Want Answers About Your Family History? Now You Can Actually Get Them.

The "democratization of genomic data" is opening new doors to look into your past.

The first time I realized I could test my own DNA, I was watching a YouTube video from the travel agency Momondo. 

In it, a group of 67 strangers told a panel about what they knew of their heritage, then spit into a tube and came back a few weeks later to get the results of a DNA test. Their reactions were powerful: some learned that their backgrounds were more diverse than they thought, others found out they were descendants of cultures they disliked, and two people actually found out they were cousins.

Eurie Hong, the Director of Genomics at Ancestry.com, which facilitated the DNA tests, describes the newly available technology as the "democratization of genomic data."

"We're working with the rest of the Ancestry team to let everybody — my neighbors, my kid's teachers — to really understand what genomic information can tell you about yourself and how you're connected to the world around you," Hong said.

After deciding I wanted to find out what my genomic information told me, I got an Ancestry DNA kit, spit in the tube they provided, recorded some basic personal information and sent my kit in.

When Ancestry got my kit, they sent it to the lab to extract DNA from my saliva, Hong said. Once the DNA is extracted, it gets put into a microarray — a grid of DNA segments that you can lay over the DNA input which allows analysts to see the specific positions in my genome that match panels they've already tested.

"The genome is made up of 3 billion letters," Hong said. "You can think of the genome as a book and each position of the genome is one letter in a book." 

Those positions represent the raw DNA data that you get from your mom and dad, data that you can actually download on the company's website. 

Continuing the book analogy, Hong said that the DNA information they look at is sort of like a cookbook that gives you instructions and ingredients on how to make you who you are — your hair, the length of your arms, everything. But also in that data are the clues that make what Ancestry does so popular: signatures and patterns that represent where in the world your ancestors may have come from.

"That's the algorithm that my team developed, so when you take your DNA test, you get an ethnicity estimate and also matches so you find close relatives and distant relatives that are already in the database," Hong said.  


Here is a sample of what my data ethnicity estimate looks like.  www.ancestry.com

Their team uses a reference panel of 3,000 individuals from 26 global regions whose backgrounds they have traced back multiple generations, and compares the unique patterns in their DNA to compare to clients' tests. For each estimate, they assign a probability score that shows how likely it is that a client's DNA falls into a pattern associated with a region.

When I took my test, I had some of the same surprise participants in the Momondo video did. I knew I had English and Russian background, but I had little idea of my Polish, Middle Eastern or French ancestry. There was even a confidence level that showed I had ancestors from the Iberian peninsula.

Interestingly, Hong said that if my brothers were to do the same test, they might not get the same results.

"Unless your brothers are identical twins, you will inherit different DNA from your parents," Hong said. "50 percent is selected to get passed down from each parent to you or your brother, and that 50 percent is random. So depending on which segment is passed down, that's the information we'll use to then calculate what that DNA shows compared to the reference panel."

One of the most interesting parts of this science is getting to match the stories people have been told about their family with actual data and evidence to support it. For most Americans, what they know about their family history is based on word of mouth, but using the system Hong and her team have created, you can actually test those tales.

"There is a lot of engagement and excitement about people learning who in the world they may be connected to," Hong said. "It's eye-opening to me to see how much people were surprised about their tests and what they got."

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Ancestry's reference panel can trace individuals back 200 generations. The number varies, and is more accurately described as multiple generations. 

Cover image via Shutterstock/vitstudio,


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