Recently I wrote about my 23andMe test results. 23andme has a couple of competitors in the consumer genomics market: Ancestry.com and FamilyTreeDNA (the latter works in collaboration with National Geographic). (In addition, services like GEDmatch.com, Promethease, and openSNP will analyze your data from any of the testing companies, either for free or for a nominal fee, but in some cases with the effect that your genetic data needs to become rather more public in the process.) These companies have differences in how they handle genetic genealogy (in particular, the algorithms for estimating your geographic descent are reported to vary from one company to another), but they differ more dramatically in other aspects of their focus. You can see this difference, for 23andme and Ancestry.com in particular (I know less about FamilyTreeDNA), in two announcements this week:
Ancestry.com Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America
23andMe, you see, if heavily focused on the health and medical aspects of personal genomics. They give you reports showing your risks for various diseases and likelihood of side effects from various medications, all carefully evaluated in terms of whether the data is still experimental or based on established research, with estimates of just how elevated your risk actually is, and references to the research associating particular genes with particular conditions. (Reports for particularly scary conditions like breast cancer are also set up such that, to get to them, you have to unlock the report and read a brief medical explanation, which tells you what the report can and can’t predict and advises you to discuss concerns with your doctor.) Joel shows as at elevated risk for high triglyceride levels. I show as at elevated risk for atrial fibrillation (but still more likely than not to make it to 80 without experiencing atrial fibrillation). Both of us show as at reduced risk for Alzheimer’s (yay!). They also do research of their own (their research director, Joanna Mountain, has taught at Stanford, with a research specialty of Anthropological Genetics), about the relationship of genes to health and medical conditions. One of their most recent surveys, for example, concerned medication side effects. All of this explains why, of all the personal genomics companies, they have been the first to apply for FDA clearance: They’re both aiming to be a legitimate public entity and providing a service that could be seen as at least implicitly offering medical advice.
Ancestry.com, on the other hand, comes to the personal genomics field from a background of providing one of the net’s most popular genealogical sites, a site that, for a monthly fee, will provide you with abundant access to microfilmed records, in which you can find your ancestors in old censuses, immigration records, etc. While 23andMe just recently added the ability to upload a GEDCOM to post your family tree on the site, providing perhaps the largest collection of public family trees on the net has been a major part of what Ancestry.com does for years. (On the other hand, true to its particular focus, 23andMe linked its family trees with a program that calculates health risks for diseases – you can make the family tree public to other 23andMe members, but the family health record stays private except to the family members whom you explicitly invite to view it.) So Ancestry.com, with all its genealogical data, was well positioned to combine genetic genealogy (Y-DNA evidence of African origin) with a traditional paper trail to connect Obama’s mother to John Punch, the first documented African enslaved for life in American history. (According to the press release, “Existing records suggest that this man, John Punch, had children with a white woman who then passed her free status on to their offspring.”)
Related blogs (and one Atlantic article):
The Spittoon (23andMe’s blog)