What is DNA?

DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid. Every cell in your body contains DNA. Strands of DNA contain the genetic code that control every function within your body. DNA determines physical characteristics (gender, eye color, height, body type) and even some personality traits. If certain diseases or physical conditions run in your family, it’s not bad luck – it’s DNA. Even though you share genetic code with other members of your biological family, your DNA sequence is unique.

Law enforcement can identify a suspect based on tiny amounts of blood or other physical material at a crime scene. Even decades later, cold case detectives have been able to extract a DNA profile from evidence and obtain a conviction based on the results.

Where can I get a DNA test?

This company markets kits that are geared to health profiles and physical traits although they also offer an ancestry product. A profile that examines DNA segments related to health indicators may not be of much use for ancestral tracing. 23AndMe is the largest provider of consumer DNA testing. Pricing: $99 – $499

Ancestry has become the most popular online site for those who are interested in researching family roots.  In 2012 the company launched AncestryDNA, a testing service that focuses on ethnicity analysis. Customers may also opt in to relative matching. Pricing: $99 – $179

23AndMe and Ancestry offer products that are based on autosomal DNA. atDNA resides in the DNA section that is non-gender specific. Think of it as the catch all area of your genome.  FamilyTreeDNA provides consumer kits for other types of DNA testing. The y-DNA kit analyzes the Y chromosome that is passed from father to son. FamilyTreeDNA also sells mtDNA test that examines mitochondrial DNA that is passed from mother to child. Pricing: $99 – $379

MyHeritage is headquartered in Israel. Their database of potential matches may be preferable if you are interested in finding relatives outside of North America and Europe. Note that their DNA analysis is performed by FamilyTreeDNA. Pricing: $79

This company is based in the UK. Data privacy is their big selling point. Relative matching is mainly limited to UK. They also offer wellness/health trait kits.  If you want a basic ancestry profile with no matching and privacy guarantee then consider LivingDNA. Pricing: $69

Is DNA testing expensive?

A basic DNA profile is less than $100

What types of DNA tests are available?

Direct-to-consumer DNA profiles generally fall into two categories: health/wellness and genealogy/ancestry groups.

atDNA (Autosomal DNA) – general DNA profile that examines genetic markers that are passed from both parents. Relative matching can be reliably traced to 2nd or sometimes 3rd cousins.

mtDNA – Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from your mother. And your grandmothers, And your great-grandmothers. mtDNA can be used to trace relatives in your matrilineal line. It is useful for developing a profile of haplogroups (ancestral groups that are unique to geographic area).

y-DNA – The Y-chromosome is passed on from father to son. A simple diagram of XY inheritance is here. The Y-chromosome tends to change (or mutate) more slowly in comparison to X-chromosome or mtDNA.

What do I do with a DNA profile?

Direct-to-consumer DNA testing provides general information about your ancestral origins and may be used to identify living relatives.

When you purchase an online DNA ancestry profile, you are purchasing an analysis based on one companies data algorithms. The raw profile data won’t make any sense to you outside of the analytics provided by the testing service. Some companies allow profiles from other sources to be uploaded into their member accounts. AncestryDNA may say that you are 6% French but FamilyTreeDNA shows no French ancestry when you upload the AncestryDNA profile to the FTDNA database (this is a hypothetical example). Differences in the companies’ algorithms account for these apparent discrepancies.

For relative matching using atDNA, be cautious about results beyond 2nd degree matches. Your match results are based on the percentage of DNA that you share with other profiles. There are billions of genomes in your DNA. It is quite possible that unrelated individuals share common DNA markers in their genetic make up.

Is my DNA profile private? 

Online databases offer various levels of privacy for uploaded DNA profiles. Typically the default option for DNA features is ancestral ethnicity only. If you are interested in relative matching, you may have the option to allow your profile to be published anonymously or displaying limited info from your website profile. Read the fine print carefully.

NOTE: NOBODY can conduct a Google search of your DNA profile. Your genome data is personally identifiable information (PII) just like date of birth or Social Security number.

Can my health insurance company charge me higher rates because I have genetic predisposition towards certain conditions like diabetes or heart disease?

No. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) makes it illegal for health insurance providers in the United States to use genetic information in decisions about a person’s health insurance eligibility or coverage.

Can a DNA test tell me if I will get cancer?

No. If you are working with a genetic counselor, your profile is considerably more advanced than something that you order online. No DNA profile can give a simple Yes or No answer when it comes to your risk factors. If you have concerns about the possibility of a genetically based disorder, talk to your family physician about a referral to a genetic counselor.

Can law enforcement search DNA databases?

In 2016, a cold case detective uploaded a DNA profile for the Golden State Killer to GEDMatch (an open source DNA database). They obtained a match to an individual who is a 3rd degree relative and were able to identify a suspect based on the relative’s family tree. In August 2020, Joseph James DeAngelo was sentenced to life in prison based on DNA evidence.

This high profile case caused controversy for online DNA databases. Some providers stopped allowing law enforcement to access their data without a warrant. Other providers, like GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA, now offer opt-out provisions to users. Read the fine print before you upload your profile.

Does a DNA sample require a blood draw?

No. Most kits use a cotton swab for collection. The collection media is sealed in a water-proof envelope and returned to the test provider. You will be notified when your test results are available online.

Are there any other risks associated with uploading a DNA profile to a site like 23AndMe or Ancestry.com?

You may learn some dark secrets about your family. There have been cases where individuals learned that their father was not biologically related or that they have half siblings that they were not aware of.

Adoptees have been able to locate their birth family through DNA matching sites. Sensitive situations like this can make the decision more complicated.

Should I get a DNA test?

The decision is entirely up to you. This is your private information. If you have concerns about the process or simply don’t see any value in it then give it a pass.