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I’ve taken AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic genetics tests — here’s how to choose one to try

I’ve taken AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic genetics tests — here’s how to choose one to try

A spit sample for a DNA test.

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A spit sample for a DNA test.
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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.
  • I’m often asked which test I’d recommend. My answer boils down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test?
  • From migration patterns, to how much DNA you have in common to a Neaderthal, here’s what you can learn from each report.

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

The tests analyzed the DNA in my saliva to find out a host of different things 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 kit

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Lydia 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.

In February, 23andMe updated its ancestry reports to provide more specific regional information. My report used to specify just Scandinavian ancestry, but now specifies Norway as a country where my ancestors lived within the past 200 years. The company also maps out how many generations ago you may have had ancestors from a particular region. For example, I may have had a Finnish ancestor sometime in the mid-to-early 1800s or late 1700s, while my French and German ancestors date even earlier.

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23andMe

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 – especially now that they’re more exact – and how much Neanderthal variants you have, the $99 version is a good bet.

AncestryDNA connects the dots between you and your ancestors

AncestryDNA test box

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Lydia 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.

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AncestryDNA

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.

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AncestryDNA

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 1

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Hollis 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 5

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Hollis 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.

Privacy considerations

Another aspect to take into account when deciding which DNA test to take is the issue of privacy. The tests do, after all, deal with information that’s fundamental and unique to every individual.

In a blog post published December 12, the FTC recommended reading the fine print. “If you’re thinking about buying an at-home DNA test kit, you owe it to yourself – and to family members who could be affected – to investigate the options thoroughly,” it says.

James Hazel, a post-doctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, has been looking into the privacy policies of consumer genetics tests. He said the FTC’s suggestion is very important.

“We are good at clicking ‘agree’ and not reading the terms of service,” he told Business Insider in December.

Questions to keep in mind when reading through the terms of service include:

  • Who owns your DNA?
  • Who gets to see your de-identified (not attached to your name) information?
  • How is the data that’s tied to your identifiable information used?
  • Can you opt out of giving research partners your genetic data?
  • Can you wipe your information after taking a test?

There are other ancestry tests I have yet to try

The DNA-testing field is exploding. In the past few years, the number of people taking DNA tests has picked up pace. More than 12 million people have had their DNA sequenced, and almost 10 million of those tests have happened since 2016. With that, there’s likely a growing number of tests emerging that I haven’t had a chance 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 to reflect changes to the DNA tests.

I revisited my 23andMe results that can now tell whether you may have an increased risk of cancer — here’s what it was like

I revisited my 23andMe results that can now tell whether you may have an increased risk of cancer — here’s what it was like

Me, submitting a sample of my spit for a DNA test. I didn't have to submit new saliva to get the updated results.

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Me, submitting a sample of my spit for a DNA test. I didn’t have to submit new saliva to get the updated results.
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Hollis Johnson

Back in 2015, I decided to send my spit to 23andMe, the company that sells direct-to-consumer genetics tests.

The test gave me information as varied as how much DNA I share with our Neanderthal ancestors, how much caffeine I most likely consume, and whether I may have a unibrow. It also let me know whether I’m carrying certain genetic variations related to diseases that could be passed on to kids.

In April of last year, the US Food and Drug Administration told 23andMe it could start providing reports revealing whether you have certain risk factors for developing diseases including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

A year later, the FDA gave 23andMe clearance to tell consumers about their risk of cancer – specifically about three BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that are associated with an increased risk in breast and ovarian cancer. The test has genetic counselors and scientists concerned, because there are thousands of mutations associated with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and this test screens for only three of them most commonly found in people of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent.

The version of the test that includes the health reports costs $199, while the ancestry test alone is $99. Here’s what it was like:


I first received my 23andMe test in 2015. Because I had already submitted my sample, I didn’t have to repeat the process to get my reports on health risks in 2017 or on BRCA mutations in 2018.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

That meant I didn’t have to resubmit a sample of my saliva, which was convenient. Spitting into the tube had taken me about five minutes the first time around.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Before I shipped my spit, I registered online. I also got to decide whether I wanted to have my DNA used to research treatments for diseases. In the spirit of science, I decided to consent and sign the form.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

When I got my original report in 2015, I had 62 reports waiting for me based on my 23 pairs of chromosomes from mom and dad. The reports covered everything from family history to physical traits and genetic variants related to diseases that I could pass down to my kids.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

When I logged in to my 23andMe account in 2018, I was surprised to see that the number had increased to 81 (this is including the genetic-health-risk tests I opted into).

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23andMe

The new reports are available only to 23andme customers who had tests done on the company’s newest genotyping chip. That’s the vast majority of customers who were tested by late November 2013, according to a 23andme spokesman.


Of course, I still had the basics, such as my ancestry breakdown. This time, my results were even more specific, breaking down my Scandinavian ancestry into my Norwegian heritage specifically.

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23andMe

Learn more about ancestry tests.


Notably, more wellness reports were available than was the case when I most recently checked. In 2015, I spent time investigating my muscle composition, which told me I wasn’t a sprinter.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Now, however, there were reports about my sleeping and eating habits. When it came to the genetics behind my weight, my results weren’t entirely unexpected — I had gotten the same results from another DNA test I took.

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23andMe

Review of Pathway Genomics Fit test.


Back when I first took the test, the most controversial part was the carrier-status test, which tells me whether I carry a variant that could be passed down to my children, resulting in a genetic disease. These were the tests the FDA needed to approve. 23andMe was very thorough in its presentation here, making it clear that the tests couldn’t be used to inform my own health.

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

But in 2017, I had access to my genetic health risks, which could tell me whether I personally had an increased risk of getting certain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. My heart pounding, I clicked on a link that took me to the reports. Not everyone has to get the test. If you’re not ready, you can select “ask me again later,” and if you really never want to see the results, you can opt out entirely.

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23andMe

You can also choose to opt out of just the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s reports. Because the two neurodegenerative diseases have few treatments, getting the report could cause more anxiety than necessary.

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23andMe

On these two, I opted to defer. I made the decision after speaking with representatives from patient groups in 2017, who clarified what the reports could tell me and what I might want to do before looking at them.

For both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, age is a bigger risk factor than genetics. With Parkinson’s, if I had a variant related to the disease, my risk of getting the disease would certainly be increased, but not by much.

Keith Fargo, the Alzheimer’s Association director of scientific programs and outreach, told Business Insider in 2017 that the Alzheimer’s report, which would tell me whether I had a mutation on my APOE gene, was more useful in the context of research than it was for predicting who might get the disease. And as I mentioned, I had allowed 23andMe to use my DNA for research purposes, so it was already getting put to use.

I also kept in mind my family history of one of these diseases. If I decide to view my results, I will plan on speaking with a genetic counselor before proceeding.

Another factor I noted was life insurance, something 23andMe’s report brings up as well. While genetic testing can’t prevent you from getting health insurance, life-insurance policies can use the information to deny your application. Since my results won’t be changing, I decided it would make the most sense to wait to get the results until I get life insurance. As long as I don’t know, there shouldn’t be a way for life insurers to find out.


Had I decided to see my results, 23andMe would have asked once more whether I was sure. This would have spelled out what exactly the risk window would be. If I had the highest risk, I’d have a 60% chance of developing Alzheimer’s by 85. Right now, roughly one-third of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s.

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23andMe

Had I chosen to see my Alzheimer’s results, they may look like this.

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23andMe

When I logged back in in 2018, I saw that there were now three health reports to choose from. Because I had fairly good reason to believe that I wouldn’t have one of the three variants, I decided it wouldn’t be a big deal to click through and see my results for that test.

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23andMe

When I spoke with a genetic counselor about this, she told me her bigger concern was that if someone of Scandinavian descent (like me) tested negative but did have a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, the person may not fully understand that he or she still could have a mutation, just not in the three tested. So I paid close attention to a paragraph explaining that the results of the report didn’t mean my risk of cancer was reduced.

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23andMe

Read more about the concerns over 23andMe’s cancer genetics test.


Cancer is a complex condition, and it can be caused by numerous factors — genetics being just one part of that. Should I have a mutation on BRCA1 or BRCA2 (identified by this test or elsewhere), the presence of a mutation doesn’t necessarily mean I have cancer, just that the chances are higher. For example, in the US, the average woman has a 7% of chance of getting breast cancer by age 70. That escalates to 50% if the woman has a mutation to her BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. As part of my BRCA tutorial, 23andMe explained how different factors increase cancer risk.

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23andMe

Source: CDC


Further down the page on my BRCA results, there are resources for how to communicate the information to family members and physicians and how to get in touch with a genetic counselor.

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23andMe

Here’s a resource for finding a genetic counselor.


Afterward, I checked out my other genetic-health-risk reports. My results for Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and celiac disease showed up on the same page as my BRCA results. On this page, I could also revisit whether I wanted to see my Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s results.

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23andMe

The takeaway: It was fascinating to pop back in to my account and see new reports. I feel grateful that I don’t have to see my Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease results, but I can still choose to check out my BRCA results — albeit with the big caveat that they’re likely to be negative anyway. Either way, it was fun to check in on my Neanderthal results.

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23andMe

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