Here's How AncestryDNA is improving their Autosomal DNA Test

 This post was originally published at Genealogy Gems.

City-01.png

This past week I had the privilege of standing on an 8th story balcony in downtown San Francisco. To my left: towering downtown buildings bustling with enterprise.  To my right: the Giants stadium (unfortunately they were losing). In front of me: the beautiful California coastline, complete with pristine blue water dotted with all manner of seafaring vessels.

But, what matters most to you as genealogists, was going on in the glass-encased conference room behind me.  It was a meeting of the minds. An exchange of information and ideas. Information about current trends and accomplishments at AncestryDNA, and ideas about the future of DNA testing at Ancestry.com.

You might recall our discussion here at the Genealogy Gems about how Ancestry recently decided to discontinue their mtDNA and YDNA tests‑the two that trace our direct maternal and direct paternal lines‑ in order to focus all of their efforts on the up and coming autosomal DNA test.  Remember that the autosomal DNA test delivers information about both your mother’s and your father’s side of your ancestral tree.

This all day meeting included a diverse group of Ancestry representatives, from the CEO, Jim Sullivan himself, to members of the marketing, scientific, communications, and even computer science departments, as well as some of the top voices in genetic genealogy. It was an open and lively discussion, and I walked away with a few gems that I want to share with you today.

The Shaky Leaf

The shaky leaf is no doubt the most iconic symbol of Ancestry.  In AncestryDNA it is meant to help you find a common ancestor between you and your DNA matches.

Did you know that the shaky leaf in the DNA trees recently underwent a makeover?  You probably didn’t notice‑it still looks as green and shiny as ever‑but if you look closely, you will see that your leaf is sporting a brand new pair of running shoes. You see, in the past, the computer code that created the shaky leaf was not very efficient, lazy, in fact.  It started at the bottom of your tree, and the bottom of your match’s tree, and slapped on a shaky leaf at the first sign of a shared common ancestor. While this method worked for a large number of cases, it was leaving a lot of stones unturned.  But the IT guys at Ancestry have beefed up the computer power behind our leaves, allowing them to cover a much greater distance through our trees and the trees of our matches before making a judgment about the best place to assign that shaky leaf. The result? Better hints about how you and your match COULD be related.  Remember, the leaf is still a leaf, albeit in fancy running shoes.  It is not a crystal ball, and therefore you should take all of his hints as SUGGESTIONS on how you and your match might be related.

Did You Know?

-       Ancestry DOES store your DNA samples in a secure location.

-       Ancestry spent months designing their own DNA collection kit.

-       Ancestry employees love their jobs.

-       Ancestry was able to attract some of the brightest scientists in the field of population genetics because of YOU. You with your documented pedigree charts and your willingness to help move this science of discovering our ancestors forward.

Looking Ahead

There is no question that the genetic genealogy industry is rapidly advancing, and our discussion with Ancestry certainly didn’t disappoint. While I will be sharing with you in future posts about some of the exciting changes, I do want you to be ready for one that will be coming online fairly soon.

It has to do with your matches.  If you have been tested by Ancestry, you may have been initially excited, then nearly immediately overwhelmed, by the number of individuals listed in your match page, all claiming to have some kind of connection to you and your family tree.

All of the three major genetic genealogy testing companies, Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe, are using basically the same laboratory methods to glean information from your DNA.  What differs between the companies is how they use that data to draw conclusions about your ethnic heritage and about your relationships to other individuals.

As it turns out, Ancestry has been reporting far more individuals as your relatives than it should have.

You can think of it like this: You have sent out tickets, in the form of your genetic code, to an exclusive party where you (of course!) are the star. However, you have lost the guest list and you are counting on the testing company to check the ticket of each guest before they enter your party to be sure they were really invited. Ancestry was relatively new in the role of party bouncer, and in the interest of not turning away any VIP guests, they initially allowed guests into your party who had (gasp!) forged tickets!! But as Ancestry has now surpassed each of its competitors in the number of tests sold, the experience gained in party monitoring is starting to show. You see, each of the forged tickets has some unique qualities that have started to send up red flags to the team of scientists at Ancestry. They are now in the process of carefully documenting what each forged ticket looks like and tossing those unwanted guests out on their ear. 

The short of it: in the near future your match list at Ancestry.com will be much shorter. Which is good news to you, as it means only those invited genetic cousins will be around eating hors d' oeuvres and ready to talk about your shared common ancestry.

Each testing company has its strengths and weaknesses. It was good to have a bit of insight into this one company and come to a greater understanding about why it is they do what they do. It is a great time to be in this young genetic genealogy industry, with so much room to grow and change. I will let you know when I find the next genetic gem.