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First looks

The new kid on the autosomal DNA block is AncestryDNA from Ancestry.com, joining the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA and the Relative Finder test from 23andMe.

Autosomal DNA testing, remember, is the kind that works across gender lines so you don’t have to find a direct male line from father to son to son (YDNA or Y-DNA1) or a direct female line from mother to daughter to daughter (mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.2) It tests DNA from all of the chromosomes except the gender-linked X and Y chromosomes,3 and helps you identify cousins to share research with.

And when this self-confessed DNA junkie was handed a test kit at the National Genealogical Society conference,4 well, hey… I’ve said repeatedly I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. My results came in this past week, and I’ve had a chance to play with the system enough to have a sense of where it shines and where it needs more work.

Admixture results

The first thing you see when you open your AncestryDNA result page is the admixture information. That’s the analysis of your DNA to try to determine what “genetic percentages” of your ancestry came from particular continents or regions.5

Here are my “genetic percentages”:

This, to me, is one place where AncestryDNA shines. Comparable analysis at 23andMe simply reports me as 100% European. At Family Tree DNA, I get a little more information — it reports me as 85.86% Western European (French, Orcadian, Spanish) and 14.14% European (Tuscan, Finnish, Romanian, Russian) — but both have a large margin of error of 11.65%.

Here, you can see, it looks like AncestryDNA has nailed it: my father’s solidly-German ancestry is clearly reflected in the 43% Central Europe and the 7% Finnish/Volga-Ural, and my mother’s colonial American ancestry shows up in the 35% British Isles and 15% Scandinavian. That last bit is likely to be the result of waves of Vikings and other invaders to Britain.6

Clicking on the See Full Results button takes you to more information, and the opportunity to zoom in on a map to see where the birth locations of people in your family tree may intersect with these “genetic percentages”:

So to the extent that you’re looking for clues to your geographic origins, this test is a strong contender.

The match system

Linking up with cousins to extend your knowledge of your family tree is the big reason to do autosomal DNA testing. Here, AncestryDNA has some outstanding features — and needs a lot of work.

Matches are presented in a chart form with those most closely related genetically shown first:

Clicking on the Review Results button takes you to the details of your match — and it’s here that AncestryDNA shows its major strength — and its major weakness — in one and the same fature. It’s the fact that the results are tightly integrated with Ancestry’s online family tree system.

What you get presented with, first, is a quick comparison of your “genetic percentages” with the “genetic percentages” of the match:

Without the specific underlying genetic information, however — how much DNA you share with the other person and where in your DNA (on what chromosome or chromosomes) the common areas are — this comparison is less than useful. That level of detail is something other testing companies do offer, and that AncestryDNA may eventually offer down the road.

Under that you see your match’s family tree, and if someone in your tree intersects with someone in your match’s family tree, you’re presented with that information immediately. I’d be happy to show you what that looks like, except I don’t have any matches that intersect with my tree anywhere in my top 50 or so matches… Sigh…

Where the trees don’t intersect — and that will be more common particularly until the database gets built up and people work on their family trees — you’re given a list of surnames you share in common, and you see your match’s tree. You can click on any individual surname to compare it to your tree, and you have a very useful option to switch over to a map to see where the birthplaces of folks in your tree may be in geographic proximity to the birthplaces of folks in your match’s tree:

Why this tree-matching is the great strength of the system is clear: if two people have well-researched family trees on Ancestry and a common ancestor appears in both trees, that’ll be highlighted immediately. Being able to see your ancestral origins on a map with the ancestral origins of a match is very helpful since often the real leads with this test are found not with surnames in common but rather when you find two families were in the same place at the same time.

But it’s equally clear why it’s the great weakness: poorly-researched trees will show “common ancestors” that aren’t common at all, and if the other person doesn’t have a tree, the match is essentially useless. There’s no way to contact a match except through the Ancestry system, and — so far — there’s just not enough genetic information independent of the trees to help overcome brick walls.

So my take on this: it’s a mixed bag that’s best for beginners in genetic genealogy. Not a bad way to start off for those who want a quick and easy way to see where they have matches, and attractively priced at the introductory price of $99.

The interface

Once you get past the wealth of information being presented in a very attractive package, the one area where AncestryDNA most clearly does not shine is in the area of the interface. It needs a lot of work, and AncestryDNA is well aware of that. There’s a good reason why this is labeled a Beta system and why it’s described as a work-in-progress.

First and foremost, the system is sloooooooooow. Each page of results takes a long time to load even on my very high speed home cable internet connection — minimum 15-20 seconds, often longer, and it then takes another 8-10 seconds for a match’s results to appear once I click on the Review Results button. When you go back to the match list, it still takes the full 15-20 seconds or more for the page to load. I’m told there are “good improvements” coming on this that are “right around the corner.”

There are only two ways to sort matches: by relationship and by date. And there are only two available filters: a reviewed-vs.-unreviewed filter (whether you’ve already looked at this match); and a starred-vs.-unstarred filter (you can highlight a match by clicking on a star icon to highlight that match for further review).

It’d be terrific to be able to easily find matches where my tree intersects theirs or where we have particular surnames in common — and neither of those options is available yet. There’s no way yet to add a note to a match. And there’s no way as yet to compare two matches to each other, rather than just to me. All of these are features that are reported to be in the works.

There’s no way at the moment for the system to tell you that a match whose results you’ve already reviewed has changed something in his or her online family tree. That change could highlight an ancestor in common or correct an error — and right now, you wouldn’t see it at all. That, too, is something that’s said to be on the horizon.

The underlying data

Right now, AncestryDNA doesn’t make any of the underlying raw genetic data available. John Pereira, vice president of DNA at Ancestry.com, has long said the company understands that access to the raw data is “important to serious genetic genealogists and we’ve got that under review. We’re working to figure it out.”

Without that access, serious genetic genealogists simply aren’t going to make this test a priority. It’s just not useful to have a match described as “distant cousin, moderate confidence” or “distant cousin, very low confidence” without knowing what those terms mean. How much DNA do I share with that match? How long is the longest segment I share?

Conclusion

Genetic genealogy is one of many tools we have today that earlier generations of genealogists couldn’t have dreamed of. Integrating paper-trail family tree genealogy with genetic genealogy — in the long run — is going to take us places neither could do alone.

The theory behind what AncestryDNA is doing is first class, and the science is first class. The interface needs a lot of work to speed it up and make it easier to use, and access to the underlying data should be moved up the priority list.

And the ultimate utility of this whole approach is only going to be as good as the work people put in to creating an accurate database of family trees. In a very real sense, this test using this presentation method is only going to be as good as its users make it.


 
SOURCES

  1. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 23 Jul 2011.
  2. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 30 Jul 2010.
  3. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 8 Feb 2012.
  4. Truth in blogging: I was given this test kit by Ancestry.com. The fact that I didn’t pay for it has in no way affected my objectivity with respect to its results.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Genealogical DNA test,” rev. 3 Feb 2012.
  6. For a good understanding of admixture results from this test and the labels applied to various DNA results, see Blaine Bettinger, “Problems with AncestryDNA’s Genetic Ethnicity Prediction?,” posted 19 Jun 2012, The Genetic Genealogist (http://www.thegeneticgenealogist.com : accessed 4 Aug 2012). See also CeCe Moore, “My Review of AncestryDNA’s Admixture Tool and a Glimpse into the Future of Genetic Genealogy,” Your Genetic Genealogist, posted 26 Jun 2012 (http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
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