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Editor’s note: This review was updated in January 2020 to include new information about how 23andMe uses its customer data. See the Privacy section below for details.
Of all the companies that offer DNA testing, 23andMe is one of the most famous. According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, 23andMe has tested the DNA of more than 5 million people, making it the second-most popular test after AncestryDNA.
This popularity provides an advantage over DNA tests from smaller services: The more people in the system, the more accurate the ethnicity estimates. 23andMe also regularly releases new reports evaluating your DNA.
Note: This review is part of our best DNA test kit roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.
At a $99 MSRP (and often cheaper thanks to occasional discounts), you’ll get just the ancestry reports, which outline your recent ethnic heritage and the ancient forebears on your mother’s and father’s side. (If you are also interested in health info, see our review of 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry kit.) The ancestry portion includes a robust relative-matchmaking system too, thanks to its large database of users.
Speaking of which, in early October 2019, 23andMe announced a major product update. For starters, it’s expanding its total region count to include new populations in South Asia, Western Asia and North Africa, bringing its total region coverage to more than 1,500 regions worldwide. For example, the population that was once referred to as broadly “South Asian” will be identified as, say, Sri Lankan for users in that subgroup.
There’s also a new Family Tree feature, that automatically builds an illustrated relationship portrait of your “DNA Relatives,” based on your connections. Finally, all users with the Ancestry kit will eventually receive 30 Trait reports (explained later in this review ) at no additional cost.
Oh, and one more thing: Through October 15, 2019, there’s a sale on the two most affordable test packages at 23andme.com. Now let’s get into how all this stuff works.
There are various different types of DNA found in the cells of your body, but three types are of particular interest to genetic genealogy: autosomes, yDNA, and mtDNA. Autosomes are 22 pairs of non-sex chromosomes which are a mix of DNA from members on both sides of your family. On the other hand, yDNA comes from your father and mtDNA from your mother. However, only men inherit both yDNA and mtDNA, so women can just test their motherline. (Though, they could have their brother or father take the test.) 23andMe tests all three types of DNA to give you a full picture of your heritage.
Most tests, such as AncestryDNA and MyHeritage, just examine your autosomes to determine your recent ethnic ancestry. Geneticists say that autosomal tests can identify relatives 10 generations back, providing up to 95 percent accuracy when used to match recent relatives, but losing accuracy as the relation grows more distant.
The test also examines the mtDNA from your mother and yDNA (if you’re male) to determine your haplogroups. These are groups of humans we descend from that let us find out how our ancestors migrated. Thanks to haplogroups, the test is able to estimate the likely patterns your ancient ancestors took.
But there are other perks to 23andMe you won’t find elsewhere. The company uses the latest available genetic science to name key variants associated with certain traits in individuals. So in its reports you can find wackier traits on back hair and Neanderthal heritage.
If you shell out additional cash for 23andMe’s $199 Health + Ancestry kit, you’ll also get personalized reports related to your health. It’s a range of info that includes genetic variants that may cause health problems, like those associated with cancer and Alzheimer’s.
23andMe requires a saliva sample for its DNA analysis. Inside the box are the following items:
- Funnel lid
- Saliva collection tube
- Tube container
- Specimen bag
The box also serves as the mailer you send to the lab with your saliva sample.
Collection of the saliva sample can be a little tedious, but it’s straightforward: You spit over and over again into the funnel until the tube fills to the line, then you swap the funnel for the tube lid and firmly press down to release the liquid that preserves your DNA. Afterward, you shake the tube for five seconds, seal it in the specimen bag, and send it in the box off to the lab.
I recommend that you register your kit online before putting the tube in the specimen bag—or at least, either write down or take a photo of the barcode you’ll need to register (found on the side of the tube).
Given the extent of its results, 23andMe’s turnaround time for results is fairly fast: six to eight weeks after the sample arrives at the lab. Rivals to 23andMe’s service, such as Living DNA and Ancestry, take a similar amount of time. Competitors who test less of your DNA, like MyHeritage, can turn around results faster—between four to six weeks.
When results are ready, you’ll receive an email notification. You must sign in to your account to view the information.
23andMe offers an extraordinary amount of detail—you’ll find a lot to unpack from its many reports.
The website is laid out clearly. The section labeled Your Information lists all the reports available to you, separated out as different tabs.
Under the Ancestry tab, you’ll find: Ancestry Composition, Maternal Haplogroup, Neanderthal Ancestry, Paternal Haplogroup (if you’re male), and DNA Family.
Ancestry Composition shows an interactive map with percentages of ethnic regions that your DNA hails from, followed by a couple other neat data visualizations. You can click on the ethnicities or regions to zoom in and get a bit more info.
Below the map is Your Ancestry Timeline. I haven’t seen this visualization from any other DNA testing company so far—it estimates the ethnicities of your relatives up to eight or more generations ago. Hovering over each bar tells you more about who that relative may have been.
For instance, when I hovered over “Scandinavian,” it told me I had a second or third-great-grandparent who was 100 percent Scandinavian. This is correct: My grandmother’s grandfather emigrated from Sweden to Germany.
The final interactive graphic is Your Ancestry Composition Chromosome Painting. This is another data visualization I haven’t seen from any other provider. It estimates which parts of your chromosomes and DNA contain the ethnic markers, and you can use a slider above to change estimation from Speculative, which claims to be 50 percent accurate, to Conservative, which claims to be 90 percent accurate.
Of the multiple DNA tests I’ve taken so far, 23andMe and its rival AncestryDNA have given me ethnic estimates that followed my family’s history the closest. I suspect the size of each company’s database (i.e., the large number of people who’ve taken a DNA test) helps account for more accurate results.
But there are even more reports to look at. The Maternal Haplogroup and Paternal Haplogroup sections give you historical information on your ancient ancestors. In short: haplogroups are very large groups of people who share an ancient common ancestor. The haplogroups 23andMe identified were part of the groups that Living DNA identified.
Thanks to haplogroups, scientists have traced the supposed migration pattern of these people as they left Africa and spread across the rest the world. 23andMe lists a map which shows this movement from point to point.
23andMe offered a much more interesting analysis of my haplogroups among all of the tests I’ve taken so far. For instance I learned that one out of 270 customers are in my maternal haplogroup, and that I share DNA with “Ötzi the Ice Man,” whose 5,300-year-old remains were found in the Alps in 1991.
The last major report under the Ancestry tab is Your DNA Family. This tells you about the number of relatives you have in 23andMe’s database, their ethnicities, and where they live. It also has a section that tells you what your relatives are more or less likely to do: My report says, for example, that my relatives are 44 percent less likely to drink instant coffee. (I’m not above instant coffee, though.)
The final section is the Neanderthal Ancestry report. Currently, the only other DNA testing service that offers this info is Helix, but it charges an additional $50 on top of its $80 base fee. (So you’ll pay $30 more than with 23andMe.)
The report names the number of genetic variants that you’ve inherited from Neanderthals. Apparently I have more Neanderthal variants than 65 percent of customers and more than any of my relatives in the system.
The report also lists any variants associated with “straight hair,” being “less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate,” having “less back hair,” and “height.” I guess I have two Neanderthal variants associated with height.
That’s all for the Ancestry reports. But if you bought the Health + Ancestry kit, you’ll get another wealth of health reports. The Genetic Health Risk tab currently offers nine reports on variants associated with diseases such as Parkinson’s, cancer, and Celiac. Each of these reports tells you if a variant was detected and if it presents a risk.
In order to provide these results, 23andMe had to go through an approval process with the Food and Drug Administration. But these genetic health risk reports just estimate if your chances are higher for contracting a disease and don’t necessarily mean you’re safe from diseases like cancer. If something comes up that you’re concerned about, you should seek a medical professional for advice. Don’t take these results at face value.
Next is Carrier Status Reports, where you can look at genes associated with diseases that you could pass onto your children. These include diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. Like Genetic Health Risk, this report tells you if any of the variants were detected.
Following the genetic health reports, there’s the Wellness section, where you’re given eight reports on different conditions you might have. For instance, whether you are more likely to flush when drinking alcohol or if you have a tendency to consume more caffeine.
Finally, there’s Traits, which lists 30 different traits that 23andMe guesses you have based on your DNA. Some examples are “ability to match musical pitch,” “cheek dimples,” and “eye color.” The DNA test’s ability to accurately guess your talents or what you look like is amusing: For me, nearly every trait was wrong except for the fact that I don’t have a cleft chin and no bald spot.
Outside of its information reports, the other big feature of 23andMe is its DNA Relatives system. This portal is very similar to what you get from competitors like AncestryDNA and MyHeritage: Clicking on DNA relatives shows how much DNA you share with them by segment and percent. My highest match in the system shared just 0.51 percent of DNA with me. You can also see if you have the same haplogroup in common.
If you’re so inclined, you can message one of these matches. However, if your primary goal when taking a DNA test is to find long-lost relatives, your better bets are AncestryDNA or MyHeritage, which focus more on genealogical work.
Like most DNA testing companies, 23andMe promises not to share any of your genetic data without your consent. And for 23andMe to use any of your data, you’ll need to sign three optional consent agreements in addition to the required one that allows them to process your DNA and give you your results.
If agreed to, the Research Consent Document will allow the company to use your genetic information in its own research, while the Research Opportunities form allows 23andMe to study any variants you have that haven’t previously appeared in their database.
The final optional agreement is the Individual Data Consent. Of the three voluntary agreements, this one authorizes the broadest use of your personal genetic information: 23andMe can share your DNA data with entities ranging from “academic institutions and non-profit organizations” to “pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies” so that they can analyze it at an “individual level.”
Basically: If you say yes to this agreement, private companies could get access to your genetic data. For example, 23andMe announced earlier this year it would share genetic data with drug giant GlaxoSmithKline.
23andMe Ancestry Service
23andMe in many ways lives up to the promises made by at-home DNA testing services. You can expect to receive a robust amount of information on your heritage, genetic traits, and relatives in its system.
- Expansive number of reports, details, and facts
- Elegant, snappy interface with a range of unique visualizations
- Health information (for an additional $100 fee)
- Quirky reports on Neanderthal heritage and traits like musical pitch
- Privacy can be confusing since there are four different agreements
- If you consent to optional agreements, 23andMe can sell your genetic data
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