Comparing Genetic Results from Ancestry.com, 23andme, Genographic Project

Genetics have always been an interesting subject to me. Genes and the DNA that carries them represent something that can be traced back in time and will be around long after the individual carrying it has passed. These unique identifiers contribute extensively in the lives they create and are the invisible building blocks that make us objectively human. The fact that you can derive geographic and cultural information from genetic makeup is a fascinating contribution to the story of mankind. Certain mutations and DNA markers are geographically unique and allow geneticists and human geographers to pinpoint where, and when, on Earth these genetic differentiations occurred. It’s amazing to consider that where oral tradition, once believed to be the most effective form of relaying information between generations, has failed, science has been able to pick up the reigns and accurate surmise information that would likely have been the core component of what was passed between these generations. One’s culture, ancestors, and origin stories were a large part of ancient, familial traditions and still tug at the curiosities of modern humans, as demonstrated by the millions of people who pay to have their DNA tested by the many services that reach into the past and attempt to rekindle the ancient stories locked within the human genome.

My genetic journey began in 2014 when I became curious of my genetic origins. I knew what made me myself physically, psychologically, and culturally but I wanted to know what kind of influence my ancestry had on the many facets of my being, which of my many eccentricities had been shared, experienced, and influenced by those who came before me, and the characteristics that could theoretically be passed along after me. I wanted to know who I was at the core of my physical being. If you stripped away the cultural, environmental, temporal and geographic factors, I wanted to know what would be left and this is what I was looking for philosophically when I began looking back. Epistemologically, I’ve always enjoyed history and the personal element presented by investigating one’s own personal history created a unique and curious opportunity to consider both the history of the world as a whole and how it intertwined with the history of my ancestors. The “big picture” is comprised of many small pictures and I found myself becoming curious and motivated to discover how the small pictures in my past corroborated with the big picture of humankind.

I began by looking back into the past of both my paternal and maternal lineages, both using knowledge I had gained, first-hand sources of my elders, and the ever expanding resource that is the Internet. I quickly found myself with thousands of entries in my family tree. Each entry being a unique mystery that was fulfilling to resolve and connected intricately to the proceeding and previous mysteries. Family trees based on recorded history can only take you so far. DNA analysis picks up where that story leaves off.

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is a record curating service that allows users to create family trees and cite the entries using the ever-growing collection of historical records. In 2012, Ancestry.com began offering DNA testing which would allow customers to look in their past in a new way.

In 2014 I decided to try the Ancestry DNA testing kit. At the time I was unsure of my ancestry, the only information in my family lore was limited to Scottish and Irish on my maternal side and almost nothing on my paternal side besides my English surname. The exact story had been lost to time after 8 generations in the New World.

After 6 weeks, I got my results:

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My Ancestry.com results

Going in I had no expectations so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the results. The majority Scandinavian result was interesting considering there was no story of it in my extended family lore. I figure these results put a lot of weight in haplogroups considering my paternal haplogroup in Scandinavian, which I found out in the 23andme testing later.

 

I went on to have the rest of my family tested to see how the results stack up. I tested my mother, my father, and my maternal grandmother. My reasoning was scientific, in that comparisons could be made due to the results and guesses on the accuracy of the test could be analyzed. It might make a difference that I was working “backwards”, submitting myself first, then my parents, then my grandparents. Typically you work your way “down” the genetic line when considering the components and relation of someone’s DNA. It’s not impossible to do but I wonder how the results would have changed if I had my grandmother tested, then my parents, then myself.

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Paternal DNA
maternal
Maternal DNA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the results some questions are raised and the general gist of which ethnicities came from which parent is established. My original question was how can my father have 58% DNA from Great Britain and myself have only 11%. As I understood it, I should have at least half, especially considering my mother had 17%. I’m not a geneticist so my conjecture is likely not accurate. It’s also important to remember that these numbers are weighted on certain genetic markers and not necessarily indicative of pure geographic fact. These numbers are compared to native populations that still live in the area today. Looking at the results it’s also clear that practically all of my Irish and Scandinavian influence comes from my mother, despite my paternal haplogroup being Nordic. It was also interesting to see the amount of Iberian Peninsula markers in my mother’s DNA, something that has never been explained in family lore. My father’s Finland/Northwest Russian markers were interesting and likely corroborate with the European Jewish marker.

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Maternal Grandmother DNA

We move farther up the genetic ladder with my maternal grandmother’s analysis. It is plain to see where the Irish influence comes from. The reduced Scandinavian numbers suggest that my maternal grandfather brought some Nordic genes to the mix. Again, there is the Iberian Peninsula influence which continues to be a mystery. This might be isolated to my maternal grandmothers side which gives me an indication of where to start looking for this influence. It seems I share the Middle East marker with my grandmother, showing that my mother could have been a carrier for this marker although it did not express itself in her results. It is possible it might have been expressed as the Caucasus marker.

Each of the three tests offers supplementary details alongside the DNA test. What I like about the Ancestry.com test in particular is the ability to export your entire genome in a plaintext file. This makes it possible to submit this textfile for additional testing, use it to look for markers in smaller curation groups, and file away for safe keeping if ever needed.

Genetic_Communities
Genetic Communities

Another component of the Ancestry.com test that has been introduced rather recently is the Genetic Communities analysis. This uses your data alongside thousands of other users’ data and records to build of profile of the “when and where” all these users might have in common. This feature has been rolled out since I took my test so it suggests that Ancestry is continuously introducing new features that can assist its customers’ research inside or outside the community.

These particular results corroborate with my research, adding another source I can use when retelling my story. It also serves as kind of an intermediary when considering the ethnicity estimate which tastes into consideration factors that are thousands of years old, and the personal research which goes back several generations. If your immediate family history is limited, this will provide some good food for thought when moving forward with research.

DNA Matches
DNA Matches

The “DNA Matches” component of the results let’s you see who shares your DNA. This service will automatically guess the degree of the relationship (1st, 2nd, 3rd cousin, etc.) and allow you to communicate with other members if you are so inclined. The results are numerous and it is continually updated as more people join the service and the database is expanded. It has functionality for adding people directly to your family tree which streamlines the process. It directly integrates with a feature that was introduced in 2015:

DNA Circles
DNA Circles

DNA Circles automatically looks through the family tree information of those who are confirmed to be related to you through DNA testing and looks for similarities. It then automatically alerts you to “circles” you may be a part of. This takes the grunt work out of manually looking through your relatives’ trees for names you recognize. It also adds another layer of corroboration that can support your independent research.

I was happy with the Ancestry.com test, happy enough to do it 4 times. Each individual test is $99 and often goes on sale for holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. My curiosity wasn’t satiated, though, and led me to a product that had been around since 2006.

23andMe.com

23andMe differs from Ancestry.com in that its focus is medical while Ancestry.com is focused on, well, ancestry. The 23andMe test includes a traditional ethnicity test that uses a unique database and marker system, likely producing different results than the Ancestry.com test, allowing for a “second opinion” of some sort. I was personally curious to see how my results would differ using the 23andMe system compared to the Ancestry system. It is notably more expensive than Ancestry’s $99 test at a whopping $199 for the full feature test which includes all of the medical tests and results. 23andMe provides just the ethnicity testing for $99.

23andMe

The 23andMe ancestry reports add some depth compared to the Ancestry.com reports. In addition to the ancestry composition which is a percentage breakdown of your ethnic makeup, it offers a look into your paternal and maternal haplogroups as well as the amount of Neanderthal markers that are present in your DNA. It also provides the DNA matches you have with people who use the service and offers a social platform to communicate with your relatives.

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The ancestry composition is interesting. All of the reports of the site give you a visual representation of your DNA. When comparing matches you’re able to see exactly which components of your DNA are shared and, pictured above, you’re able to see which chromosome segments are associated with which portion of your ancestral composition.

I was interested to see the British and Irish portion of my results at the top. This corroborates with my paternal Ancestry.com test which was overwhelmingly British. The French and German levels (Western Europe of Ancestry) were similar, adding another layer of confirmation to the results. Scandinavian, however, the majority of my reported ancestry on Ancestry.com was relegated to 0.5% suggesting there is a dramatic shift in the testing methodologies between the two sites. The East Asian results might be responsible for the slim Native American results on the Ancestry.com test. It is said that Genghis Khan has nine million descendants alive today. It might be likely that I’m one of them considering the Mongolian portion of the results. It’s also interesting to note the <0.1% of Iberian noted in the results. This is a major departure from what was suggested from Ancestry.com. The 23andMe testing methodology was not confident in the presence of Iberian markers.

The reported paternal haplogroup of I-M253 is likely responsible for the 0.5% Scandinavian result.

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I-M253 haplogroup

The map above is the likely geography where the I-M253 can be found. The paternal haplogroup is your father’s and all his male ancestor’s line all the way back until the mutation originated. My patrillineal ancestry traces back to the area in the map above and my working theory, considering all the British components, is Viking ancestry. Since there is little Scandinavian in these results and the paternal haplogroup suggests a male component in the incorporation of these genetic markers, I believe a Viking raid might be responsible for the introduction of this DNA to the British isles. If the introduction of this DNA was due to geographic and cultural drift, I believe there would be more than 0.5% because this type of DNA exchange wouldn’t be fleeting and would include more admixture over time, resulting in a larger number.

Maternal haplogroups are the other side of the coin, tracing an individuals matrillineal lineage back through all the female ancestors to a specific mutation. In my case the mutation is the U3a1 mutation. Everyone alive on Earth today can trace their maternal DNA beyond the haplogroup mutations back to one woman, Mitochondrial Eve. The U3a1 haplogroup is still in its infancy research-wise. As more people with the haplogroup are tested, the more robust the results will become. It is likely the marker that suggested the Caucasus result in my Ancestry.com maternal results.

maternalhaplogroup

I really like the scientific depth 23andMe goes into when presenting the haplogroup results. This is the final leg of the origin story. You can trace this haplogroup tree all the way back to Mitochondrial Eve, completing the ultimate beginnings of the origin story. 23andMe incorporates scientific citations into the result pages, allowing inquisitive users easy access to the original research.

The staple of the 23andMe service has to be the health reports. They are constantly rolling out new reports, as experienced by the email alerts I receive every few months. There is also a report that provides insight on traits that you’re likely to have. These 2 reports contain things like your likelihood to be able to smell asparagus, eye color, chance to have a window’s peak, and your finger length ration to name a few.

Traits

The health reports include your carrier status for, at this time, 42 known gene and disease associations. Genetics is still in its relative infancy. The human genome was completely sequenced only in 2003. That has left a short 14 years for companies like 23andMe to research the association between genes and disease. Unfortunately, not every disease has a known genetic marker. It would be nice to know (maybe) if you’re going to develop cancer based on a DNA test but it’s just not possible yet. The following are a few examples of what the report provides.

Carrier_Status

There is another section titled “Genetic Health Risks” which lets the tester known if they’re at risk for certain ailments that are associated, but not directly caused or carried by genetic markers. This section is philosophically interesting because it asks you if you’re sure that you want to see these results. Some day we might have the ability to forecast exactly what our cause of death may be, what degenerative diseases we’ll encounter when we age, or what type of cancers we’ll have to battle with. The choice to be ignorant about these things is a right some individuals might want to retain and this expression of “are you sure you want to see these results” is a peek into how this information might be presented in the future. On one hand, someone might not want to go through life awaiting a debilitation that will certainly come, choosing the be ignorant to the fact instead. However, others might choose to know what is in store for them so they can properly prepare. I’m the type of person that wants to be equipped with all the information possible. There are currently 4 of these health risks reported by 23andMe.

Genghis KhanGenetic Health Risk

My results indicate that because of a Ɛ4 genetic variant in the APOE gene, a marker associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, that I’m at a slightly increased risk for Alzheimer’s. This is only one part of the puzzle and the work is still in the preliminary phases so nothing is certain. We’re definitely not yet in the age where bioinformatics that can accurately predict what will happen with 100% certainty. The research goes on to state that European men with this variant have a likelihood of 20-23% to develop Alzheimer’s by 85. I’m a betting man, though, and I’ll be taking my chances.

This is a good time to bring up the privacy considerations associated with these tests. When you agree to have your DNA tested by, what are essentially, these genetic databrokers, you assume some risk. These organizations own the results of your DNA tests and this allows them to build their database which allows them to accurate test other members of the site, research additional genetic markers, and connect you with your relatives. They own this data despite what inventions and data brokerage opportunities may come about in the future. It’s impossible to know for sure what amazing and/or privacy violating applications this data will be eligible for in the future. It is likely that the results of this DNA test will outlive the person being tested. The medical information that these tests produce are in an interesting legal limbo. Could insurance companies use this information when providing or quoting you coverage? If I’m at risk for something according to my DNA will my premiums be adjusted to account for this? What price would it take for 23andMe to disclose this information? What laws are in the works to protect citizens from this predatory databrokerage? Are you sure you want to hand over that DNA?

Finally, 23andMe provides “Wellness Reports” for things that take into consideration a number of genetic factors. These include things like lactose intolerance and sleep movement.

Wellness Reports

Overall, 23andMe offers a robust ancestry breakdown and is the leading edge for consumer DNA health reports. At $199 it’s the priciest of the bunch and, personally, I think it’s worth the cost for the information provided. Being able to compare the Ancestry.com information was worth it for me. The health reports were an added benefit. This is a product that keeps working for you, as well. It is constantly being updated as more research is being completed.

The Genographic Project

The last test was provided by National Geographic in the form of The Genographic Project. It’s cost is middle-of-the-road at $149.99 and it provides a few unique features and the traditional ancestry composition breakdown. As of May 2017 there are 834,322 participants in the database. I took this test in 2017 and was familiar with the results of the other two tests. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

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My Genographic Project results

The regional results for this test were very broad and I assume the intention was the be accurate rather than specific. I can understand The Northwestern Europe portion of the results, everything seems to fall in a range of reasonable expectation. The Southwestern Europe portion is what threw me for a loop. This hearkens back to the Ancestry.com Iberian indicators that were present in the Ancestry.com results and mysteriously absent from the 23andMe. Some marker is likely being interpreted differently by the tests. The Italy and Southern Europe results are also larger than expected. The Northeastern Europe likely refers to the Scandinavian element, likely due to the paternal haplogroup. The amount is generous compared to the 23andMe results and more conservative compared to the Ancestry.com results. This value is likely closer to the <5% side of the spectrum considering 2 of the 3 tests have placed it there. It’s interesting to see Eastern Europe mentioned, likely of paternal origin considering the Finnish, Russian influence. My impression is that this database is younger and smaller than the other two.

The Genographic Project analysis included, what I’d consider to be my favorite part of the analysis. The portion of the results looks at how long ago you shared the same ancestor with a notable figure in history.

Genius

My closest famous cousin in Leo Tolstoy of Russia. Since it is on the paternal side this is likely where the Eastern European element of the results come from. Not much scientific elements provided, though. If an individual wanted to connect the dots it would have to be done manually and there are quite a few generations of family tree to fill out between now and 12,000 years ago. This connection is quite broad. Our most common ancestor could have existed before people were writing cuneiform. Hopefully talent is genetic because I could use some literary inspiration. Another notable entry Genghis Khan.

Haplogroups are included in the analysis. The Genographic analysis seems to include additional information compared to 23andMe.

haplogroup

In addition to the haplogroup itself, the results include the amount of people that share the haplogroup. Compared to the result on 23andMe, the Genographic maternal result includes an additional demarcation with U3a1b compared to just U3a1, suggesting the haplogroup testing is more in depth. The paternal line remains the same.

The final element of the Genographic analysis is the Neanderthal markers.

Neaderthal

This number corroberates with the 23andMe numbers in that they are above the average markets present in individuals in the dataset. Not much else can be inferred from this at this time.

I felt the Genographic test was lacking compared to the other two services. It seems to be in the same vein as 23andMe but doesn’t provide the health data. The price could definitely be lower. I feel like, for what it offers, the price would be more appropriate at $79 rather the $150. Hopefully the service improves in the future and provides additional insight. As it stands now, you are paying to be in a database. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because National Geographic is likely to put this data to good use.

It was a close call between 23andMe and Ancestry.com. They both have carved out a sizable niche. 23andMe has the health elements cornered and Ancestry has the robust backend for providing elements relative to family tree construction. The Genographic project didn’t provide the depth of data I have been seeing from these more mature products.

There is definitely some scientific methodology to this stuff. I saw some common patterns between all three tests. I’m not sure where my research should go at this point regarding this project. It’s likely that I’ll expand on the family tree and see what kind of interesting conclusions I can draw from it. There are still stories to be discovered in the recent past. As for the extended past, it’s all up to the researchers at this point.

Future endeavors could involve getting additional 23andMe testing done for my parents. I still have results that I could compare between the services. There’s also an interesting service called Teloyears which is focused around the health of telomeres, an element of DNA. It would probably be comparable to 23andMe and at $89 it wouldn’t be a huge loss. The science is still young and I guess what I’m trying to do is get in as many of these databases as possible so that my data and DNA is constantly being engaged with new research.

Since the DNA data has more longevity that personal DNA, who knows what could happen. I’d like to think something I provide might be able to help humanity long into the future. In the meantime, I’ll settle for mailing spit tubes across the United States for a quick laugh.