DNA ancestral data insufficient for many of Eastern origin

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Leer en español: Los datos de Ancestry son insuficientes para los del origen oriental

Learning about one’s own ancestral traits through DNA testing has become a hobby for millions of people worldwide and a vocation for many in the popular “cheek swab” industry, which helps people trace their genetic heritage.

But the home test kits that require people to provide a saliva sample aren’t always providing the kind of results that customers of non-European descent hope for. Without a large sampling of DNA from each area of the world, the information that can be provided to customers is limited.

AncestryDNA’s database is receiving mixed reviews after some users report underwhelming DNA results. Complaints come from people of Middle Eastern, Asian and Polynesian descent.

The issue started two years after Ancestry addressed people of African descent, letting them know that Ancestry’s database was updated to provide them more specific results about their DNA. Ancestry published a blog to assure potential clients of African descent that their database had grown. The company was able to sort DNA into multiple ethnic regions in Africa, claiming to have “more than any other DNA testing service” according to the blog.

Now, those of Eastern origin are finding that there aren’t enough regions to provide accurate results. For Chris Williams, a man born in South Korea, the experience he had was enough to leave a one-star review on Ancestry’s Facebook page.

“The Ancestry service wasn’t very detailed for my background,” he wrote in a message to the Universe. “I also had a few random people trying to link their family tree to me, but I didn’t think it was accurate at all.”

LeeAnn Akina’s children come from Danish, Chinese and Hawaiian descent. Their Polynesian roots were initially interpreted to be Vietnamese, but LeeAnn wasn’t upset with the DNA testing company.

“I don’t know that that’s necessarily Ancestry’s fault,” Akina said. She suspects that those of Polynesian ethnicities aren’t submitting their DNA to Ancestry.

A recent portrait of the Akina family. (Ku’ulei Tano, Kuulei Media)

Other DNA testing companies have run into similar issues. According to 23andMe Product Scientist Samantha Ancona Esselmann, some Polynesian people were seeing Filipino ancestry in their results.

“Our ancestry scientists realized right away that this shared ancestry was a reflection of human migration and the major expansion of seafaring people,” Esselmann said. So 23andMe renamed that region “Filipino & Austronesian” to reflect that relationship.

Scientists have determined that the history of seafaring people began in Madagascar and continued to move west, Esselmann said.

“During this expansion, the Austronesians mixed with people they met along their way, including the indigenous Filipinos, Papuans, and Southeast Asian mainlanders,” Esselmann said. This is likely why there could be some Vietnamese ancestry in Polynesian people.

Three of the Akina’s children have had accounts with Ancestry for about a year and a half. Akina said over that time, she has seen progress.

“When we’ve checked back a couple times, their percentages of nationality have kinda changed, which is interesting,” she said. “But to me, that just tells us that they are gathering more information, which is a good thing. It’s just kinda sad that there’s not enough information from the beginning.”

Husna Hossain, a woman from Bangladesh of Persian descent, paid extra for an additional service called AncestryHealth. It’s a service that, according the site, promises “personal health reports with actionable insights,” and a “family health history tool to track generations of health.” Other users have received information on their chances of hair loss or skin cancer, but for Hossain, there was very little to report.

“They said I have brown eyes and black curly hair,” Hossain said. “I did not get anything about hair loss or skin pigmentation. Basically, I spent a hundred dollars for nothing.”

In October 2019, Ancestry added new regions to their reference panel. Regions were broken down into more specific area groups. Previously, the Western Hemisphere was only three total regions and today it is broken up into eleven regions. According to Ancestry Spokesperson Camille Penrod, this is because Ancestry has received more samples.

Ancestry’s latest map depicting the regions on their reference panel from an October 2019 blog post. (Ancestry)

“We recently added over 20,000 new samples to our reference panel,” Penrod said, “giving our customers even more detailed results and adding more regions in the Americas, Oceania and South Asia.“

With time, Ancestry predicts to see even more growth. “As more people take AncestryDNA and genomic science advances, we’re committed to adding new regions across the globe” Penrod said. “Whether a customer took our test in 2012 or today — they will always get the latest updates to their ethnicity results.”

The Akina family hasn’t paid for Ancestry’s health service, but LeeAnn said they would be interested in it once they felt confident that there was enough data. “We’re just hoping that more information is gathered so that we can get more of a definite result on (our kids’) ethnicity,” she said.

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