I Love Combining Genetics and Genealogy

Some years ago, when the genetics company 23AndMe was advertising heavily, and when my interest in medicine and biology started ticking up, I took the plunge.

I ordered one of the 23AndMe testing kits, and I spit in the tube, paid the extra postage (surprise), and sent it in. I just wanted to see what it was about. I don’t have much in my past or present worth hiding, and old enough not to worry that leaked genetic data is going to kill me faster via insurance and healthcare corporate greed. These things are moving fast, though, so who knows?

I only ordered the ancestry portion of their services for $99; without the health alert breakdown. This was not long after the company was forced by the US government to stop providing health analysis. And before nearby Maryland would even allow genetic testing at all. Maryland switched its mind eventually, and the company has begun reporting more health test results; but very few, and they have to be approved by government oversight, I’m sure.

It took maybe two months for it to return with results, and overall, it was pretty accurate. I’ll have to dig up the comparisons from then, and now. Because the company has rejiggered their algorithm to be more accurate with the heritage. The process is at best an estimate created by reverse engineering genetic origins. It’s not like they have DNA samples from lots of people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. They seem to take people’s DNA which is fairly homogeneous and whose ancestors knowingly lived in the same locale for a long period of time. So, then they take that info and look matching snippets of all the other people in their database. It sounds a bit kooky, but I would say the final results are really pretty good. Others have said theirs is not as good, and some have said their results changed completely from one algorithmic update to another.

Fig. 1 — 23AndMe ancestry results (2017)

Compare this early 2017 algorithm to the late 2019 algorithm:

Fig. 2 — Ancestry Map from 23AndMe (Oct 2019).

I don’t know a lot about my family background — or rather, I did not. I know a lot now, because I really fell down the genealogy hole. I found out so very much, and would still like to discover more.

I thought I would be like 50% white European, about 25% Filipino, and 25% Chinese. I was hoping for some other interesting discoveries — like Spanish from them occupying the Philippines for so long. And maybe African-American, just because. Originally, the results did have a trace amount of African-American, but that disappeared after the updates. The biggest surprise is this claim that I had a Native American ancestor in the 1700s or beyond. Really — how would that have occurred? The other is a small amount of South Asian, like India; though it’s not enough that they included it on the map. There is some Norwegian in there, which is a little bit of a revelation. You can see in the comparison images above that the 23AndMe regions are much more specific now, and that they are putting less emphasis on “Trace” genetics (South Asian, and maybe African for me).

Overall, I got the results I expected. The Chinese portion was higher in the original estimate, but dropped down to 8% after the update. Genetically, that would be like one great-grandparent was 3/4 Chinese. Allegedly that is from my father’s father’s side; which is where I get the tiny last name. The Philippine portion of the genetics is pretty strong, with a tiny bit from the South East Asian mainland. From the Europeans, I did not get as much Irish as I thought I would. It’s mostly English and Scottish. Because my parents are from separate parts of the world, it’s not so hard for me to sort out which part comes from where, right?

I submitted my mom’s saliva sample anyway.

Fig. 3 — Mom’s 23AndMe ancestry (2018).

Again, compare her 2018 algorithm against this later 2019 algorithm:

Fig. 4 — Mom’s 23AndMe ancestry, 99% European (Oct 2019). For comparison’s sake, you can see her results from last year were a little different — it specifically listed “Iberian” which was like — huh? And now it says she is much more German and Scandinavian. So, really, don’t get too attached to any particular interpretation.

23AndMe provides a list of DNA Relatives. I call them “genetic cousins.” It’s about 1,000 people who share genetic snippets with you. It’s hard to believe they are accurate. So, I got curious about proving that the science is real. It seems like it is genuine. I was able to trace a good amount of our genetic cousins’ ancestries. And there were a good number of matches. Nearly all of the matches occurred on my mother’s mother’s side — the West Virginians. I have yet to get more than 1 result from my grandfather’s side.

Fig. 5 — Example of 23AndMe’s initial Family Tree tool. I’m the yellow dot. My father’s side is on the left, and mother on the right. Currently, editing of the genetic cousins at the bottom is not possible, and I only know one of their trees here. I’m not going to put a lot of effort into it now, because I know 23AndMe will fix it up eventually.

More on what I’ve found about genetic detective work will come. I just wanted to tell you of my extreme admiration for the ability to dig up the past. But the disparate parts are not easily connected. I think, in time, it will be much easier to figure out. But many, many man hours have to be contributed to performing database and record matching. And that’s what I spend a lot of effort doing; because I think it’s really important for people to honor the lives of those who came before — people should not be totally forgotten, no matter how awful they may have been, I guess. But more important than all of that family-social stuff, the science of genetic is amazing! Tracing and proving ancestry will lead to medical discoveries, I think, about inheritance of certain diseases and traits. And I really want to be contributing to that in some way. Would be great to get paid for all the work I do, but for now, my family and my partner’s and my friend’s families are plenty to work. with.

I will be working on some tools to work with the data that 23AndMe provides, but they are already catching up to me with their new connections to FamilySearch.org and custom made Family Tree (Fig. 5) on 23AndMe’s site. I still think I can do it better. And then they can buy it from me, right? For a million-billion dollars, please. Because my efforts are totally worth it.

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