My Review of the 23andMe DNA Test

With a lot of changes going on, it’s time for a 23andMe review. This is a DNA test that I use and recommend to others. Here I will review some history and the key strengths and limitations of this test.

A Dual Focus on Health and Ancestry

23andMe began as a direct-to-consumer genetic health test. By looking for medically significant DNA markers identified in various published scientific studies, it measured your genetic risk for dozens of diseases.

I should add that the company has always cautioned that genetics are just one factor in whether or not someone actually develops a particular condition. And they now make it easy for users to connect with a genetic counselor to discuss their results.

In 2009, they introduced a revolutionary feature, now called DNA Relatives, that matched you with other people in the database who are genetically related to you. This launched the ancestry side of the test.

Autosomal DNA Testing for Genealogy

Unlike prior genetic genealogy tests that only traced the direct paternal or maternal lines, the 23andMe test examined “autosomal” DNA inherited from both parents.

It could identify genetic cousins from ANY branch of your family tree. Furthermore, it reported HOW MUCH DNA you shared and categorized your relationship, i.e. parent and child, full sibling, half sibling, first cousin, second cousin etc.

They also included an Ancestry Composition report to tell you the proportion of your DNA that came from each of 31 populations worldwide. That report is also capable of picking up Native American and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

Now One of Three Recommended Autosomal Tests

Since then, two other companies have introduced similar ancestry tests. Family Tree DNA launched Family Finder in 2010 and Ancestry launched AncestryDNA in 2012. Neither of these tests includes health-related reports; but each of the three tests has unique strengths and limitations.

Since most people only take one test, there is not a lot of overlap in the three databases. So if you stop at one test, you risk missing out on important matches in the other two. That’s why getting into all three databases is an absolute must for adoptees seeking biological relatives. Serious genealogists are also taking advantage of all three tests.

23andMe Strengths

This DNA test has attracted a huge database, approaching two million people in 2016. It’s the only DNA test to include FDA-approved health reports. And it’s the only autosomal test to also report your maternal haplogroup and (for males) your paternal haplogroup. As such, it is a good value even at a higher price than the other two tests.

Through some additional analysis, the Ancestry Composition report offers the most detailed breakdown of ethnic ancestry. For example, it can break Northwestern European into finer groupings such as British & Irish and French & German. Instead of just Southern European, it may show how much of that is specifically Italian.

They report the amount of shared DNA as a percentage, which most people find easier to understand than the more technical unit of centiMorgans. Your results let you see which segments on which chromosomes you share with others. You can see that in a table or in a visual representation known as a chromosome browser. 

A new feature lets you select a matching person and see relatives you have in common. That is a valuable tool for those planning to use advanced family tree analyses such as triangulation.

Limited Health Reports for Now

The current set of heath reports is more limited than what early users like me received. Of course, the earlier reports were not FDA-approved and today’s reports are. And recent users were not getting any health reports at all pending FDA action.

The most potentially valuable reports are the 35+ Carrier Status Reports that check for things you could pass on to your children.

We should expect more health reports to be approved and added over time. Users in Canada and the United Kingdom already receive many more health reports than users in the United States.

Lower Response Rates

Since some 23andMe users only tested for the health reports, you can expect a lower response rate when attempting to contact your matches for genealogy purposes. Yet the database is so huge that it still includes hundreds of thousands of genealogists.

What’s more, countless adoptees have reported success in finding birth parents and siblings through DNA matches they found at 23andMe. It’s an important tool that adoptees should not overlook.

Old and New Web Platforms

In October 2015 the company introduced Version 4 of its test and created an entirely new web platform for displaying and working with those results. In many ways the interface is simpler and visually superior to the old platform. Yet some features were dropped and others are only available to users on the new platform.

With the database split between two platforms, other problems ensued and there has been a lot of consternation among users. Many earlier users have been converted to the new platform already and the company has promised to convert most users by the end of August 2016.

They are also providing a means for those of us with the earlier set of health reports to preserve our results in a separate file.

Scientific Research

23andMe has always intended to use our COLLECTIVE genetic data for medical research through external research partners. Names and contact information are stripped out first.

You can opt out of the part known as the 23andMe Research project. Also note that answering their survey questions is voluntary.

Even so, some people object to their data being used for research without compensation. Personally, I would be thrilled if my genetic data played a small role in developing disease cures and more effective medical treatments.

Yes, 23andMe and their partners could eventually make a profit from this. But they would first have to risk millions of dollars in added research and testing.

If you are troubled by any issues related to the use of your genetic data, you can read the Research Consent Document and the Full Consent Document before you buy.

Overall, 23andMe remains one of my recommended tests.

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