Melissa Garrett, Ancestry
Ancestry DNA kit contents. Users are asked to fill the collection tube with saliva, place it in the collection bag and mail it back to Ancestry for analysis.

Knowing where we came from can be an innately human curiosity. Learning about our heritage, nationality and genetic makeup can help with everything from family history to medical diagnoses.

My dark hair and eyes and olive skin make people wonder about my ethnicity. People often ask me, “What are you?” The problem is, I have never known. I am adopted and have very limited information about my birth parents. I do have a document with a few typewritten lines listing my biological parents’ height, weight, ethnicity, age and hobbies. While that paper did list my birth mother’s ethnicity as Japanese and my father’s as Caucasian, most people guess I came from the Philippines or somewhere in South America.

I always wondered if those five lines describing baby Amy were actually true. It was time to take the plunge and find out.

The two DNA testing services with the largest databases are AncestryDNA and 23andMe. I did both. The process is super easy. Just buy the kit, register on the website, spit into a tube and mail it off. You'll then receive an email when your results are ready.

AncestryDNA has the largest database by far, collecting DNA from nearly 10 million people. The $99 price (often on sale and available through Amazon) includes shipping. From the time I got the email saying Ancestry had received my sample, it took three weeks to get my results.

To access genealogy records on Ancestry and build a family tree, you must buy a membership starting at $19.99 per month. If you aren’t sure whether you want a paid subscription, play around with the two week free trial. Ancestry shares a close relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which focuses a lot of effort on genealogy. Members of the church with a FamilySearch account are allowed free access to Ancestry.

The DNA Story you receive includes a map showing where your ancestors came from. Mine showed 49 percent Asia East (Japan anyone?), 19 percent Europe West and 13 percent Scandinavia with no real specifics. That is interesting, but the real fun comes when you start building a family tree.

Dallin Hatch, public relations manager for Ancestry, says the average person will find at least 400 fourth cousin matches or closer.

“It’s game changing for people who have been stuck for a long time in their genealogy searches,” Hatch said.

Ancestry is a family history company and considers DNA testing just the beginning.

“No other company out there is even close to having the amount of customers we have,” he said.

Ancestry also has a robust search engine (you may have seen this used on TV shows like “Long Lost Family” or “Who Do You Think You Are?”). Search through historical records and family trees in what it calls the Cousin Match to piece together your family history.

23andMe has more than 2 million people in its DNA database. The basic test will only include ancestry for $99. Another option includes health-related features for $199 (these also go on sale and are available at many drugstores). If you choose the health and ancestry option, you will receive a trove of health and genetic information that's both helpful and fascinating.

First on the report list is your Ancestry Composition, which shows an interactive world map highlighting the countries included in your ancestry. It shows exact percentages of your DNA from each area, so I discovered I am indeed 49.6 percent Japanese, with the rest of my ancestry being mostly European. Like Ancestry, 23andMe will search for genetic relatives, but only if you opt in.

Carrier Status information tells you whether you have specific genetic variants that may affect your children’s health. This information features more than 40 reports on different genetic variants, including cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and hereditary hearing loss. 23andMe notes that even if the report says “variant not detected,” you could still be a carrier.

Genetic Health Risk reports show whether you have genetic variants for certain health conditions. The newest report is for the BRCA1/BRCA2 genetic variant, which is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. You may also learn about your risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Celiac disease and Parkinson’s.

23andMe reminds customers that these reports should not be used to make any medical decisions, and that having the risk variant doesn’t mean someone will develop the condition. It does mean you have an increased risk.

The Traits reports are fascinating, as they tell you how likely you are (based on your genetics) to have or do certain things. How likely are you to have a cleft chin, for instance, or to sneeze in bright sunlight? These results are so accurate, it might feel a little creepy. Out of 19 genetic traits, my report only missed one target by saying I was unlikely to have a widow’s peak (I’m a modern-day Dracula).

Finally, Wellness reports inform how your DNA might affect your body’s response to diet, exercise and sleep. Among other things, they tell you how much caffeine you’re likely to consume, or whether or not you might be lactose intolerant.

3 comments on this story

All this information combines to give customers a deep dive into their genetic health makeup, and it's a lot of fun. Additionally, all of the genetic health and carrier status reports on 23andMe meet FDA criteria for being scientifically and clinically valid.

My suggestion would be to do both of these DNA tests. When you combine the health information from 23andMe and the family history information from Ancestry, you end up with a well-rounded picture of who you are and where you’re from.

Correction: A previous version stated that AncestryDNA collects data from more than 5 million people. According to a company representative, the number is closer to 10 million.