Family Tree DNA
Aberdeen, Scotland. Living DNA says that 3. 1 percent of my
DNA is from Aberdeenshire. Written narratives on the web-
site provide a history of each reported region.
Using mitochondrial DNA and, if applicable, Y chro-
mosome DNA, the company can trace your maternal and
paternal lines back to human origins in Africa and show
where and when your particular line probably branched off
the original. My “motherline” probably arose in the Near
East 19,000 to 26,000 years ago, Living DNA claims, and my
ancestors were some of the first people to enter Europe.
I’m not sure the service would be worth the price tag for
people whose ancestry doesn’t contain a strong British or
Irish tilt, though Living DNA says it is working to improve
ethnicity estimates in Germany and elsewhere.
The most no-frills of the bunch is Family Tree DNA. For
$79, “autosomal” testing looks for genetic variants on all of
the chromosomes except the X and Y sex chromosomes.
Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA analysis costs extra.
Family Tree DNA allows a user to build a family tree, incor-
porating personal DNA tests and matches from the site’s
relative-matching section. I found more than 2,400 potential
relatives. A chromosome viewer lets me see exactly which bit
of DNA I have in common with any particular relative. That
feature also allows users to trace how they inherited DNA
from a shared ancestor. But I found this tool difficult to use.
The website offers little explanation of results. For
instance, I was excited to see that my DNA was compared
with that of ancient Europeans, including Ötzi the Iceman,
who lived 5,300 years ago (SN: 9/17/16, p. 9). I did get a
breakdown of how different ancient groups contributed to
my DNA. But when I saw Ötzi’s dot on my ancestry map, it
wasn’t clear if that meant we share DNA or if the map was
merely showing where he lived.
23andMe ($99) offers one of the more complete packages of
information. Most companies show a map of ethnic heritage.
23andMe does, too, but also presents an interactive diagram
of all of a person’s chromosomes, indicating which portions
carry a particular ethnic ancestry. Because my parents also
did 23andMe, I learned that my dad handed me a tiny bit
of chromosome 15 that carries western Asian and northern
African heritage. Playing with the chromosomes is fun. But I
question the accuracy of these results (see Page 14 for more
on why ancestry tests may miss the mark).
23andMe presents Neandertal heritage in terms of
the number of genetic variants you carry. A family-and-
friends scoreboard shows where you stack up. (I top my
leaderboard with 296 Neandertal variants, more than
what 80 percent of 23andMe customers have.) The report
also explains what some of those Neandertal variants do,
including ones linked to back hair, straight hair, height and
whether you’re likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate.
Like Geno 2.0, 23andMe uses mitochondrial and Y chro-
mosome DNA to trace the migration patterns of a person’s
ancestors, from Africa to the present day.
Relative matching is both interesting and frustrating. I could
see the people I match, how we might be related and compare
our chromosomes. But 23andMe doesn’t provide a way to build
family trees to further explore these relationships.
AncestryDNA ($99) doesn’t give the variety of information
other companies do. But it has useful genealogical tools, provided you link your results to a family tree that you can build
with help from historical records via a paid subscription to
One interesting feature of my heritage report was that
it went beyond spots on the map in Europe to also show a
region of the United States called “Northeastern States
Settlers.” A match to that category tells me that my ancestors who came from Europe probably initially settled in New
England or around the Great Lakes. They did. One branch of
my family tree set roots in Massachusetts in the 1640s. Using
birth, death and immigrant records from Ancestry.com, I
could build a timeline to show when and from where individual ancestors immigrated to the United States.
AncestryDNA also matches you with relatives, but you can
only see how you’re related to those people if they have also
chosen to make family trees.
Although I’ve always been interested in family history, DNA
testing has gotten me hooked on genealogy research.
23andMe and AncestryDNA were the most fun to use.
23andMe can tell me whether a relative is on my mother’s
or father’s side of the family. But then I have to go back to
AncestryDNA and comb through my family tree to learn how
we’re really connected. DNA can kick-start a genealogy hunt,
but combing through marriage certificates, military rolls,
census records, immigration documents, old photographs
and other records — which Ancestry.com can provide — is
what really tells me who my ancestors were. s
Science News reporter Tina Hesman Saey tried out several consumer
genetic testing companies to learn more about her ancestry.