DNA testing for people with Asian ancestry is starting to provide more accurate ethnicity results. Here’s what’s been available—and what’s coming—for those with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani and other Asian roots.
There are good things coming in the world of DNA testing for people of Asian descent. But before we look at developments on the horizon, let’s look at where we’ve been.
Take a look at this Amazon review from 2018 written by an AncestryDNA customer who was looking to discover more about his Asian roots:
That’s rough. Let’s take a look at the report:
It’s easy to see the client’s point. He was already well aware that he was Asian, so this is absent any added value. He probably should have used the money to buy a new pair of shoes instead.
DNA testing for Asian ancestry
The good news is, things are getting better for people of Asian descent who want to use DNA to learn more about their ethnicity.
More than 2 billion people live in East Asia, an area that includes Siberia and Mongolia in the north, through China, Korea and Japan, and curving around south to the nations of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines. And the story is similar for people with South and Central Asian ancestry coming from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and surrounding areas, the home to 20% of the world’s population. Established industry leaders are ramping up their database representation for these areas of the world, and there are new companies in the global market that are also tapping into this large under-served niche.
Much of the development of ancestry genetics has been piloted with European DNA. Asian populations are deeply diverse and numerous, accounting for more worldwide genetic diversity than all of Europe put together. A study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature reported findings from over 1,700 Asian individuals with whole genome sequence data, demonstrating at least 10 deep lineages that produced the various ancient Asian populations—with the equivalent of just one for all of Europe. Together with increasing public demand for access to genetic tools in Asia, many indicators point to over-ripe conditions for developing more effective products for Asian populations.
23andMe: South and Central Asian Ancestry
23andMe has made big improvements in their ability to provide more granular ethnicity breakdowns for individuals from South and Central Asia. Previously, clients from these areas received an ancestry composition report that looked something like this:
This isn’t very helpful if you already know that you are a member of this large world population. Updated results based on a new version of South and Central Asian reference panels gives much greater granularity, with the potential to detect membership in seven new subgroups, as shown here:
That’s progress. And we can expect to see that this part of the world will gain even greater levels of detail as reference populations are expanded.
23andMe, AncestryDNA: East and Southeast Asian Ancestry
Clients with interest in East Asia can also expect increased granularity with recent version updates from 23andMe, AncestryDNA and other companies. Although there is still much work to be done here, these companies have both recently expanded their reference panels to more specific populations in Southeast Asia: Chinese Dai, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Indonesian. Already existing reference populations in Japan, Korea, China, and Mongolia have been shored up with greater numbers in the most recent updates as well. Expanding their reference base in Asian populations continues to be a priority for these established companies, and clients can expect to see results with increasing granularity over time.
In 2021: More progress! Enhanced possibilities are here for those ready to dig into their Asian roots with the release of a significant update from AncestryDNA. Previously only a handful of broad regions were supported, but there’s a lot more to see here now.
With the increased detail for Asian regions and genetic communities offered, clients can now query against an updated database that supports dozens of new populations. The genetic communities can be especially revealing, as they reveal specific migratory groups and places with which you and your DNA matches are all associated. Learn more about AncestryDNA ethnicity and genetic communities.
MyHeritage: Asian Ethnicities and Genetic Groups
As of early 2021, MyHeritage now reports the following Asian ethnicities: Central Asian; Chinese and Vietnamese; Filipino, Indonesian and Malay; Inuit; Japanese and Korean; Mizrahi Jewish—Iranian/Iraqi; Mongolian; Nepali; South Asian; Thai and Cambodian; and West Asian. Even more significant, they have identified a significant number of Asian Genetic Groups. MyHeritage’s Genetic Groups are ancestral locations (think migratory groups) that are likely found in your recent heritage in the last 400 years or so, based on your DNA matches. Learn more about MyHeritage Genetic Groups.
If you’ve been waiting for better Asian representation to enter the consumer genetics market, these updates offer fantastic opportunities for those ready to get their feet wet. We can expect that AncestryDNA, MyHeritage DNA and other testing companies will continue to expand their coverage of the highly diverse populations of Asia.
Family Tree DNA for Asian Ethnicity
In October 2020, Family Tree DNA expanded its ethnicity categories, including an upgrade from 6 to 33 categories in the Asia and Oceania region. These represent significant improvement! Family Tree DNA has a much smaller testing pool than Ancestry, 23andMe or MyHeritage, so your overall chance of finding DNA matches is smaller, but there are other reasons to consider testing with Family Tree DNA.
Why you don’t need to wait to take a DNA test for Asian ethnicities
You might reasonably be thinking, “If things are continuing to improve, maybe I’ll just wait a couple more years before taking a DNA test.” But go ahead and test if you’re ready. For the above testing companies, at least, your ethnicity reports will continue to update automatically as better data is available.
Other testing companies reporting Asian DNA ethnicities
New opportunities for expanding genetic access to people of Asian descent are also developing with companies that are newcomers to the worldwide market.
Xcode Life allows users to upload raw data from other companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, and others), and delivers a re-analyzed report with the ability to detect DNA across 35 populations in Asia, with a special focus within highly diverse India. The details of their reference populations are not readily available, although this may still be an interesting avenue for many. The company also provides many options for health and trait testing, while accounting for South Asian ancestry.
A new free upload service from the company WeGene allows users to bring testing data from AncestryDNA, 23andMe and other companies to have it re-analyzed with a focus on China and other East Asian ethnic groups. Their database currently has <500,000 individuals, but with the strong emphasis on East Asia, this could give interested users more granular information than they can currently get from other established tests.
The Hong Kong based company 23Mofang (I’m directing you to the English translation of the site’s homepage) was established in 2015 and currently has 500,000 users. Consumer genetic testing is an increasingly enormous business in Asia, with projected growth to 50 million users in the next five years, which is much faster than the overall global rate of growth. 23Mofang plans to be a big part of that expansion. Already users are benefiting from more detailed ethnicity reports specific to East Asia, and another popular test result links clients to historically prominent political figures, emperors, and other legends of Chinese history. Trait and health reporting also figure in to this company’s offerings, all predicted within a lens specific to East Asia genetics.
Despite being thus far under-served and under-represented in the DNA testing world, clients of Asian descent can expect many improvements. Between already established companies with initiatives underway to expand their reference populations, and international start-ups serving specific target populations, clients have increasing options to investigate their Asian lineages. Hooray for increasing options!
From “pie chart” percentages to deep ancestry and haplogroups, it’s exciting to explore your ancestral ethnicity. But there’s a learning curve. Deep ancestry? Haplogroups? And what about those ethnicity reports that keep changing?? We’ve got answers.
Take Your DNA Discoveries to the Next Level
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