For years, Ancestry.com has helped family historians trace their lineage by combing through its vast storehouse of digitized historical records. Now the company has developed a shortcut for tracing your family tree: your spit.
On Wednesday, Ancestry.com introduced a new feature for users who have submitted or want to submit a saliva sample of DNA. The site will pool that genetic information with archives and millions of user-built family trees to give some customers a look at their likely lineage going as far back as the 1700s, no research required.
"DNA from the beginning had the promise of providing people with a family history experience that delivered on the same promise of our mission — to make these amazing discoveries about who we all are — without the same time invested in sorting through documents," Ancestry CEO Tim Sullivan told BuzzFeed News.
By taking much of the homework out of the research process, Ancestry.com is making a bid to catch up with 23andMe and other players in the increasingly competitive personal genetics testing industry. The more DNA in a database, the more easily researchers can discover genetic trends, insights, and connections in groups or individuals. But to win consumers, institutions must make a case for why their brand of DNA analysis is uniquely compelling, personalized, and useful.
Ancestry.com is known largely for its 15 billion census records, newspaper archives, photos, and historical documents — a trove that has attracted 2.2 million amateur genealogists. But in 2012, the Utah-based site began selling $99 autosomal DNA testing kits for ancestry and ethnicity. So far, the service has collected more than 800,000 samples — nearly as many as the 850,000 collected by 23andMe, which began peddling DNA kits in 2007.
Ancestry.com says its new DNA feature, which was two years in the making, looks for genetic similarities between users. By connecting new customers with some of the 65 million family trees built by existing users, the site hopes to transforming the sometimes arduous process of mapping ancestral histories into a simple exercise.
Such expediency is may prove compelling to family historians who'd like a quick and easy way to map out their family trees. But the new feature comes with a few caveats. While genetic ancestry testing can be useful for finding commonalities in large populations, it's less so in charting specific ancestral details about individuals. That said, when paired with historical documents — as Ancestry.com has done — it can be more accurate.
Then there's the cost: consumers interested in Ancestry.com's DNA feature must purchase the site's $99 test, as well as pay its $20 to $45 monthly subscription fee.
Initially, Ancestry.com's DNA feature will be available to one-third of company's 800,000 DNA test users, who are primarily of Western European ancestry. That's because there isn't enough information from users of other ethnicities to automatically build full genealogical histories for them. But Ancestry.com hopes the feature's reach will grow over time — as long as more customers join.
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
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