December DNA doings

Price, presentation, permissions

December has been one heck of a month so far for developments in genetic genealogy. First we had the change in the admixture reports from 23andMe.1 Then we had our first looks at the results from National Geographic’s new Geno 2.0.2

And this past week we’ve had changes in 23andMe pricing, in the presentation of results from Family Tree DNA, and in requests to Family Tree DNA’s mtDNA customers to consider participating in research.

Let’s take a look at those three new developments today, since those are raising questions among genealogists.

23andMe price change

Perhaps the biggest news of the week was the price drop at 23andMe from $299 to $99, a move that prompted two reader questions.

Reader G. Johnson said she “would be interested in (The Legal Genealogist‘s) take on this” and wondered who this test would be best for.

The 23andMe test that’s been repriced is its Relative Finder test, the same basic autosomal testing that’s done by Family Tree DNA under the name Family Finder, and that’s done by AncestryDNA. So anyone can take the test — men and women alike — in the hopes of locating genetic cousins with whom to share genealogical information. In terms of the basic science behind all of these tests from all three companies, they’re all solid and, for genealogical purposes, your best bet is to test with as many different companies as you can afford.

The reason is simple: most people will choose one company and test with that one. But, if you’re like me, with brick walls all around your family history, you want every match you can get — and that means going to all the places where those cousins can be found. Right now, with this price drop, the absolute best bang for the buck in autosomal DNA testing is to do the Relative Finder test with 23andMe for this new $99 price (so you get the benefit of all the genetic cousins you’ll have who’ve tested with 23andMe) and then transfer your results to Family Tree DNA for $89 (so you get the benefit of all the genetic cousins you’ll have who’ve tested with Family Tree DNA).

So that’s the basic price news. But reader Vicki Wright asked: “any quick thoughts about the 23andMe repricing to $99? I feel like I’m missing something in this news….” And yeah… there are some underlying considerations here that are a bit troubling.

The 23andMe price clearly undercuts both Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA on autosomal DNA testing — and is clearly intended as a loss leader to build a database of results for 23andMe’s research arm. The price cut announcement came in the form of a press release with the headline, “23andMe Raises More Than $50 Million in New Financing : Company Sets Growth Goal Of One Million Customers, Reduces Price to $99 from $299.” The press release explained:

Expanding the company’s ability to reach and serve one million individuals supports 23andMe’s goal to revolutionize health and wellness. It also will accelerate 23andMe’s ability to create a powerful platform that enables researchers around the globe to make meaningful discoveries significantly faster than is currently possible. With this expansion, 23andMe, which currently has more than 180,000 customers, will aim to:

• Enable groundbreaking research by creating an exponentially larger collective of actively engaged, genotyped individuals;
• Help accelerate development of new treatments;
• Improve understanding of wellness and disease prevention; and
• Broaden access for people seeking to manage their health and well-being through direct access and greater understanding of their own genetic data.

“A community of one million actively engaged individuals will be transformational for research. A community of this magnitude will improve researchers’ ability to quickly answer questions about genetic function and the role of environmental factors. In addition, it will enable researchers to understand medication efficacy and side effects, in both medications that exist today and medications are that are in development,” (23andMe CEO Anne) Wojcicki added.3

These are all good things — but they have nothing to do with genealogy. 23andMe’s genealogical functions continue to take a back seat to its emphasis on health testing, which means a default setting among 23andMe users of confidentiality and not sharing information, as opposed to the genealogical default setting of sharing widely.

Though, like any consumer, I love a bargain, I also worry about the ability of 23andMe’s competitors to stay competitive in the face of this kind of price pressure. And losing any of our options for genetic genealogy testing would not be a good thing overall.

And I remain, personally, deeply discomfited by the idea of paying a company to test my DNA — and having it take my genetic information, package it into a commercial product and obtain patent protection on it.4 The fact that 23andMe customers can’t opt out of the use of their DNA for research and development is distinctly unsettling.5

Family Tree DNA results changes

Meanwhile, over at Family Tree DNA, there were big changes in the way DNA test results are presented, with a new home page, some new labeling of results and even new matching systems that saw some of us gain matches — and some lose. And that prompted reader Jenny Daniels to ask: “What’s going on with FTDNA? Is the new system just a new pretty face or what?”

Much of the obvious change in the Family Tree DNA results is in the presentation. There’s a new beta-version home page for each user called myFTDNA that’s more graphical and will show updated results and action items more easily. It’s clean and intuitive and unlikely to cause any consternation to anyone who’s used the previous systems — and there’s a link to go back to the previous results system for anyone who’s confused.

More significant, of course, are changes in the results themselves. One very significant change is in the reporting of matches for those of us who’ve done the full mitochondrial (mtDNA) sequence testing. That’s the type of DNA that’s passed down the female line from a mother to all of her children but only her daughters can pass it on to their children and so on.6

It used to be that I had four matches reported to my full mtDNA, and all were reported as exact matches. Now I have 11 matches, none of them exact but ranging from one to three steps difference. This obviously opens up new avenues for sharing information.

There are also reporting changes in the YDNA results. YDNA, again, is the gender-linked DNA passed only from father to son to son.7 Some matches have been eliminated, others have been added, and the calculation of how likely it is that the match occurred in a particular time frame (how many generations in the past) is also being reported differently.

The full implications of all the changes are just starting to be analyzed by the genetic genealogy community so stay tuned…

Family Tree DNA research request

Last but not least, reader Eileen Souza was one of many Family Tree DNA customers who’s done the full mitochondrial (mtDNA) sequence testing with FTDNA and received an email about contributing results for scientific research this past week. And, Eileen wrote, “I am not sure I understand the implications of either donating my DNA or the FTDNA terms and conditions relating to that donation. Can you help?”

Yup, sure can, and I’ll begin by telling you that I contributed my results years ago when I first did this test.

Here’s the deal. There’s an outfit in the National Institutes of Health called the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Its mission statement explains:

As a national resource for molecular biology information, NCBI’s mission is to develop new information technologies to aid in the understanding of fundamental molecular and genetic processes that control health and disease. More specifically, the NCBI has been charged with creating automated systems for storing and analyzing knowledge about molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics; facilitating the use of such databases and software by the research and medical community; coordinating efforts to gather biotechnology information both nationally and internationally; and performing research into advanced methods of computer-based information processing for analyzing the structure and function of biologically important molecules.

To carry out its diverse responsibilities, NCBI:

     • conducts research on fundamental biomedical problems at the molecular level using mathematical and computational methods
     • maintains collaborations with several NIH institutes, academia, industry, and other governmental agencies
     • fosters scientific communication by sponsoring meetings, workshops, and lecture series
     • supports training on basic and applied research in computational biology for postdoctoral fellows through the NIH Intramural Research Program
     • engages members of the international scientific community in informatics research and training through the Scientific Visitors Program
     • develops, distributes, supports, and coordinates access to a variety of databases and software for the scientific and medical communities
     • develops and promotes standards for databases, data deposition and exchange, and biological nomenclature8

Among the research being done in genetics these days is research into mtDNA, and one of the big sources of mtDNA genetic information is Family Tree DNA — the only genetic genealogy company that does full mtDNA testing. So Family Tree DNA has always made it easy for its customers to consent to the submission of their mtDNA test results to NCBI. If you consent, all information that identifies you individually is removed and just the results are sent along and added to NCBI databases where scientists throughout the United States and, in fact, around the world, can access it.

The email Eileen received — which mirrors what Family Tree DNA says on its website — explains that scientific studies resulting from analysis of your data (and mine and everyone else’s in the database) will be published in peer-reviewed journals such as Copernicus — which is an open access scientific publisher, and will be included in those NCBI databases. No personally-identifying information is ever included in those without the explicit personal consent of the test subject.

The rest of the email is a basic warning: giving consent is a bit like the genii and the bottle — once your data is out there in those databases, it’s out there. Yes, you can withdraw consent down the road — but there really isn’t any way to remove your data from all the places where it may have already ended up while it was in those databases. There’s no way to contact a scientist in, say, Brazil or Malaysia who accessed the information for a study and have just your results removed from whatever was accessed.

If you have any concerns about having your data anonymously available, just say no. Me, I said yes. Your choice.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Admixture advances,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Dec 2012 ( : accessed 16 Dec 2012).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “It’s Greek to me,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Dec 2012 ( : accessed 16 Dec 2012).
  3. 23andMe Raises More Than $50 Million in New Financing : Company Sets Growth Goal Of One Million Customers, Reduces Price to $99 from $299, 23andMe News ( : accessed 15 Dec 2012).
  4. Judy G. Russell, “A disquieting blend of genes and patents,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 16 Dec 2012).
  5. See “Privacy Statement,” 23andMe ( : accessed 16 Dec 2012). That statement provides that: “If you do not give consent for your Genetic and Self-Reported Information to be used in 23andWe Research or your individual-level Genetic and Self-Reported Information to be used in the Research Portal, we may still use your Genetic and/or Self-Reported Information for R&D purposes as described above.” The described research & development purposes set out expressly include “conducting data analysis that may lead to and/or include commercialization with a third party.”
  6. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 30 Jul 2010.
  7. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 26 Jun 2012.
  8. About NCBI : Our Mission,” National Center for Biotechnology Information ( : accessed 15 Dec 2012).
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12 Responses to December DNA doings

  1. Eileen Souza says:

    Thank you. I think I will say yes.

  2. Bob Kirk says:

    I wonder if Eileen’s request actually said that the reasearch was to be for NCBI? Now that FTDNA has some sort of an arrangement with National Geographic, I wonder if the research goes in that direction. Not that it matters, I suppose. I wish them luck in either case…bob

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yep, the letters we all received (me included) specifically mention NCBI, Bob. Geno 2.0 is looking at (and for) different things in the mtDNA using specific sampling areas.

  3. Pam Pearson says:

    Hi Judy. We’re on the same wavelength today. I came seeking your DNA expertise and found exactly what I needed. I took your advice and ordered the $99 23andMe test, which I will later transfer to Family Tree DNA. Enjoy your holidays.

  4. Jeff says:

    Between you and CeCe, those interested in DNA testing will alway get the best news. As you mentioned about 23andMe’s preference for health testing instead of testing for strictly genealogical DNA testing is a gamebreaker for me. But it is good, in most respects, that they are pushing forward the way that they are. Let’s hope that the others can keep pace. Now, I just need a relative for my FTDNA Y-37 test!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s nice to see everyone pushing ahead, as long as the price undercutting doesn’t kill the competition, Jeff. I’d hate to be left with only one game in town…

  5. Marsha says:

    So did I understand correctly that 23andme will use our info for their own profit somewhere down the road and FtDNA just donates it to research? Thanks for explaining the current changes in this field. I just ordered the 23andme test and will consider FTDNA once I have my results.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s the situation currently, Marsha. That doesn’t mean that FTDNA won’t be forced down that road in order to stay alive. but for today, yes.

  6. CeCe Moore says:

    Hi Judy,
    Just a small clarification to his statement: “The 23andMe test that’s been repriced is its Relative Finder test…”
    23andMe only sells one test and it includes all of their offerings. Relative Finder is just one of many features at 23andMe.
    Thanks for keeping everyone updated!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ah, yes. I guess I just tend to think of it as Relative Finder, when that is a feature, not a test name. Thanks!

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