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
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DNA testing, the Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart provides a good overview (the pricing data is now officially outdated).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.
- Judy G. Russell, “More bang for DNA test bucks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 May 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 July 2013). ↩
- 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. 30 May 2013. ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 20 Jul 2013. ↩
Wow, you really are a DNA junkie!
And this surprises you how? 🙂
Perfect analysis of pros and cons of each offer, Judy. I will be talking once more with my only brother, who is the only male Gillespie in our line. We really need to get his results into the Ulster Gillespie DNA database to add to their attempts to tease out Irish and Scots origins, as well as any other information that finds us another cousin or two… Thanks so much for this – I’m sending my bro to look at your blog to read the details. Cheers.
Good luck in getting him to test, Celia! The more, the better, and the sooner, the better!
Love your blog! I have a couple questions about your conclusions here, as this is something I’ve been trying to determine myself over the past few months.
I’ve taken the Ancestry.DNA and 23andMe tests and transferred results to Family Tree DNA. Besides fishing in multiple ponds, this is also trying to figure out where to ask relatives to test. For your first and last bullet points, my conclusions are different. If you only want to test with one company for genealogy, do Ancestry.DNA, and for most bang for the buck, test at Ancestry.DNA and transfer to Family Tree DNA.
The family tree tool at Ancestry.com combined with the DNA results has been far more powerful for me than the sole reliance on DNA results at the other two companies. I’ve broken through one paper brick wall so far there, and offering promising clues towards three more. Family Tree DNA confirmed the first breakthrough thanks to another family member having tested there. 23andMe has done nothing for my genealogy yet, perhaps because they are awful at supporting endogamous populations, with a recent web site update that made things even worse.
23andMe used to have an advantage in that Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch would only accept transfers from there. Now that both sites accept Ancestry.DNA transfers too, I don’t understand why you’d recommend 23andMe over Ancestry in your final bullet point – unless you’re so interested in the medical data that you’re willing to accept poor genealogical results.
So I’m interested in learning more about why Ancestry.DNA isn’t your starting point for the first and last bullets. Sure, there are a lot of problematic trees on Ancestry, but they are often good enough for surname matches. Once you have that, if your own tree is in good shape, you and your matches have a huge head start on figuring out the connections. Again, this may be particularly important for endogamous populations where you get so many false DNA positives, but I would think it would apply to other populations too.
I have no connection with any of these companies besides being a customer of all of them. Thanks again for this wonderful blog – your post on SS-5’s has been particularly helpful for me.
My reasons are simple, Michael: AncestryDNA relies entirely, and I mean entirely, on the trees posted by members. There are no other tools to show where your DNA and a match’s DNA are in common. No tools to search for a member name to see if that person is in your match list. No tools to see what matches you and a match have in common. You have absolutely no way of determining, based on the information provided, whether the apparent match in your tree is the only match you have, assuming that it’s accurate at all. (I have double cousins in some lines — AncestryDNA doesn’t have a way of displaying that.) There are just so many shortcomings with the interface, and so much reliance on the trees, that I can’t make it my first choice.
Thanks, Judy! I guess I have serious doubts about the utility of current chromosome-based tools for endogamous populations like Ashkenazi, which is where all my ancestry resides, but I’m just getting started. Maybe that’s a possible topic for another time.
The challenges are absolutely greater for an endogamous population, Michael, and that’s one reason why using ALL tools at ALL testing companies may be the way to go.
Judy, the situation for potential testers in the UK is very different than that in North America when it come to value for money.
Although all three companies charge $99 for the test Ancestry do not ship to the UK and 23andMe charge $79. Meanwhile FTDNA only charge $7 for shipping.
Thanks for adding that information, Ali. I understand this isn’t true just for the UK but everywhere outside the US.
After exchanging information with you a few weeks, I finally had the time to sit down and order a DNA testing kit. I quickly found that Ancestry wouldn’t ship to me in Canada.
So off to 23andMe and while their shipping is excessive, i ordered a kit from them.
Now will I be able, as a Canadian test subject to transfer my resultant information at Family Tree for $69?
Thanks for a very absorbing blog!
Here at least is an answer you’ll like as a Canadian, Mary: yes. You will be able to transfer your results to Family Tree DNA and it won’t cost you anything extra. Transferring really is just a matter of uploading a data file so there isn’t even any shipping involved.
The price of the Family Finder test has now been updated in the autosomal testing comparison chart in the ISOGG Wiki.
Another important factor for people to consider when taking a DNA test is the composition of the companies’ databases. Ancestry do not sell their test in any country other than the US. 23andMe ship to 56 countries, representing roughly one quarter of the world. Family Tree DNA ship in theory to every country in the world. Ancestry currently only sell their test in America. If Ancestry do ever make their test available elsewhere, their large all-American database will be a severe deterrent to would-be testers from other countries, especially as they provide little in the way of tools for helping you to sort your matches. Both 23andMe and FTDNA allow customers to download their match list, a facility which is sadly lacking at Ancestry. I don’t have any actual data but it is my impression that fewer people in the UK upload their trees to Ancestry, so the tree-matching facility will not be so effective as it is for American researchers.
Thanks for the additional input, Debbie. The playing field definitely isn’t equal for folks outside of the US.
I’ve tested yDNA, mtDNA, and done 23andme (transferred to FTDNA) and AncestryDNA. Of all of these the most productive by far for me was AncestryDNA.
All the known males in my family are dead back to 1781. I’ve tested the only other male — a 1st cousin. yDNA has turned up nothing for me after several years. mtDNA has been equally unproductive.
23andme yielded one 8th ish cousin on a known Colonial line — and some mildly interesting medical stuff. My transfer to FTDNA has turned up nothing interesting yet.
By contrast, AncestryDNA has seemingly verified years of family history research by giving me multiple “hits” on the families of my paternal g grandmother and gg grandmother. Both of these families had been unknown to me before a great deal of research.
If one has a well developed and fairly accurate family tree, I strongly recommend AncestryDNA as a first step. Ancestry results can also be transferred to FTDNA.
Ancestry’s integration of test results with your family tree is outstanding. I can’t understand why FTDNA and 23andme are so far behind.
The operative word here is “seemingly,” John. I don’t want to take anything away from Ancestry as a legitimate tool. But it’s not only YOUR “well developed and fairly accurate family tree” but everyone else’s that you’re taking as a matter of faith here. I would definitely do the AncestryDNA testing. I would not do it first.
Thank you for your post. I thought your analysis was very sound. I would like to make one note about FTDNA. For African Americans, as much as I like their tools, I cannot recommend them at this time because they are likely to get very few matches. Using me as an example, I have about 550 matches at 23andMe and over 600 at Ancestry. I also match about 30 FTDNA kits on GEDmatch with the default settings. But I only have 16 official matches with the folks from Houston. I’ve heard of similar numbers with others of my kind. Awkward as sharing and contact is at 23andMe, I have more people sharing genomes with me there than I have total matches at FTDNA.
I had some specific scenarios to examine at FTDNA, so I have no regrets about transferring my results there, and I hope that their matching algorithm is tweaked to allow more legit matches, and/or more of my relatives (of all colors) test there.
Everyone’s mileage will vary, of course, but I felt this was a story that needed to be told.
P.S. I’m off to Fort Wayne in 3 1/2 weeks! I don’t think I’ll see you there, but I hope all your sessions go well.
Thanks for your input, Venice. That’s a concern I hadn’t heard expressed before.
This is a very useful comparison of what the three companies offer. Thank you!
I would like to comment on this statement, however: “There are as yet no tools at AncestryDNA to compare DNA when there is no tree match.” Even when there is a tree match and both trees are accurate, it is still far from certain that the match is the source of the shared DNA.
An example: I have a match with a man on Ancestry with whom I share six sets of ancestors. The ancestors are all over the place in my tree, but they are all his paternal ancestors. GEDMatch comparisons revealed, however, that we share our segment not only with his children but with his MOTHER!
Although I have more than 5000 matches there as compared with about 1100 at 23andme and 570 at FTDNA, the lack of a chromosome browser at Ancestry would make it my third choice.
You’re quite right, Lou: there is no way at AncestryDNA to see where in your DNA you match a person who shows up as a match and, so, no way to see if the tree information (if any) is even remotely accurate. And the number of matches at AncestryDNA reflects a deliberate choice by Ancestry to provide even false positives on the grounds that there may still be some utility in having them. All of those listed as distant cousins have a 50% or lower chance of even being related to you, according to Ancestry.
Thanks for the update. I second what Venice is saying. I do think that a person of mainly African heritage needs to test with 23andMe or Ancestry first. I say this because we can have the same exact matches tested at all three, but these matches will not show up for us at 23andme. As of today, I have 536 matches at 23andme and 692 matches at Ancestry but only 10 at FTDNA.
Thanks for that info. Do keep in mind that any match reported by AncestryDNA in the distant cousin category is expressly included in AncestryDNA’s statement that there is a 50% or so chance that the match is a false positive. That, I suspect, accounts for a large majority of the additional matches at AncestryDNA.
Judy I typed too fast and should have written:
Thanks for the update. I second what Venice is saying. I do think that a person of mainly African heritage needs to test with 23andMe or Ancestry first. I say this because we can have the same exact matches tested at all three, but these matches will not show up for us at FTDNA. As of today, I have 536 matches at 23andme and 692 matches at Ancestry but only 10 at FTDNA.
I wrote the following originally: “will not show up for us at FTDNA.”
I am African American and have 950 matches on 23andme, 1,900 matches on AncestryDNA and only 30 matches with FTDNA.
Thanks for your input! Sure looks like many people are experiencing the same issues.
Thanks for all this information, Judy! Great advice for action. I like your 1-2-3 approach. This makes the choice concise and reasonable. The DNA testing field seems to be sorting itself out rather quickly.
It’s sorting itself out, yes, and changing so fast our heads keep spinning!
Interesting that you mention testing babies. Do you have thoughts on the ethics or law of taking DNA samples from people who are incapable of giving informed consent (e.g. very young children or older persons with dementia)? Is it ok so long as one has the consent of the individual’s guardian?
The law is clear that the legal guardian has the right to consent to such a test on behalf of the incompetent (either too young or infirm). The ethical considerations are infinitely more nuanced: is it ever right to obtain information about someone else who can’t consent? Under what circumstances is it right? There aren’t any easy answers.
I am debating a “best bang for my buck” question too. I have three tests at AncestryDNA: mine, my mom’s, and my dad’s. My dad’s two female first cousins have also both tested there.
I was tempted to follow your advice and transfer my data to Family Tree DNA (for $69), but perhaps it would be more worthwhile to ante up the full $138 and do my parents’ instead, as they’re likely to be a generation closer to good matches.
I am having a hard time getting excited about paying $140 just to get those data into the FTDNA system, though…and all of us (AND the two female first cousins of my dad) are already in my GEDmatch account.
Have you heard any whispers about a possible reduction in that $69 price? A bulk discount? 😉
Thanks for the analysis–
I haven’t heard any whispers like that at all, Tara. You definitely want to get your parents into the system first, because they are a generation closer to good matches as you say, and keep in mind: there will be many more people who’ve tested with FTDNA than who’ve uploaded data to GedMatch.
I was reviewing this blog post as I prepare to order new kits for relatives that have agreed to be tested. A question came up: if testing has been done previously in 2010, specifically at Ancestry and 23andMe, is there any value in re-taking the test? Has the range/sensitivity of the test improved so that new information will be obtained?
Janis, generally I don’t think there’s any real value in retesting. About the only time it might be worth considering is when a previous build literally can’t read the earlier data well enough and we haven’t encountered that yet.
I’ve already taken the Ancestry.com DNA test, and my daughter wants to get tested as a birthday present. After reading this article, I decided to go through 23AndMe. I was happy there was a discount for a second test, and I figured I would do this site in addition to Ancestry, just cuz I’m becoming a DNA junkie too.
However, when I started to enter my address as far as the STATE I live in (New York State) whatdoyaknow, up comes a box saying that 23andMe can’t process saliva collected IN and/or shipped FROM the state of NY.
Here’s what it said:
“Notice: New York-bound Kits
23andMe is currently unable to process saliva samples collected in or mailed from the state of New York. The New York Department of Health considers our Personal Genome Service a test requiring a lab license and direct physician involvement.
If you or the recipient of the Spit Kit intend to collect your sample and mail it from outside the state of New York, please select the “Ship to New York” button below. Upon receipt of your Spit Kit, you or the Spit Kit recipient will be required to affirm under penalty of law that the sample for the Spit Kit has not been collected in or mailed from the state of New York.”
Since I’m one to not do anything illegal, that apparently leaves me out of testing with 23andMe!
Wow! Did you know this, Judy??
That leaves out a LOT of people who would like to test with 23andMe! I suppose I could have them ship the kit to me, then drive 2 hrs to the PA border, spit in the kit, mail it from PA, and drive back home to NYS??
Not sure if that’s how people get around it or not. Are there rules similar for other states? Just curious.
I’m headed to the FTDNA site to see if we can get our tests there instead. I’d rather do a new test, just to see how they differ, so that’s why I don’t want to necessarily rely on transferring my DNA from Ancestry.com.
Speaking of which I also today tried to download my DNA info from Ancestry.com to upload it to GedMatch.
HOWEVER, I’m STILL waiting for the email that’s supposed to contain the rest of the instructions for how to download my DNA info. I’ve checked my spam folder constantly, I’ve checked messages on Ancestry, but for some reason there’s a problem loading my message folder. Any known problems with downloading DNA data recently from Ancestry?
Just not having good luck with DNA today, I guess!
‘Fraid so, Suzie, and I’ve written about this before. See That pesky NY law and NY and MD limits on 23andMe. As far as trouble downloading Ancestry data, no, I wasn’t aware of any problem.
I appreciate your knowledge and compassion. I have received results from Ancestry.com but I don’t really know if or how they may benefit my situation. I will explain below. I have also just sent my DNA to 23and me (collected and mailed from sovereign land on an Indian Reservation). Ancestry has provided some 20+ 4th cousin “matches”. Here’s my situation. I was born in Montreal in 1952 and was sold within the Black Market Baby Scandal of the 40’s and 50’s. I therefore, have no actual names (they were all falsified). What can I do with the DNA results to help me find any relatives. Thanks so much, Vickie
Vickie, you need to be in touch with the folks at DNAAdoption.com — their info, their mail lists, their online classes, their guidance and their advice. Your story is truly sad, but you’re one of many facing the same challenges and trials in trying to locate information about your own heritage. And the adoption angels out there can help. Best of luck to you.
I appreciate your posts and the comments.
I joined 23andMe when they could still provide the medical data. That has been useful and interesting.
The reason I joined was to learn more about my family and help locate relatives. The results can be confusing and someone not in the field will need to do a lot of reading and research to understand how to best understand the results. I came up with over a thousand family matches, mostly 3-4th cousins and distant relatives. The tutorials are either very simplistic or way over my head, and I am a fairly smart cookie, good at researching, so those matches are interesting but may not be useful.
Do you still recommend importing into Family Tree? Thank you.
I always recommend importing results everywhere you can do so, to maximize your matches.
My children are adopted from Central America. Which test do you think would give the best results understanding the indigenous, African, Spanish, and other origins? Thanks!
I don’t think any of them are particularly good in the way they interpret the data, Dee. What I’d do is pick the company I wanted to deal with for genealogical reasons (best resources, etc.) and then use the raw data (the underlying results, not analyzed) everywhere that I could. So, for example, you could test with AncestryDNA and then upload and use the raw data at Family Tree DNA for a smaller fee to get the benefit of both companies’ analysis. And there are third party analytical tools such as those on Gedmatch you can use with any company’s raw data.
I just got my results from AncestryDNA and was surprised that though the tree I provided has as much info on my father’s side as my mother’s, ALL of the matches they gave me are on my mother’s side. Also, father’s side on the tree is entirely German going back to 1780, yet my AncestryDNA ethnicity map is very lightly weighted in west or east Europe where Ggermany is, but heavy in UK, Italy and Greece where I don’t see anything in my family tree from those areas going back many generations. Any insights to help understand these surprises? Would uploading my raw data to FT help clear this up?
The percentages are — really, honestly — little more than cocktail party conversation. Please read Admixture: not soup yet.
I was wondering if any of these tests could show Native American Indian heritage.
And the answer is a great big maybe. Here’s the problem. We get three basic types of DNA (if male) and two (if female). The YDNA a male has includes genetic data only from the father’s father’s father’s line — a direct male line. A YDNA test then will only show Native American ancestry if it’s an unbroken male line from a Native American male ancestor. Both males and females get mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from their mothers, which includes genetic data only from the mother’s mother’s mother’s line — the direct female line. So an mtDNA test will only show Native American ancestry if it’s an unbroken female line from a Native American female ancestor. And we all get autosomal DNA from both of our parents. That includes genetic data from all of our ancestors, but in a random mix that changes in each and every generation. What happens is that all of the genes in each parent that are sent on to the child get mixed up in a process called recombination. Dad starts out with 50% of his DNA from granddad and 50% from grandmom, but when the mixing is finished, the new chromosome that gets sent on to the child may have, say, 70% from granddad and only 30% from grandmom. That random mixing goes on in each generation until — after a fairly short time — there just isn’t enough left from any one ancestor to be detected. So these tests can detect Native American ancestry, but may not be able to do so reliably after just a few generations. So the answer is: it depends.
I want to given daughter a DNA kit for her 19 th birthday. She wants to know more about her German heritage. What do you recommend?
My general advice does not change: test first at AncestryDNA and then transfer to Family Tree DNA. However, be advised that the test is very much geared to folks with long American ancestry. Few Germans test so she is not likely to get much information about her German ancestry through DNA testing.
Hi Judy — thank you for this analysis. Do you know if there is any difference in the quality of the DNA test itself? Do any of these companies deliver a more thorough genetic portrait than the others, or is the quality of the raw results all the same?
Thanks very much.
There is a small difference in the amount (and location) of autosomal DNA sampled by each of the companies. 23andMe deliberately chooses to look at some disease-related markers because of its interest in health testing; Family Tree DNA deliberately chooses not to, because its focus is exclusively on genealogy. But overall there is a great deal of overlap among the tests.
I want to try to have my uncle’s DNA extracted from a very old sealed envelope flap. (1942/1943) Is this an effort in futility, or is there a chance of success, albeit low? Also, what company(s) would you recommend? Thank you for your input . . . you provide such valuable information . . . GJ
You can try contacting Family Tree DNA through the contact form at the FTDNA website (https://www.familytreedna.com/contact.aspx) to see if it can do it and for how much.
Hey! I was just denied an additional test by 23andme and told that after my 2nd failed attempt that they would not process another. They said that they primarily use the white blood cells to extract the DNA and both of my samples did not provide enough to process and give me the DNA data? I primarily am looking for the “medical” information from this process and feel as though I’m stuck! I followed the instructions perfectly both times, but without a successful sample. Do the other companies provide the same info as 23andme as far as it relates to the medical perspective? I really hope there is another way or other option so I’m not left being told “I’m out of luck.” What do you know about this? What suggestions might you offer in moving forward as I seek my “medical” genetic information?
You can take your raw data from any testing company and run it through a third-party site such as Promethease. That may be your only chance if you’re not up for working through your doctor for more medical data.