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Helix DNA 7A spit sample for a DNA test.Hollis Johnson
  • I tried DNA tests from 23andMe, Ancestry, and National Geographic to learn about my family’s history and my health
  • The tests vary in terms of what information they provide and how precise they are
  • Determine which test to try depends on what you hope to learn

I’ve sent my spit off for more genetics tests than anyone else I know.

These tests analyzed my saliva to find out a host of different things that my DNA can tell me about my ancestry and health. 

Genetic testing companies have proprietary sets of data and various ways of analyzing information, so each one I tried offered a distinct approach. One provided details about my great-grand relatives, while others listed how much Neanderthal DNA I have. 

Every so often, someone asks me which test I recommend. And my answer boils down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test? 

Let’s compare three direct-to-consumer tests: AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 test. 

23andMe gave me a comprehensive picture of my health and ancestry that keeps growing

23andMe kitLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

23andMe currently offers two versions of its test: The $199 version comes with health and ancestry components, whereas the $99 version just has the ancestry test.

To analyze your DNA, 23andMe uses a technique called genotyping. Humans have 3 billion base pairs of DNA in our genome — that’s a lot of information to sift through — so genotyping technology looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together.

The health reports can tell you information about your physical traits (like if you’re likely to have dimples or curly hair), wellness (how well you metabolize caffeine or if you’re a sprinter), and carrier status for certain genetic mutations.

The FDA now allows 23andMe to provide reports on a person’s genetic risk for certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In total, the test now has more than 74 reports, and more get added all the time. I often get emails telling me that a new test is ready for me — recently I got one that looks at my genetic health risk for celiac disease. 

With 23andMe’s ancestry reports, users have access to information about their ancestry composition (which geographic regions your genes align with), haplogroups (genetic populations that share a common ancestor), and Neanderthal ancestry. They also get access to something called a DNA Relatives tool, which 23andMe users can opt into to connect with other users and find out whether they have relatives in the system.

Screen Shot 2015 12 17 at 5.54.33 PMLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Verdict: If you’re looking at this test as a science experiment, using it as a way to get involved in research, or viewing it as a chance to learn about your genetic health risks, then this is a fit for you. (Though if you opt for the full test, there are some considerations patient groups and genetic counselors would like users to take into account.)

If you just want to know your ancestry percentages and how much Neanderthal variants you have, the $99 version is a good bet. But if ancestry is your primarily interest, read on.

AncestryDNA connects the dots between you and your ancestors 

AncestryDNA test boxLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Ancestry’s test, as its name suggests, is all about family histories and genealogy. You won’t find health and wellness reports in its $99 test, but you will find information about where your family comes from and how that lineage connects you to potential ancestors.

Like 23andMe, Ancestry uses genotyping technology to analyze your DNA. The service also helps you link up your DNA test to a self-reported family tree. 

There’s a lot to discover within that data — for example, I was matched up with ancestors dating back to the 18th century, and could explore how I was connected to them. 

Screen Shot 2016 03 30 at 4.41.49 PMAncestryDNA

If you simply want to know, say, what percent Scandinavian you are, Ancestry’s site makes it easy to focus on those numbers. Those who want to dig deep into family trees can do that as well. I would definitely consider purchasing this test for a relative who enjoys researching family history.

Ancestry has also added a DNA story element that maps out your ancestors’ migration patterns. My ancestors started moving to the Midwest in the US around 1825-1850. 

Screen Shot 2017 11 21 at 11.57.21 AMAncestryDNA

Verdict: If the idea of tracing your family tree through the generations and connecting with distant relatives gets you excited — but you’re less interested in health information — this is the test for you. 

National Geographic’s test uses next-generation sequencing technology to inform its reports

Helix DNA 1Hollis Johnson

National Geographic has an ancestry test called Geno 2.0.

The test — which currently costs $99.95 but originally was $199.95 — is different from AncestryDNA and 23andMe in that it uses next-generation sequencing instead of genotyping technology. 

Unlike genotyping, which just looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together, next-generation sequencing looks at only the protein-encoding parts of your genome, called the exome. The next-generation sequencing analyzes roughly 2% of those 3 billion base pairs. 

The additional information this technique picks up could lead to new, more specific genetic testing features in the future, especially as our knowledge of the genome and exome continues to grow.

Helix DNA 5Hollis Johnson

Based on next-generation sequencing, National Geographic’s test provides three ancestry reports.

  • Regional, which tells you where your ancestors came from more than 500 years ago. This didn’t get into as many specifics in my case as AncestryDNA and 23andMe’s tests did. 
  • Deep, which shows your ancestors’ migration patterns thousands of years ago.
  • Hominin ancestry, which tells you how much DNA you have in common with a Neanderthal.

The verdict: For what you get, the test doesn’t have nearly the range that other ancestry tests have. And when not on sale, it’s more expensive. National Geographic, however, says the revenue funds nonprofit “conservation, exploration, research, and education” efforts.

There are other ancestry tests I have yet to try

MyHeritage has a DNA test that’s currently going for $49 (originally $99). Its tests, like Ancestry’s, are focused on building family connections and trees. 

Others, like FamilyTree DNA (which offers tests from $59) are also geared toward people who want to find genetic links to relatives.

Each company has its own methods, algorithms, and data, which is why the reports differ. Because the three main direct-to-consumer genetics tests are around the same price, you should go with the one that will answer your most pressing questions.

This post was originally published in April 2017 and has been updated. 

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