23andMe updates its ancestry reports, but they’re still not perfect

23andMe, co-founded by CEO Anne Wojcicki, has deployed its latest update, featuring interactive ancestry details, cultural insights about food, art, language, and the option to order a physical ancestry book. Starting today, customers will be able to see more granular ancestry results from more than 1,000 regions, as well as 33 population-specific pages about cultural information. […]

23andMe, co-founded by CEO Anne Wojcicki, has deployed its latest update, featuring interactive ancestry details, cultural insights about food, art, language, and the option to order a physical ancestry book. Starting today, customers will be able to see more granular ancestry results from more than 1,000 regions, as well as 33 population-specific pages about cultural information.

Before this update, 23andMe simply said I was 12 percent Brtish and Irish. Now, it’s able to break down where in the U.K. my ancestors likely lived. 23andMe, however, was not able to detect more granular data in Ireland.

It was also unable to detect additional evidence in Nigeria, where 23andMe says 25.2 percent of my ancestry comes from. That’s likely because, even though 23andMe has made efforts to grow the number of African and African-American people in its dataset, it’s still lacking. Though, it’s worth noting no ancestry service has it all.

“The odds of receiving more granular results from a particular region (in your particular case, Ireland or Nigeria) depends on how much Nigerian DNA someone has and how many individuals are in the 23andMe reference dataset,” 23andMeAncestry Group Product Manager Robin Smith told TechCrunch. “The reference dataset is continuously growing, and customers should be seeing even more refined ancestry results later in the year.”

Generally speaking, customers who share exact matches between their DNA and reference individuals from a particular region could potentially see granularity in regions of Anambra, Edo, Imo, Lagos and Ogun State in Nigeria, 23andMe spokesperson Christine Pai told TechCrunch.

It’s worth noting Ancestry says I have just 1 percent of my DNA comes from Nigeria and that the bulk of my African ancestry comes from Cameroon and Congo. But when I first signed up for Ancestry, the company said 39 percent of my ancestry came from Nigeria. This is all to say that these tools are imperfect and always subject to change. And, depending on where the bulk of your ancestry comes from, it may change dramatically.

“I’m not surprised you’ll get different results from different companies,” Dr. Jennifer Raff, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas told TechCrunch back in September. “They have their own proprietary info based on those samples. If one of them has lots of individuals from a particular region and the other company does not, you’re more likely to show up as having ancestry from that region whereas if the other company doesn’t have that data represented in their database, it’s going to show up as a different population.”

This is problematic, given many people turn to these DNA testing tools to figure out more about who they are and where they come from. I’ll keep this brief, but I was pretty frustrated when I went from thinking I was very Nigerian (39 percent, according to Ancestry) to barely Nigerian (about one percent, also according to Ancestry) to then again a fair amount of Nigerian (25 percent, according to 23andme).

“This is a problem and it’s one we need to educate people about — that your genetic ancestry is not your identity,” Dr. Raff said. “Also, those numbers really reflect what is in their database, and what’s in the database is largely reflective of genetic variations we see in present-day populations. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reflecting your actual ancestors.”

I asked Dr. Raff if DNA testing is just a load of crock, but she said it’s not.

“It’s not complete bullshit but there’s also a lot of uncertainty there,” she said. “We [humans] like definitive answers. We’re trying to use this as a tool for exploring our past. We like to have definite answers when we’re doing these explorations, but unfortunately, it’s not there yet.”

But that’s not entirely the fault of 23andMe and Ancestry. In order to be as accurate as humanly possible, these companies would need to sequence every person on the planet. That’s not currently feasible, so in the meantime, Ancestry points to its confidence levels.

“We take this pretty seriously and we do want people to understand what is something they can put money in the bank on, and what they should take with a grain of salt,” Ancestry Chief Scientific Officer Catherine Ball told TechCrunch back in September.

She added that Ancestry tries to be transparent about confidence levels. And, in Africa specifically, “it’s one of our most exciting opportunities and greatest challenge” due to the enormous amount of genetic diversity on the continent.

Additional reporting by Sarah Buhr.

23andMe’s ancestry tools are getting better for people of color

23andMe is beefing up its African, East Asian and Native American ancestry capabilities — something it has sorely lacked. Specifically, 23andMe has added to its database 12 new regions across Africa and East Asia. When I first tried 23andMe a few years ago, it told me I was 71 percent West African, which tells me […]

23andMe is beefing up its African, East Asian and Native American ancestry capabilities — something it has sorely lacked. Specifically, 23andMe has added to its database 12 new regions across Africa and East Asia. When I first tried 23andMe a few years ago, it told me I was 71 percent West African, which tells me next to nothing about which countries the bulk of my ancestry comes from. Well, that’s all changing — though, I already received the information from Ancestry — with 23andMe’s latest product update.

“Key to this update is really the availability of more data from around the world, specifically in Africa and Asia,” 23andMe Senior Product Manager Robin Smith told TechCrunch. “It’s possible through certain initiatives, like the African Genetics Project and Global Genetics Project.”

Before, 23andMe only provided three subgroups in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Now, there are eight additional subgroups in the area, as well as four additional populations in East Asia.

Here are the 12 additional populations on 23andMe:

  1. Southern East African
  2. Congolese
  3. Coastal West African
  4. Ethiopian & Eritrean
  5. Senegambian & Guinean
  6. Nigerian
  7. Somali
  8. Sudanese
  9. Chinese Dai
  10. . Vietnamese
  11.  Filipino
  12. . Indonesian, Thai, Khmer & Myanma

23andMe first launched in 2007, but it’s taken a long time to collect the data needed to provide a more comprehensive genealogical view to certain populations. Roughly 75 percent of 23andMe’s customers are of European descent, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017. So, 23andMe realized “at some point that we needed these initiatives to go out and get the data,” Smith said.

For early 23andMe adopters, they’re going to have to re-take the test because this update is only available for people on the most recent genotyping chip, Smith said. 23andMe is now on the fifth version of its chip, which he said is “reflective of a better idea of the diversity of the world.”

That means they’ll either have to buy a new kit or opt-in for a yet-to-be-available upgrade program, Smith said. Beyond this update, 23andMe plans to regularly release updates and continue adding new populations.

“We haven’t done an update like this in a long time,” Smith said. “It’s been on our roadmap for many years now.”

Last September, 23andMe raised $250 million at around a $1.75 billion valuation. As part of that capital raise, Wojcicki said, 23andMe planned to work to expand the diversity of the data and the research on that diversity.

In addition to ancestral information, 23andMe also offers health reports. Earlier in 2017, the Food and Drug Administration started allowing 23andMe to test for 10 different genetic risk tests, including ones for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In addition to testing risks for certain diseases, 23andMe also tells you fun facts like how your DNA influences your appearance, preferences and physical responses.

I’ll be retaking the 23andMe test soon and will let you all know what I find. In the meantime, a researcher over at 23andMe shared a before and after look at their results. Check it out below.