A closer look at AncestryDNA
The exhibition hall at any genealogical conference is always a fun place to be and to hang out. So many goodies — new books, new products, new services — you almost don’t know where to look first. One thing I knew I wanted to check out at this year’s NGS conference in Cincinnati was the Ancestry.com booth and the new autosomal DNA test offering, AncestryDNA.
Fortunately, I was able to sit down for a time with John Pereira, vice president of DNA at Ancestry.com who runs the DNA Product & Marketing team. And, yes, like a bunch of other folks who are intensely interested in and writing about DNA, I was handed a free DNA test kit (and yes, I’m gonna do it, since I have yet to meet a DNA test I wouldn’t take, and no, Ancestry isn’t getting a pass on any tough questions as a result. I just believe in full disclosure).
So… with that out of the way… here are some things I was able to clarify and some things that have yet to be decided or clarified about this new test.
Right now, the autosomal test is only being offered to Ancestry,com subscribers at an introductory price of $99.00. Not everybody who wants to be tested right now is being tested right now (see availability, below), but Pereira said all Ancestry subscribers who get their names on the wait list during the introductory offering will get the introductory price.
Where will the pricing go after that? “It hasn’t been decided yet.” When will long-term pricing be announced? “We just don’t know yet.” Will it stay at $99 for Ancestry.com subscribers? “This is an introductory price.”
Again, the test right now is only being offered to Ancestry.com subscribers. It won’t be offered widely to non-subscribers until the demand from Ancestry.com subscribers is met. The lab facilities can only handle so many tests at a time, so even subscribers are being put onto a wait list right now.
Will non-subscribers be able to test with AncestryDNA? “Yes.” When? “We’ll know that when we see how the demand from subscribers gets met. … Our design is to take care of our subscribers first.”
Subscription or not
“No subscription will ever be necessary to access results.”
The promise is that test results and match lists will always be accessible whether the test taker is an Ancestry subscriber or not.
But some of the AncestryDNA results system is so tightly integrated with subscription-based Ancestry services that it’s clear non-subscribers will see a more limited set of functions and features (and that non-subscribers will be encouraged, and not at all subtly, to subscribe).
“It’s just that some of the information we’re providing is information our subscribers pay for. They’re entitled to access it all, and those who don’t subscribe won’t get the information that’s subscriber-only. But the results themselves will always be available.”
“We understand it’s important to serious genetic genealogists and we’ve got that under review. We’re working to figure it out.”
Pereira emphasized the desire to make DNA results as easy as possible for all genealogists to understand: “We’re trying to present the DNA information in a form that’s understandable and simple for everyone.” The game plan for the product: “simple, actionable, integrated.”
But, he said, that priority didn’t preclude providing more down the road. “This is a work in progress.”
Data from other test labs
“Yes, absolutely, we’re considering how we could allow people who’ve tested with other companies to transfer their results to the AncestryDNA database.” Will it happen? “We sure hope so.” When? “We couldn’t even take a guess.”
Acquisition of GeneTree
Data acquired from GeneTree and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation included “an unparalleled sample set” with not merely DNA samples but samples validated by pedigrees and paper trail genealogies. The data greatly enriches the ethnicity and admixture information pool available to AncestryDNA. “We expect to provide much more detailed admixture results because of this acquisition.”
Privacy agreements entered into between persons tested and Sorenson or GeneTree are legally binding on Ancestry as the acquiring company. This doesn’t answer the issue of folks feeling put out that they tested with a non-profit research foundation and ended up with their data being owned by a commercial corporation but it’s all the law requires.
There is no current plan to integrate GeneTree test results into the AncestryDNA system. The GeneTree results system will remain up and running “for now.” Those whose test kits had arrived at GeneTree by the acquisition date will be reported at GeneTree. Those whose test kits had not arrived will receive refunds.
“We want to make GeneTree customers happy to the extent that we can.”
Integration with Ancestry user family trees
Ancestry is “keenly aware” that integrating DNA results with undocumented user-supplied family trees poses potential problems. “It’s clearly up to us to make sure people understand the tree matches are just a tool, just clues for people to use to make their own decisions,” Pereira said. “We have a big educational task in front of us. We have to make sure people know that it’s not just DNA. It’s DNA and records and research and more.”
“We hope we’ll get help and input from genealogists on how to validate results, how to show users that DNA is just another tool and can’t replace good research.”
Family tree matches will be presented the same way for DNA results as they are for other searches: if the tree is private, a match will be able to send a request to the tree owner for contact and the tree owner will be able to decide, globally, or person by person, to allow or disallow access. Similarly, contacting matches can only be done through the internal Ancestry system; email addresses will not be disclosed by Ancestry.
“It’s a global rules set we’re working under. All the same privacy settings will carry over no matter what part of the Ancestry system a person is seeing.”
Where to next?
So… how about full genomic sequencing? Is Ancestry looking in that direction? “We’re going to be looking hard at every new development especially since it is just crazy and exciting how costs are plummeting.” But, Pereira cautions, “we have to consider just what it turns out we can learn from full genomic sequencing that’s really valuable for our genealogy customers. Does this make sense — will it provide data that, for the typical user, will really advance genealogy?”
My own take
I remain deeply concerned that integrating DNA results with totally undocumented unvalidated user-supplied family trees is going to end up with an awful lot of people absolutely convinced of facts that just ain’t so.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the theory. I wrote about the potential for just this kind of link-up last year for the National Genealogical Society Magazine1 after talking to Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist. If it were ever executed well, linking family trees and DNA results would be the best thing for genealogy since sliced bread.
My problem is that I’m not convinced that the AncestryDNA system can do it well simply because of the vast numbers of demonstrably inaccurate user-submitted trees that are already in the Ancestry system. Telling two people who are DNA matches that their family trees match on an individual who really isn’t an ancestor to one (or even either) of those people isn’t going to move the ball forward so much as an inch.
Take my own Baker line for example. There are still dozens of user-submitted trees on Ancestry.com that say that Thomas Baker (c1711-c1777) of the Pamunkey Neck area of Virginia descended from Alexander Baker who came to Boston in 1635. The whole “we descend from Alexander Baker” theory has been totally disproved by years of YDNA testing (not to mention good genealogical research).
But when one of these “yes we do descend from Alexander” descendants of Thomas Baker matches any Alexander Baker descendant (and they will, not because of the Baker ancestor but because of some other ancestor they share that they don’t know about), what I’m afraid of is that they’re going to think they’ve proved the relationship — to Alexander as well as to each other — when the autosomal test is doing and can do no such thing.
How are we as genealogists going to answer “but AncestryDNA says it’s so”?
I don’t know. And it worries me.
That being said, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to detect any autosomal match in my own family and AncestryDNA adds to my chances. But when I butt heads with one of those Baker descendants in the future, I’m going to ask John Pereira to help me explain that no, AncestryDNA really didn’t say it was so at all.
- Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43. ↩