Based in Silicon Valley, CA, 23andMe.com is one of the three largest DNA test service providers in the world.
The name of the company comes from the number of chromosomes in the human genome.
Genealogists from all over the world can purchase a kit from one of the three main sites of the company ( US: https://www.23andme.com, CA: https://www.23andme.com/en-ca/ or UK: https://www.23andme.com/en-gb/ ) to learn about their ancestry, find distant relatives and screen themselves and their relatives for health-related issues.
23AndMe.com sells two different DNA tests:
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- an ancestry-only DNA test and
- an ancestry+health screen test .
23AndMe.com was founded in April 2006, by Anne Wojcicki (ex-Google) and Linda Avey as a genetic health screening company.
Originally, only a small part of the service involved ancestral DNA mapping, as their first and primary DNA test offering is their Personal Genome Screening (PGS) service, which analyzes your DNA for several disease markers.
In 2013, the US FDA ordered 23andMe to discontinue selling its personal genome health screening service, because the company had not obtained regulatory approval of how they handle inaccurate results. As a result of their temporary hiatus in the US market, 23AndMe adjusted their product offering and quickly became one of largest ancestry / genealogy testing services.
In October, 2015, the company regained their status with the FDA and now has FDA authorization to provide DNA health screening services to consumers. They also raised the price of their combination test to $199.
The company is led by a superb management team consisting of Anne Wojcicki, Andy Page, Esther Dyson and Patrick Chung. This company is financed by top-notch private investors including Google Ventures, MPM, Johnson & Johnson, New Enterprise Associates, The Roche Venture Funds and NEA.
23AndMe’s mission is to help people from all over the earth access, understand and take advantage of the power of human genome. They also believe that every person living on planet Earth should control his genetic information.
Their DNA autosomal testing service is available in 56 countries and expanding every new month.
At the moment, 23AndMe has over 10,000,000 people in their global DNA database, and this number is continually growing.
Customer support for 23AndMe is solid, although reaching a live person can be difficult at times.
They do, however, offer a great knowledge base for complaints and customer service, https://customercare.23andme.com. It offers tons of information including:
- Getting Started: this is where you learn everything you need to know about providing your saliva sample, registration and tracking the sample. You can also learn more about DNA, chromosomes, genes, mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome.
- Connecting and Sharing: in this section you learn how to easily connect with your relatives and share your genome.
- Account and Profile: here you get to manage your account, set your profile and access raw data.
- Ancestry: this is where you learn precious things about ancestry, including Jewish ancestry, Native American ancestry and Neanderthal DNA.
- Health: here you can see your health reports.
One nit, though: in order to submit a written request to 23AndMe, you need to select one of those categories and only after browsing the category for a while are you allowed to contact them.
They apparently want to make sure the answers to most questions are already listed on the site.
To get around this, you can submit a request here: https://customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/requests/new or call their main phone number: 800-239-5230.
Also, they disabled their main email account, helpdesk@23andMe, so you now have only two methods of contacting them.
To respond to inquiries, the staff from 23 and Me usually takes up to 24 hours.
On the other hand, Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA offer more approachable and professional customer support. They can be contacted via email, phone, live chat and ticket.
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DNA Data Ownership & Privacy
However, that consent is granted by you only once, and it allows 23AndMe to sell your anonymized data to any/all parties from there on out.
In contrast, Family Finder by FamilyTreeDNA.com notifies you each time they receive a request, and you can select which releases to approve, or not.
As you might expect from a Silicon Valley-based startup, 23AndMe employs some of the best scientists in the industry to oversee product development and to interpret the data. Their lead scientists are Joanna Mountain, Brian Naughton, Steve Lemon.
The company also engages well-regarded experts in genetics and geneaology including Stanley Nelson, Jonathan Pritchard, Michael Eisen, Marcus Feldman, Serafim Batzoglou and George Church.
23AndMe offers unlimited storage for saliva samples at their lab in Mountain View, California.
When you register your kit on the site, you are asked if you are willing to participate in third party activities. For research studies, you are kindly asked to read the Mutual Consent Document at the end. For sample storage, you are asked to agree to their terms and conditions.
23andMe conducts various research activities and they sell authorized data to many companies, including big pharma.
You can find more about these by following this link: https://www.23andme.com/you/23andwe/research/. Note: you have to be logged in to see the information.
Access to Raw Data
On 23AndMe.com, you have access to your raw DNA results data after you upload your GEDCOM file into the GEDmatch database.
The raw data provided by 23andMe.com is an advanced report that contains uninterpreted raw genotype data. Raw data is only available for educational and informational purposes.
To access your raw DNA data and to make the most out of the many third party tools available on the site, you can either navigate to the Explorer option or select “Browse raw data” option in the menu.
23AndMe.com does not allow you to upload data from other providers. Of the Big 3 major providers, only FamilyTreeDNA allows upload of RAW data from other companies.
DNA testing works best when users can compare their data with their relatives’ and other users’ data.
DNA Projects let test users organize their results and data into specific family- or other groups online, so that everyone can learn together.
At this time, only the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA supports projects with special features and dedicated customer support. AncestryDNA and 23andMe do not.
Autosomal DNA Database
The size of the DNA database is crucial if you care about connecting with lost relatives or building your family tree.
Similar to Ancestry.com, 23andMe has a database of about 10,000,000 people as of July, 2019.
The test from 23 and Me is available in 56 countries, while the test from Ancestry.com is only available in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand.
However, the Family Finder autosomal test is available in 200 countries worldwide, which makes it a superior resource for people interested in non-English speaking ancestry research.
Thanks to the 23AndMe’s state-of-the-art geographic ancestry analysis, Scandinavians and Native Americans are especially well represented in their database. However, Northern European reference population does not exceed 70 percent.
African, Oceanic and South Asian populations are also very well represented in their test.
On the other hand, Eastern European, French & German and Mongolian populations are not represented as well as the rest. Conversely, Ancestry’s test and Family Finder both provide very accurate results for European countries.
DNA Sampling Method
The DNA sampling method required by 23andMe is to collect 1 cc (cubic centimeter) of saliva sample.
Saliva samples offer a non-invasive and convenient method for DNA sample collection in comparison with blood or hair sample. But they can be troublesome for young and older people, who may not produce enough saliva.
Conversely, the cheek swab sample used by Family Finder more reliably produces sufficient yields.
DNA Testing Process
23AndMe use a customized Illumina Chip to identify genetic information.
Both Ancestry.com and Family Finder use a different Illumina OmniExpress Chip.
The test from 23AndMe uses 577,382 autosomal SNPS, 2329 Y chromosome SNPS, 19,487 X chromosome SNPS and 3154 mitochondrial DNA SNPS.
23AndMe includes medically-related SNP data, which can be used to detect a wide range of genetic disease markers (mostly for non-US customers, however).
Users can also download their SNP matching segments. Family Finder DNA test is similar to 23 and Me, in that they both allow users to share information about their matching segments. However, the test from Ancestry.com does not offer this capability.
The main site (https://www.23andme.com) is very easy to use and can be accessed from any device, including smartphones and tablets.
Once inside the platform, you can easily explore your roots using the tools available.
To finalize your account, you’ll need to claim your kit, read the legal agreement, choose whether you want to biobank or not and finalize your profile.
The menus inside the service offer the following options:
- Maternal line
- Parental line
- Relative finder
- Ancestry painting
- Global similarities
- Ancestry labs
2. Health Preview
3. Sharing & Community
- Compare genes
- Family inheritance
- 23 and Me community
- My surveys
- Research initiatives
To help their users learn from the community, 23 and Me offers a wide variety of surveys which are quite appealing. While most of them are about health habits and optimism, you can find several on medical history and DNA development.
While in the Ancestry section, you can learn more about your parental and maternal haplogroups and find your DNA global similarities. The Health report is where this happens.
There are currently over 51 clinical reports that give you complete information about traits and conditions.
Finding DNA Matches
23AndMe’s criteria for matching segments are a distance of 7 cMs (centimorgans) and at least 700 SNPs for the first segment and for segments of other people you are sharing with.
Conversely, Family Finder tool defines matching segments with 7.69 cMs and at least 500 SNPs for the first segment.
Ancestry DNA uses 5 cMs for the first segment, which makes it the least accurate test.
The start and stop positions of the 23AndMe test are usually rounded to the nearest millionth base pair in Family Inheritance, while the length of matching segments is rounded to the nearest tenth of a cM. The information provided for the matching segments by Family Finder is similar, while Ancestry DNA test does not provide this information.
23AndMe provides complete information regarding the number of SNPs in each segment, as well as the number of X chromosome.
However, no test other than the Genographic Project Geno 2.0 provides information about mitochondrial DNA matches reported. No test offers phased segments linked to specific ancestors, either.
Nevertheless, Ancestry DNA uses phased data to determine matching segments. Family Finder and 23 and Me do not use this feature.
23AndMe offers two great tools to help you leverage their technology to identify, verify and contact potential new relatives in their database: Relative Finder and Family Inheritance: Advanced.
Communication with matches is made easy through the Relative Finder tool. It provides a very easy to read list of potential relatives, with matching segments highlighted in color.
Unfortunately, once you find them, you have to use 23AndMe’s anonymous messaging system to contact them, and as you might expect: the average responsiveness of matches is low.
In comparison, the responsiveness of matches for Ancestry DNA test is OK, while Family Finder users respond the most.
Family Inheritance: Advanced
Using 23andMe’s Family Inheritance: Advanced tool, you can dive into the specifics of potential matches by comparing shared segments using a chromosome browser. However, the chromosome browser can’t be adjusted to different thresholds for matching segments.
The maximum number of comparisons that can be done at a time using the chromosome browser is 5. While Family Finder also offers a (superior) built in chromosome browser, but AncestryDNA does not.
Both 23AndMe and FamilyFinder let users create links to confirm known relationships. Ancestry DNA does not offer this.
Ethnic Ancestry Results
Biogeographical ancestry analysis is available using 23AndMe’s Global Similarity and Ancestry Finder features. Chromosomes are painted according to ethnic ancestry and can be visualized using Ancestry Composition feature.
To me, 23AndMe offers the best ethnicity test in the business. They now cover more than 1,000 regions and are based on a database of 10,000,000 results.
When it comes to the overall accuracy and sophistication of the biogeographical ancestry analysis, the test from 23AndMe scores the best rating, 7 out of 10, on ISOGG. In comparison, Family Finder has a 3.5 rating and Ancestry DNA has only 3.
The reason 23 and Me has such a good rating is due to the Ancestry Composition feature, which offers a complete map with all regions of the world that displays ancestral components as of 5 centuries ago.
Users can choose from 3 settings to drill into more accurate results: standard, conservative and speculative. Even though their predictions in Europe are not optimal, accuracy is great in other regions of the world.
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Integration with Other Tools and Services
23AndMe allows uploads of its raw data to both GEDCOM and GEDmatch databases. Additionally, it allows download of raw data and lets users download matching SNP segment data.
Even though 23 and Me does not have additional testing options available at the moment, it does offer an active an online forum and offers certain features that make it stand out of the crowd.
Some of these include:
- Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry tool
- Neanderthal Ancestry
- Ancestry Composition
- Ancestry Finder
- mtDNA and Y haplogroups
What My Family Likes The Most
- Excellent DNA matching tools. 23AndMe lets you download not only who your matches are and the common matching DNA segments; they also let you download the same for people who match your matches. By comparing the DNA of two people side-by-side, you can build your tree with confidence.
- Health Screening is back in the US! Read my in-depth review of their Health DNA Testing service.
Other Things We Love
- Great ethnicity analysis, especially for people of Native American and African descent. Race/ethnicity is graphically displayed on individual chromosome segments, and both Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroup estimates are provided.
- Built-in chromosome browser to verify your matches.
Things We Didn’t Like
- Limited user interest in genealogy. 23AndMe’s customer base seems more concerned with their own DNA and less with family research. This means that when you reach out to a new match, you may not hear anything back. And unless you get a response, you can’t see their matching DNA segments.
- No contact email provided. You have to communicate with matches through an internal messaging service.
- Overall, the platform isn’t the most intuitive. You have to search around to find what you need.
- Customer support is OK. We often received no response to our inquiries.
- Family tree support is poor. In an apparent attempt to overcome the bad reviews of their first try, 23andMe is now working with MyHeritage.com for family tree management. It’s still pretty bad, though. If you have more than 250 people in your tree, you’ll be forced to get a subscription.
- You can’t have more than 1,000 matches at a time. The exception is if you’ve established communications with someone, in that case, the match is stored forever. This means you’re constantly losing touch with lower-probability matches, which limits your visibility.
- They use a saliva test kit, which is generally considered less effective than a cheek swab for older and younger people.
- The DNA matching threshold is fixed / not adjustable.
- No more importing into FamilyTreeDNA. The latest V4 test chip no longer supports data export and uploads into Family Tree DNA.
- 23AndMe is not available to customers in New York or Maryland.
- DNA is mostly from US and European customers.
What We Hated
- Almost useless match communication system. This was a deal killer for us. There are way too many hurdles and steps involved in trying to contact a match. And once you try, there seems to be a general lack of interest from their customers to engage. Perhaps it’s just the process, but most of the time, 23AndMe’s contact system feels like you’re sending requests into a black hole. Unfortunately, without a match’s approval, you won’t see their DNA. And it’s impossible to confirm a new match when you can’t see the other person’s DNA.
If you care about integrating your health and ancestry DNA data into one platform, then 23AndMe.com is the first and only company of the Big Three ancestry DNA providers that offers this.
As the market evolves and matures, this will become more and more important to genealogy DNA researchers. After all, there is no more relevant information you can glean from your DNA than how your ancestry impacts your health.
Even ignoring the health screening benefits, 23AndMe’s autosomal test provides best-in-class bio and geo ethnicity results and has several unique features that Ancestry DNA and Family Finder do not possess. It’s a fine choice – as long as you don’t need to contact new matches.
23AndMe’s Ancestry DNA Test is currently on sale on Amazon and the 23AndMe main website.
Buying Tip: If you are an Amazon Prime member, then shipping is free. If you buy on the company’s main website, you’ll pay extra for shipping .
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Video Introduction (60 minutes)
Learn about the capabilities and features of 23andMe by watching this Google Hangout recorded on May 22, 2014.
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