Best DNA Kit to Find Your Heritage: Ancestry vs 23andMe

The best DNA kit for exploring your heritage is AncestryDNA while 23andMe is best at providing insight into your physical health and traits. If you’re unsure about how DNA kits work, if they’re reliable, and how safe your information is, read below. If you find yourself wanting to learn even more check out the book Genome by Matt Ridley.

DNA kits are a powerful tool for exploring your heritage and discovering your ancestry, but they also come with confusion and concerns. Which DNA kit is the best? Will the DNA companies sell your information to companies or governments? How do companies know the DNA sequences that are associated with different groups of people? Will your DNA results include unwelcome bad news about future health? And finally, how do companies collect your DNA and will it hurt?

As a Scottish heritage enthusiast and full-time biochemistry PhD researcher, I am uniquely (err strangely?) qualified to answer these questions. I have also had my own DNA analyzed and am familiar with the process for both of the largest consumer DNA companies, AncestryDNA and 23andMe. So, for those of you thinking about getting a DNA kit, read below to decide. And for those who are interested in exploring your heritage in more depth, but are unsure if a DNA kit is for you, this post should help!

DNA Kit Primer

Let’s start with some DNA background. Almost every human cell contains two copies of your DNA separated into 23 packages called chromosomes. You inherited one copy of each chromosome from your mother and another from your father. One pair of chromosomes determine your biological gender. These are called sex chromosomes. The remaining 22 pairs determine everything from your eye color to physique and are called autosomes.

Most kits (including AncestryDNA and 23andMe) take DNA from a saliva sample that you send back in a sample container. The saliva contains sufficient skin cells and white blood cells for DNA testing. This method of DNA collection is both painless (though it feels slightly weird to collect spit in a cup for 15 min) and noninvasive.

Sections of DNA provide instructions for how to make everything that is in your body. Scientists define the parts of DNA that encode a part of your body as genes. For a reason that is hotly debated by the world’s top scientists (and trust me, those debates are HOT!), there are also large portions of your DNA that do not provide instructions. These portions of DNA are similar to filler words such as “ummm”, “hmm”, or “like”—they provide no information but could serve a variety of functions depending on the context.

Each cell also contains another type of DNA–mitochondrial DNA. This DNA is stored within the (drum roll please) mitochondria, which are little biological machines that help power the cell. Each human inherits their mitochondria and all of their mitochondrial DNA from their mother. This DNA therefore offers insight into your maternal heritage.

With those concepts explained, lets jump into how these companies know how to interpret DNA.

The Power of DNA Kits: DNA Markers

Words, even filler words, can help identify personal characteristics. For example, when you meet an American that says “pop” when they should say “soda”, you know that they were likely raised in the northern United States. If not for the internet, you would only know this because you have diverse acquaintances that allow you to compare the similarities and differences in how people talk in different regions of the USA.

In a similar manner, companies that sell DNA kits have sequenced DNA from people with a variety of birthplaces, traits, and illnesses. These DNA libraries allow companies to compile differences and similarities in the DNA. It is important to note that the causal link between the DNA and the trait or illness may not be fully understood. The distinguishing factor of DNA kits (and what drives their price) is how extensive the DNA library is.

It is important to also realize what DNA markers are not. They are almost never certain predictors of health, traits, or even heritage. The causal link for most DNA markers for traits and health (i.e. why the DNA segment causes certain traits) is unknown. Responsible DNA kit providers will give your results as probabilities because they are simply reporting the patterns they have observed. Thus, having the DNA marker does NOT mean that you are guaranteed to have the illness.

Why AncestryDNA and 23andMe

In the past decade, dozens of companies have sprung up that sequence DNA. They use your DNA to give advice on everything from your heritage to your health to your wine preference. Some of these conclusions are based on sound science, but other claims are more dubious. AncestryDNA and 23andMe are the two leaders in the DNA kit industry because they have invested significant resources into compiling large, reliable, and broad DNA libraries. Their results are also based on decades of widely accepted science. Therefore when they make a claim about your heritage based on your DNA, you can be confident that it is correct. With cheaper kits, there is significantly less certainty in the results.

Another important factor is that both AncestryDNA and 23andMe also take privacy very seriously. They do not sell your DNA information to any third parties or governments. With AncestryDNA and 23andMe you also have control over whether DNA relatives can view relationships. Buying other kits means less control over privacy. After all, if the companies make less per kit then they are more likely to make up that revenue selling data.

Screenshot of the Family Tree tool on 23andMe
Example screen from 23andMe. You have the choice to opt in to see genetic relatives on 23andMe and Ancestry.

With so many similarities, you may wonder what are the differences between AncestryDNA and 23andMe. The answer is in the focus of the DNA kits.

23andMe: Leader in health DNA with useful heritage results

23andMe offers two kit levels. The less expensive DNA kit only offers information about heritage and traits.

The more expensive kit offers health information in addition to heritage and traits. For this kit, in addition to sending in your DNA you also have to opt in to being tested for each serious genetic disease individually like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. This caution is out of sensitivity to those who may want to see their risks for one disease but not another. It also ensures that you certify that you understand that simply having the marker does NOT mean you have or will have the disease (see above disclaimer).

The user interface of 23andMe is simple and gives an overview of all the information that the DNA gives. The research tab gives users the opportunity to answer questions relating to physical or behavior traits. In this way, 23andMe can associate certain DNA sequences with physical or behavioral traits.

A screenshot example of the easy user interface of 23andMe

The 23andMe kit also sequences the largest variety of DNA from any kit. It sequences DNA from your autosomes, sex chromosomes, and mitochondria. This very broad sequence targeting allows 23andMe the best insight into physical traits and health factors out of any DNA kit.

I received useful information about my health and sensitivity to different information while enjoying comparing the DNA database’s predictions and their “review of traits” to my actual traits. Once again, genetic predictors are not certain or perfect. Some of the traits are spot on, like my preference for salty snacks and my preferred wake-up time. Others are less true.

A screenshot of the 23andMe DNA kit physical traits reports showing that I enjoy salty foods and prefer to wake up around 9 am.
My 23andMe traits report. Redacted for privacy 🙂

Finally, the DNA kit heritage results are insightful, but 23andMe lacks the details to compete with AncestryDNA. Most people do not fill out family trees or ancestry information on 23andMe, so the information 23andMe has to work with is more limited. It can give me regions for where my DNA originated, but it has less certainty about my origins. If I were to opt into the Family Tree option, I could likely find relatives who have researched their family tree. But the fact that the information is not integrated into the 23andMe platform limits the information they can offer. Obviously, there are a variety of regional tartans that I could wear with this knowledge, but specific clan knowledge would be challenging with only these results.

Screenshot of 23andMe and my UK heritage.

AncestryDNA: Hands-down heritage leader

AncestryDNA offers three kits. The least expensive kit costs the same as the cheapest 23andMe DNA kit, but it does not include sequencing DNA for physical traits. That additional information is more expensive with AncestryDNA but the value in AncestryDNA’s tools for exploring your heritage make up the difference.

The most expensive AncestryDNA kit includes health information, and is slightly less expensive than the full 23andMe DNA kit. This price differential is driven in part by the fact that Ancestry sequences DNA only from autosomes. While this allows Ancestry to provide a high quality, low cost product, it ultimately limits the possible genetic markers that Ancestry users can access now and in the future.

Ancestry DNA makes up for this by providing detailed and valuable heritage and ancestry tools. Because they have access to millions of people’s family trees, they make more accurate predictions about heritage. Ancestry also divides out the Celtic peoples from England, which is helpful when trying to assess Scottish or Irish heritage. Moreover, Ancestry offers you the use of the family trees of your DNA relatives. Because AncestryDNA is the most popular consumer DNA test kit, it is likely that a second or third cousin has already taken the DNA test. If they have already discovered many of their ancestors, you can simply adopt their Family Tree from where you share a relative.

AncestryDNA screenshot of my Scottish and Irish heritage given my DNA kit.

The Family Tree tools also allows Ancestry to show the movement of your family across generations. While 23andMe did not know that my father’s family lived in Nova Scotia for hundreds of years, AncestryDNA was able to offer information about my family and their timeline in Nova Scotia. This precision was impressive, and had I not known to which clan my family belonged, knowing the names of my ancestors that moved from Scotland certainly would have helped. These ancestry tools are what makes AncestryDNA that hands down best DNA kit for exploring your heritage.

Screenshot of information from AncestryDNA on my heritage based on my DNA kit matching others with developed family trees.

Don’t get me wrong. The most expensive AncestryDNA kit also include fun and interesting information on physical traits and health factors. This information, though, is more limited than 23andMe. For example, 23andMe says that 81% percent of people with DNA similar to mine do not experience hair loss or thinning before age 40 (phew!). AncestryDNA is silent on the matter of my potential future hair loss.

DNA Kit Conclusion

Searching for your heritage based on your last name leads to a good guess. Using a DNA kit takes the guess work out of exploring your heritage. AncestryDNA has the most powerful tools for exploring your heritage. Their vast historical information and network of ancestry enthusiast makes finding even distant relatives a breeze. If you are searching for the best DNA kit for exploring your heritage, use AncestryDNA. If, however, you want solid useful information on your heritage but more detailed information on your health traits, check out 23andMe. If you are intrigued by the possibility of DNA, yet want to learn more about the science of DNA, check out Genome.

Let us know what you think in the comments sections below. We would love to hear your experiences with DNA kits or questions you may have. Also, subscribe to our blog to be notified of our latests posts. This is the first post in a series on how to use DNA kits to find the right tartan kilt for you.