A word about DNA testing…

The most frequent question I get from researchers who are relatively new to genealogy but have already heard about DNA testing is what DNA company do I test with or what is the best DNA company? The last thing I would want to do is to go into a prolonged lecture about the importance of the paper trail as this is rather obvious, but I do want to say a few words about necessity of doing your homework before getting yourself into DNA testing world.

DNA testing has become so overwhelmingly popular, that everyone gets tested without giving a second thought to it or asking themselves what they actually need this for. As genealogists, we are concerned that some users will take these tests for entertainment without a basic understanding of what tests have to offer or a particular goal in mind. They will never come back to the results they once glanced upon and, moreover, would never respond to the desperate inquires of their DNA matches trying to figure out the relationship. Although, we cannot do much about this type of users, we do hope that the rest of users would want to obtain some understanding of what the test results can offer and how to use them.

First of all, please establish for yourself why you think you want to do a DNA test: are you unsure what your ancestry is? Do you expect a few surprises or do you want to confirm the family lore that your great-grandmother ran away with a handsome Cossack? Did you hit a brick wall while working on your family tree and hope that by working with your DNA matches you can break through the block? Or maybe you need to confirm a speculative relationship and have your potential cousin and yourself tested for it… ?

I have to warn you and ask to please be reasonable in your expectations. I hear very frequently complains that the test results are too vague and do not provide specific countries and towns where the ancestors lived (did you expect to see the house number and street name on this report as well?). Our ancestors were moving so frequently from one place to another in search for a better life for their families and they were marrying within such a tight community that I highly doubt it would be possible one day to narrow down the places where our ancestors lived. There is a lot of information not only on the testing companies’ websites, but in genealogy blogs as well, where one can see what level of detail these reports contain. Please do yourself a favor and check these examples so you have proper expectations.

Once you know what you want from the test, you would need to look into a list of companies to choose one that you want to get tested with. I am a member of multiple genealogical groups and I can see this question pops up, if not every day, then rather frequently: what DNA testing company is the best? I can see how many of experienced researchers grind their teeth every time they see this question, but let’s be honest: it’s not an easy one. Although, there are not that many DNA testing companies out there, the answers to this question could vary as there are different considerations that one has to keep in mind while choosing the right company that fits your budget and/or your goals. Given that most researcher never dealt with this side of genealogy, it can become overwhelming to say the least.

Even though there is no single answer to all situations, I usually recommend starting with the DNA companies’ comparison chart presented by ISOGG . The fields that one would want to consider at first would be

  • the number of people in the database,
  • upload of raw data file allowed from other companies,
  • method of collecting DNA sample, and then the rest of the fields depending on one’s specific goals.

Ancestry DNA has been leading for years when it comes to the number of users of the DNA feature – 9,000,000 users, 23andme follows with 5,000,0001.200,000 in MyHeritage DNA bank, 850,000 in Family Tree DNA (according to ISOGG data as of 7.5.2018). Although, I keep hearing here and there that Family Tree DNA is the best company for Jewish research because it has the largest Jewish DNA pool, I am being skeptical here as there is no official statistics confirming this statement and the fact that its DNA bank is less than 1/10th of that of ancestry makes me doubt this statement even more.

Once you made your choice and got tested, the next step would be to upload your raw results (as soon as they are available) to as many places as possible. As an example, say ancestry is your choice, you got the results of your DNA test, uploaded them to Family Tree DNA, Gedmatch and Genesis Gedmatch, MyHeritage, geni.com – FREE, etc.

Your bottom line spend would be: $79 (discounted from $99) and you gain the access to 9,000,000 + 1,200,000 + 850,000 + both Gedmatch DNA pools. As a comparison, had you decided to go with Family Tree DNA, you would have spent $69 to gain access to Family Tree DNA database 850k +1.2Mln MyHeritage+ two Gedmatch DNA Pools. The difference is obvious…

In addition to your desire to get exposed to as many DNA tested users as possible, you probably would want to get your ancestry break out as accurate as possible. The larger the company DNA pool is, the more accurate your ancestry picture should be. According to the ISOGG, on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the most accurate and sophisticated bio-geographical ancestry analysis and 1 is poor, 23andme is rated 7, while the rest of the companies are rated within 2.5 to 4 range. I understand that these are just dry numbers, so to illustrate what I am talking about, here is an example of someone’s ancestral composition reports from 3 DNA companies.


If you look at the percentage of Italian ancestry presented by these three companies, you will see that it ranges between 12% and 0.4 and 0. Quite a difference! So, if your budget is $79-99 and you are interested to get an accurate report on your ancestry composition, MyHeritage DNA probably may not be your first choice, at least not yet.

I mentioned above that one of the factors you want to consider among the first ones is what method of DNA collection the company uses. When it comes to Jewish genealogy, it is recommended to test the eldest people in the family to reduce endogamy impact (as if that was possible!). Unfortunately, you may run into this kind of issue with the tests requiring saliva collection when you try to test elderly ancestor or relative:

Dear XXX,Our laboratory received your second saliva sample, but could not successfully analyze it for the same reason that produced the first analysis failure, the concentration of DNA in the saliva sample was insufficient. The laboratory made multiple attempts to obtain sufficient DNA for analysis but was unable to do so.

As this is the second low DNA failure, we are unable to send you another sample kit. There are no known additional steps that would increase the chance of success with a third sample. A full refund, less shipping and handling, is available to you.

Get your refund now []
The 23andMe Team

If you get the above message, you know you need to go with the cheek swab test.

If you are residing outside of the United States, you may need to do some research about what countries allow DNA testing and what countries require special processing, not to mention that the shipping charges vary significantly from one DNA testing company to another. Here is some information you may want to read to make an informed decision.

  • FTDNA Shipping DNA tests worldwide https://www.familytreedna.com/learn/ftdna/shipping-dna-tests-to-international-destinations/
  • 23andme https://eu.customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/204712980-What-countries-do-you-ship-to-
  • AncestryDNA kits currently cannot be purchased in one country and shipped to another. Shipping the DNA test back in extremely hot or cold temperatures should be fine, but if your test fails at the lab for any reason, we will provide a free replacement test.

Once again, please do your homework and research what all these companies have to offer. Keep in mind that there is no perfect answer to the question “what company to test with?” as you would never guess what company your potential close cousin will choose to test with. What you can do is to get your DNA into as many databases as possible to increase your chances of finding this close match.

If you survived reading all these tips, you are ready to take a DNA test! We shall discuss what to do with test results in the next article.

Please note that Find Your Cousins is not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned above. 

Originally published on June 6. 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *