Have you ever wanted to learn about your ethnicity, discover your connections to the past, or even learn if you have relatives that you did not know about? If you answered yes, then you may be interested in at-home DNA kits. Just some spit into a tube or swab inside of your cheek can unlock genetic secrets that date back many generations.
In this post, we’ll cover:
- What is DNA testing: Find out more about this now-accessible medical test
- What a DNA test can and can’t tell you: Learn to temper your expectations by finding out what kind of information a test can give you.
- How DNA testing works: Gain insight into the ins and outs of DNA testing.
- Which DNA test is the most accurate: Find out which DNA tests offer the most accurate rate.
- Protecting your privacy: Gain insight into this controversial aspect of at-home DNA testing.
- Why you should test your DNA: Understand the pros and cons of testing.
- DNA tests to avoid: No test is perfect, but there are some you should be wary of.
- The best DNA testing kits: Our recommendations.
What is DNA testing?
Genetic or DNA testing is a kind of medical test that determines changes in chromosomes, genes, or proteins. The outcome of DNA testing can verify or rule out a potential genetic condition or aid in determining the likelihood of developing or passing on a particular genetic disorder. Over a thousand genetic tests are being used right now, and more are currently in development. DNA testing uses several methods such as:
Molecular DNA test (or gene test)
This studies single genes or short lengths of DNA to determine discrepancies or mutations that result in a genetic disorder.
Chromosomal DNA test
This examines whole chromosomes or long lengths of DNA to check if substantial genetic changes, such as an extra copy of a chromosome, trigger a genetic condition.
Biochemical DNA test
This studies the amount or activity level of proteins as abnormalities in either can signify changes to the DNA that lead to a genetic disorder.
Genetic testing is voluntary. Because testing has benefits as well as limitations and risks, the decision about whether to be tested is a personal and complex one. A geneticist or genetic counselor can help by providing information about the pros and cons of the test and discussing the social and emotional aspects of testing.
As helpful as all these kinds of DNA tests are, you still have to temper your expectations for what DNA testing can and can’t tell you.
What a DNA test can and can’t tell you
For the regular consumer, taking an at-home DNA test is a great opportunity to learn more about who they are, where they originated from, and who they’re related to. However, you also have to realize that DNA testing still involves a measure of uncertainty and unpredictability as well as breakthroughs that bring surprising repercussions, such as:
A DNA test will tell you more about your family tree, including things that you might not want to know about
If you’re aspiring to establish a comprehensive family tree, then an at-home DNA test comes in handy. However, it should not have the final say. This is because DNA works in conjunction with paper trail documentation. DNA will determine if you’re related to someone but it won’t say if a person is your cousin or a great-grandparent.
Experts also say that DNA tests are a powerful tool although they are just as likely to raise some serious questions, and you may not be pleased with what you uncover. So, be prepared to get unexpected and even unsettling results.
A DNA test will not completely reveal everything about race and ethnicity
Although DNA tests will provide valuable information about your ancestry and even unknown relatives, the ethnicity is just approximations and not set in stone. Race and ethnicity are highly complex issues that are in more ways than one, outside of the genome.
How does DNA testing work?
Using a DNA test kit is fairly simple and is perfect if you’re afraid of needles and drawing blood. When you get the kit, you either spit into a vial or swab the inside of your cheek with the cotton swab and then send it back. You’ll receive your test results within a few weeks. However, the kind of results or the level of detail largely depends on the testing capability of the DNA testing company.
Autosomal testing is the most popular method of DNA testing. Also called the family finder, autosomal DNA testing examines 22 pairs of chromosomes that are not involved in determining a person’s sex. It is then utilized for cousin and distant relative matching and mixture percentages, or your ethnic mix, as well as typical genetic traits, such as transmissible diseases and hair kind. While autosomal testing can determine who your relatives are. Do take note that this is a mix of both the maternal and paternal sides of your family and doesn’t automatically identify which side of the family they came from.
The other terms that you need to know when comparing DNA testing services are:
SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism)
Genotyping is completed by calculating genetic variation. A common method is SNP genotyping, which computes the variations of a single nucleotide polymorphism. The more of these a company assesses, the more granular the analysis.
The Y-DNA test can only be run on men, and traces DNA back through the patrilineal ancestry, essentially from father to grandfather to great grandfather and so on.
The mtDNA is matrilineal and lets you track your ancestry back through your mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and so on.
Which DNA test is the most accurate?
Out of all the kits that are available for consumers, AncestryDNA has emerged as the best DNA test kit because of its ability to present clearer results and ancestry data in a convenient historical context.
Also, if you’re looking for distant relatives or even your biological parents, AncestryDNA claims that it has a DNA database that is comprised of over 18 million people, which considerably helps the odds of positive matches.
Does an at-home DNA test protect your privacy?
Not everyone feels comfortable about the idea of a company gaining access to arguably, the most sensitive piece of data that you can provide—your DNA. It is a concern that worries many: that a profit-driven company has access to your most intimate pieces of information.
It’s important to note that data collected through mail-in testing kits are not classified as official medical health data. This means that it is not under the protection of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA regulations. A company’s privacy protocol—which encompasses what data it will gather and keep, how much control you have and how to dispose of data—could be vague. Many permissions function through opt-in consent, which means that your returned cotton swab would be considered as a hard “yes” from your end.
Back in 2018, Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and other companies promised to get your expressed consent before sharing sensitive data with other people.
23andMe is pretty transparent about its partnership with pharmaceutical mogul GlaxoSmithKline to simplify drug development and Ancestry has also been working with Google Calico to research human longevity.
Should you get your DNA tested?
When the human genome was fully sequenced back in 2003, it opened the door for genetic testing to evolve into a lucrative multibillion-dollar industry. And with the advent of these convenient “direct-to-consumer” tests that do not need the green light from a licensed physician, the ability to explore your genes lies in the palm of your hands. Still, some questions remain, like is it really worth all the trouble to learn if you’re 50% Filipino? What is the substantial benefit to knowing that you’ll develop a disease from which there is no cure?
Several experts have expressed their approval but only if you completely know what you are getting yourself into. This means accepting all the risks involved such as:
- Imprecise findings
- Genetic risks that might never come to fruition
- Findings of diseases you can’t do anything about
- Unexpected findings especially about your parents
- Findings that may affect relatives who may not want to know
- The illicit use of your genetic information
- Crossovers between forensic and scientific databases that could erroneously link you to a crime
You should consider DNA testing if you meet standards that necessitate screening, have symptoms that imply a genetic origin, and there is some credible therapy that you can access. Given the intricacy of the method, you should carefully weigh each case. After all, not all DNA tests are equal, needed, or even helpful.
DNA tests we’d avoid
As mentioned, not all DNA tests are created equal but there are some that you should stay away from. Let’s discuss a couple in the section below starting with:
HomeDNA sells DNA testing kits under numerous brands like DNA Origins. It also has a considerable presence at known retailers like Walmart, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens. According to the company, its tests bring together genetic research and ancestral tracking methods that can determine the town or village where your ancestors came from with a high degree of precision. However, a lot of experts question this claim.
In fact, the company does not hold a glowing reputation in the genetic genealogy industry. One expert has even emphasized the company’s penchant for delivering bizarre results and casts doubt on the value of its specialized DNA tests for certain ethnic groups.
Also, HomeDNA reports are considered subpar when compared to those produced by other companies. The reports are recapped on a single page and show the geographical areas where your DNA originates. Aside from throwing in a standard 20-page explainer that discusses DNA science and technology, HomeDNA does not give you access to any matching databases, which means you can’t take the next possible step with regards to the results.
African Ancestry claims to have the most complete database of African lineages and vows to trace your ancestry back to a particular country to determine their “ethnic group origin.” However, several well-respected genealogists have raised issues with the company’s marketing claims and methodology.
For one, African Ancestry does not utilize an autosomal DNA test, eschewing that in favor of an mtDNA test or a Y-DNA test. And compared to the standard DNA analysis report, the company’s report does not identify the percentage of DNA that could have come from different regions. Instead, African Ancestry claims to be able to track your DNA to a particular region of Africa.
Experts, though, contend that African Ancestry’s DNA tests fail to deliver on its marketing promises. This was explained by African American genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas who said that the company’s procedure does not study an adequate number of DNA markers to follow through on its claims.
“Ethnicity is a complex concept, a concept not as rooted in genetics as it is in sociopolitical and cultural constructs. No DNA test can assign anyone to an African ethnic group or what some refer to as an ‘African tribe,’” said Christmas.
African Ancestry’s tests not only offer lower resolution results compared to others but they’re also more expensive. The company’s Y-DNA test and mtDNA tests are priced at a whopping $299 each. You also have the option of purchasing both along with an eight-pack of “certificates of ancestry” and a four-pack of t-shirts, for the mammoth price of $729.
It’s not all drawbacks with African Ancestry, though, as they maintain that they do not keep a database of client data, nor do they share your DNA sequence with any third party, which includes law enforcement agencies. African Ancestry’s terms and conditions are also well thought of as it runs more than 2,200 words, making it more comprehensive than any other company’s disclosure agreements. And lastly, the company is adamant about destroying your DNA sample once you receive your test results.
Still, even if you take the company’s view on tribal and ethnic genetic markers with a grain of salt, African Ancestry is too expensive to recommend to the average consumer.
The best DNA test kits on the market
Best for Health Information
23andMe offers a treasure trove of information regarding your genetics and hidden ancestry. This highly regarded DNA testing service also provides checks for genetic health risks and your carrier status for many conditions.
The Health + Ancestry Service tests for five common genetic health risks, which include Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 Diabetes, Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and Celiac Disease. Additionally, this plan will give you details regarding your carrier status for more than 39 other diseases. This service also features a Wellness report that evaluates your genetic predisposition for being over or under average weight. The company’s Traits report calculates your chances of hair loss and whether you are likely to favor a sweet or salty diet.
It’s crucial to note that, as 23andMe says, having a genetic marker for a disease does not mean that you will get the disease. Additionally, it is also possible that you can get the disease even if the test does not indicate that you have the recognized gene markers for it. Essentially, this DNA test kit will provide you with more information about possible health issues but they don’t necessarily forecast a vision of your future.
Using this DNA testing kit is fairly simple: you receive a test vial, log in and register it on their website, and provide saliva up to the control line. Make sure you don’t eat or drink for 30 to 45 minutes before providing your saliva sample. You then place the kit back into the integrated return envelope and wait for about six to eight weeks for it to process. You can also keep tabs on each step of the process online.
Best for Finding Ancestors
AncestryDNA is the clear-cut leader in the consumer DNA testing industry. Thanks to its massive genealogical pool, all other competing services simply pale in comparison. This is also the primary reason why the company can connect so many people. Since 1996, Ancestry DNA has accumulated an incredible 15 million DNA sets from over 700,000 locations in more than 1,000 ethnic regions. It’s considered the most suitable kit for specifying immigration patterns or for looking for biological relatives. In addition, results can be viewed whenever you please so long as you keep your subscription.
However, AncestryDNA is not without its drawbacks. People of East Asian lineage may not necessarily find what they’re looking for because of the small reference sample, although Asian regions were increased a few years ago. During that update, the company also categorized the expansive North and South America regions into 11 groups: Indigenous Eastern South America, Indigenous Cuba, and Indigenous Americas-Mexico.
And so, if you’re looking to link up with long-lost relatives, AncestryDNA’s incredibly large online family tree could provide answers that you have been longing for.
Best for Discovering Paternity
To be honest, paternity testing is something that is rarely taken under pleasant circumstances. It typically is done when you’re in the middle of a potentially life-altering chapter of your life. This is where the STK Paternity Test Kit shines as their discreet testing process can get you quick answers to questions you’ve long had in your mind.
The fact that this DNA test kit is very convenient is not lost on consumers as a swift swab of the child’s cheek and that of the alleged dad’s will get the ball rolling. The company pledges to deliver results within three to five business days after they receive the sample.
More astounding than the quickness with which STK provides the results is their astounding accuracy. So long as every step of the procedure is done properly, STK boasts a 99.999% accuracy rate, due to the high quality of the materials that are used. Furthermore, test results can be viewed online and a hard copy will also be discreetly sent to you so you can process the information in private.
Best Low Cost and for Building Family Trees
The MyHeritage DNA Test Kit is $20 cheaper than the AncestryDNA but you have to sign up for a subscription to gain access to the full results. They even require an upgrade for a complete picture of your genetic makeup. The MyHeritage DNA Test Kit, though, provides you with a significant amount of information. This includes a comprehensive snapshot of your ethnic background with data taken from 42 regions and then an all-inclusive DNA matching feature that can aid your search for relatives based on communal genetics.
This means you can acquire data and quite possibly connect with distant relatives. The great thing is the more people use this DNA test kit, the more possible matches you can make in the years to come. And you don’t have to pay additional fees to discover relatives.
MyHeritage provides you with a complete genealogical package, which includes DNA testing and matching, as well as family tree software that comes free of charge. In addition, its fun, easy-to-understand, and music-themed presentation of your results will show you where your ancestors resided on the globe.
MyHeritage simplifies every step of the consumer DNA testing process to let you better understand genetic results. The animated walkthrough lets you take the first step and then you can link an online family tree or try to link up with its almost four billion family tree members. If MyHeritage ever locates potential relatives, you’ll instantly be notified via email.
Best Dog DNA Test Kit
Embark’s breed catalog covers most dog breeds that are recognized by the American Kennel Club. Some street dogs and the gray wolf are also in there as well. Embark claims that its results have a stellar accuracy rate of 95% to 99% and they take a look at 110 times more genetic markers than any other dog DNA test kit, which means the results they provide are more granular. Another perk is Embark’s policy of contacting pet owners whenever there are worrying results, which is a service that its competitors don’t do. Also, their website is easy to navigate and has a shareable dashboard and downloadable report.
So there you have our recommendations for the best DNA test kits available today. Gaining more information about your genetic ancestry can be a pleasant and educational experience and these DNA test kits offer you the chance to get actionable information. By using the proper kit, you can study your results to gain a better understanding of your genetic makeup and help you find out what ailments your body might be susceptible to. And of course, the proper DNA test kit can help you discover the roots of your family tree.
What is DNA testing: Find out more about this now-accessible medical test
What a DNA test can and can’t tell you: Learn to temper your expectations by finding out what kind of information a test can give you.
How DNA testing works: Gain insight into the ins and outs of DNA testing.
Which DNA test is the most accurate: Find out which DNA tests offer the most accurate rate.
Protecting your privacy: Gain insight into this controversial aspect of at-home DNA testing.
Why you should test your DNA: Understand the pros and cons of testing.
DNA tests we’d avoid: No test is perfect, but there are some you should be wary of.
The best DNA testing kits: Our recommendations.
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