22 December 2011

DNA Access Policy Changes Bad for Genealogists

Warning: Personal opinions included below.
CeCe Moore's Your Genetic Genealogist is one of my must-read DNA blogs. Yesterday she wrote "23andMe changes terms for expired PGS subscription customers." If you have tested at 23andMe this is a must-read for you, too.

23andMe was formed to do DNA testing primarily to study medical issues. They discovered genealogists were also interested in the data. Two years ago 23andMe ran a good sale and many genealogists, myself included, had tests done. We were interested in autosomal DNA as well as Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests offered at that time by companies doing DNA testing for genealogical purposes.

After the sale 23andMe pricing was a little steep for many genealogists. The company then offered a low initial price with the addition of a monthly maintenance fee. You can see in CeCe's blog what the company told her about how a tester could retain access to their data even if they stopped paying the monthly fee. Apparently the policy of 23andMe is changing and may leave many customers in the lurch.

The section in my DNA presentations where I caution a potential tester to understand what they are paying for will certainly change to reflect these new problems. The section where I tell people to download their raw data will now be emphasized more.

I tell testers to download their raw DNA data as soon as it is available. This protects you somewhat from changing company policies and companies that go out of business. A person would still have to know how to interpret the raw data—or find someone who can do so. But at least you have a copy of the data no matter what changes there are in company policy afterwards. If a company adds data to your profile you may need to download an updated copy of the raw data. But always, always keep a copy of your current raw data in your possession.

Like others, I am no longer comfortable recommending 23andMe for DNA testing for genealogical purposes. I understand that sometimes changing environments and regulations can cause a company to change policies. But to make such drastic changes without first notifying customers is a customer relations no-no. And for some time now Family Tree DNA, a company formed for and by genealogists, has been offering an autosomal test to go along with the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests they pioneered.

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) has one of the best reputations in the field for customer service. The owners, Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfield, cheerfully invite customers to contact them with any questions, suggestions, or comments. They listen to what their customers say and enhancements the project administrators ask for. As far as I know, no other genealogical testing company has the loyal following that FTDNA has. And the company invests heavily in scientists and equipment that allow new discoveries in the usefulness of DNA for genealogical purposes. Do a search for the "Walking the Y" project on the Family Tree DNA website to learn about one project they invest in.

Ancestry.com is also offering DNA tests now. They have not been doing so long enough to build a reputation yet. In the opinion of many genetic genealogists, Ancestry misrepresents the number of markers they test by individually counting each section of multi-value markers. It takes a long time to build a DNA database, for it to be large enough to make meaningful comparisons, for a company to have knowledgeable customer service representatives to answer DNA questions, and to get a reputation that encourages others to recommend your company.

No other company has a larger database than Family Tree DNA. For genealogy the most important part of DNA testing is to be able to compare your results to many others to find potential family members. With facts like these it's difficult not to recommend Family Tree DNA over the others for genetic genealogy tests. But even at FTDNA, I download and save a copy of my raw data so I always have it on my computer. If you haven't saved your raw data after DNA testing, go do it now. There should be a link on your personal page at the DNA testing company that allows you to download raw data. If you can't find it contact customer service for help.

12-22-2011 afternoon update:

I just saw an update on CeCe's blog — 23andMe has created a place for customers to voice their concerns - see http://bit.ly/uk6xqk. The title on this Google Docs page linked to is "PGS Subscription Feedback." PGS stands for Personal Genome Service. If you go directly to this comment page there is no indication whatsoever this is for comments to 23andMe. You'd think 23andMe would make sure you know that is who the comments are going to in case you don't know what "PGS Subscription" stands for.

© 2011, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved


  1. Excellent blog, Debbie. I also commented on the 23andMe situation. See the What's New section of my web site, http://www.DNA-Testing-Adviser.com or my Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/DNATestingAdviser

  2. Thanks, Richard. I hope all my readers check out all of the good information on your website including your free Guide to DNA Testing which I enjoyed reading. And I loved your presentation on using DNA to find your biological parents. Every society should give their members a chance to hear your story.

  3. Thanks for helping to spread the word, Debbie. This is a very unfortunate situation for those of us who conduct a lot of genetic genealogy research at 23andMe.

  4. Thank-you Debbie and CeCe for writing about this! We've added a ling to this blog to our facebook wall, as we feel that it is important that genealogists know about these changes. https://www.facebook.com/occupygenealogy?ref=ts