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Making the most of your 2013 DNA testing dollars

Fourteen months ago, The Legal Genealogist led off a Sunday DNA blog by asking “how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck?”1

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Enough has changed in the last 14 months to warrant another look at the answer. And the biggest change has been in the pricing, particularly of autosomal DNA tests. (Autosomal DNA testing, remember, is the kind of test that works across genders to locate relatives — cousins — from all parts of your family tree.2 That’s in contrast to YDNA testing, which only men can do and which looks at the direct paternal line,3 or mitochondrial DNA testing, which looks at the direct maternal line.4)

Fourteen months ago, a 23andMe test cost $99, but you had to buy at least a one year subscription to what it called its Personal Genome Service. That cost $9 a month, or $207 for the first year including the test, or you could buy a lifetime subscription for $399. Family Tree DNA’s test cost $289. And AncestryDNA was charging $129 for subscribers and more for non-subscribers.

As of this past Friday, with the announcement from Family Tree DNA that its Family Finder sale price would be the new permanent price of that test, the price of autosomal DNA testing from all three major testing companies — AncestryDNA and 23andMe being the other two — is now fixed at $99.

Now I’m a total DNA junkie. I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. I’ve even taken National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 test for deep ancestry to add to the tests I’ve already taken from all of the others, from Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA and 23andMe. There are real advantages to testing as widely as possible: you’re looking to find people who match you, and the key person who can help you break down your brick wall may have only tested with one company.

But since nobody is handing out DNA kits for free, the question remains… how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck? And the answer depends in part on what it is you want to find out through your DNA testing.

Every one of the three genetic genealogy companies has its pros and its cons. A comparison chart explaining what features the companies do and don’t have is available in the Wiki for the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG). Prepared by Tim Janzen, a medical doctor with a deep understanding of autosomal DNA testing, the Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart provides a good overview (the pricing data is now officially outdated).

Here’s my own take.

If you can only afford to test with one company: If you’re serious about using DNA as a tool in your genealogy toolkit and you can only afford to test with one company, then the company to test with is Family Tree DNA. It has more to offer the genealogist than anybody else in terms of the number of serious genealogists who use it and the features and ease of use it offers. Contacting matches is easy and the amount of information provided about matches is the best in the business.

If your primary interest is in the medical information: If you really want to know about the medical secrets hidden in your DNA, the only game in town is 23andMe. It’s the only company where the primary emphasis is on medical testing and there’s a wide range of medically-related study going on all the time. Its genealogical tools are good, but you have to go through the internal 23andMe system to make contact with your matches and since many people test there for medical reasons, the response rate to genealogical inquiries is fairly low.

If your primary interest is in the admixture data: If your primary interest is in the numbers — what percentage European or African you are, you have two choices. Right now, the best available information is in the Ancestry Composition report from 23andMe. Both Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA are lagging behind on this; both are in the process of updating their admixture analyses. But if you want to help everybody understand admixtures better for the future, and you can afford it, consider testing with National Geographic’s Geno 2.0. That’s where the real scientific work is being done and, if enough people test, the information we all get about deep ancestry should vastly improve. It’s not cheap — $199 for the test — and there’s not much useful genealogical information, so this is a commitment to science for tomorrow, not a test to do for genealogy today.

If the person you want to test is very old or very young: Most of the time, how you test doesn’t matter. But if the person you want to test is older or younger, you may need to avoid a test that requires saliva, such as the tests from AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Older people sometimes can’t produce enough saliva to test and it’s impossible to tell a baby how to produce the kind of saliva needed. Family Tree DNA uses swabs rubbed on the inside of the cheek and that avoids this problem.

If you want to link your DNA results to your family tree: The only company right now that links DNA results to your family tree and compares it to others’ family trees is AncestryDNA. When the tree information is right, it’s a wonderfully useful tool. It’s considerably less so when — as is common — the tree information is wrong, or your match doesn’t have a tree at Ancestry, or your match’s tree is private. There are as yet no tools at AncestryDNA to compare DNA when there is no tree match.

If you want to fish in all the ponds for the lowest price: Of course, the best way to get all the matches you can possibly get it to test with all three major companies. These days, testing with all three is less expensive than it used to be to test with just one. But you can save yourself a little bit of money and get your results into all three databases this way:

Step 1. Test with 23andMe first. It’ll cost you $99. If you absolutely do not want (or a relative you’re trying to test doesn’t want) the medical information, then test with AncestryDNA first, also for $99.

Step 2. The minute you get your results from the first test, transfer your raw data to Family Tree DNA for $69. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your matches at the other company, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits.

Step 3. When you can afford it, test with whichever company you didn’t test with in step 1 for another $99.

That puts you into all three pools for a total of $267 — less than what you used to pay for one such test in the past.


SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 May 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 July 2013).
  2. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
  3. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 30 May 2013.
  4. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 20 Jul 2013.
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