Making the most of your 2015 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?”
That was followed up in 2013 with an update after prices tumbled for autosomal DNA tests, and in 2014 with an update after technological changes at 23andMe blew some of the recommendations out of the water.
And — with price changes, feature changes, the advent of international sales, and changes in the way data may be treated at some companies — it’s time now for another update.
We’re talking here 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. That’s in contrast to YDNA testing, which only men can do and which looks at the direct paternal line, or mitochondrial DNA testing, which looks at the direct maternal line. If you’re interested if YDNA or mtDNA testing, Family Tree DNA is the only game in town.
There are three major autosomal DNA tests you can take for genetic genealogy — from Family Tree DNA, from 23andMe, from Ancestry DNA — and even a fourth test from National Geographic called Geno 2.0 with a 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 2014): 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 2015): If you really want to know about the medical secrets hidden in your DNA, and you live in Canada or the United Kingdom, you can now test with 23andMe. In the international market, the company is free of the constraints it’s been under since late 2013 in the United States. Here in the U.S., the dust-up with 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 and consumers here have to use a third party utility to get health-related reports. So if this is what you want, and you live in Canada or the United Kingdom, test with 23andMe. (Note that international pricing is higher than U.S. pricing!) If you’re in the U.S., 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 2015): If your primary interest is in the numbers — what percentage European or African you are, all three major consumer testing companies are providing updated reports, with varying degrees of success. 23andMe is generally regarded as doing the best job in estimating relatively recent origins (where your family lived 500-1,000 years ago), but remember that — no matter who you test with — the numbers are really good only at the continental level (European versus African, for example). At the country level (Irish versus German, for example), they’re 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, maybe someday the information we all get about deep ancestry will be better as a result. It’s not cheap — $199 for the test, occasionally less if you catch a sale — 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 for 2015): 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 (updated for 2015): The only company right now that links DNA results to your family tree and compares it to others’ family trees is AncestryDNA. Tests for new accounts created after October 2014 must include a subscription, costing $49 a year, to get access to matches’ family trees and the shaky-leaf hints when you have both a DNA match and a tree match, and — if you are a subscriber and have a public tree — it will try to group you and others who are also subscribers with public trees into what are called DNA Circles based on what it thinks are the likely common ancestors. 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 no real analytical tools at AncestryDNA to compare DNA when there is no tree match — and no plans to add any. Note that 23andMe has just partnered up with MyHeritage, which does have a strong family tree system, but just how it’s going to work is anybody’s guess.
If you want to fish in all the ponds for the lowest price (updated for 2015): 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 in the U.S. — maybe a little less if you catch a sale. (Remember: since late 2013, we haven’t been able to use 23andMe tests for this first step because its V4 testing chip isn’t compatible with the Family Tree DNA system.) Updated note: Remember that to see full matching data and the family trees of your matches, kits activated under accounts created after October 2014 have a $49 annual subscription fee. You don’t need to pay that to test and get your raw data, but do need to pay it to see everything AncestryDNA has to offer.
Step 2. The minute you get your results from AncestryDNA, transfer your raw data to Family Tree DNA. When I say “transfer,” that doesn’t end your matches at AncestryDNA, it just gets you into the Family Tree DNA system with all of its benefits. You can do this for free but remember that “no free lunch” bit: the information you get with a free transfer is very limited. So you have two ways to unlock the really useful data: get four other people to transfer in their data or just pony up $39 and unlock the information right away. (2016 Note: The transfer of new AncestryDNA tests to Family Tree DNA is on hold because of a change to the AncestryDNA chip. Keep checking back with FTDNA; it’s working on being able to accept the new AncestryDNA test results.)
Step 3. When you can afford it, test with 23andMe for another $99 (U.S. pricing), occasionally a little less on sale.
That puts you into all three pools for a total (assuming you have to pay full freight for everything) of $237 — less than what you used to pay for one such test in the past.