DNA testing services have rapidly become a popular way for people to find out detailed information about their ancestry, living relatives and health. It has been estimated that more than 26 million Americans have already taken a home DNA test, providing them with an entire world of insights into their own identity, family history, health and traits that no other source can match.
When it comes to home DNA-testing services, differences matter
Once someone becomes interested in using home DNA testing, choosing the right service can suddenly become a daunting task.
What the right choice will be for you depends on your specific goals. If you are primarily interested in learning about your ethnic background, a less-expensive test that relies on autosomal DNA testing may be your best option. However, if you would like to learn detailed information about your recent family tree or your predispositions to a large number of potential health conditions, a more premium service may best fulfill your needs.
The fact is that there are significant differences between home DNA-testing companies, particularly when it comes to things like breadth of results, the level of detail in reports and, crucially, the guarantees that the company extends to protect your privacy.
Who are the best DNA-testing companies?
Unsurprisingly, big-name DNA-testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com figure prominently among the best testing services. However, there are a number of other less-well-known options that may equal or exceed the usefulness of those well-known brands, especially for users who seek to learn specific, detailed information regarding certain aspects of their genetic profile. Although you may not be familiar with companies like Living DNA or AfricanAncestry, these are great services that have developed industry-leading niche products in the DNA-testing field.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the top home DNA-testing products and what each respective company offers, keeping in mind that customers often have different priorities that mean there is not a one-size-fits-all answer for who the top company is.
23andMe offers a wide-ranging product with strong privacy guarantees
As one of the most-famous names in home DNA testing, 23andMe was also the first large-scale commercially viable company to offer home autosomal DNA testing, which has since become the industry standard.
23andMe continues to offer industry-leading features, with two main packages from which users can choose. The first is the Ancestry package, which allows users to view highly detailed reports and accurate, high-precision analyses of where they come from, what ethnic background comprises their genome and who they are related to. The Ancestry package costs $99.
23andMe also offers a premium package called Health+Ancestry. This gives users all the benefits of the Ancestry package but also includes a wide array of health-related reports, including predisposition to many different genetically mediated diseases, a report on how the user’s genome is likely to affect their wellness, what traits their genome disposes them to and, importantly, carrier status for potentially fatal genetic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis.
23andMe’s Ancestry Package
23andMe’s Ancestry package is an excellent option for those who want detailed reports on their genealogy, living relatives and ethnic composition for a price that is competitive with other services.
23andMe operates on a slightly different model than other home DNA-testing services. Rather than accessing actual genealogical and historical records, 23andMe relies solely on its vast database of more than 5 million users to generate highly detailed reports on ethnic background, living relatives and even the locations where ancestors lived. With more than 1,000 locations that are based on the hard science of haplogroups, 23andMe is currently able to produce among the most-accurate estimates of what specific region, state or even county a person’s ancestors called home.
Unlike some of its competitors, 23andMe uses a simple saliva-based test. This involves spitting into a vial rather than taking a cheek swab.
23andMe also offers a number of novel and exciting features. One example is its DNA Relative Finder. This is a tool that only activates when the user explicitly chooses to opt in. If they do, the Relative Finder helps connect people with others across the globe who share their DNA. 23andMe’s online interface supports messaging and other social-networking features that allow people to find close relatives that would otherwise be extremely difficult or impossible to discover.
With its DNA Family tool, 23andMe also gives people precise counts of their extended families, telling people how many relatives they have at up to the degree of fifth-cousin. This tool also features a social-networking element, allowing customers to connect with other 23andMe users with whom they are closely related.
In addition to the novel features already mentioned, 23andMe allows users to see what haplogroups they belong to through the use of both mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA. Use of haplogroups greatly increases the accuracy of 23andMe’s deep ancestral history, helping its customers rigorously determine their ancestral histories going back thousands of years or more.
While 23andMe’s Ancestry package is highly accurate and gives users access to novel and useful features, the company’s $199 Ancestry+Health package is where the company really shines.
The Ancestry+Health package includes detailed health predisposition reports, wellness reports, carrier status reports and traits reports. With more than 10 reports on predisposition for various ailments, including type 2 diabetes, celiac disease, Parkinson’ s disease and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Wellness reports include such things as genetic weight, likely predispositions to caffeine consumption, common deep-sleep patterns for the user’s genotype and many others. Additionally, more than 40 carrier status reports give users critical information on whether or not they carry the genes that can lead offspring to inherit such potentially lethal diseases as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease.
23andMe security privacy
23andMe provides customers with a high degree of control over the privacy of their accounts and genetic information. The company allows users to opt in or out of saliva sample storage, account visibility to other 23andMe members as well as whether the customer would like to use the DNA Relatives tool to connect with their relatives who are already using the service.
23andMe also stores genetic information and personal information in separate databases, making it less likely that a data breach would lead to users’ genetic information being identifiable on the personal level. The company does not share personal information at all without the consent of the user. However, they do use aggregated customer data that has been stripped of all personal identifiers.
The 23andMe website also offers some of the strongest security in the business, employing security protocols that meet or exceed industry standards.
For those who are primarily concerned with genealogy, Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA offers a great solution at a highly competitive price.
AncestryDNA comes in two varieties, the base package and AncestryDNA + Traits. These cost $99 and $119 respectively. The trait test reveals information that is comparable with 23andMe’s trait reports, including likely hair type, sensitivity to bitterness, most-likely eye color and many more.
AncestryDNA gives users highly accurate ethnicity estimates, with more than 500 locations of origin. This is less than the over 1,000 offered by 23andMe. While the higher precision of 23andMe’s ancestral-origin-locating ability may make a difference to some users, there simply isn’t a great deal of informational gain when going from 500 regions to 1,000 regions. However, for those interested primarily in tracing their family’s genealogy, AncestryDNA offers a number of excellent tools beyond a simple autosomal DNA test.
AncestryDNA offers powerful genealogy features
Originally built out of a company that catered to professional genealogists, Ancestry.com has retained its original purpose, billing itself as the home DNA-testing service for those who are primarily interested in their relatively recent genealogic history.
AncestryDNA features Ancestry.com’s huge database of more than 15 million users. It gives users all of the same abilities to connect with people who are found to be genetically related. But AncestryDNA has a far larger database, which means that users are likely to get far more matches when using this service. And this translates into more robust information on family trees.
AncestryDNA’s autosomal-only testing is excellent for genealogic-research purposes. This form of DNA testing can give a highly accurate picture of one’s family relations going back seven generations. Additionally, AncestryDNA has a subscription service that allows access to its more than 1 billion genealogical records, representing millions of family trees. This is an invaluable resource for those who are primarily interested in constructing family trees within the last seven generations because it includes records from a multitude of sources, including marriage licenses, death certificates, military records and many more.
With AncestryDNA, users are also far more likely to connect with relatives due to the sheer size of Ancestry.com’s user base. However, when it comes to site usability, tools and the usefulness and volume of genetic information provided, AncestryDNA falls a bit short versus 23andMe.
Like 23andMe, Ancestry DNA uses saliva as the medium from which it extracts users’ DNA.
AncestryDNA privacy and security
AncestryDNA has much of the same privacy guarantees and security protocols as 23andMe. All personal identifiers are decoupled from genetic information, making it extremely difficult for anyone to make use of your testing results. Ancestry.com never sells information to other companies. And it only allows people that you want to access part of your results to do so.
Living DNA offers great value
At just $79, Living DNA provides one of the strongest values of any home DNA-testing kit available. Living DNA provides for autosomal, mitochondrial and Y-DNA analyses, giving it a powerful ability to trace deep ancestry that is on par with the most powerful products, such as 23andMe, but at a vastly lower cost.
Living DNA does not recognize as many ancestral regions as 23andMe or AncestryDNA, giving customers a slightly less granular understanding of their ethnic origins. Yet, this will mostly affect customers of non-European backgrounds as Living DNA has strong coverage for most ancestral regions throughout Europe. This is simply a reflection of more people of European background using the service.
Living DNA offers a number of powerful tools that rival anything that can be found with competitors, including an interface that helps users construct highly accurate family trees. It also has an intuitive color-coded graphical interface that helps users visualize their ethnic ancestry and the associated locations from which their ancestors came.
However, there are a number of things that Living DNA does not do that may prompt some users to go with competitors even where the cost is significantly more. Living DNA currently does not have the capability of telling users the percentage of their genome that indicates Jewish or Native American ancestry. Nor can Living DNA currently tell people what proportion of their genome is comprised of Neanderthal DNA.
Living DNA does not provide users with a chromosome browser. And most importantly, the test will not convey to users any critical health, wellness or trait information, features that can be of great concern to a wide swath of health-conscious users.
As one of the top DNA-testing services, Living DNA takes its users’ security and privacy extremely seriously. The company holds the ISO 27001 certification, which means that it follows the most rigorous security and privacy standards when it comes to protecting the personal information and genetic data of its customers. Living DNA separates all personal identifiers from genetic information and allows customers to either opt in or out of all research projects in which their DNA could be used.
Because Living DNA uses autosomal, mitochondrial and Y-DNA, it offers an extremely detailed and accurate ancestral picture that spans not just generations but tens of thousands of years. In this, it is comparable to some of the premium services that cost hundreds of dollars more. Although it lacks some features that certain users may consider indispensable, overall, Living DNA is probably the best raw value on our list.
Living DNA uses mouth-swab sampling.
TellmegGen is the DNA test for the health conscious
Many DNA-testing services can satisfy people’s deep curiosity about where they’re from and who they are. But TellmeGen ups the ante with its medically oriented DNA test that can quite literally help save lives.
While other home DNA-testing services like 23andMe offer limited health, wellness and trait profiles, TellmeGen is exclusively tailored to inform people on their genetic predispositions to every major disease category as well as their propensity to things like adverse drug reactions.
TellmeGen lacks some of the fun and informative features of other DNA testing products. In particular, there is no social-networking feature or family-tree-building tools. However, TellmeGen will give users a robust picture of their ethnic backgrounds as well as the various locations from which their ancestors hailed.
TellmeGen gives users more than 390 health, wellness and pharmacogenetic reports
Where TellmeGen separates itself from the pack is in its more than 390 genetic profile reports, which detail everything from the users’ genetic risk of developing pulmonary fibrosis or testicular cancer to their risk for monogenetic diseases, like certain mammary and ovarian cancer syndromes. Critically, TellmeGen also gives users detailed reports on their genetic predisposition to adverse drug reactions, including likely responses to various cancer treatments or whether someone is likely to experience difficulty breathing after taking aspirin.
TellmeGen also gives the most-detailed trait breakdown of any home DNA-testing service. One point of particular interest and practical applicability to nearly everyone’s lives is the risk profile that the company develops for a user’s inclination towards alcoholism and drug abuse, including a number of profiles for the likelihood of addiction to specific drugs, such as nicotine and opioids.
In the nature-versus-nurture debate, the jury is still out on the contribution that genetics plays versus to what degree our behaviors, traits and life outcomes are affected by the environments in which we live. But when it comes to predispositions, we almost always have choices in how we go about avoiding the worst outcomes of the behaviors or conditions to which we are prone.
This is where TellmeGen really differentiates itself from all of its home DNA-testing competitors. The service goes far beyond mere entertainment or answering interesting questions about people’s recent or distant ancestry. TellmeGen actually helps people determine how to live a longer and healthier life through informing them what behaviors, medicines and treatments are likely to maximize their health and longevity versus which ones are likely to prove deleterious to it.
TellmeGen is a company that is founded and run by medical professionals. With their Health Map tool, it is possible for users to easily assimilate a vast array of complex medical information that will help them make far better-informed real-world medical decisions and behavioral choices, taking into account some of the most powerful information currently available to patients: their own genetic predispositions.
TellmeGen also features some of the best customer service in the business. Because some of the results involve a dizzying range of illnesses, drug interactions, and traits, TellmeGen’s professional staff is always there to not only help users interpret the results but also to determine how those results can best be used to maximize one’s long-term health.
It is important to remember that a genetic predisposition, while a powerful predictor of developing the phenotypic trait in question, is almost never a guarantee that the trait will ultimately manifest. And this is especially true when it comes to behaviors and avoidable environmental stimuli.
For example, someone who comes from a population that is genetically prone to alcoholism may be powerfully attracted to drinking in excess and, in many cases, may find it nearly impossible to drink in moderation once they have taken their first sip of alcohol. However, that person can always make the choice, so long as they are not currently physically dependent on alcohol, to abstain completely from drinking. Even though this may seem difficult or undesirable, knowing that one is strongly genetically disposed to severe alcohol use disorders can provide the final push that they need, allowing them to make the tough choice to quit drinking completely.
Likewise, many people who are considering using TellmeGen’s home DNA-testing service may be reluctant to take it, fearing that they simply don’t want to know if they are, for example, strongly disposed to developing aggressive and often-fatal variants of prostate, breast or ovarian cancers. But even in these cases, there are many powerful options available to minimize the chance of ultimately developing these diseases. In the case of many cancers, screening early and often for the disease can radically increase the chance of detecting it when it’s still in the earliest stages where five-year survival rates are frequently in the high-90-percent range.
These are just a tiny sampling of the questions that TellmeGen can answer, helping users formulate life plans that will allow them to live long and healthy lives.
TellmeGen’s corporate headquarters are located in Valencia, Spain. As a result, the company adheres to the extremely rigorous European Union privacy laws, which generally exceed anything found in the United States. TellmeGen follows all industry-standard practices when it comes to segregation of customers’ personal data from their genetic information. It also uses leading security protocols to ensure that users’ accounts remain fully protected at all times.
TellmeGen extracts DNA from user’s saliva.
So far, we’ve covered what can be convincingly argued are the best home DNA-testing companies for their respective target audiences. While there are many other DNA-testing companies out there, they tend to overlap in their missions with the ones that we have already covered. Some are still good choices. But for most people, it’s difficult to argue that services that we have not covered will actually be better.
The one exception is African Ancestry. For those of African ancestry, particularly African Americans in the United States, many of the aforementioned DNA-testing services may fall far short of expectations. This is simply a reflection of the fact that much fewer people of African ancestry have used those services. And this means that the quality of ancestral information is going to be drastically lower for someone of African descent who uses a service like 23andMe than it will be for someone whose ancestors originated in, for example, Ireland.
The reasons for this situation are many. But it mostly boils down to the fact that, as a proportion of the population, blacks are relatively sparse in the United States and almost nonexistent throughout many places in Europe and the rest of the developed world. This means that the genetic databases are extremely poor when it comes to the African genome.
African Ancestry has endeavored to solve this through taking over 33,000 DNA samples from many regions and tribes throughout Africa. Although resorting to statistical sampling methods to make up for a lack of a robust database is not the ideal solution, it does mean that African Ancestry can provide users of African descent with vastly more accurate information than other DNA-testing services about their true ancestral origins, right down to the level of what tribe they came from.
African Ancestry does have a few kinks that some users may find problematic. For starters, the base price is higher than other testing services: $300 for either the matrilineal or patrilineal DNA test. This means that if someone wants both patrilineal and matrilineal ancestry charted, they must shell out $600.
Another issue with African Ancestry is its sometime questionable marketing tactics. The site makes much of its black ownership and 100 percent black staff, including black scientists. While some may feel good about supporting their own race where they can, others may be turned off by such tactics, viewing them as bordering on racism. Due to its industry-leading but still relatively sparse database of African DNA, the company is also sometimes unable to complete a user’s profile. In this case, a refund of 50 percent will be issued. However, this issue is not given prominent attention on the site’s homepage or in its marketing materials.
But despite its higher prices and sometimes-questionable marketing, what is not in doubt is that African Ancestry currently offers, by far, the best chance for people of African descent to explore their true origins. Even though most competitors have been in business for years, the average DNA-testing firm only has 2,000 samples of African DNA. This compares woefully with African Ancestry’s 33,000.
African Ancestry privacy
Even though African Ancestry states that all of its web-based resources are protected by SSL-secured encryption, there are reports that some features on the website are not secured. This could open users up to potentially breached accounts and could link personal identifying information with genetic information.
African Ancestry collects users’ DNA from cheek swabs.
As we have shown, the various products and services that fall under the home-DNA-testing moniker are sufficiently diverse that a service that is right for one person may fall short for another.
What you specifically want out of a DNA test will largely determine what company offers the product that is right for you. Therefore, figuring out exactly what your own expectations from a home DNA test are is the first step towards making the correct buying decision.