Deciding to begin in-depth research into your family history often seems like a daunting process.
Countless people have an interest in learning about their origins but grow discouraged after doing some basic research online.
Studying genealogy is a very complicated ordeal sometimes, but this piece will try to explain one aspect of it.
A key part of finding out information on your ancestors lies within your DNA.
Now, thanks to relatively new techniques, we’re able to trace our genetic heritage back through centuries or in some rare cases even millennia.
Many, many companies offer some sort of DNA testing for interested people, but again, there are simply so many that the search can be very disheartening.
Which one is right? Whom should I trust to deliver accurate and timely results?
This piece will go in depth regarding the differences between two of the big players in the genealogy game, AncestryDNA and 23andMe.
Both of these companies stand as two of the biggest names that are sure to show up at the top of internet search engines. But what makes them special?
Before going deep into the weeds, let’s get something out of the way first: If you’re deeply interested in your family history, a DNA study is not necessarily the best place to start.
Keep in mind that DNA tests have both uses and limitations.
Simply learning that you are related to certain people doesn’t tell you much about their actual lives, stories, or personalities.
If you, like many people interested in their families, wish to create a family history, DNA doesn’t do that.
You’ll need to do additional archival and personal research to weave a narrative of stories through time. Doing this will actually breathe life into those long past.
DNA is best saved for later in your search, perhaps when you’ve identified specific people with whom you suspect but cannot yet prove a blood relationship.
Nonetheless, if you’re simply a bit curious about your genetic origins and don’t feel like undertaking rigorous research, a DNA test may be just what you need!
Now that I’ve mentioned that, it’s time to look into the differences between these two big DNA testing companies.
On a very basic level, AncestryDNA offers a fantastic variety of services meant to pinpoint family trees and ethnicities.
23andMe, on the other hand, is the best DNA test for health and wellness results, though their tests are also useful for other purposes. Now into the details.
- Offers only autosomal DNA testing
- Enormous database (6+ million)
- Ability to contact matches
AncestryDNA is a massive group of databases that contains data from genealogies, newspapers, and other sources.
In terms of DNA testing, AncestryDNA limits its expertise to autosomal DNA, the kind of DNA you inherit in a 50-50 ratio from your parents. That means that autosomal DNA is diluted by half with each generation.
As a result of this, autosomal DNA testing is not very useful for looking deep into the past, as it dilutes too quickly through the generations.
However, it is quite good up to around five generations. Plus, this type of test is fantastic for locating living family and relatives, as they will likely share a high proportion of their autosomal DNA with you.
The fact that AncestryDNA specializes in autosomal DNA testing makes them great for piecing together family trees and proving relationships.
AncestryDNA does not offer mtDNA and Y-DNA testing, which follow either female mitochondrial DNA or male Y chromosome DNA deep into the past.
Y-DNA and mtDNA are less useful for finding living relatives; they’re best-suited for looking deep into history.
For these reasons, AncestryDNA discontinued those tests several years ago, as they were expensive and did not fit AncestryDNA’s model of matching people with their ethnicities and living relatives.
The most basic result that AncestryDNA will provide you is an ethnicity estimate.
AncestryDNA offers results from 150 regions around the world, though you should take these with a grain of salt, as results can be skewed.
This is especially true since many Americans have ancestors from around the world, which can naturally confuse ethnicity testing. However, this basic result is a solid starting point for any detailed genealogical research.
All this testing is fine, but it’s limited by what you can do with the results, and this is where AncestryDNA truly shines.
This is because AncestryDNA has over six million DNA results all on file.
This huge database makes it more likely that you’ll find matches—second, third, and fourth cousins, for example!
Also, AncestryDNA allows you to locate and communicate with your matches.
If you’re primarily looking to form some sort of family narrative, what better way to do that than by actually meeting people?
AncestryDNA’s communication and database systems are the best parts of their services in that they allow for the creation of these stories, which simple DNA testing on its own cannot possibly do.
(If you’re more on the private side, rest assured that you have to agree to this service before finding anyone or letting them find you).
At $99, the basic AncestryDNA DNA kit and test is fairly reasonably priced and offers a solid starting place for research.
However, be aware that to continue using AncestryDNA requires a subscription service, so the cost of long-term use will add up over time.
Quite a few public libraries have subscriptions to AncestryDNA, so it’s a great idea to go there first and ask your local librarian about genealogical research.
A simple trip down the road could save you hundreds of dollars and might even turn up interesting archival materials to use while building your family story.
- Offers autosomal, basic mtDNA, and basic Y-DNA testing (bundled together)
- Large database (1+ million)
- Offers health screening
- Less good for family matching
23andMe offers a wider array of genealogical testing for interested people—autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA.
As with most genealogical testing companies, 23andMe offers an autosomal DNA test to find ethnicity and locate living relatives. However, 23andMe only has a limited ability to contact those with whom you match, unlike AncestryDNA.
So in this aspect, AncestryDNA may be preferable if you wish to contact your unknown relatives. On the other hand, if you’re a private person with no real desire to contact long-lost cousins, that might be just fine!
23andMe’s database is also large (1+ million).
Though that’s only one sixth of AncestryDNA’s database, it’s growing daily and one million is hardly a small pool. However, 23andMe is not primarily a testing service for autosomal DNA, though they do offer that.
The most defining feature of 23andMe is the fact that they are the only major genealogical testing company that offers health screening. Other companies simply don’t offer such a service.
Your results will cover four broad categories:
- Genetic health risks
- Carrier Status
Before we go into exactly what 23andMe offers its clients, I would recommend against getting tested for hereditary issues without consulting with a doctor.
These results can go between worthless and even harmful if not coupled with proper medical care.
This is because people will often try to self-remedy or fix the issue on their own, which can lead to more severe issues down the road.
Also, you should not be tested for hereditary diseases if you are not emotionally prepared for a positive result. Sometimes not knowing is better.
Furthermore, genetics aren’t necessarily destiny. Your wellness report might claim that you are predisposed to sleep poorly—but you can mitigate this predisposition with good sleep hygiene and a quality mattress.
Numerous lifestyle factors often play at least as large a role as our genes.
That said, knowing that you have a genetic predisposition for something like Alzheimer’s can be useful to begin treatment before the problem becomes serious.
Also, 23andMe’s testing can be used to identify recessive genes which you may carry that could lead to medical concerns in your descendants, such as Sickle Cell Anemia and Muscular Dystrophy.
Recessive genes are genes that you carry, but which do not manifest themselves in you. That’s because you have two copies of almost every gene (except the Y chromosome in males). A recessive gene requires two copies in order to manifest.
So, while neither parent may have Sickle Cell Anemia themselves, they may both be carriers, thus putting any child at risk. Therefore, this type of genetic testing could be useful for people who are considering having children.
Again, 23andMe is the only service that offers this type of medical screening to the public, and while you should speak with a doctor first, these tests could help you make major life choices.
These tests are an excellent starting point for a conversation with a doctor.
An important note to be made here is pricing. 23andMe does not offer this type of medical screening with their other basic services like autosomal DNA testing.
Medical tests will cost you more.
While their standard AncestryDNA and ethnicity test runs at a reasonable $99, their medical test bumps that up to $199, so be certain that’s what you want before shelling out your money for it.
As noted above, 23andMe offers mtDNA and Y-DNA testing in addition to the usual autosomal test, which again sets it apart from services like AncestryDNA.
These types of DNA track either the female or male line through history, sometimes very deep into history. An mtDNA test is not going to help you locate cousin Freddy, but what these tests do offer is a haplogroup.
A haplogroup is a lineage, again either through your male or female line, which ties you to a specific known ancestor.
An mtDNA test uses the DNA in your cells’ mitochondria to trace back your family’s female line.
Mitochondrial DNA evolves very slowly since it is not split with each generation. Discovering your haplogroup can let you find others within it, though this can be very difficult to prove.
The most famous example of this type of testing is the Y-DNA of the Jefferson family.
For centuries, there have been rumors that Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, had an illegitimate child with his slave Sally Hemings.
It has since been shown through testing of living relatives’ Y-DNA that there are indeed people of mixed-race living now with Jefferson’s Y chromosome.
Although it is impossible to know with 100% certainty whether that Y chromosome came from him or a close male relative, these tests do provide some corroboration of the theory.
Despite the limitations on Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, these tests are the best available for any search beyond six or seven generations, at which point autosomal DNA becomes imprecise and borderline worthless.
Also, these tests can be used to show relationships if two living people are members of the same haplogroup.
This testing can demonstrate a common ancestor, though of course, unlike autosomal DNA testing, will most likely say nothing about ethnicity.
That said, 23andMe offers only basic mtDNA and Y-DNA testing, so if that’s what you’re most interested in, you should consider a company that truly specializes in it (such as FamilyTree DNA).
However, if the idea of a bundled testing service (autosomal + mtDNA + Y-DNA) appeals to you—maybe you’re curious about what each test has to teach you—then 23andMe is a good choice.
Finally, bear in mind that Y-DNA tests can only be performed on biological males (who have Y chromosomes). If you lack a Y chromosome, your best bet is to ask your father or brother to take the test.
So in the end, which is the best option? As with many things, the answer depends on exactly what you want out of this.
Both AncestryDNA and 23andMe offer excellent autosomal DNA testing services. They can both identify your ethnicity and pinpoint living relatives.
However, AncestryDNA pulls ahead with their massive database of six million matches.
Not only is their database six times larger than that of 23andMe, but AncestryDNA gives you a great ability to contact those with whom you match, which further enhances their services, especially if your chief goal is to find people and create lasting bonds with formerly unknown relatives.
If you want to build your family tree and find your ethnicity, AncestryDNA is probably your best bet, especially when considering their absolutely massive database of matches and their ability to communicate with your lost family members.
While 23andMe does offer these services, they’re just not as huge as AncestryDNA’s are.
However, if you need to identify your haplogroup or do deeper historical research, then you need either an mtDNA or a Y-DNA test done.
Since AncestryDNA no longer offers these tests, 23andMe or a similar company is your answer for that distant relative, or a very distant cousin who may or may not be related to you.
Only these tests on slow evolving DNA types can help you there, as autosomal DNA is cut in half with each generation.
23andMe is the only service that offers a test for health-related genetic issues.
If you want to be tested for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, you only have one choice.
This type of testing can be incredibly useful for determining how to treat an oncoming issue, or just to allay stress by showing you not to be at risk for a problem.
Of course, these tests need to be used in conjunction with conventional medical treatment and are not a substitute for seeing a real doctor.
But being able to know that you are or are not a carrier for a disease caused by a recessive gene like Sickle Cell Anemia can be a powerful tool for someone to have at their disposal. In this case, knowledge is the power to mitigate an issue before it becomes a crisis, and for that, 23andMe is your answer.
But as I said in the beginning of this piece, don’t rely solely on genetic research.
If you really want to learn about your family, you’ll have to do some serious legwork researching archives and newspapers.
Ancestry does offer these services in addition to DNA testing, but the cost will continue to add up, whereas you could do much of that work on your own if you’re willing to spend many weekends in libraries and online.
If your final goal is to compile a detailed and accurate family tree, DNA testing is a useful tool to fill in the gaps of your history, the missing pieces of your narrative.
If, on the other hand, if you simply want to have your DNA tested for medical issues that may present themselves either later in your life or in any potential children, then yes, testing is probably a solid first choice once you’ve spoken with your doctor.
And if you take a casual interest in your family history, why not begin to explore your origins with a quick test?
Whichever test you end up choosing, you’re sure to learn a lot about your family and yourself in the process.
These tests can reveal quite a bit about where and who you came from, which can illuminate a piece of you that’s hard to see in daily life.