In this week’s article, I want to give you a thorough-ish overview of 23andMe DNA kits looking at both the ancestry and health services it offers.
23andMe is slightly different than its competitors in that its focus is health information, with genealogy and its DNA relatives feature taking a bit of a backseat. Not only are there no genealogical features like the ability to build or upload a family tree, but you also can’t research your own family or the family of any of your DNA matches within the site, that’s just not what it’s built for.
Because of its focus on health information, and likely also because of this lack of genealogy features, its DNA relatives database is smaller than Ancestry, and My Heritage is also believed to have overtaken it in this capacity – it’s difficult to be sure since it’s not clear how many of 23andMe’s reported 10 million customers have actually opted in to its DNA matching service, although it states that five million of its customers have been genotyped in its Frequently Asked Questions.
With all that said, let’s delve into 23andme and establish exactly what you get for your money.
23andMe’s DNA kit
23andMe’s DNA kit is a saliva-based kit, just like Ancestry. You can purchase just the Ancestry portion for US$99 / UK £79 (plus shipping), which will give you your ethnicity breakdown and access to the DNA matching service, or you can purchase the Ancestry + health kit for US $199 / UK £149. For other countries, note because of local laws, the health test is not available for consumers in all countries, so if you don’t see the health portion as an option, that’s probably why.
If you aren’t interested at all in any health data, I would just get the Ancestry version of the 23andMe DNA kit; but as this is the only commercial test that not only gives both sets of data for one price, and in a relatively easily digestible format, if you have the funds and might be interested, you could just get both. If you decide to just get the Ancestry test, you can upgrade to the health portion later for US $125/UK £90.
23andMe Ancestry+Health – what you get under the ‘Health’ bracket
23andMe’s DNA health results cover a few different things; there are the more serious health predisposition results and carrier status for serious health conditions including Parkinson’s disease, Cystic Fibrosis, and genes known to be significant in relation to certain cancers. Before you see the results of the more serious tests, they will ask you if you want to see the results, regardless of whether the result is positive or negative. They do this not only in order that you can truly make the decision as to whether you really do want to know, but also knowledge of a predisposition could affect your ability to get health insurance as you wouldn’t be able to claim you had no knowledge of a genetic predisposition for a particular condition. Not so crucial for those of us in the UK, but of great importance for US readers.
In addition to having to confirm you want to see certain results, you can also choose to exclude certain results before you even receive them – those are for Parkinson’s, late-onset Alzheimers, and selected variants of BRCA1 and 2 which can indicate a predisposition for certain kinds of cancer.
So what do the results look like? For each of the different things they test for, the result will indicate whether the relevant genetic variant has been detected or not, and what 23andMe deems your risk status is. For example, I carry a particular gene variant for one particular condition, but since I don’t carry two variants, 23andMe deems that I am ‘not likely at risk’.
The carrier status tests for over 40 different conditions; the vast majority of which you and I have probably never heard of, but also features some commonly known conditions including Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell Anaemia. The results for each condition will either say ‘variant not detected’, or if a variant is detected, the specific details of your status. Conditions are listed alphabetically, except for any variants for which you are a carrier, which automatically will appear at the top of the list.
23andMe also recommend that you talk to a genetic counsellor in relation to any genetic health concerns, and before and/or after taking their test, as appropriate.
Other health things (more for ‘fun’)
As well as the more serious genetic predisposition and carrier status report, your results also contain some more ‘for interest/for fun’ results including various reports under the heading of ‘wellness’, and information about traits you may carry, including whether or not you are likely to flush when you drink alcohol, whether or not you consume caffeine than most people, whether you are a deep sleeper and how much you move during sleep, whether you are genetically predisposed to be overweight, and what your muscle composition likely is.
23andMe also release new results every so often, but you won’t always be able to get every new test they have. For example, they have recently issued results for predisposition for type two diabetes, however, this is only available for customers who have tested on their most recent chipset, chip 5. 23andMe are considering whether customers who tested on an earlier version of the test can upgrade to the newer chip without having to pay for a brand new test, but I understand this is not currently possible.
Phew! I feel simultaneously both healthier and sicker for going through all that! A word of caution though, if you are at all anxious about health issues in general, I would definitely consider not getting the health test, or talk to a genetic counsellor first. It turns out I am actually a carrier for a particularly rare disease (one that I had never heard of), and that did make me a little anxious. If I did have kids it would definitely make me more anxious that they might have it, when as far as I know, no one in my extended family has ever suffered from the disease in question!
23andMe Ancestry – what you get
Ethnicity breakdown, Maternal and Paternal haplogroups
Much like the other test companies, 23and Me gives you fairly extensive Ancestry results; as well as breaking down your ethnicity based on your autosomal DNA, they also give all customers a maternal haplogroup, and male customers a paternal haplogroup as well. They have neat graphics which tell you a little bit about your haplogroup, and not only that, but they show you on a chromosome browser where they believe each of your ethnicities is represented chromosomally, and on a different graphic they outline an estimate for when in time the most recent ancestor from a particular ethnic background was.
How Neanderthal are you?
For yet more fun, a different page will explore just how Neanderthal you are genetically; I apparently am more Neanderthal than 81% of 23andMe’s customers, with 296 Neanderthal genetic variants. I have a variant which is associated with ‘less back hair’. Phew!
Just how accurate are 23andMe’s autosomal ethnicity results? Mine has recently been updated, and I would say my results are broadly accurate. Interestingly it now thinks I have a tiny bit of Ashkenazi Jewish, which only My Heritage has picked up on before. To my knowledge, I have no Ashkenazi heritage, but given that I have more than one brick wall, it’s entirely possible.
As far as its haplogroup information, although it’s nicely presented, I didn’t find it particularly informative; I got more information from FamilyTreeDNA, and with FamilyTreeDNA you have the ability to drill down as deep as you want to/can afford/as currently scientifically possible (for example, 23andMe says I am U5b1d; FamilyTreeDNA refines this slightly to U5b1d1C). You also get Y and mtDNA matches with FamilyTreeDNA, which you do not get with 23andMe and which, arguably, most people are interested in.
Unlike other companies DNA Matching services, 23andMe uses both autosomal and X-DNA to determine who else you match in its database, and I understand it’s possible to find matches that you only match on the X, and not elsewhere (though I should say that I have not personally found any matches like this).
By default, the DNA relatives screen is sorted by strongest relationship first, but you can sort it in various different ways, including the actual percentage shared with a user, how many segments are shared, and newest relatives first. If parents have also tested with 23andMe, it’s also possible to filter your matches according to whether matches are on the maternal or paternal side.
On the left-hand side, there is a filter option which will allow you to search for matches who mention a specific ancestral location, or for specific familial surnames. Note, because so many people don’t fill out this section, don’t take an absence of any matches relating to a particular name as an indication that you don’t have any matches who do in fact have that name in their family tree.
When you click through to a match, you’ll get an information page about your match starting with their name, location, sex and birth year, if they have decided to provide that information. Depending on how much information they have decided to share, you may also get some information about surnames and locations that feature in their family tree, together with a chromosome browser which will show you exactly where you share DNA on the chromosomes.
The tool will also show you all the other matches that share DNA with both you and your match, and so enable you to form ‘genetic networks’ in this way. Not only that, but it will also tell you how close a shared match is to the match you are looking at (something that My Heritage also does, and that I really wish Ancestry did!). This can be vital information, particularly if it ends up being a key match for knocking down a genealogical brick wall!
If you find any known relatives in your DNA relatives matches (or you are subsequently able to work out how you are related), you can also confirm to 23andMe exactly what your relationship is, which is a feature I like, and not one that any other company offers, at least as far as I am aware. You can see I’ve done this for the first match in the above graphic since I know exactly how we are related. There is also a notes feature where you can add any information about your match (albeit this is hidden from view unless you open it up, so sometimes I forget that I have already made notes on a particular match). As you would expect, there is an ability to send messages to your matches, and this seems fairly robust. In practice I’ve had about a 50/50 response rate from messages sent on 23andMe; however, of those that have responded, a few of those have been adoptees who only tested at 23andMe to get health information; I’m not sure that that is indicative of 23andMe users as a whole, however, I have noticed very little crossover between my 23andMe matches and other sites.
Family History information
Although, as I mentioned earlier, 23andMe doesn’t provide a place for you to have a familytree, there is a section where you can link to a public family tree, and also has sections for you to record the following information:
- Maternal grandmother birthplace
- Maternal grandfather birthplace
- Paternal grandmother birthplace
- Paternal grandfather birthplace
- Other ancestors’ birth place
- Family Surnames
Even though most people don’t bother to fill this out, I do recommend it, as it can provide pointers for others looking for information.
One thing I do recommend, if you use 23andMe, is to use the Google Chrome browser which will enable you to utilise the excellent 529andYou Chrome Extension. I only started working with this extension a few weeks ago, and it has already been a game changer for me, particularly in working with DNA Painter. Used in conjunction with DNA Painter, it has allowed me to start spotting matches in 23andMe who appear to match with matches in other databases, and also confirm whether they are maternal or paternal matches based on the segments shared and shared matches. Comparing the 529andYou data with 23andMe matching segment data which I imported to DNA Painter has enabled me to work out the likely common ancestors for particular matches. From there I now know that other of my matches must also descend from the same lines since they share the exact same portions of DNA.
For example, here is the data from a match of mine we’ll refer to as MB.
As you can see, I principally share DNA with MB on chromosome 21, and all the matches I share with her also share DNA with us on 21. I know from other shared matches that I must match with her on my paternal side.
I plugged the shared DNA information with MB into DNA Painter:
As you can see, MB is in there twice – one of these segments is actually her DNA from Gedmatch, which is why it looks slightly different. From other matches, I already know that the vast majority of my paternal side chromosome 21 I inherited from my great grandfather Toll; to make life easier for myself, I have copied known matches with known common ancestors so I know at a glance the most recent ancestor of mine who is responsible for that bit of my DNA. That means I know that match MB must match with me somewhere on my Toll side.
I have actually imported all my 23andMe matches into DNA Painter, as you can see below:
If you have eagle eyes, you’ll see that I’ve been able to allocate some matches as paternal side, and therefore on my Toll side. You can also see I haven’t quite finished, but I can now allocate some of those ‘shared/both’ matches to my paternal side as well.
Although all this information is within 23andMe itself, I find using DNA Painter in conjunction with 23andMe and 529andYou much more helpful, the visual clues help me work with my matches much better, and I’ve made a lot more progress with my 23andMe matches since I started using both these tools. However, it’s also fair to say that I have not made nearly as many inroads with my DNA relatives on 23andMe as I have on Ancestry. This is partly because I just don’t have close matches there, and partly because I just haven’t given it as much attention as I have Ancestry, Gedmatch and My Heritage. However, a few months ago, a known cousin on my American side showed up in my matches, and that definitely inspired me to start working with my matches on 23andMe more, especially since I now had a reference point to work with. I think testing at least one of my parents will also help me sort matches a little better; there are still a lot of matches I haven’t been able to work out which side of my tree they fall on!
Tips for using 23andMe generally
Because 23andMe doesn’t really encourage its users to record information about their family background, you will probably find you have to turn to other sources to research and identify your matches’ family trees.
I first check the match’s page to see if they have shared any information about their familial surnames and locations; if they have, I see if I can find these names on a public Ancestry, My Heritage, or WikiTree. As discussed above, if they’ve shared chromosomal information, I plug this information into a DNA Painter profile which contains imports of all my matches at FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, My Heritage and Gedmatch, and then see if I have other matches sharing the particular segments in question. If other users do share those segments I might be able to tell whether the match is on my paternal or maternal side, and maybe even who the common ancestors are likely to be.
If that doesn’t lead me anywhere, depending on how crucial I feel that identifying that matches tree is, I’ll either leave it until I’ve identified closer matches, or I’ll message them based on how I think we might connect. If I have nothing to work off at all I’ll simply ask them if they have a public tree anywhere I can take a look at, of if they have any family information they’d be willing to share.
So that’s it! Have you tested at 23andMe? Let me know in the comments any success stories you’ve had using the site or any insights you’ve gained from their health tools! Also, if you are a US customer, 23andMe currently have a special price on the Ancestry+Health kit for Mother’s Day, bringing the price down to $169. This offer is good til May 13th! If you haven’t yet tested your DNA anywhere but are thinking about it, you might find my new free DNA Roadmap Guide helpful – click here to get yours!