Genes are like the story and DNA is the language that the story is written in - Sam Kean
Carl Sagan, while alluding to the origin of humanity and our species shared provenance, famously said “We are all stardust”. Where we come from determines everything about who we are and will be.
We are made up of the scattered genetics of our ancestors and the lives they lived, their personal histories, and places they called home, which shape our lives and our destinies.
The past is just as important as the present and the future and the outcome of all of our tomorrows was ultimately determined long ago.
Humans are insatiably curious and because of that, we’ve always needed to know where we came from. The need to establish some sort of causal link with yesterday is, for most of us, far more important than where we’ll go or what we’ll do a year from now.
On an individual level, the more we know about our past and where our forebears came from, and who they were, helps us to understand who we are. Knowing who we are is part of the human condition and satiates and fulfills some primeval need deep within our souls.
And thanks to science, all of that knowledge is now freely available to us with a simple DNA test.
Actually, when we say simple, we don’t mean simple as testing DNA and genetic markers is neither simple nor straightforward and the only way you can really find out who you are, and where you came from, is by taking one of the highly specialized tests that a growing number of DNA testing companies offer.
But entrusting the essence of why you are to strangers and finding the right company among all of the firms offering the service can be daunting and more than a little worrying.
That’s why we, as devoted historians of our own lives, decided to pit two of the more well-known and established DNA testing firms, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA against each in a DNA showdown.
We sent them our samples and used their services in order to provide you with a clearer picture of what the process entails and which of them, was the better choice to help you to trace your ancestral and personal journey.
Before We Begin
For the sake of clarity, we feel that it’s only right that we mention that we used both firms to do the same test, which was a standard Ancestry test, as it would provide an effective benchmark that we could use to compare the service that both offer.
And if we’re honest, as it’s the most widely used service that both companies provide, we thought that it would yield a better overview of both 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA.
We started with 23andMe because they believe, as we do, that science should be fun for everyone and easy to understand.
It might sound a little crazy, but having that commonality was something that inspired us to trust them, and even though they’ve previously had a “difficult” relationship with the FADA that has now been amicably resolved, we thought we would go down the 23andMe route first.
As a company, they offer two main types of DNA testing, the previously mentioned Ancestry test and a much more involving and in-depth Health and Ancestry test, which is designed to locate and identify the specific genetic markers that make you more susceptible to various types of disease and illnesses.
The Ancestry test is widely available from a number of online sources, including the company’s website, and claims that it will test your DNA against two thousand genetic samples from all over the world in an effort to ascertain exactly where, and even when, your lineage began.
They also offer an opt-in service, which you fill in with the forms that come with the test can help to find missing members of your family that you never knew you had, by comparing the results of your DNA test to the staggeringly vast genetic database at their disposal.
The test itself was simple enough, It’s swab based, saliva test that anyone can do, you simply take the swab provided, wipe it in on the side of your cheek, put in the test tube (that’s also provided with the kit), seal it up, fill in the forms and send everything off to 23andMe.
The company states that it usually takes anywhere from around two to four weeks to get your results back, and stresses that the waiting period can sometimes take longer, depending on how busy they are.
As our test took around a month, we figured that we must have sent ours off during one of their busy periods and we weren’t too worried about getting our results back when we thought we would.
When they did arrive, we found that they were easy enough to understand thanks to the step by step guide to understanding the results that the company provides.
The results are both emailed to you and sent as a physical document, and having undergone the process before, we were fairly aware of our genetic makeup, and the 23andMe test didn’t tell us anything about ourselves that we didn’t already know.
While they go to great lengths to point out that their tests are usually ninety-nine percent accurate, there have been some instances of the 23andMe tests either failing to point out or identify commonly established familial history and facts.
In some cases the company has failed to provide results, climbing that they weren’t provided with enough genetic material to do an accurate test, which as they use a universal testing kit, would indicate that the fault lies with the client rather than the actual test itself.
The one thing that did cause a little concern was the amount of legal paperwork that 23andMe requires and the pre-registration requirement, the need for which was never fully explained to us in any sort of detail.
That said, the test we did with them was straightforward, simple and our results were exactly what we expected them to be, which just proved that DNA doesn’t lie.
Next up was FamilyTreeDNA. One of the first and longest established genetic testing firms, FamilyTreeDNA was born from an amateur genealogist, and entrepreneur’s desire to know more about his family history than he was able to discover from the records that were freely available to him.
An open book, just about everything that you could ever want, or wish, to know about FamiyTreeDNA, including staff profiles and a step-by-step guide to her testing process is readily available via a Google search.
Like 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA offers different types of DNA tests, that include a similar Health test that can be used to identify the genetic traits and markers that identify and isolate any particular risks that you might end up facing or encountering further down the road.
Unlike 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA also offers a much more specialized service that lets you trace either your mtDNA (the DNA that comes directly from your mother) lineage or your Y-DNA (the DNA that comes directly from your father) ancestry.
Both are incredibly thorough tests that can, and have, been used to trace absentee parents and can locate existing family members and fill in any historical and personal blanks that might exist due to individual circumstances.
As with 23andMe, the FamilyTreeDNA is a swab test that’s dependent on you sending the sealed sample of your DNA that you provide by using the swab to provide a sample of saliva, that you seal inside the provided tube and send back to them.
There is, of course, a lot of form-filling that you’ll also need to do, but it’s simple and straightforward and is used to both process your DNA and as a legal waiver to protect you, and FamilyTreeDNA.
The kit we used, the Family Finder, which is their equivalent of an Ancestry test, usually returns its results within two to four weeks, and as ours were back with us within three, we were pleasantly surprised by the speed and efficiency of the service that they provided.
Boasting a similar level of accuracy as 23andMe, that is ninety-nine percent, the results that FamilyTree provided were again, almost exactly what we expected them to be.
They were however a little more in-depth and easier to understand than we thought they would be which again, was another pleasant surprise.
Even though we were provided with an exemplary level of service, that included a promise never to share the results of our trust or our DNA with any outside agency, some people who have used FamilyTree have complained that the results they received weren’t as in-depth or as conclusive as they’d hoped they would be.
What the people who made those complaints were expecting to find out or were hoping to establish is slightly beyond our understanding, because as we’ve previously mentioned, DNA doesn’t lie.
Your story is your story and your results will lay it bare and tell all there is to be told without embellishing or dramatizing it.
To The Victor Go the Spoils… And The Test
Trying to choose between the, admittedly incredibly similar, services that both 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA offer isn’t easy.
Both companies are highly efficient at what they do, and take their client’s privacy and personal concerns about their testing protocols, security, and results incredibly seriously.
While we’re aware that there has been some internet generated chatter about 23ndMe supplying government agencies with DNA from their database, it is as far as we can ascertain and after a little digging on the web, entirely spurious and without merit.
As a company, they take their client’s privacy and information seriously, as do FamilyTreeDNA. Hence the amount of legal paperwork they ask you to sign and send back to them along with your sample for testing.
So if that was a concern, you can breathe easily, relax, and be safe in the knowledge that neither company will share your sample with any other agency.
That said, even though the service we received from both DNA testing was exemplary, due to the easy to understand and straightforward way that the results were presented and the speed with which they were delivered, we’d have to give the testing edge, this time at least, to FamilyTreeDNA.
But there’s always next time. After all, there’s no such thing as too much knowledge, and the more you know, the more you’ll understand about who you are and who you could be.