It is indeed a sign of how far science has come that one can start off on a millennia-long ancestral journey using a little kit the size of a box of chocolates. The DNA collection kit from 23andMe, as tidy as a four-piece Whitman’s Sampler, proved to be a delightfully easy way to launch into genetic genealogy.
Before you launch into a DNA kit to learn about your heritage, it is advisable to sit down and mentally prepare yourself. The road ahead will inevitably contain surprises, perhaps even shocking ones. You might find that information you've been told over a lifetime is wrong. You might discover close relatives you never knew existed. Expect the unexpected. That's part of the beauty of the journey. As that sage from the 1994 film Forrest Gump intoned, "you never know what you're going to get." Indeed.
I used 23andMe's $99 Ancestry Service, which provides an analysis of where a person's ancestors lived more than 500 years ago, connects a person with genetically matched relatives and examines haplogroups: the origins of a mother and father's ancestral line. The company also offers a $199 Ancestry & Health package that includes information on inherited traits and medical conditions.
From opening the box to repacking it for shipment back to the lab, the whole process took no more than 30 minutes. It can actually be done much more quickly, but it is advisable to take the time to carefully read and follow the instructions.
My first surprise in receiving the 23andMe kit was the DNA collection method: saliva. I’d read much about genetic genealogy, but was thinking “test swab,” probably from watching too many crime dramas on television. (Other DNA services use the cheek swab method). I unpacked the kit and laid the components out on the desk. The heart of it was a collection tube with an ingenious flip cap that saves the consumer from having to measure or mix the stabilizing chemical solution with the saliva sample.
The user instructions that came with the kit were well illustrated and easy to understand. The brochure listed six steps:
Consume no food or drink for 30 minutes before collection; and do not brush your teeth before collecting your saliva sample.
Spit into the funnel at the top of the tube, making sure you deposit enough saliva to reach the fill line.
Close the funnel lid, making sure you press hard enough to that it clicks shut. As the lid closes, a stabilizing solution stored in the lid is released into the saliva sample.
Unscrew the collection funnel from the tube, and replace it with the screw-on cap. Shake the tube for 5 seconds.
Place the sealed tube into the collection bag containing an absorbent pad. Seal the bag.
Place the sealed bag containing the tube back into the original box for shipment.
There were a few housekeeping items to finish before I dropped the postage-paid box off at the U.S. Postal Service. I went on the 23andMe web site and registered my sample kit, using the 14-digit barcode on the collection tube. I wrote the code on a reference card that came with the kit. Then it was off to the post office to mail away my DNA. Two days later, I received an email that my kit was received by the lab.
Now to wait six to eight weeks for results. As I dropped off the box, it seemed the kit shared something with the proverbial box of chocolates from a scene in the 1994 film Forrest Gump. You never know what you’re going to get.
It can take up to six weeks for the DNA in the saliva samples to be extracted and put through a process called genotyping. The DNA is scanned using an Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 chip array that looks at hundreds of thousands of locations on the DNA and identifies variants. The company uses laboratories that are accredited by the College of American Pathologists and certified to meet federal standards for labs that test human specimens.
I was again surprised, after just 18 days, to receive notice that my ancestry reports were ready. It was a much faster turnaround than expected. I logged on to my secure account and dove head first into the informational reports:
Ancestry Composition — This report explains the proportion of DNA that comes from each of 31 populations across the globe. According to 23andMe, the results reflect where ancestors lived 500 years ago, before ocean-crossing ships became common. In my case, the report identified my DNA as 53.1% British & Irish, 21.9% French & German, 17.8% “broadly northwestern European,” and the rest a smattering of Scandinavian, Balkan, eastern European and even some Ashkenazi Jewish. On the large percentage categories, I had hoped for more specifics rather than “British & Irish” or “French & German,” but I had to remember these were populations as they existed before 1500.
Haplogroups — As the 23andMe web site explains, a maternal haplogroup is a family of mitochondrial DNA that is defined by specific variants. Or in less technical terms, a look at the maternal bloodlines. The paternal haplogroup does that same for the father’s ancestral line. I learned my maternal haplogroup is called H1a3, 13,000 years old that traces to Europe, the Near East, Central Asia and Northwestern Africa. My paternal haplogroup, J-M241, dates back 36,000 years to southern Europe, the Near East and Northern Africa.
Neanderthal Ancestry — 23andMe tests for nearly 2,900 variants of Neanderthal origins dating back 200,000 years. I have more than 320 variants. That’s more variants than 97 percent of other 23andMe customers. Even so, this accounts for less than 4 percent of my DNA. I found this strangely disturbing, but it’s a great feature and not offered by some of the other DNA kits out there.
DNA Relatives — Probably the most fascinating part of the results was the list of DNA relatives in the 23andMe database. At the top of my report was a shocker: “half brother, 26.2% shared, 48 segments.” Half brother? I should not have been totally shocked, since I am adopted. Still, I never considered I would find a close blood relative using a DNA test. Using the secure messaging feature of the web site, I reached out to him and shortly after, we had a long telephone conversation. He was also adopted. The next dozen or so matches on the list of more than 1,400 DNA relatives were fairly strong matches tied to my biological father. In fairly quick order, I made contact with some of them. This process led within 10 days, to identifying my biological father, so the kit has been incredibly successful for me.
You can unlock many of the reports on health status and personal traits by taking part in 23andMe’s research program. In exchange for answering questions about your family history, medical issues and other subjects (privacy is assured), you gain access to reports that predict things like lactose tolerance and carrier status for diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease. Again, this feature isn’t available on many other DNA home kits, but it was by far the most interesting and revealing feature for me.
The whole 23andMe experience was positive, enlightening and absolutely fascinating. The collection kit was simple, the results were fast and the reports delivered a wealth of ancestral information. It is well worth the $99 asking price (less if you wait for special deals). Raw DNA results can be exported and uploaded to free web sites like Gedmatch.com that could link you to more relatives. The 23andMe web site has very good content, including tutorials and articles on the basics of DNA and genealogy. The 23andMe products are a good place to start a DNA journey.