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Top 10 DNA Test Tips for Genetic Genealogy Beginners

Ryan Sze author image
Close up of DNA strand
The cost of genetic testing has dropped dramatically in the 21st century, making genetic genealogy analysis affordable and accessible for most. This modern form of genealogy work combines traditional methods of geneology with genetic analysis so that you can gain a better understanding of who you might be related to.

If you’re considering getting your DNA analyzed, here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Choose a Reliable DNA Test Kit Provider

If you’ll be relying heavily on DNA test kits to determine your ancestry, it’s important to choose a high-quality test kit provider. But what does that mean?

In general, a good DNA test kit will be affordable, informative, accurate, and fast. The cheapest test kits on the market retail for about $59—MyHeritage DNA’s test kit, for example, fits the bill.

On top of budget, you’ll also want to consider how much a specific test will be able to tell you. For example, how granular is its ethnic data? How large is the company’s database? (Tip: take a look at each provider’s site and see how many samples it has on record.)

Finally, see how long results will take to arrive. The fastest companies have turnaround times as short as several business days, while others may take up to 8 weeks to process your genetic samples. For reference, the industry average stands at 4 to 6 weeks’ time.

2. Know Which Type of DNA Is Tested

There are many types of DNA, and each type can reveal something unique about your genetic lineage, heritage, and ancestry. When DNA test kits first became available to the public, it was cost prohibitive to analyze a large amount of genetic information. Most tests were limited to either mitochondrial DNA—which reveals information about a user’s maternal line—or Y-DNA, genetic information found in the Y sex chromosome, which could offer insights on a user’s paternal lineage.

Nowadays, more advanced techniques have enabled DNA test kits to analyze autosomal DNA—genetic information encoded into the 22 numbered, non-sex chromosomes. Autosomal DNA changes very little from generation to generation, and analyzing it can shine light on one’s full family history—including information on distant living relatives and one’s geographical origins.

Pay attention to which type of DNA various kits will test and decide which one might fit what you’re looking for. For the most comprehensive data, certain DNA test kits, like LivingDNA, will test all three types of DNA, allowing users to glean both broad and deep insights from their test results.

3. Follow Test Kit Instructions Closely

If you want accurate results, it’s important to adhere firmly to the directions provided in a DNA test’s user kit. Often, you may need to clean your mouth beforehand, either by washing your teeth, rinsing with mouthwash, or both. 

It’s also extremely important to provide enough sample DNA. Depending on the test, you may be asked to spit into a vial or rub a swab along the insides of your cheek—make sure you fill the vial with saliva or swab for the duration as indicated by the instruction manual. In either case, DNA will be taken from cheek cells that end up in your saliva or on the swab.

These samples are then sent back to the lab for processing and analysis. If your sample is inadequate, your results may be delayed, corrupted, or inconclusive, so make sure you are following all instructions to the letter.

4. Don’t Expect Test Kits to Be a Crystal Ball

Though DNA technologies have improved markedly in the past two decades, it would be a mistake to assume that DIY test kits can unlock profound family secrets with great reliability. While DNA tests are nearly flawless at identifying close relatives, information on distant family members (either living or deceased) may be far less accurate.

The same problem exists for one’s geographical ancestry—your continent, country, or region of origin. This information is much harder to pinpoint, and DNA testing companies often rely on their database of other testers’ genetic data to make informed guesses on where your ancestors may have lived. But even with millions of data points, a company’s database is not infallible. As it grows, it may even provide you with different information than before.

5. Don’t Count On DIY DNA Tests To Reveal Deep Ancestral Roots

Be aware that DNA test kits can only offer you information on your recent genetic history so don’t expect these kits to reveal that you’re descended from Rameses II or Julius Caesar. 

This is also true for any geographical insights the test may offer. Results can offer details on where your recent ancestors may have lived—but it would be a stretch to claim an ethnicity or race based on a single test result alone, especially if it is different than what you identified with prior to the test. After all, every human, regardless of race or ethnicity, is 99.9% identical in genetic makeup to any other.

6. Prepare for Possible Unpleasant Surprises

Be aware that taking a DNA test for the first time and getting your results back has the potential to be an unsettling experience. More often than not, you’ll have a fairly good idea of what to expect regarding your ancestry and who you’re related to. However, you could be in for a shock. 

What if your test results uncover a family secret involving infidelity, or suggest that you may have close cousins or other relatives you never knew about? While these scenarios are rare, it’s worth preparing yourself for the unexpected before you proceed.

7. Don’t Treat DNA Test Kits As Medical Diagnostic Tools

Certain test kits may also offer information on genetic risk factors. For example, your results may indicate that you have a family history of breast cancer, or that you have certain genes that place you at an elevated risk for heart disease, diabeties, obesity, or other genetic disorders.

Before you panic, remember that most often, this data only suggests associations between certain genes and diseases—that is, that you may be slightly more predisposed than the general population to developing these diseases.

Most of the time, these results do not suggest that you’re certain or even likely to eventually have a genetic disorder, nor do they suggest that you currently have a disease you were unaware of. In short, genes are not your destiny, and the results of a single genetic test should not be taken as a diagnosis.

If your results concern you, however, do consider reaching out to your family physician or to a medical geneticist. They can help you go over your test results in greater detail, provide you with official diagnoses, and perform more accurate lab tests that may offer you greater clarity on your genetic profile.

8. Use Your Test Kit Provider’s Online Network

The information you receive isn’t just limited to your own DNA analysis results. Oftentimes, your test kit provider will have a public network that you can use to connect with others who have a similar genetic profile. This can help you uncover possible connections or relationships with others, and may aid you in discovering more about your ancestry, ethnicity, and your geographical place of origin.

9. Beware the Privacy Implications of DNA Testing

Regardless of which test provider you opt for, you’ll need to consider their data privacy practices. After all, you’re entrusting your test kit provider with highly sensitive information—data that’s unique to you and can be used to identify you.

Make sure the provider you choose handles your genetic information ethically and with care. For example, will the provider sell your genetic data to third parties? Will they share it with government surveillance networks, law enforcement, or other investigative agencies?

In addition, you’ll need to consider what their internal data practices are like. For example, do they keep a copy of your data once your DNA has been analyzed in their labs? If so, what will they do with it? Do they upload it to their database, use it to train predictive models, or appropriate it for some other measure? How do they ensure that your genetic information remains secure in the event they or hacked or otherwise suffer a data breach?

Importantly, are there any opt-out provisions? Can you choose not to share your data or to ask for it to be destroyed? Who is the legal owner of your data—you or the company?

You can check out your DNA kit provider’s privacy notices (usually located on their websites) for more information on how they handle your data.

10. Don’t Forget Traditional Genealogy Toolkits

DNA testing isn’t the only way to garner information on your family history. Consider traditional methods as well to complement your DNA test. If you know your ancestors’ names, see if they’re listed on any public records, like property deeds or court records. If possible, interview some of your relatives to see what they know, or see if you have family archives—papers, documents, belongings, or other heirlooms you can look at to find out more about current and past generations.

Conclusion

Getting your feet wet in the world of genetic genealogy by taking a DNA test for the first time can be exciting. You may have a good idea of what to expect regarding your genetic profile and family relations, or you may have little information and want to know more.

In any case, keep these tips and best practices in mind so that you can be confident and comfortable with the DNA testing process before you begin. Happy testing!

Ryan Sze author image
Ryan is a freelance personal finance and investments writer, with more than 3 years of experience trading and writing informative financial content. A chemical engineer by degree, Ryan's interest in finance grew out of a love of data science and computational statistics. His byline can be found on well-known sites such as The Motley Fool, Investing In The Web, and Top10.com.