Making the most of your 2014 DNA testing dollars
In 2012, The Legal Genealogist led off a Sunday DNA blog by asking “how do you get the most bang for the DNA buck?”1
And then followed that up last year with an update after prices tumbled for autosomal DNA tests.2
And it’s time now for another update. Because the technological changes particularly at 23andMe mean the old recommendations don’t work any more.
We’re talking here principally about 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.3 That’s in contrast to YDNA testing, which only men can do and which looks at the direct paternal line,4 or mitochondrial DNA testing, which looks at the direct maternal line.5)
There are four possible autosomal DNA tests you can take — from Family Tree DNA, from 23andMe, from Ancestry DNA and even from National Geographic in its Geno 2.0 test with its scientific (rather than genealogical) emphasis.
All of which I have taken. Admittedly, I’m a DNA junkie. I’ve never met a DNA test I wouldn’t take. 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 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.
Here’s my own take.
If you can only afford to test with one company (no change from 2013): 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 medical information (updated for 2014): If you really want to know about the medical secrets hidden in your DNA, you have to go to a third party utility right now. The dust-up between 23andMe and the federal Food and Drug Administration over the representations 23andMe was making about what autosomal results meant for health issues has brought those reports to a halt.6 So if this is what you want, your best bet is to test with any company you prefer for genealogy, and then run your raw data though a reporting system like Promethease.
If your primary interest is in the admixture data (updated for 2014): If your primary interest is in the numbers — what percentage European or African you are, the two most updated reports are the Ancestry Composition report from 23andMe and the Ethnicity Estimate from Ancestry DNA. Family Tree DNA is still lagging behind on this but is in the process of updating its admixture analyses. But remember that the numbers are really just a guess. 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 (no change from 2013): 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 (no change from 2013): 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 (updated for 2014): 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 AncestryDNA first. It’ll cost you $99. (The big change for 2014 is that you can no longer use 23andMe for this first step because its raw data today using its new V4 testing chip isn’t compatible with the Family Tree DNA system.)
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 23andMe 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.
- 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). ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “Update: More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 July 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014). ↩
- See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43. ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 5 Mar 2014. ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 29 Oct 2013. ↩
- See Judy G. Russell, “23andMe suspends health tests,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Apr 2014). ↩