjects of these collaborative projects include surname studies, geographic localities, haplogroups, and descendants of particular individuals.
The $79 MyHeritage DNA test is an autosomal DNA test. The platform tests markers on the Y-chromosome, X-chromosome, and mtDNA, but these details are not included in customer reports. As with other companies, MyHeritage permits downloads of raw data and match data.
While MyHeritage is a relative newcomer to the genetic genealogy testing scene, it has experienced remarkable growth. As of late 2020, more than four million customers had tested in their database. Since MyHeritage markets and ships worldwide, the company often holds the best matching results for individuals outside English-speaking countries. Like FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage accepts transfers of autosomal DNA data from other testing companies, offering an easy and cost-effective means of exploring another testing pool or taking advantage of additional analysis tools.
Connecting with other users at MyHeritage is possible through its integrated messaging system. The company does not offer the option to share access to test results, but its transfer system permits management of multiple kits under a single account. In this way, MyHeritage enables exploration of research questions from the unique perspectives provided by different descendants of a research subject.
Since MyHeritage offers access to documentary research collections and offers tools for tree-building, its database has a relatively high percentage of tested customers with attached family trees to aid in interpretation of relationships. Ethnicity estimates at MyHeritage are in a process of continual refinement and include some categories not found elsewhere, including differentiation between unique Jewish populations.
MyHeritage match lists offer a range of analytical tools, filters, searches, and sorting options. When users connect their test results to family trees, it is possible to generate Theories of Family Relativity, SmartTree Matches, and lists of shared surnames and locations. Theory of Family Relativity analyzes the family trees of a subject and the family trees of matches and identifies possible connections between them through the assistance of other trees and record collections. MyHeritage not only reports which genetic cousins are shared matches but also identifies how much DNA those individuals share with each other. This feature is particularly helpful for prioritization of matches in endogamous populations.
The MyHeritage chromosome browser tool enables identification of truly triangulated segments (segments of DNA that a test subject and at least two matches share with each other). MyHeritage has also partnered with developer Evert-Jan Bloom of Genetic Affairs to provide cluster reports for users through the AutoCluster feature. Relationships between genetic cousins are identified as colored squares in a matrix and are grouped with other individuals who share the same matches. Clusters are often composed of individuals who descend from the same ancestral couple or who have ties to the same community or population. Analysis of clusters can assist in identifying which genetic cousins are related through which family lines and which might be pertinent to a research question.
Where to test? Everywhere!
Due to the unique features, tools, and insights that test-takers can obtain at various companies as well as the different genetic cousins with whom they might connect in the separate testing pools, there is a benefit to testing at any and all of the major DNA testing companies.
This article summarizes the nuts and bolts of pricing, testing types, database size, international reach, collaboration opportunities, ethnicity estimates, match list features, and analysis tools. Other considerations that might guide testing choices include privacy options, involvement with third parties (health, pharmaceutical, and law enforcement), and sampling methods.
As the major testing companies and perhaps other companies continue to develop and grow in the future, it is likely that additional considerations will affect prioritization of which company or companies to utilize for genetic genealogy research. For now, the unique advantages of the major companies merit consideration of testing at each or at least testing and transferring into all four databases.
Getting a DNA test is a great way to start your genealogy journey; however, completing that journey requires hard work and access to the latest tools and services. If you need some assistance, our genealogists will work with you to discover your family history. Contact us today for a free quote!
*“Autosomal DNA Testing Comparison Chart,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki (https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart : accessed October 2020).