A few months ago, I posted about getting the opportunity to try the AncestryDNA service, the DNA-based genealogical service at Ancestry.com. I wrote about them sending me a DNA collection kit, me spitting into a tube, and mailing it off hoping for interesting results.
I received my results in the expected time frame (6-8 weeks), but was surprised by some of the numbers it gave. They differed slightly from what I (thought I) knew about my family background. According to the current AncestryDNA algorithms, my results are 68% British Isles (not a surprise), 30% Eastern European (a huge surprise—most of the rest of my family was from Germany), and 2% uncertain (this would include such things as my Delaware Indian ancestor). The site goes on to explain why you might be surprised by some of your results, since some areas are hard to nail down. Natural barriers like bodies of water, mountains, and deserts historically help separate populations, but in areas without those natural divisions, the results can get a bit muddled, giving somewhat less accurate results.
To learn more about my results and why they differed from my expectations, I scheduled a phone call with Dr. Ken Chahine, Senior Vice President and General Manager of AncestryDNA, who helped me to interpret my results. He explained the challenges with certain geographic regions, and how to use the site to find still-living relations, such as distant cousins. He also explained how the company was continuing to improve the algorithms used, and how they had some new, more detailed ones they were testing. He then offered to run my data through the new algorithms.
I got the new information about a month later, and it gave more detailed and somewhat different results. This time, the results said that I was 69% Europe West, 9% Ireland, 9% Great Britain, 5% Scandinavia, and 7% Other. The Europe West area encompassed Germany, but took a lot of the percentage away from the British Isles areas. And as far as I knew, I had no Irish in me. Granted, these new divisions were overlapping, and dealt with results much differently from how the currently available algorithms handle it all. The added Ireland and lower Great Britain numbers were a surprise, but I knew I have some Dutch and other roots that weren’t originally represented.
How is AncestryDNA useful? Why should people sign up for this service? It’s a fascinating study in where you come from genetically. On top of that, if you are looking to expand your Ancestry.com family tree, you will be matched with distant cousins who have common ancestors. You can work together to do research, or potentially meet them in person. You can access “leaf hints” that suggest potential other ancestors that you and your cousin might have in common. You also are able to see shared surnames between your trees, along with shared birth locations for your ancestors.
Plus, when you sign up for AncestryDNA, whenever they develop new algorithms, they will run your data through them without any extra charge. It’s like getting a free update for software. According to Dr. Chahine, a couple of years ago this kind of service might have cost about $1000. AncestryDNA charges $99 for it, and their results get more and more accurate and pinpointed as they improve their process. In addition, as more people sign up for this service, you will likely have more potential cousins listed.
The Science Behind AncestryDNA
How does AncestryDNA get your information from spit in a tube? They manage to get your DNA from your saliva (that part is beyond me—I wasn’t a biology major), then put it on a chip that looks like a stick of gum. They can test about 12 different people on each stick. They test it at 700,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms, meaning they check your DNA at 700,000 different positions (for reference for people who know these things, you get about six billion nucleotides from your parents). They then look for random changes that have occurred over time. Every time you pass on your DNA to the next generation, you pass on mostly the same things, but there are minor changes. This creates a unique DNA signature for you.
Then they go on to create your ethnicity prediction, currently comparing you to over 20 populations from all over the world. That’s how they get your composite numbers. They also compare your stretches of DNA to those of others in the program, determining how likely you are to be cousins, and to people you each have in your Ancestry.com family trees. They can detect a fourth cousin with up to a 95% confidence rate, and then the confidence drops off as the level of cousin goes higher. This is understandable. You can then contact the potential cousins for free, but to look at their documents you will need an Ancestry.com subscription.
The new algoritms (the ones they ran my data through the second time) will separate those 20 populations into even more areas, separating Ireland from England, Southern Europe will be broken off from the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy will also be separate. Africa will also be broken into many more parts.
The AncestryDNA department has nine PhDs in math, statistics, and genetics to work toward improving the service all the time. While these new algorithms aren’t yet available, they should be online before the end of the year. And in the meantime, the current algorithms still give some interesting results, and connect you with distant cousins. As time goes on, AncestryDNA will continue to update and improve their procedures. And the beauty is that you never need to pay again to receive updated results. You can sign up now, send in your sample, and get current results. Then as new procedures are put into place, they re-run everyone’s data through the new procedures, and you always get updated results.
What patterns are they seeing? Dr. Chahine says that we are all a lot more related than we ever thought. They are finding the most common ancestors among people from 1690-1700, and in Virginia. This isn’t too surprising, knowing about how people came to this country during that time.
So, what did I think? Is AncestryDNA worth the money? It depends. If you don’t care one iota about genealogy or where you came from, then no. It probably isn’t worth the money for you. But if you enjoy genealogy, or learning about your roots, or if you or someone above you in your family tree was adopted, then it’s a great, relatively affordable service to help you understand your origins. It’s definitely something that I would have paid for myself, even if I hadn’t had the opportunity to review it, especially since they will continue to improve their process and the accuracy of the results.
Note: I received the AncestryDNA service for the purposes of this review.