Hands-on review: AncestryDNA test kit
Image credit: AncestryDNA
If you’re comfortable sharing your genetic history, a small drop of saliva sent away in the post can reveal a lot about your ancestral background.
Ancestry's simple kit contains everything you need to take a saliva sample and send it off for DNA analysis to find out your genetic history. There are a number of similar tests on the market, but this one comes from Ancestry.com and focuses squarely on finding out your ancestry. In fact, there’s no option to upgrade to get genetic health screenings.
The contents of the package are straightforward. You must first set up an account and activate the kit online, so that you’ll be able to receive your results. Then you fast (no food, drink, smoking or gum) for half an hour, dribble saliva into a small tube and mix it with a stabilising fluid. That’s it. You package it up in a bag; place that inside the prepaid mailing box; send it off, and wait.
Here comes the science bit. Ancestry puts your DNA in a solution and runs it across specialised computer chips, which look for around 700,000 genetic variants. It then compares the results with data from others. It’s an ‘autosomal’ DNA test that checks the 22 pairs of chromosome that aren’t the gendered X-X or X-Y pair. This means your results should reflect your whole genetic heritage, not just one or other biological parent.
Go back five generations and you have 32 different ancestors, each making up around 3 per cent of your genes. Considering the biggest age of mass migration was around 1850-1914, this means the test should give you a good idea of where those 32 people hailed from. Anything over 3 per cent suggests where your great great great-grandparents were from. 1 per cent might be a more distant relative, but is statistically so low that it might just be noise.
Ancestry.com gives your genetic heritage as percentages on a map, but also compares your results with the company’s database and offers the option of connecting anonymously with other users to whom you may be related.
The idea of knowing more about your heritage is compelling, but sending off for a genetic test was still a quandary. What if the database was hacked or subpoenaed in the future? I’ve watched 'CSI'. I don’t want the state to be able to find me on a genetic database and prove that I’m a prolific cat burglar (NB: I’m not, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a future career path).
I concluded that such concerns didn’t stop me giving blood, that I shed DNA all day long for the CSI team to gather, and that the results seem to only be about genetic ancestry anyway. However, it is worth bearing in mind that your anonymous results become part of the growing dataset used by these companies.
The kit includes everything you need plus the cost of the test, so it makes a good gift, but the results take weeks to come back. Ours took just over a month, but I got texts and emails with progress reports.
The results came back electronically and were both accurate and intriguing. The 70 per cent England, Wales and north-western Europe and 27 per cent Ireland and Scotland results felt accurate, particularly as it pinpointed that a large part of me comes from north-west England. It basically showed me a map of the area where all my mum’s side of the family lived and still live. The 3 per cent Sweden added intrigue. I didn’t know which side of the family this was on, but I liked it. It chimed with that time that my girlfriend’s colleague saw my photo and said I looked “like a Scandi detective”. It also might explain my love of chunky knitwear and strong spirits.
I even slipped “Did I mention I’m 3 per cent Swedish?” into the conversation a few times, but the joke was short-lived because three weeks later I got a bizarre email from Ancestry.com, which read: “We’ve more than doubled the size of our reference panel, including more people from different parts of the world. This has helped us to refine your ethnicity estimates, adding more specific regions and reclassifying a few others.”
The good news was that, at no cost, my results had become more accurate. The bad news is that I was no longer 3 per cent Swedish. My new sense of identity was inaccurate. It’s a really good job I didn’t get a tattoo of the Swedish flag.
My new genetic ancestry: England, Wales and north-western Europe was down to 53 per cent; Ireland and Scotland was up to 27 per cent; Germanic Europe came in at 12 per cent; my 3 per cent Sweden had crossed the border and was now Norway. Even though updating the results as new data becomes available is a good idea, the change was unsettling, making me trust them less. It’s a reminder that they’re only as good as the dataset your DNA is compared with and not completely accurate.
On the other hand, the way the results pinpointed my Lancashire ancestors was impressive and accompanied by information about the area. Photos and prose told me my ancestors would have worked in farming, weaving, mining and ultimately in mills and factories. Not news to me, as I spent family holidays there and we did all the museums, but it would have been fascinating if I’d been born on another continent.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of sending off for a genetic test of health markers. Such tests are better done with genetic counselling to interpret the results, otherwise they could cause needless anxiety. Instead, Ancestry.com focuses on its excellent genealogy resources.
My results also included DNA matches. I was matched genetically with one ‘2nd-3rd cousin’; seven ‘3rd-4th cousins’, and a ridiculous 283 ‘4th-6th cousins’ on the Ancestry.com database. They’re anonymous in theory, but in practice people often use their real name as their screen name. Of these, the closer relatives might be worth contacting to compare family trees and I was especially intrigued by a 3rd-4th cousin whose surname matches my mother’s maiden name.
There’s the option of investigating further by subscribing to Ancestry.com’s global database of billions of family history records. Census, birth, marriage, death, immigration, military and parish records can all be searched online with prices starting at £10.99 a month.
Aside from mourning the loss of my fleeting 3 per cent Swedish heritage and forging a new identity as ever-so-slightly Viking, the DNA testing experience was fun and edifying. Anyone who knows, or suspects, that their ancestors migrated will find a test like this even more compelling and it’s a great gift for people who are keen to research their family tree.
An affordable autosomal DNA test kit to determine your ethnic ancestry and help connect you with genetic relatives. A £179 kit adds health screening, looking for genes that could increase the risk of conditions including heart disease, breast cancer and type 2 diabetes. It lacks appropriate genetic counselling to interpret the results.
Another test that promises to unearth your ancestry and find relatives. A £149 kit also tests for genetic health predispositions and certain inherited conditions (again, better done with suitable genetic counselling). Both also screen for traits – everything from bunions to unibrows!
LivingDNA Starter Kit
An affordable kit that gives you a taster of the various services, which you can upgrade at any time after testing to receive more detailed results. You get a basic overview of your ancestry and some health insights. £99 buys a full ancestry kit which goes into more depth, or £179 reveals ancestry and wellbeing.
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