DNA testing kits unlock a world of possibilities

Before we bravely head off into Holiday Territory, armed with safe topics of conversation and many, many bottles of wine, here’s something fun to try that may just redefine “family friendly” — DNA testing kits. Whether you’re looking to validate old tales or simply trying to reconnect, a tiny vial of DNA samples can unlock a world of possibilities, from enriching a family tree to pinpointing ancestral regions. 

AncestryDNA

The service, branching off — if you will — from its famed family tree builder, claims five times more ethnic regions than the next leading test, and also bills itself as the largest DNA network in the world. And, indeed, access to the 80 million family trees and billions of historical records has created surprising connections for some of its users. 

“I never expected to find a family member doing a DNA test,” says Kristin Peterson of Bartlett, Il. “I was really just looking to find out more about my mix. It’s interesting what got passed down and what things that have disappeared in later generations.” She found more than she had bargained for, however. “My uncle gave up a baby for adoption in high school [and] she reached out to my aunt and me via Ancestry … I found out I had another first cousin.” 

Similarly, Greta Funk of Winchester, KS, gifted her husband — who knew nothing of his biological family — an Ancestry kit for Christmas last year. He initially matched with an aunt who informed his biological mother, who then ordered a test for herself and matched up with him. “By February or so, he found out his heritage — and his biological parents and half siblings.” 

Sean Benham, from Chicago, IL, did both AncestryDNA and the free family tree-builder. “Once I did the DNA test it linked me to people in their database with the closest gene pool, and it found my aunt and first cousin!” Another cool bit of trivia he dug up? “Found out I’m 81 percent British. I’m actually more British than the average native Brit.”

23andMe

Named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up humankind, this company — which touts its “FDA standards for clinical and scientific validity” — offers genetic health risk and carrier status reports, gives ancestry percentages down to 0.1 percent, and the opt-in ability to join the DNA Relative Finder. (The upgraded Health Report also includes some data that determines, among other things, the likelihood that you possess a unibrow or will eventually go bald.) 

Having tried multiple tests, Shaun Rudy of Chicago, IL, liked 23andMe — “the early adopter of the bunch” — the best. “Funny thing is I have like 10 percent Iberian Spanish. My grandma used to swear that her descendants were part Spanish and no one believed her until now.” He enjoys their frequent service updates and the features that set them apart: “They did an actual profile of me on how Neanderthal I am. Went into all of these details on why … it was fascinating.”

Having the unanticipated pop up was an experience shared by Emily Flynn of Somerville, MA — a gal who also happens to have the great fortune of being my sister. “After I did 23andMe, they told me I was .3 percent Japanese, which was just astounding and super unexpected. (My mom ended up doing a 23andMe after I did mine because she was so interested in learning more about her heritage, and she was much more Middle Eastern than I was — 80 percent to my 35 percent. She assures me that I’m not adopted.) It was a really fun experiment and prompted a lot of conversations within my sisters and my family about family background, passed down stories, and things I never knew about before. I really want to try these for my whole family to see what the genetic variations show!”

MyHeritage

With 92 million users worldwide (and 42 supported languages and ethnicities), they’ve got quite the database to pull from.

Mari Provencher, of Los Angeles, CA, knew more about her mother’s side of the family than her father’s (due to an adoption, an orphanage fire, and less than stellar family situations a few generations back), and hoped to dig up some info on her dad’s history. However, MyHeritage confirmed what she already knew: she was largely Italian and English/United Kingdom-based. 

“In fact, the most interesting thing [is] there’s no sign of any Canadian or French speaking heritage at all. The only remnant of [my great-grandfather] is my last name, “Provencher.” You’d think that in my genetic makeup, with so many family members that are direct immigrants or only one generation removed from that, I’d be around 25 percent of each ethnicity. But as in my actual everyday life, my big Italian family seems to have taken over.”

I also jumped at the chance to take one of these tests and — full disclosure — a MyHeritage testing kit was offered to me for the purposes of this article. Growing up, I always knew we were Irish (on my dad’s side) and Armenian (on my mom’s). This report backed that up — kind of. 

While there was a 35.9 percent representation of Ireland, there was also a surprising 28.3 percent Greek and Italian background that appeared. (Opa!) And as to the Armenian portion, it showed up in the 31.1 percent “West Asia” category, which grouped Turkey, Persia, Armenia, and Iraq, et. al. (My mom confirmed that her father was, indeed, Syrian, and family members had actually been born in Turkey. Perhaps my sister’s Japanese findings came from this part of the family, too. Can you hear the opening strains of ‘It’s a Small World After All’?) A category of “Middle East” (at 3.7 percent) seems to cover similar — yet tinier — territory, and may even explain a little bit of the Greek crossover.So, can a simple DNA test bring about world peace? Perhaps not, but if it makes other parts of the world seem a little bit closer and strangers seem a little bit more like family, then it’ll be well worth the investment — and definitely something worth celebrating around the table. Cheers!

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