So You Want to Take a DNA Test…
There’s been nothing short of an explosion in consumer DNA testing of late. How do you decide which test to take and with which company? I’m going to assess the various options with an eye towards Jewish testers, who have to factor in the complications associated with endogamy. But many of these recommendations will be universal. I am not paid or endorsed by any of these companies. This is just my personal experience as a consumer and as one of the moderators of the Jewish genetic genealogy group on Facebook.
Before you start, it’s important to clarify why you’re taking a DNA test. If it’s just because you’re curious about your ethnicity, you might want to test at whichever company is having the best sale —in my experience, and listening to the experiences of countless others, there aren’t huge differences between what they’ll find. (Requisite disclaimer: ethnicity estimates are just that — estimates. It is far from an exact science, so do not take your results as gospel. They will get the big picture right, like the continent, but not necessarily the fine details, like the exact countries. And DNA cannot accurately pinpoint exactly what country your Jewish ancestors were from, anyway, which can be a disappointment for some.) One thing you might want to consider is is whether the company you’re using can identify Jewish ancestry in categories beyond Ashkenazi: currently that means using FTDNA (which also claims to be able to identify Sephardic DNA) or MyHeritage, which has the most Jewish DNA categories, including Sephardic (North Africa), Mizrahi (Iran/Iraq), Yemenite and Ethiopian.
But if you’re interested in using your list of DNA matches to expand your family tree, here are some things to weigh. I’m going to be talking about autosomal DNA tests, the entry-level test, and what most people are referring to when they say a “DNA test.”
Option 1: Ancestry DNA. I’m going to go ahead and say that currently, Ancestry DNA probably gives you the best bang for your buck. Using this link, which helps support the amazing volunteer organization known as DNA Detectives, the test costs $79. (Occasionally it goes on sale for $69; keep your eyes out.) But once you’ve tested at ancestry, you can then upload your results for free and connect with matches at FTDNA.com, MyHeritage.com AND at free third-party sites like gedmatch.com and DNA.Land. (For an additional $19, FTDNA will give ancestry testers its own ethnicity estimate and access to its chromosome browser.) So if you’re looking to find relatives, you can cover five major bases with a single test, with the small caveat that you have to be computer savvy enough to handle a simple download and upload of a file. (And the additional caveat that I’m hearing rumblings that some Ancestry users are currently having technical issues with the FTDNA upload.) Ancestry has the largest database of testers, currently topping 7 million, so testing there means fishing for matches in the largest pond. I’ve found that for Jewish matches, they predict third cousin relationships with greater accuracy than the other companies, and their “shared matches” feature is more helpful. If you already have an Ancestry subscription and a tree, you can easily integrate your DNA results with that family tree: when you have a DNA match, Ancestry can alert you if you also have the same people in both of your trees.
Downsides: Ancestry does not tell you the size of the largest segment you share with someone, nor do they currently have a chromosome browser, which are two crucial tools for assessing relationships when you’re from an endogamous population and have thousands and thousands of matches. They also do not let you see how close shared matches are to each other, which can be very useful. Ancestry also requires that you fill a small vial with saliva, which occasionally presents a problem; some testers might prefer the simple cheek swab used by FTDNA. Ancestry’s cousin-matching algorithm can sometimes be a little overzealous, stripping out valid segments and suggesting that relatives are more distantly related to you than they actually are. If you don’t already have an Ancestry subscription, you’d have to pay extra for certain useful features like access to matches’ family trees. (More on what you can and can’t do without a subscription here.) And finally, Ancestry lumps most Jewish ancestry into just one category: “European Jewish.”)
And one important reminder: Ancestry DNA is the same company behind Ancestry.com — the one with the ubiquitous television commercials. It should not be confused with a smaller company called “Ancestry by DNA,” which sometimes offers groupons and has not been well-vetted.
Option 2. Family Tree DNA. As of this writing, an autosomal test at Family Tree DNA— called the “Family Finder” test — costs $89. FTDNA was long said to have the largest number of Jewish testers in its database, but this appears to have been apocryphal. (Although FTDNA seemed to be the company of choice for the Jewish genealogy community when testing first came into vogue.) FTDNA gives you access to both a chromosome browser and segment length information, which is a plus for Jews. FTDNA does have a Sephardic category in addition to Ashkenazi and the cheek swab is very user-friendly. FTDNA is also the only place of the major consumer companies where you can also do mtDNA testing or Y testing. And — bonus — if you do an autosomal test, you typically do not have to give a new sample should you choose to do one of those more complex tests down the line.
Downsides: I am not a fan of FTDNA’s tree feature, which I find exasperating to navigate. FTDNA also includes lots of very teeny DNA segments in its assessments, so that Jewish testers’ DNA match lists are typically filled with people who are actually much much more distantly related than the company suggests, making it hard to zero in on real relatives. More on how to get around that here. Finally, FTDNA results can be uploaded to gedmatch.com, MyHeritage and DNA.Land, but if you want to get into Ancestry’s database, you’d have to pay for a separate test.
Option 3: 23andMe. 23andme offers its basic autosomal test for $99. For $199, you can also get health and wellness information like whether you’re a cystic fibrosis carrier. A basic autosomal test from 23andme will provide your mitochondrial and — if you’re a man — Y haplogroups, which shed light on your family’s ancient origins; none of the other companies give this info with their autosomal testing. Another cool feature is the ability to learn exactly where on each chromosome your various ethnicities “reside,” so to speak, which can help in figuring out how matches are related to you. The major downside is that 23andme does not accept any uploads from other companies, and there are some kinks being worked out regarding uploading the most recent version of its test. (A current overview of where all the various tests can and cannot be uploaded here.) Personally, I’m not a fan of 23andme’s website interface for comparing matches — I find it clunky and less intuitive than the others. If you want to read a more comprehensive review of 23andme, try this one.
Option 4: MyHeritage. MyHeritage DNA is a bit newer on the scene than the others and they seem hungry to become a major player. Their autosomal tests are currently on sale for $69, but if you test elsewhere, they will accept uploads and provide both an ethnicity estimate and a list of matches for free, including a chromosome browser. As mentioned earlier, MyHeritage’s ethnicity estimates claim to identify not just Ashkenazi DNA, but Sephardic (North Africa), Mizrahi (Iran/Iraq), Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish DNA. As for its matching pool, I’ve heard of a few (non-Jewish) people who had no close matches at any of the other sites but found close relatives at MyHeritage. I’ve been less successful making significant connections through any of the Jewish kits I keep there. YMMV.
Update: April, 2018. MyHeritage now has a triangulated segments feature that can be a huge boon to those looking for meaningful matches amidst a sea of endogamous ones. It shows you when three or more people all share a segment, which can help you find shared ancestors. Highly highly recommend.