When thinking about testing your DNA at home, you may have stumbled over the problem of ‘how much should a DNA test cost.’ Over the past few decades, the exploration of the human genome has ranged from a cost of billions of dollars to the current cheapest DNA test at less than $100. This guide will definitively answer what a DNA kit should cost.
The expensive history of DNA testing
The Human Genome Project (HGP) was launched in 1990, a publicly-funded effort to sequence the entire human genome for the first time. The process took over a decade, forwarded by the determination of hundreds of devoted scientists. The project had reached a total cost of over 3 billion dollars when declared complete in 2003. The ongoing results were provided to the public and built the foundation of modern genomics.
Celera Corporation, headed by the sequencing giant Dr. J. Craig Venter, entered the fray in 1998. They ultimately completed the same task for a fraction of the cost, only $300 million. However, they made good use of the publicly-available HGP data to accelerate the process and diminish costs.
Ten years later, the 1000 Genomes Project (1GP) would explore human variation. They did this using the methods and expertise gained through the first incursions into the genome. Over four years, from 2008 to 2012, the project sequenced the genomes of 1092 people from every corner of the globe.
These original ‘reference genomes’ are part of what allows the existence of new at-home DNA tests. Averages from this growing pool of genetic references establish whether you’re part of the majority or minority. If the minority, some of these several thousand genetic mutations may have implications for your health or help you understand your ancestry.
How much should a DNA test cost?
From only a few decades ago the costs of genomic profiling were astronomical. This leads to the question how much a DNA test should cost. Modern at-home DNA test kits don’t sequence your genome. They assess the A, T, G, or C at a given, known location in your DNA. While some companies determine tens of thousands of these variations, it pales in comparison to the billions that comprise the entire genome.
Roughly 99.5% of our genomes are shared between humans, mainly limiting the ‘sequencing’ required to make a snapshot of you. Of the remaining DNA, only a small fraction of variations have shown any relevance to health or lifestyle. Finally, new data and insights are being added every day. Applications of modern technology can quickly and economically scan these mutations.
Illumina brings the costs down
The forerunner in this field, albeit behind the scenes, is the company and accredited laboratory Illumina Inc. In 2016, they developed a fast and easy way to assess over 700,000 points in the human genome in one simple test. 23andMe was one of their earliest customers, with bulk purchases of the technology coming in at only $40 per DNA sample for DNA results. Only 30,000 cells are required to accomplish the feat. This is much more than what is harvested in a spit sample or cheek swab.
Before this achievement, calculating “how much should a DNA test cost” was mainly up to the individual lab that would process the samples. Now, with this technology, even professional research labs can process your samples for only $100. Factor in the bulk analyses that commercial services would require, and the price hits a point for at-home applications.
What is the cheapest DNA test?
With a price-point in mind, you may be thinking about what the cheapest DNA kit is. So, while most at-home DNA tests range from $100 to $200, you can enter the field for as little as $60. A family doctor can diminish or mitigate the cost. If you have reason to believe that your family history warrants DNA testing, mention the topic to your GP.
First of all, most kits that are commercially available focus on ancestry and heritage, with only a few considering health or lifestyle. Systems like Ancestry, Living DNA, and GPS Origins try to pinpoint the exact nature and locations of your heritage, including giving you DNA matches of family members as well. However, this section represents both the cheapest and most expensive at-home offerings:
- Ancestry at $60
- GPS Origins at nearly $200.
When it comes to health information, health issues, and health risks, it’s a run-off between 23andMe and MyHeritage, both priced around $200, and sometimes cheaper depending on promotions and sales. Companies justify higher prices by developing complex algorithms. However, these are required to calculate genetic risk scores instead of just basic genetic testing.
When it comes to low costs for providing personalized genetic information, Ancestry is the winner at $60. However, to get the most out of this kit, you’ll either need to subscribe to a costly, monthly fee or get creative.
How to get the most out of the cheapest DNA test
Nearly all the at-home DNA services test roughly the same amount of genetic information. Above all, this is due to the prevalence of Illumina-based testing. What each company chooses to analyze and highlight is a matter of focus and choice. Behind the report delivered to your inbox is a massive database of assessed genetic locations. A small fraction was considered to provide insights on your ancestry or health.
Because of this, the Ancestry DNA test kit – at only $60 – provides you access to the raw DNA data that was used to compile your heritage and ancestry report. Also, aside from a small percentage of proprietary genetic variations, the raw data of your genetic markers will include many of the details you would find in the raw DNA data from 23andMe.
With this priceless trove in hand, your raw DNA data can provide insights on a surprising variety of things. You can explore the implications of individual targets of interest, or even hand your file to a third-party for a second opinion. It turns out that the cheapest DNA test may be one of the most powerful, with some effort and education.
Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky: asking ‘what should a DNA kit cost?’ might have been replaced with ‘how much could a DNA test cost’ without the tireless efforts of innovative scientists and a costly history behind the current, cost-effective at-home DNA test kit.