If you’re curious about where your ancestors came from or what health conditions you’re more at risk for, you might be thinking of ordering a DNA test online. Thanks to recent technological advances, genetic testing is more accessible than ever before. With the rise of “direct-to-consumer” DNA testing, it’s now possible to indulge your curiosity about who you are and where you’re from for $100 or so.

Best DNA Tests 2016

 Name Rating
23andMe  4.9  23andme_logo
Living DNA  4.8  livingdna_logo
AncestryDNA  4.7  ancestrydna_logo
FamilyTreeDNA  4.5  familytreedna_logo
GPS Origins  4.1  gpsorigins_logo

Those interested in the insights home genetic testing kits can provide have a few options to choose from. The “big three” of online DNA tests are 23andme, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA.

These are the go-to genetic tests for most people. These kits have slightly different pros and cons, but they all provide a range of information related to ancestry and health.

Of course, there are other options beyond the three most common options. For example, National Geographic’s Genographic Project lets you learn about your ancestry while contributing to research mapping ancient human migration patterns.

Regardless of which DNA test you choose, the process will be similar – and relatively easy! Typically, the company will send you a sample collection kit which you’ll use either to collect your spit in a small tube or swab inside your cheek.

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You’ll then mail your DNA sample back and wait a month or so while it’s processed. After that, your results will show up online, and you’ll be able to start learning about your ancestry, looking into health risks, contacting relatives, or whatever else you choose to do with your data.

For such a straightforward process, the amount of information you have access to is stunning. Part of the reason companies are able to run these extensive tests at relatively low costs is that they don’t sequence your entire genome. Rather, they look at specific points where variations occur called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”). Still, even though online DNA tests analyze only a fraction of your genome, they’re able to piece together this information to offer some information about your health risks and especially about your ancestry.

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With genetic testing becoming a consumer item rather than something available only to researchers and healthcare providers with big budgets, more and more people are choosing to find out more about who they are and where their ancestors came from. But just like everyone’s DNA is unique, everyone also has their own reasons for exploring their DNA. Depending on your interests, you’ll have to make a personal choice about which DNA test is right for you. Here are some things to know about what you can get out of DNA testing and how to go about choosing a genetic test.

What to Look For When Choosing a DNA Test

When it comes to picking a home genetic test, there are a number of factors to weigh. The most basic have to do with the logistics of the test itself: what is the test measuring and how do you do the test?

All of the big three direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies have autosomal tests – that is, tests looking at DNA from all 23 of your chromosomes and therefore all branches of your family tree. There are also Y chromosome tests looking specifically at your paternal line and mitochondrial DNA tests that look at your maternal line.

Online DNA tests are generally done either with saliva samples (like 23andme) or cheek swabs (like FTDNA). For most people, both methods are quick and easy – but if you’re ordering a test for a child or older adult, the efficiency of cheek swabs can be helpful.

Once you decide which basic type of test you’re interested in, the next step is to look at the pros and cons of your different options based on what you hope to get out of your results. Most people who do online DNA testing are motivated to learn about their ancestry, their genealogy, their health, or some combination of all three. Here are some things to keep in mind for each of these three areas:

Ancestry

All of the most common home DNA tests you can order will shed light on your ancestry, but each has a slightly different emphasis.

When you’re shopping around for a DNA test for learning about your ancestry, the first thing to look at is what populations the test you’re interested in includes. For example, FTDNA treats “Central Asia” as a distinct ancestry category while 23andme does not.

To make things more complicated, some tests may be more or less accurate for different populations. Therefore, it’s a good idea to do a little digging around online to find out more about the track record of the DNA test you’re considering when it comes to the specific ancestry categories you’re interested in.

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It’s also worth keeping in mind that “ancestry” isn’t static. Populations move around. Where your ancestors lived 200 years ago isn’t necessarily where they lived 2,000 years ago. Some tests, like National Geographic’s, focus on “deep ancestry.” Others, like 23andme, have a more contemporary historical scope but still include some info about Neanderthal ancestry, for instance.

Finally, some algorithms for analyzing ancestry are just more sophisticated than others, and some companies have tended to provide more accurate and detailed results. Just because a company includes a certain population doesn’t mean their algorithm can consistently identify that population, so read some reviews to get a feel for which companies have a record of giving more consistent results.

Genealogy 

DNA tests can help you learn about your family in another way: besides giving you general information about your ancestry, they can use your genes to put you in touch with both close and distant relatives. By connecting you with other users who have matching DNA, genetic testing companies can provide a treasure trove of information for genealogists or anyone curious about their family history.

The thing to realize, though, is that some services make it easier to contact your “matches” than others. For example, FTDNA gives you email addresses for your newly discovered relatives, and it tends to attract serious genealogists – so if you send an email you’re likely to get a response. Meanwhile, 23andme requires both parties to approve sharing information, which is great if you want to protect your privacy, but not so great if you’re trying to do genealogical research because many people won’t respond.

One more genealogical point to consider is that some services allow you to integrate your genetic information with a family tree, which can be helpful when it comes to efficiently getting genealogical information from new contacts and keeping track of what you’ve learned.

Health

DNA tests vary quite a bit in how much health-related information they offer. While you can take your raw genetic data from any of the big three platforms and run it through third-party applications that will analyze your health data, some tests will tell you more about your health than others.

Of the three most popular genetic tests, 23andme is the only one that markets themselves as a service for learning about your health. AncestryDNA presents themselves mostly as a way to find out about your genealogy and ancestry, and FTDNA actually takes steps to hide some health-related information before passing on people’s raw data.

For any DNA test you’re looking at, then, be sure to check whether you’ll be getting health-related data and if so, how much.

Why Genetic Testing Is Important 

You might wonder if it’s worth the effort to find out what’s in your genetic code. DNA is something you might have studied in science class, but that doesn’t make it relevant to your everyday life, right?

In fact, direct-to-consumer genetic testing is a game changer when it comes to how people learn about who they are. Written in your DNA is information about where your ancestors came from, who your relatives are, and where your health might be headed. There is a story about both your past and your future waiting to be read in your DNA.

When it comes to the past, genetic testing can do two things. First, it can tell you what parts of the world your ancestors came from, and what portion of each different ancestry you have. Second, it can connect you with thousands of people who share common ancestors with you, from close relatives to distant cousins. This aspect of genetic testing can be useful for anyone interested in learning more about their family tree, including genealogists and people who were adopted.

As far as the future, genetic testing can give you insights into health risks you might have. It can tell you if you’re at higher odds for some diseases or whether you’re a carrier for certain genetic conditions (potentially putting your children at risk for those conditions if their other parent is also a carrier).

In their few years on the market, affordable DNA tests have radically changed the way people learn about themselves. Already, you can gain access to a wealth of information by mailing in a sample of your spit or a cheek swab.

As the technology continues to develop and as genetic research moves forward, the possibilities will only expand. Algorithms will be able to figure out people’s origins and predict their health trajectories with more precision. Genetic testing is becoming a mainstream consumer good because of how easy it has made it to learn so much about yourself, and this trend only looks set to continue.

What DNA Can Tell You About Your Ancestry

Your genes are a written record of who your ancestors were and where they came from. All of the most common home DNA tests offer ancestry information because learning about their ancestry is one of the most common reasons people order genetic tests.

No matter what test you choose, the basic way you learn about your ancestry will be similar. Each test looks at several different populations corresponding to major geographic regions and tells you what fraction of your genome a given population represents. For example, you might get a result saying you have 70 percent East Asian ancestry, 20 percent European ancestry, and 10 percent Middle Eastern ancestry.

Each major geographic region can be broken down further into smaller sub-regions. In the case of 23andme, for example, you might be told that your East Asian ancestry breaks down into Japanese and Chinese ancestry or that your European ancestry breaks down into Eastern European and Northwestern European ancestry. Your Northwestern European ancestry could in turn consist of Scandinavian and British/Irish ancestry.

In some cases, your ancestry information will line up closely with what you already know about your family. In others, you might discover some surprising things about who your ancestors were.

Some platforms allow you to view which ancestry categories map onto which parts of your genome. If you decide to get in touch with relatives who share DNA with you, this can be useful for getting a sense of which parts of your family tree correspond to which ancestry categories.

Besides telling you what parts of the world your family came from relatively recently, DNA testing can give some insight into your ancestors’ more ancient history.

And when I say your ancestors, I’m talking partly about your Neanderthal ancestors! Many people carry some Neanderthal genes – in fact, people with European and Asian ancestry tend to have between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genomes. Some DNA tests will look at a number of Neanderthal DNA markers and estimate how much Neanderthal DNA you carry.

National Geographic’s genetic test in particular has an emphasis on more distant ancestry. Besides looking at Neanderthal DNA, it looks at DNA from Denisovans, another type of extinct human.

In addition to analyzing people’s ancestry in terms of populations from different geographic regions, online DNA tests also tend to consider distinct populations within the same geographic region. For example, several tests look at Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

Altogether, then, your results will give you insight into what ethnic groups and sometimes even what specific countries your ancestors came from. On top of that, genetic tests will tell you how much of each ancestry category is in your DNA, giving you a sense of how recent your genetic ties to different groups are and how much of your family tree each group accounts for.

Benefits of Genetic Testing 

There are a variety of reasons people choose to order home DNA tests, ranging from using their results for practical purposes to having fun and satisfying their curiosity.

Maybe the most useful information you can get from genetic testing has to do with possible health risks. DNA testing can indicate whether you have higher or lower odds of getting some diseases. Used in conjunction with your family history, this information can help you make lifestyle changes targeting your individual risks.

For example, Google co-founder Sergey Brin famously learned from 23andme’s genetic test that he was at substantially higher risk for Parkinson’s disease, which his mother has. This discovery made him commit to exercising regularly, which has been associated with lower Parkinson’s risk, and donate tens of millions of dollars to Parkinson’s research. Now, we may not all be able to bankroll our favorite research projects to the tune of seven zeroes, but we can all use use data from DNA tests to improve our lifestyles.

genetic-human

Besides shedding light on our health, genetic testing has several other benefits. One is the ability to connect with other people who share your DNA. When you order a genetic test, your DNA will be compared with that of everyone else who’s been tested, and you’ll get a list of DNA “matches.”

People use this aspect of genetic testing in several different ways. For those who were adopted, it can be useful for finding biological relatives and learning about their biological families. For those interested in genealogy, it can open up thousands of new leads for piecing together a family tree. And some users are surprised to discover the existence of close relatives that were previously unknown.

Beyond the practical upsides of DNA testing, many people order online genetic tests in the spirit of curiosity – to learn things like where their ancestors came from or how much Neanderthal DNA they have. Genetic testing can give insights into everything from who your relatives are today to where your family’s historical roots lie. All the information it opens up can give you a lot of material for thought and can resolve unanswered questions you may have about your family history.

Altogether, then, there’s an array of things DNA testing can tell you, ranging from concrete medical facts to fascinating historical tidbits about your family. Many people are naturally more drawn to some of these sides of genetic testing than others, but the beauty is that with one simple test, you get all of them at once!

What Are Genetic Risk Factors?

One reason to sign up for direct-to-consumer genetic testing is that doing so can tell you what diseases you’re at higher risk for.

To think about how genes play into your risk of developing different diseases, consider that every disease has certain risk factors – things that make the disease more likely. For example, smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer. Likewise, not getting enough exercise is a risk factor for many conditions.

Smoking and lack of exercise are examples of environmental risk factors, but there are also genetic risk factors, changes in your genes that increase your chances of getting a given disease. This is where DNA testing comes into play. Testing for known genetic risk factors can give you an idea of whether you’re at higher or lower risk for some conditions.

There’s a twist to keep in mind here: some genetic risk factors are bigger than others. Often, your genetic risk for a given diseases is determined by thousands of different genes, each of which has only a small effect, and many of which have yet to be discovered. In these cases, looking at one gene associated with the disease won’t necessarily tell you much because a single genetic risk factor isn’t significant when there are so many genes in play.

On the other hand, some diseases have major genetic risk factors associated with them. For example, one of the genetic changes some home DNA kits look for is in the APOE gene, which influences risk for Alzheimer’s disease among other things. It’s estimated that people carrying two copies of the version of gene associated with higher risk are 14.9 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

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The thing to keep in mind is that genetic risk factors are all about probability. Being predisposed to a disease genetically doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get the disease, and in some cases knowing what diseases you’re at higher risk for can lead you to make beneficial lifestyle changes. Likewise, having genetic variants that protect you from certain diseases doesn’t mean you definitely won’t get those diseases either.

This is partly why it can be useful to know where you rank on genetic risk factors for a given disease. Although you can’t do anything about your genetic risk, you can modify your environmental risk factor – recall the example of Sergey Brin stepping up his exercise routine when he found out he had a genetic variant putting him at higher risk for Parkinson’s.

Different genetic risk factors have varying levels of significance. Many are so small that knowing about them doesn’t tell you much about your overall risk for developing a certain disease – especially for diseases where researchers still haven’t found many of the most important genetic risk factors. But some genetic risk factors are more substantial, and these can be a useful hint not just of what the future might hold but what lifestyle changes will do the most good.

Examples of Genetic Traits

Some of who we are is written in our genes, and some of who we are is a product of our environments. Scientists talk about how heritable a given trait is, meaning how much of it comes down to pure genetics.

Height is an example of a trait that is mostly, but not all, genetic. Specifically, between 60 and 80 percent of your height is determined solely by the DNA you got from your parents. But the remaining 20 to 40 percent has to do with your environment – things like what you eat.

Just because a trait is genetic doesn’t mean it’s determined by one gene. Height is more genetic than not, but there are many, many genes that contribute to how tall you are – there isn’t one spot in your DNA scientists can look at to predict how tall you are.

That said, there are some traits that come down to a single gene.

Some of then are innocuous. For instance, whether you have wet or dry earwax is determined by one gene. Indeed, some online DNA tests will predict which kind you have – hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s still fun to see the results from your test line up with something you actually know about yourself!

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Others have more medical significance. It’s easy to tell from a genetic test what your blood type is because, again, this is a trait that’s determined by one gene.

Still other traits have serious, life-changing implications. Huntington’s disease is caused by a mutation in a single gene, which is why most people who have a parent with Huntington’s have a 50 percent chance of getting the disease themselves.

Some genetic traits are recessive, meaning you need two copies of the right gene to have the trait – one copy from each parent. To have blue eyes, you need to get blue eye genes from both of your parents. (That doesn’t mean both your parents have to have blue eyes because they might only have one copy of the gene themselves!)

Several genetic disorders are similarly recessive. An example is cystic fibrosis, which 23andme tests for. If you only have risk copy of the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, it doesn’t mean you have the condition yourself because you need two copies for that. But it does mean your children could have cystic fibrosis if they get a risk gene from you and another risk gene from their other parent.

The short answer to the question “what traits are genetic?” is “all of them, to some extent!” But some traits are more genetic than others, and some genetic traits involve fewer genes than others, which is why a DNA test will be able to tell you a lot about some of your traits and not very much about others.

Summary

It’s stunning how much you can learn by mailing someone a tube of your saliva. Direct-to-consumer DNA testing has opened up a powerful and twenty-first-century way to find out more about who you are and where you came from.

Genetic tests can give you practical information about your health that a decade ago you would have only been able to access through a healthcare provider if at all. This include things like what diseases you’re at risk for and what medications you’re more likely to respond to.

DNA testing can also unlock secrets about your family history written in your genes – where your ancestors came from, who your relatives are, and what your family tree looks like. It can even reveal whether you have a little Neanderthal lurking in your genome.

When you do a home genetic test, spitting into a tube or doing a cheek swab puts a vast catalog of information at your fingertips – literally, since all your results are available online! The discoveries you can make about yourself, about your family, and about what’s hiding in your genes are endless. As scientists continue to unravel the mysteries of the human genome, genetic testing will only continue to become more powerful.

People are naturally curious – we want to know who our ancestors were, just like we want to know what our health risks are (not the least so we can do something about them them!). Thanks to home DNA testing, we can now find out.