Friday, March 2, 2012

Where Should I Have My Autosomal DNA Tested?

How does one pick out a lab to test one’s autosomal DNA for genealogical purposes? For the last two years the two preeminent testing labs for autosomal testing for family historians have been Family Tree DNA (FTDNA)  and 23andMe. FTDNA also offers Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests. 23andMe also tests for markers which influence certain health conditions. Ancestry’s approaching entry into autosomal DNA testing offers us a good time to reflect on what each of them have to offer.

When a grandson was born in summer 2010, my first task when I arrived at the curb by the hospital was to receive a vial of his blood to rush to FedEx so that it could be overnighted to a lab for a DNA test. It was a test for a specific gene which is associated with a heritable condition present in my daughter-in-law’s family which according to the NIH, “causes a disruption of the heart's normal rhythm…. If untreated, the irregular heartbeats can cause fainting (syncope), seizures, difficulty breathing, or sudden death.” Fortunately, my new grandson did not test positive for the variant.

The test of a small portion of my grandson’s autosomal DNA was not a test for genealogical purposes; and it was not conducted by a lab that offers consumers DNA testing for family history purposes. However, it highlighted for me a significant difference in focus between DNA testing for medical conditions and DNA testing for genealogical exploration.

Bennett Greenspan and his colleagues at FTDNA have long understood that DNA testing for genealogical purposes was not about the specific results that came out of the lab. Rather it was about the comparisons that could be made with others who were potential relatives. Therefore FTDNA has long emphasized the creation of databases which allow comparisons to be made with others who have tested and in encouraging projects into which those tested could be homogeneously grouped by surname, haplotype or geographic origin.  FTDNA offers opportunities for additional matching by hosting two databases, ySearch and mitoSearch, which allow free cross comparison of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial matching no matter which lab conducted the test. FTDNA has offered long offered accessible customer service—both through its staff and through its system of volunteer project coordinators. FTDNA has also enriched its databases by offering reduced rates to encourage those who had tested at other companies but were interested in adding their data to FTDNA in order to be able to compare their personal results with others in a large database.

23andMe blurs the line between testing for health information and for genealogy. The company was launched in part to create a large database of those who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Sergi Brin, co-founder of Google, is the spouse of Anne Wojcicki co-founder of 23andMe; and he has announced that he is genetically predisposed to get Parkinson’s. After 23andMe had its own “Netflix moment” a couple of months ago and upset many genealogy clients. Wojcicki stepped up to the plate and seemed to respond to many of the concerns of the genetic genealogy community. It would appear that the previous troubling announcement grew out of a business plan and mindset which worked well for those who tested to explore potential health conditions based in their genomes. For them, once the absolute values of various genes were documented, being part of a large database was thought to have diminishing appeal. However, for genetic genealogists, the absolute values found at various locations had little value unless they could be matched against a database—and hopefully a very large database. Such varying interests appear to have led 23andMe to have a different world view and business plan than that of FTDNA. Hopefully, Anne will continue to listen, and we will see a somewhat different business plan emerge during 2012 that values continued access to a large and growing database of customer results. Now back to my original question.

Ancestry has long offered Y-chromosome DNA tests. While I love Ancestry’s database offerings, I have not been enamored with their DNA service. They have not approached the level of post-testing support which has been the hallmark of FTDNA. As a result I have had mixed feelings about the signals coming out of Provo that Ancestry was gearing up to offer autosomal DNA tests. I now wonder if the autosomal market will be further splintered. Consumers generally benefit from competition in the marketplace. In many ways the competition between 23andMe and FTDNA has been beneficial to customers of both. However, as I have already said redundantly in this post, being able to compare results with the largest number of other individuals is extremely important for genetic genealogists. Only very recently have we been able to move 23andMe results into the FTDNA autosomal database and make comparisons. I’ll have more to say about this in another post very soon.

As you select a lab to test the autosomal portion of your (or of your relatives’) genome to further your family history research, keep in mind that an essential part of your benefit is gained by the ability to compare the results—both now and in the future—with the largest possible database of others interested in genealogy. With that caveat in mind, I welcome Ancestry’s entrance into this segment of the genetic genealogy market. You can follow this development on CeCe Moore’s blog.

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