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A mixed bag for genealogy

Let’s get this out of the way up front: The Legal Genealogist has never been much of a fan of 23andMe for genetic genealogy testing.

new.23I know there are genealogists who swear by it, and who’ve had all of their family members tested there. I know that people have made important breakthroughs using its tools. I know that it probably has the best ethnicity estimates currently available.1

But it’s been crystal clear, from the very start, that the focus of 23andMe was never on genetic genealogy, but rather on health information.

The whole game plan at 23andMe is health: it wants to collect genetic information from huge numbers of people to use and sell that data for medical and pharmaceutical research, and it wants to get those people to pay for contributing their genetic data to its data pool by offering some personal health information in return.

To the extent that genetic genealogy information is also provided, it’s basically been coming along for the ride. An afterthought, and not the main attraction.

And that most assuredly is not going to change with this week’s announcement by 23andMe that it has now obtained the FDA approval it was seeking to provide basic health information to its customers, and will be rolling out a new and greatly changed reporting system — with a new and greatly increased price — for the future.2

It’s the new price of $199 — twice as much as anybody else is charging for autosomal testing these days — that is likely to prove the biggest sticking point for genetic genealogy in the future.

The second big sticking point: the whole system of reporting, contacting and sharing data with matches is being completely revised. This isn’t all bad: the current system has meant utter frustration for genealogists who can see that they have close matches in the 23andMe system but can’t find out who they are or get them to respond. Right now, for example, I have a first cousin and a second cousin match at 23andMe who haven’t responded to invitations — and I have no way to break through to contact them.

The new system won’t allow anonymous participation in the DNA Relatives part of the reporting — the genetic genealogy matching system. Anybody who’s testing solely for health purposes can stay anonymous but won’t be reported as a match in the DNA Relatives part. We won’t be able to send them invitations to share data, either.

The transition to the new matching system is likely to be a bit chaotic. All pending invitations are going to be cancelled. Anybody using a nickname in the system will be converted to anonymous — meaning they won’t be in DNA Relatives, though participants will be able to use initials. The number of matches allowed (which was about 1000 plus any accepted or pending introductions) will increase to 2000.

Once the transition is complete, however, anybody in DNA Relatives will be able to message anybody else in DNA Relatives, and a new Open Sharing option will allow participants in DNA Relatives to share genetic information with anyone else who chooses that option without having to use the cumbersome introduction system.

Everybody who’s tested with 23andMe will be transitioned to the new reporting system, and to the extent that the reports are available under the testing platform in use at the time of the test, will get the new reports. The hitch is, some of the older tests didn’t sample areas needed for some of the new reports, and those testers would have to retest to get the benefit of the new reports. But all older health reports, for those who tested before the FDA suspended health reporting by 23andMe, will continue to be available.

Things we are definitely losing under the new reporting are:

• The $99 price. A new test is now $199, and there’s no option to just get genealogical information. You have to pay for the health reports whether you want them or not.

• Our personalized DNA melody. Not a big loss, really, but hey… It was fun…3

• Global Similarity Map — a feature that let you see deep ancestral origins on a two-dimensional plot as against others who’d tested.

• Haplogroup Tree Mutation Mapper — a feature that showed which particular mutations in a person’s mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome were used to determine the individual’s haplogroup assignment.

• Family Inheritance Genome View — a feature that showed a comparison of two individuals for specific traits or the overall genome in the form of a chromosome browser.

• Inheritance Calculator — a feature that allowed a tested person to combine his or her DNA with another person’s to find out the possible traits of the couple’s child.

• ABO Blood Lab — a feature showing the genetic basis of a blood type.

• Reynold’s Risk — a tool calculating a 10-year risk for heart-attack using information including cholesterol and blood pressure.

How this will all play out in the long run is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for sure: the new 23andMe has the same focus as the old 23andMe — collecting our genetic data for its use in medical and pharmaceutical development.

Genetic genealogy is just along for the ride… and that ride is likely to be even bumpier from here on out.


SOURCES

  1. Which isn’t saying much, since I continue to maintain that all ethnicity estimates today are not a whole lot more than cocktail party conversation starters. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Admixture: not soup yet,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 24 Oct 2015). Also, “Playing with percentages,” posted 24 Nov 2013; “Those pesky percentages,” posted 27 Oct 2013; “DNA disappointment,” posted 15 Sep 2013.
  2. See “A New 23andMe Experience,” posted 21 Oct 2015, 23andMe Blog (http://blog.23andme.com/ : accessed 24 Oct 2015).
  3. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Noting your DNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Aug 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 24 Oct 2015).
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