One of the best things about our technological advancement is how many previously niche services have suddenly burst into the mainstream. One popular trend that is quickly gaining an audience is DNA testing, which can reveal much about your heritage and your family tree. Testing is even trending on television, with several TV shows on the subject helping celebrities and normal people find out about their pasts and their family history, such as Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots.
Top DNA testing kits picks
DNA testing kits are a great way to learn more about yourself and your origins, and it’s also a fun way to become closer with family, discover new things, and even meet new relatives across the world who have also participated in the tests. Even better, they can make great holiday gifts for loved ones and friends while serving as a fun way to encourage deeper familial bonds. We have dived deep into DNA testing to uncover the best services, but before choosing a kit, learn more about DNA testing and how it works.
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DNA Testing – How Does it Work?
Although it may sound like a complicated and scary process, DNA testing kits for your home are surprisingly easy and quick to use. In fact, home DNA tests today don’t even require a blood sample in most cases. Instead, you simply need a sample of your saliva, which contains all the genetic material companies need for testing.
Most DNA testing kits available scan for three main things:
- Your family history and ancestry – This is the biggest appeal of popular DNA testing kits, and it can show you your family history, ethnic breakdown, and your even your ancestors’ migration patterns across the globe.
- Health and disease information – These tests look for genetic markers (segments of your DNA) that highlights conditions to which you may be predisposed. This is a smaller subset of home DNA testing kits, and it is still relatively new due to regulations and development.
- Relative identification – In addition to your ancestry, DNA testing services can use your genetic information to match you with relatives you may not have known you had. Keep in mind that this will be limited to others who use the same service as you.
Most companies that offer DNA testing today use autosomal testing, which is an easy and effective way to track a person’s ancestry. Even so, there are a few types of DNA tests that are worth understanding. These are three of the most widely used:
Autosomal testing is the most popular type of DNA test. This method is usually the one used as a “family finder”, and it tests 22 pairs of your chromosomes that aren’t involved in determining your sex. Companies can use these tests to match distant cousins and relatives, understand your ethnic makeup, as well as identify some common heritable traits such as eye color and hereditary diseases.
Y-DNA testing exclusively scans the Y chromosome (also known as the “male” chromosome) and traces a person’s paternal lineage (passed down from fathers). These tests are usually only available for males, as women don’t have a Y chromosome. However, a woman could still connect their DNA profiles to a male relative to compare their results.
mtDNA testing is the opposite of Y-DNA testing; it scans your maternal lineage. Both men and women can use this test, which scans your genetic history passed down from your mother. One of the benefits of these tests is that since maternal genetic material is incredibly hard to alter, you can scan your ancestry back quite some time.
Got a DNA Kit, What Do I Do Now?
The best thing about DNA home testing kits today is that they’re surprisingly easy and fast to take. Gone are the days when you had to have blood drawn and deal with needles. Instead, most tests today simply require a small saliva sample to give you accurate results. Even so, it can be a bit confusing to handle everything associated with getting that sample back to the company.
The first step is to choose the best DNA test kit for your needs. Once you have that, you’ll usually have to answer a short questionnaire and confirm some details. With that in hand, you’ll receive your DNA testing kit in the mail. The question is, what do you do now? The answer is simpler than you think. Here are the basic steps to follow (keep in mind that some companies may have slightly different processes):
- Open your DNA test kit and scan the contents – The first step is to see what’s in the box. You’ll usually receive a small instruction booklet, a posted envelope to return your sample and a few swabs or tubes and sealable plastic bags. Read through the instructions carefully as they include information about how to collect your samples and package them afterward. AncestryDNA and 23andMe, for instance, include saliva tubes along with sealed plastic bags to place the samples in once you've collected them. MyHeritage, on the other hand, uses cotton swabs for sample collection, and include small vials to place the swab tips after you’ve collected samples.
- Collect your DNA samples – This may sound scientific, but it’s quite simple. In most cases, you’ll receive a few swabs that you must swipe a few times on your cheeks and place them in packaging. Some companies may require that you spit in a tube and seal it.
- Register your DNA test – Before sending your test in the mail, you’ll be required to register your kit online. This is due to privacy concerns, as your test number is the only way to identify your samples and results to avoid your identity being stolen. All the major companies (AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and FamilyTreeDNA) require this step as a means to protect your privacy.
- Place your sealed DNA tests in the envelope and ship them – Once you’ve completed your registration and followed the instructions to complete your DNA test, all you have left to do is mail back your tests and await the results. It’s worth keeping in mind that while every company will give you an envelope to send back to their lab, not all include free shipping. 23andMe, for instance, requires you to provide postage and pay for shipping both ways. MyHeritage only requires you to provide postage for returning samples.
DNA Test Results and Their Meanings
The most exciting part of a home DNA testing kit is getting your results, but once you do see them you may be left a little confused as to what exactly they mean. Most companies attempt to keep their results information straightforward, but it can be quite a bit to take in if you’re not familiar with the subject matter. Before diving into your test results, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Men and women have different results. This is because while men have both an X and Y chromosome, women, who have two X chromosomes can only trace their maternal line.
- Different companies may show their results differently. If you’re comparing your results with someone else, don’t be alarmed if things look strange on one of the result pages. While the information is likely similar, they way it’s presented may throw you off.
- You shouldn’t expect 100% accuracy. While these tests are a great way to learn about your family history, it’s worth noting that they’re by no means a definitive book on your genealogy. That said, they’re a great way to compliment your family research.
Once you get your results, the first thing you’ll likely see is your ancestry and ethnic breakdown. This is usually displayed as a map showing relevant regions or as a chart that gives you a numerical breakdown. Your ancestry breakdown will usually show your familial history along with potential migration patterns, as well as a more detailed view of your family’s genetic composition.
Some companies like 23andMe and TellMeGen, may also include information about medical and genetic predispositions depending on the test you’ve selected. This will usually be accompanied by some explanations and more detailed looks. It’s important to remember that while these tests may be shocking (finding out you have a genetic predisposition to a potentially life-changing condition always is) but before panicking, you should consult with your physician to understand what these tests may mean for you.
Companies like MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and Living DNA (among others) will also let you go deeper once you have your results back. Many include a useful relative search that lets you see if other people who are genetically related to you have also taken the test. If so, you’ll be able to see them (if they have opted in, and you have) to build a better genealogy. DNA services usually do not share contact information, so you may have to use a different service if you wish to connect with them. Additionally, many also let you input the information you receive into genealogy software to help you branch out and build your family tree.
How Do We Test DNA Companies and Services?
Despite the relatively new field of DNA testing, there are already many services that offer similar testing kits and features. However, they don’t always deliver on what they promise, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to find the best and most reliable services on the market. Our expert reviews focus on a few factors to determine how well these companies perform:
- Breadth of Services – How many different tests and options does a company offer? While you may only be looking for your ancestry, it’s nice to know that the company you’ve chosen offers different alternatives, post-testing services, and more. It’s important that testing companies give you variety.
- Depth of Services – More than simply listing a number of tests, it’s crucial that the companies deliver on those services they do offer. Additionally, we’re looking for how deep these services go into tests using your genetic material. Surface-level may be okay for some, but if you’re taking a DNA test, you’re likely expecting to learn something you couldn’t have otherwise.
- Reliability – Finally, we look at how efficient testing services are delivering both the initial test and your results once they’ve been sent back. With so many companies offering similar services and features, the speed surrounding the process is a big factor to consider.
No matter which testing service you choose, you should always conduct your research first. Explore our expert reviews and see what others are saying in our DNA testing user reviews.