Updated on: August 31, 2020

DNA testing kits and at-home testing is a great way to learn more about yourself. But how accurate is Ancestry DNA and other companies like it? 

How Does a Testing Company Get Its Results?

Ancestry and many other companies use your saliva to extract your DNA and provide you with information about it. Companies match your raw data against other samples and you’re able to see information about your ethnic heritage and your health risks. The information you get from a testing company might help you find a parent or other relative, trace your ancestors’ geographical evolution, and determine if you need to discuss any health concerns with your doctor.

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But how accurate is the information you get? How accurate is Ancestry DNA ethnicity or how accurate is ancestry DNA for paternity?

It depends.

Although some DNA companies have agreed on security and privacy standards, they don’t share a testing methodology. There are no standards of accuracy in the industry and companies don’t have independent scientists evaluate the methods of testing or the results before customers receive them.

Still, some DNA experts view the results as valid and helpful for a variety of purposes. How accurate DNA testing results are depends on the purpose for which you are using those results. If you are curious about your ethnic heritage, your results will likely be accurate enough to satisfy that curiosity. If you need to determine paternity or trace your maternal line for legal purposes, it won’t be accurate or reliable enough to hold up in court.

Concerns about Variation in Results

Each of the major DNA companies has its own database of samples. DNA companies used ancestry informative markers (AIMs) culled from modern-day American, Asian, European, and African populations.

New samples are compared to samples in the reference database. This means the results are revealing, but aren’t considered conclusive since they rely on a company’s specific database. The results you get from Ancestry might be different from those you get from 23andMe or another company.

It’s also important to note when questioning accuracy that current-day testing methods only look at specific variations. If your test states you are half European, it means only 50 percent of your data appears to be European.

Additionally, certain markers used for ancestry information are derived from either your Y chromosomes (paternal line) or your mitochondrial DNA (maternal line). Using these markers results in less accurate outcomes.

Finally, since companies use modern-day samples to compile their databases, it’s impossible to know how inaccurate results are based on how people have migrated throughout the world.

How Accurate Are Home DNA Ancestry Kits If You Use More than One

Perhaps the best method for ensuring the highest level of accuracy when testing your DNA for ethnic heritage information is to submit your sample to multiple companies. This way, you’ll get a better idea regarding origins based on a collection of information. You can compare the results and look for similarities which would indicate a higher likelihood of accuracy.

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Still, it’s important to keep in mind your DNA is matched to today’s population in an area, not the people who occupied that region hundreds of years ago. Results are skewed because companies use only a small percentage of DNA and because some populations are more genetically diverse than others.

How DNA Testing Companies Improve the Accuracy of Your Results

DNA testing companies understand their flaws and do what they can to reduce the odds of inaccurate results. Most companies buy DNA samples from other companies so they can expand their databases. This means if you take a test and submit it to Ancestry, there’s a good chance other companies like 23andMe will eventually end up with your data.

The goal of purchasing DNA from other companies is to increase the size of each genetic database.

Furthermore, only about 10 percent of companies destroy your original sample. The majority of companies store these samples or sell them.

How Accurate is Ancestry DNA Matches?

In the end, the accuracy of your testing when it comes to finding familial matches depends on the company you use, and when you take the test. You could submit your results today and get no matches, but a year or two from now get one or more matches. If you’ve taken a test in the past, there’s a chance that taking another test now could result in a match.

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One of the opportunities people might find beneficial, but could actually be concerning, is the list of people you can request from some companies that include potential family ancestors. If you’ve permitted the company to release your information, other people connected to you via a DNA match can contact you and vice versa.

Those familiar with the service are concerned that it could result in the revealing of information that people do not want to be shared. For example, you might learn that you have a half-sibling you didn’t know about. At first glance, that might sound fun and exciting, but it could also have family ramifications for everyone involved.

As DNA testing increases in accuracy, customers must prepare themselves for information they might receive that they did not expect.

Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.

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