It seems like genealogical DNA testing is popping up everywhere you look these days. There are a lot of options when it comes to DNA testing, and a lot of benefits, too. One company that offers some unique options and benefits that you won’t find anywhere else is 23andMe (see latest pricing). Unlike most companies that started by offering genealogical research services and then added DNA testing, 23andMe was created specifically for DNA testing.
It still offers some genealogical services, but not as many as most companies. On the other hand, 23andMe is the only genealogical testing company that also offers DNA health testing.
Genealogical DNA testing can help you learn more about your ancestors and where they came from, let you connect with living relatives, and explore your family’s past more fully.
When combined with health screening for more than 75 traits, conditions, and predispositions, 23andMe’s testing offers a powerful tool that everyone should consider.
What Do DNA Tests Actually Test?
There are three types of DNA tests used in genealogy today:
- Autosomal DNA - passed on from all of your ancestors on both sides of your family
- YDNA - passed on directly through your paternal line (from father to son) and only found in males
- mtDNA - passed on directly through your maternal line (from a mother to all of her children, both male and female)
Most companies only offer autosomal DNA testing. A couple offer all three tests individually.
23andMe actually performs all three tests for a single low price.
However, most of the results you get will be based on your autosomal DNA.
If you want accurate, useful results from YDNA or mtDNA, you will need to go with a different company (see our recommendations here).
Autosomal DNA is passed on from both of your parents, half from each.
Each of them got half of their autosomal DNA from their parents, and so on.
Because autosomal DNA gets mixed with each generation, it can only take you so far back - at least five or six generations, occasionally up to ten generations.
Autosomal DNA is most useful for telling what regions your ancestors came from, and for locating living DNA relatives out to about third or fourth cousins, sometimes a little further.
How Does 23andMe Compare to Other Companies?
When it comes to having genealogical testing done, there are a number of options.
So why would you want to pick 23andMe?
The main advantage 23andMe has over every other company is that they are the only ones who offer a genetic health reports.
If you want to know about how your DNA is likely to impact your health and wellness, 23andMe is your only choice.
23andMe vs FamilyTreeDNA
23andMe’s test bundles all three types of DNA tests.
FamilyTreeDNA offers all three tests, but lets you pick and choose which ones you want to have done.
If you want all three tests, 23andMe is going to be a lot less expensive.
However, FamilyTreeDNA is going to provide much more detailed and accurate results for mtDNA and YDNA.
FamilyTreeDNA also has a very large genealogical community and tons of online records, while 23andMe has neither.
23andMe vs AncestryDNA
Ancestry only offers autosomal DNA testing, so 23andMe’s bundled test is going to give you more information based on your mtDNA and YDNA for close to the same price.
But once again, Ancestry has a huge genealogical community and tons of online records that 23andMe doesn’t.
The big drawback there is you need to maintain a paid subscription to Ancestry to take advantage of those added features.
See our complete comparison of 23andMe and AncestryDNA here.
23andMe vs MyHeritage DNA
MyHeritage only offers autosomal DNA testing, so 23andMe’s bundle of all three tests is going to have more overall information for about the same price.
But like FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry, MyHeritage includes plenty of online genealogical records and a large community.
Be sure to check out our complete review of MyHeritage.
Getting The Test Done
Like most genealogical DNA testing companies, getting your test done through 23andMe is very simple.
Start by choosing whether you want the Ancestry test only, or both the Ancestry test and the health screening.
If you pick only the Ancestry report to start, you can still order the health report later at any time without having to be retested.
Ordering them both at the same time saves you about $25.
The kit includes simple illustrated instructions, a saliva sample tube with a funnel to help fill it properly, and a specimen bag to return your sample.
There is a barcode on the tube that you need to register online at the 23andMe website.
That barcode is the only link between you and the sample.
All of your personal information is stored separately, so the testing lab never knows anything about you, only the anonymous barcode number.
It is important to be sure that for at least 30 minutes before the test, you do not eat or drink anything, chew gum, smoke, or brush your teeth.
Once you’ve filled the collection tube, sealed it, and put it in the specimen bag, you just simply send it back in the same box that it arrived in using the enclosed mailing label, which includes pre-paid postage.
Getting Your Results
Once you mail back the kit, it usually takes 6-8 weeks for your results to be ready. You will receive an email as soon as they are.
Once your results are ready, you will need to log in to the 23andMe.com website to view them. Creating a 23andMe account is free.
In order to use 23andMe, or any other DNA testing, you need to have an email address and access to a computer to get the results.
What Will The Test Tell Me?
There are two main things that you will get from having autosomal DNA testing done: an estimate of your ancestry by ethnicity or region, and the chance to connect with living relatives.
Since 23andMe also tests your mtDNA and YDNA, it can also determine your haplogroups.
Variations in autosomal DNA tend to be linked with people living in certain regions.
Because most of the people in a region tend to share DNA with each other, those variations can narrow down where your ancestors lived.
23andMe breaks the world down into 31 regions.
Your ancestry reports will show how much of your DNA comes from each region, down to the nearest 0.1% - your ancestry composition.
A typical report might show that someone is 48.3% Western European, 27.2% Eastern European, 11.6% Asian, 9.2% Native American, and 3.7% Middle Eastern.
By knowing where you ancestors likely came from, you have important clues on where to focus your research.
Like most DNA testing companies, 23andMe lets you connect with genetic matches in their database.
Currently, 23andMe has tested over 2 million people, so there’s a mighty good chance you’ll find some matches.
However, there are two caveats.
First, sharing your results with others is optional, so you will only see matches from folks who have agreed to share their results.
Second, in some cases it might be hard at first to figure out just how someone is related to you. They might be third or fourth cousins.
However, once you contact them and start working together, you can share your family tree research, which can save you countless hours of building your family tree on your own.
Being able to link to relatives is especially helpful if you are adopted and want to learn more about your birth family.
Unlike most testing companies, 23andMe does perform mtDNA tests (for everyone) and YDNA tests (for men only) as part of its standard test, which will tell you your haplogroups.
A haplogroup is a basically a set of genetic markers that are common to a population of a certain area at some point in history.
For example, if your mtDNA haplogroup is H3, that means your maternal line very likely lived in western Spain.
People who lived in eastern Spain, or other areas of the world, belong to different haplogroups.
However, haplogroups go back very far – at least 10,000 years, and as much as 75,000 years.
Since migration patterns through much of human history were slow, it’s a good indicator that your ancestors lived there fairly recently.
But recent could mean two or three generations ago, or it could mean ten or more generations ago.
Also, keep in mind that your haplogroups only tell you about your direct maternal line and, for men, your direct paternal line.
They can’t tell you anything about all the rest of your ancestors.
So they are interesting, but not always helpful when researching your family tree.
How Accurate Are the Results?
Even though genealogical DNA testing is still fairly young, it has come a very long way.
Every day, more and more results pile up and get compared to traditional family trees, and every day the results get more accurate.
At this point they are accurate enough that 23andMe breaks your ethnicity down to 0.1% intervals – at least as good as any other company out there.
But your genetics can’t tell you everything.
Even if your ancestors were Eastern European, that doesn’t mean they didn’t spend a generation or two in England or France before coming to the United States.
So your results are clues on how to expand your research. They won’t do the work for you.
Will It Tell Me If I’m Native American?
Your results will indicate if you have Native American ancestors, and will give them a percentage result just like all of your other ancestors.
It may even narrow down the general region of North or South America.
However, it is impossible for the test to determine what tribe your ancestors may have come from, and it cannot be used as proof of ancestry when it comes to getting added to a tribal roll.
See our guide to Native American ancestry here.
Am I a Neanderthal?
Obviously not, but you might have neanderthal ancestry!
There is genetic evidence that humans and Neanderthals crossbred before the Neanderthals all died out.
That means that many people, if not everyone, has a little bit of Neanderthal ancestry in them.
Your 23andMe results will tell you just how Neanderthal you are, how that compares to other people, and what traits you might have inherited from Neanderthals.
Using Your Family To Expand Your Search
Even though you have the same parents as your brothers and sisters, unless you are identical twins, you don’t share the exact same DNA.
And because your DNA is different, that means that you might get different results when it comes to locating living relatives.
In order to match you as a relative, you need to share about 3% or so of your DNA with a cousin.
If you share a little less, the search won’t find a match.
But your brother or sister might share just a little bit more DNA with that particular cousin, so they would show up as a match.
That means that getting the rest of your family tested can help expand your results and your search.
You can test your children, too.
There is no minimum or maximum age to get a DNA test done.
The only problem might be getting a very young child to spit into the collection tube enough to fill it for the test.
But What About Privacy?
Your privacy is carefully protected by 23andMe.
They never share your personal information with any other company unless required by law.
When you get tested, the testing lab only has the barcode number from your kit. It never knows anything about you, not even your name.
Federal laws prevent employers or insurance companies from discriminating against you based on your genetics, too, regardless of what your health reports may turn up.
When it comes to connecting with potential family members, you have to opt in before anyone else can see your information, and can opt out again at any time.
So don’t worry, your privacy is secure with 23andMe.
Can I Use My Results On Other Sites?
23andMe lets you download your results in raw format.
That’s basically just a really big spreadsheet that shows what each marker was at the 700,000 spots they tested.
Once you have your raw results, some companies will let you upload them for free.
That means you can take advantage of the genealogical resources on those other sites while still getting the benefit of DNA health testing from 23andMe.
23andMe is the only company that offers a genetic health test in addition to the autosomal DNA test.
There is an extra fee for the health screening, but it may well be worth every penny.
The 23andMe health test checks for dozens of genetic conditions and predispositions.
A condition means you have it, or may pass it along to your children.
A predisposition means you are more likely to develop it than most people, but it’s still only a chance.
The test includes four sets of reports: genetic health risk reports, wellness reports, trait reports, and carrier status reports.
It’s very important to remember that the health testing is only the first step in identifying a health issue.
You should never rely on these reports to provide medical advice, but you can use them to start a conversation with your doctor.
Genetic Health Risk Reports
These genetic testing reports will tell you if you are at risk for certain hereditary conditions.
Since early detection is a major component in treating these conditions, knowing you are at risk can help you set up a plan with your doctor for regular testing.
Genetic health risks include such things as a predisposition for age-related macular degeneration (leading to very poor eyesight as you get older), Parkinson’s disease, or late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Again, early detection is critical in effective treatment, so knowing you are at risk can make a huge difference.
These reports can give you some clue as to how you compare to the “average” person, but don’t read too much into them.
Many lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, and stress levels, can have a much bigger impact than your genetics.
Wellness reports will tell you about such things as how deeply you are likely to sleep, how much you move around while sleeping, whether you are likely to be lighter or heavier on average, your caffeine consumption, and whether you are likely to be lactose intolerant.
The contribution of your genes to your wellness is only one factor, but it can be a good starting place for a conversation with your doctor.
We all have dozens of genetic traits that affect our appearance rather than our health.
As an adult, you probably know what your traits are, but these reports could tell you about how your children (or potential children) may turn out.
Traits include such things as eye color, hair curliness, cheek dimples, male pattern baldness, freckles, the length of our fingers and toes, and sensitivity to certain tastes.
These are all passed on genetically.
These reports might tell you why your child has green eyes or red hair when you and your spouse don’t (maybe you both have a recessive gene for it), or just how bald you can expect to get.
Carrier Status Reports
We all carry dominant genes and recessive genes.
The dominant ones are the ones that usually determine our health and appearance.
But recessive genes can be important, because if you and your spouse both have the same recessive gene, it can become dominant in your children.
That means that even if you don’t have a certain hereditary disease, your children still could.
Knowing this early can help you detect certain conditions before they become health problems.
23andMe’s health testing checks for more than 40 genetic conditions, including blood diseases, kidney disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Sickle Cell Anemia, Tay-Sachs Disease, and many others.
What Does 23andMe Cost?
If you choose just the ancestry service, the cost is $99.
If you want both the ancestry test and health screening, it will cost you $199.
If you just get the ancestry test to start with, you can also order the health screening later for $125 (so you end up paying a total of $224).
You can get the added results without needing to be retested.
Either way, the cost includes both the kit and the lab work to process it.
In addition to that, there is a $9.95 shipping fee for standard mail.
That includes postage both ways, to you and to the lab.
If you’re in a huge hurry, you can get express shipping for $36.95, but you’ll still have to wait 6-8 weeks for results, so it probably isn’t worth it.
Once your test is finished, there are never any additional fees. You can use your results as long as you want without any subscriptions or other costs.
Gifts and Discounts
Want to increase your chances of finding distant relatives?
You should get the rest of your family tested, too.
You can buy kits for your brothers and sisters, parents, children, or whoever.
Just be sure they are willing to have the test done before you spend the money.
There’s no expiration dates on the kits, so feel free to buy them in advance and give them out later as birthday or Christmas presents (NOTE: the return shipping on the kit might expire eventually, but is certainly good for a few months).
You can often find discounts on 23andMe tests, too, so be sure to check their website for the latest pricing.
Wrapping Things Up
You can certainly dig into your family roots without getting DNA testing done.
However, it is a powerful tool that can provide you with a lot of information and connections to other researchers.
Considering the low cost, having a DNA test is almost essential in genealogical research today.
And if you’re going to get the ancestry test through 23andMe, there’s no doubt that getting the health test done at the same time is a great idea.
It can give you essential information on your genetic health and identify potential issues before they ever start to appear.
That can save you many thousands of dollars in the long run.
For more information or to buy the 23andMe test, click here.
Questions? Ask away in the comments below.