Ancestry vs 23andMe
There are several DNA tests out there… MyHeritage, LivingDNA, National Geographic, etc. I decided to try out the two most popular to see how they compare – AncestryDNA ($99) and 23andMe Health ($199). Both tests were pretty simple and similar as far as collecting the sample. You sign up on the website to put in your sample ID, spit in a tube for a bit, add some solution for shipping, put it in the postage-paid box, ship it out, and wait for the results.
While waiting, 23andMe suggested I fill out their online questionnaires. They have thousands and thousands of health- and non-health-related questions to answer as many or as few as you want. Ancestry, on the other hand, recommended I check out their family-tree-building features. I ended up getting much more into that than expected, but more on that later.
In just two weeks, 23andMe’s results were live. There were three areas of interest – health reports, ancestry, found relatives.
23andMe Health Reports
Health reports were unique to 23andMe. 91 different reports divided into four categories — Health Predisposition, Wellness, Carrier Status, and Traits. My results were pretty boring, which I guess is what you want when talking about the lists of diseases a genetic abnormalities you may be harboring. All Health Predispositions, which had reports like “Celiac Disease” and “Parkinson’s” came back “Variant not detected”. The same with Carrier Status that had reports like “Cystic Fibrosis” and “Maple Syrup Urine Disease Type 1B”. Even if any came back positive, I don’t think it would change my life in any way besides educating myself more about the topic. The Wellness category told me things that I’m likely to weigh about average and that my muscle composition is “common in elite power athletes” (shucks). The Traits category said I likely don’t like cilantro (hate it) and am likely to be able to smell asparagus in urine (umm.. ok). All in all, nothing too exciting. The basic version of 23andMe, like Ancestry, is $99. For me, at least, I don’t feel like the extra $100 was worth it. But maybe if the results were different, so would be my opinion.
While 23andMe took two weeks to arrive, AncestryDNA took six weeks. So that’s when I could start comparing how the two services’ results differed. Let’s start with the latter’s namesake, ancestry. That’s a broad term that covers ethnicity, your ancestor’s roots over time, and haplogroups.
23andMe calls the section Ancestry, while AncestryDNA, perhaps to not get it confused with the company name, calls it DNA Story. They both come with color-coded maps showing the regions referenced by detecting known variants of your DNA. It’s definitely not an exact science, and many regions are identified with the certainty of a weather forecaster saying it will rain next Wednesday. 23andMe offers a confidence slider, where it can tell you with 50% confidence that you have ancestors from the Bavaria region of Germany, or 90% confidence that those ancestors are from somewhere in Europe. Similarly, in my case, 50% certain that 100% of my DNA is from Europe, or 90% certain that I’m 97% European, 3% unknown. AncestryDNA offers the feature to combine your self-built family tree onto the map, so in addition to seeing your “origin”, you can go through time and see where your known ancestors lived at various points in time.
You can divide your inherited DNA into three categories. Mitochondrial (mtDNA), which you can only get from your mother; Y-DNA, which because it’s part of Y-chromosomes, can only be passed from father to son, and Autosomal, which is pretty much everything else. Haplogroups are known ancient groups of people that you can trace your maternal or paternal (if you’re male) ancestors to, just by following the mtDNA or Y-DNA up the line. While it’s impossible to tell where 99% of your ancestors lived thousands of years ago, your maternal great1000 grandmother’s home can be found. And same with your paternal great1000 grandfather, if you’re male. If your female. the only way to find your paternal haplogroup, is from the DNA test of a male in your family. The 23andMe test provides haplogroup results. The $99 AncestryDNA test does not.
They say the average American has nine cousins. That would make 81 second cousins, 243 third cousins, and over 2,000 fourth cousins. More than 5 million have taken the 23andMe test, and more than 10 million AncestryDNA. So there’s a good chance with either of these, it will find some relatives. For me personally, being a 12th-generation American, both found relatives in the thousands. AncestryDNA found more close matches, 12 third cousin or closer, where 23andMe only found 6. Beyond that, as expected, all matches were distant. But how are relatives discovered?
A centimorgan, or cM, is a unit for measuring genetic linkage. Geneticists look for matching chunks of genetic code between two people, and add them up into a value, and use that value to determine a likely relationship between the two. There are a lot of cM charts out there to help you get a visualization of different relationships, I like this one from the Shared cM Project because you can actually search by cM amount and it highlights the relationships.
AncestryDNA directly tells you how many cM you share with each match it finds. 23andMe, perhaps to avoid explaining cM, just gives percentages… which from my calculations is the cM percentage out of a total of 7442cM.
When I took these tests, building a family tree was not part of my plan. The Family Tree builder is free for anyone with the free AncestryDNA account, so I decided to try it. It’s pretty great in that finds likely relatives for you, based on their own data and other users’ entries, you just check and confirm each one. And they gave me a few-week trial of the paid $20/month version and in no time I had close to 500 ancestors in my family tree dating back to the 1400s. It offered US and state census records, shared newspaper clippings, immigrant records, marriage records, and more. It was a rabbit hole I didn’t think was possible and about 90% of my time with AncestryDNA and 23andMe was spent on the family tree. And every few days I keep getting new “hints” saying they think they found another new ancestor, or new information about someone that’s listed in the tree. In all honesty, if you really want to know where you came from– for me at least, learning about my last few hundred ancestors told me a lot more than the DNA tests did. Though at $200-$400 per year to keep those hints coming, it’s probably not anything you’d sign up for indefinitely.
|Ancestry||23andMe (Health version)|
|Family tree builder||✔|
|Time for delivery (for me)||6 weeks||2 weeks|
|Download Raw Data||✔||✔|
|Likely close family/cousins|
(550+ cM) found
|Likely second cousins|
(200-550 cM) found
|Likely third cousins|
(70-200 cM) found
|Total found relatives||366 (20cM+)|
[and thousands more “distant relatives”]
AncestryDNA is better for finding more familial matches, building family trees, and genealogical research. 23andMe is better for health screening, mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, and familial matches’ locations. Subreddits like AncestryDNA and 23andMe are handy to ask questions about DNA and genealogy, though common posts are about family drama from surprise results. So maybe that’s something to be potentially prepared for before testing.
Everyone’s reasons for taking the tests and experiences with the results are different, so there’s no clear-cut answer to which is best. I hope sharing my experiences could help you choose. If you’d like to read more comparisons, PCWorld has a great article as well.