For years, family history research required laborious on-the-ground research (possibly including trips to multiple homelands) and/or assistance from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It was delving into birth and death records, hunting down immigration papers, and contacting living relatives previously unknown.
In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a powerful new tool has become widely available — DNA testing. With a cotton swab to the inside of your cheek (and weeks of waiting for the sample to be analyzed), you can get a breakdown of your ethnicity by percentage. If you ever suspected that there were some surprises in your family history, it’s a great way to figure out where to start that research.
Well, it’s a great way if it’s accurate, that is. And that’s a funny question in DNA testing, because it’s an inherently inexact science — getting different results from different testing companies isn’t so much a knock on any one test as it is something to be expected in these early days of genetic testing.
Why’s that? We’ll get into it as we go through our Living DNA review, a look at one of the newer companies in the DNA testing world. The UK-based test used to be higher priced than others at $159, but a price cut to $99 has now become permanent. Being young, the company admits that its results are still limited, but it’s also potentially one of the more detailed tests, those results will improve over time, and it might just be the one to choose if you’re worried about data privacy.
Thanks to Living DNA, for sending out this test free of charge for us to review.
UPDATE 02/01/2018 – The post has been amended to confirm that the price cut from $159 to $99 is permanent.
The testing process doesn’t take much effort on your end — Living DNA sends over a testing kit that includes a cotton swab, a plastic tube that seals that swab to prevent contamination, and a packet to use to mail the sample back to one of Living DNA’s testing sites. It’s a waiting game from there — Living DNA advertises that they put results up 10 to 12 weeks after receiving your sample, so all in all you could have to wait for up to three months. Once the sample has been analyzed, Living DNA will make your results accessible through their website, which is locked to an account you create with them when you first receive the test.
Like with most DNA testing kits, you take that swab and roll it around your cheek a few times before sealing it away. I really got in there and twisted it a bunch of times, because measure twice cut once, but either way the process of opening the kit all the way to sending it out in the mail takes a handful of minutes.
Living DNA differs in part from other testing companies in that they do three tests. The autosomal DNA test is the most common — that one looks at the genetic information stored in the 22 chromosome sets everyone has in their DNA, which can offer up a lot of general information about your background.
The other two tests help give more information about your father’s side and mother’s side. The mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA) looks at the part of your DNA that comes from your mother unaltered — it’s one of the rare parts of your DNA that isn’t a combination of DNA from your mother and father. The test for the father’s side is, unfortunately, only available to males — it relies on genetic information from the Y chromosome. If you remember high school biology (don’t blame you if you don’t), women have two X chromosomes, while men have an X and a Y.
Before we get into the results, it’s worth asking a basic question — how do these tests even work? Testing companies like Living DNA build huge databases of genetic information from people around the globe. These databases are filled with people with verifiable family ancestry — for example, someone from Germany who knows that all of their ancestors from generations and generations back are from Germany (sometimes down to a specific region).
The test compares your DNA with the DNA of people in those databases, revealing who around the world living today you’re most genetically similar to. That process means that the results will never be exact — every testing company, Living DNA included, is only giving you an approximation of your ethnic makeup based on similarities found between you and people in their database. Because each company collects their own data, each testing company will give you slightly different results. That doesn’t mean one testing company is better than the other — depending on luck more than anything, one person could get the most accurate results from Living DNA, while the next could get the most accurate results from another company like 23andMe or AncestryDNA.
Making it even more frustrating, even if you took multiple tests, there’s no real way to say for sure which results are the most accurate. There is good news, though — these testing companies, Living DNA included, are continuously working on building up their databases. As they do, your results online will change, becoming more accurate and detailed. You get those improvements without paying for another test, and Living DNA doesn’t charge for a subscription — they just have the one-time fee for the test itself.
One more thing to think about: usually, we think of ourselves as being 50% mom and 50% dad, 25% of each of our grandparents, and so on. While the former is true, the genetic mixing over generations means that your DNA isn’t necessarily 25% of each grandparent, with things getting more uncertain past that. Even if you know you’ve got a distant ancestor from Norway, you might not see any Norwegian in the results if those particular genes never got passed down to you.
Living DNA is big on using graphics to help make their results easier to understand at a glance, but there are plenty of ways to dive in deep, too. The results are split into three parts, covering family ancestry, the motherline, and the fatherline (respective to the three tests they do).
The family ancestry section is what you’d probably expect from a test like this — a breakdown of your ethnicity by country or region. You can see this on a map or a cool little body visualization using dots to represent bits of your DNA. Living DNA lets you look at three levels of certainty — the more certain the results are, the more vague they will be (mine went from 89.6% European and 10.4% Near East to 89.6% European and 10.4% unknown). But, that’s just for the global results — from there, you can view regional and sub-regional results, where you’ll start seeing individual countries and regions within countries.
It’s here that Living DNA’s own ancestry becomes important. The company is based in the UK, and their databases are deepest for their home country. In my results, my Italian heritage was broken down into a few sub-regions, while my British heritage was listed in great detail, identifying percentages for many smaller regions within the UK. That brings up a big warning — whether or not you should pay for a test depends heavily on what you know about your ancestry. If you know you’re mostly British or continental European and want to know more about your family history, it’s probably worth it. If you know you’re of mostly African, Middle Eastern, or Asian descent, it’s not worth it right now (Living DNA or anyone else). Good example of why not: a friend of mine told me a story about how her cousin tried one of these DNA tests (not Living DNA’s), knowing that her heritage was mostly Chinese. The test very helpfully told her that she was almost 100% “Asian.” Living DNA might have better results, but in general, it might still be a good idea for people of non-European heritage to wait until these companies have bulked up their other databases.
If you do take a test like Living DNA’s, your experience with the results will vary. Some won’t be surprised by their genetic makeup, some will have suspicions confirmed, and others will have some shocks that will send them toward family research they never knew they needed to do. I’m in the second group. Before taking the test, I knew my dad was some mishmash of European (mostly British), with my maternal grandparents both being Italian immigrants. They came from southeastern Italy, so my mom and I have long figured that we had some Turkish ancestry because of the history of war and trade between the two regions. That was pretty much how it played out — Living DNA had me being mostly British and Italian, with some scattered European influences and a little bit of Turkish and Kurdish. But, it’s possible that Living DNA is overestimating the British side because their database is so heavily British — my results could very well change as Living DNA improves.
You can also look at a timeline that shows you how similar you are to other people in the world at different points in history. It’s probably not as helpful for ancestry research — it’s more to drive home the point that if you go all the way back to the dawn of man, we’re all super similar to everyone else on Earth. We’ve all got the same roots!
Speaking of roots, that what you’ll find when you check out the motherline and fatherline results. You can see migration maps for both — everyone’s ancestry starts out in the Horn of Africa, with migration taking our ancestors all around the world over thousands of years. Both results also identify your haplogroup, which basically refers to your family tree — haplogroups are made up of people who share the same distant (or near) ancestors. Some companies offer relative matching to help you meet long-lost relatives, but Living DNA does not at this time (it could in the future).
The results will also tell you what percentage of each country’s population is made up of your haplogroup. In my case, my maternal haplogroup was most common in Brazil, at 5% of the population. For me, that could mean that a lot of people genetically similar to my grandmother ended up migrating to Brazil, which is plausible. It’s a string I could tug on if I wanted to, which is the whole point of these DNA tests — they don’t give you certainty, they give you leads that you can follow up on with more research.
It’s fair to worry about data privacy when it comes to your DNA. While Living DNA does not include any medical information in their results, DNA testing can uncover predilections for diseases and disorders. It’s something that insurance companies and employers alike could use to alter their pricing or hiring decisions, and that’s worth worrying about — H.R. 1313 is a bill currently sitting in the House of Representatives, and if it becomes law, it would remove a previous regulation blocking insurance companies from accessing that information. At best, employers could use the information to improve wellness programs and insurance companies could offer plans tailored to an individual’s potential health risks. At worst, employers could use the information to avoid at-risk employees and insurers could use the information to jack up premiums. I’ll let you decide which is more likely.
There’s also the possibility of your genetic information being sold to advertisers — hi, genetic-based targeted ads! A lot of testing companies retain control of your information, which could put you off trying one out altogether. If that’s the case, Living DNA might be a good option. Their current policy is that you retain control of your data, and that they will never share it with third parties (they also let you download the raw test data, if you want).
I chatted with Living DNA Managing Director David Nicholson about the test and privacy concerns, and we touched on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Going into effect this May, this wide-reaching set of European Union regulations demands that all companies that process the data of EU citizens must, among other things, get consent when they want to do anything with private data. Nicholson assured me that Living DNA would be complying with the GDPR regardless of what happens with the UK’s exit from the EU.
Living DNA hopes their privacy policies will keep customers on their good side. There’s one other way they try to do that — if a test result is particularly shocking, they have genetic counselors on hand who can help talk people through the results, what they mean, and how they might continue their research if they wish to. It’s a nice little personal touch, and combined with the promise of continuous improvements to test results, Living DNA comes out looking like a solid choice if you’re interested in trying genetic testing. It’s not perfect, but nothing is when you enter the world of ancestry research — Living DNA is, at least, as good a place to start as any.