Thursday, October 17, 2013

AncestryDNA's New Ethnicity Predictions Rolling Out to Customers

AncestryDNA customers will be happy to see that the new ethnicity results are starting to appear in their DNA accounts today. If you haven't checked yours yet, be sure and do so. I have been working with the new predictions for a little over a month and feel that they are a huge improvement over the original version. That's not to say that they are perfect, but no admixture predictions are without weaknesses. As Dr. Catherine Ball emphasizes in the new introductory video that is why they are called estimates.

I have intended to write about this new feature ever since I was invited to participate in a webinar and conference call by AncestryDNA with a handful of other bloggers back in early September, but I have been overwhelmed with other work that I will write about soon. I plan to post a couple of upcoming blogs to catch up with all of the exciting genetic genealogy news, including additional coverage on AncestryDNA's advancements.

Is Ancestry Using the Sorenson Samples?
First,  I want to discuss the role of the Sorenson data in these updated and more refined predictions. There has been a lot of conflicting information shared on the blogs, in the forums and even by employees in this regard. I spoke with Dr. Ken Chahine, AncestryDNA's General Manager, to clarify the role of the Sorenson data and the status of the DNA samples collected by Sorenson.

AncestryDNA's first version of their Genetic Ethnicity feature used public data sets for the reference populations. For the new version, Ken confirmed, they have transitioned to using Sorenson samples and the associated pedigree data "almost exclusively" (and not unsourced personal member trees).

Contrary to what has been claimed by some and in agreement with what Ken has told me in the past, AncestryDNA does, in fact, have possession of the physical DNA samples. How else could they have been integrated into this new cutting-edge technology? They have been retesting an increasing number of those samples on the Illumina chip that they use for the AncestryDNA test in order to improve their ethnicity predictions. Upon hearing this, I know that many people will wish to test those samples of deceased family members who donated their DNA to Sorenson on the AncestryDNA platform, however it was explained to me that for legal reasons AncestryDNA is not currently able to allow that. They are attempting to work out the legalities involved, but cannot guarantee that this will be an option in the future. Ken said that he "definitely understands the desire, the need" to access these samples to take advantage of the more advanced genetic testing technology, but AncestryDNA is required ensure that everyone's privacy is protected and they, as a corporation, are covered legally. Ken explained that AncestryDNA would very much like to come up with a solution to be able to genotype these samples and deliver the results to their family members, but they just don't have an answer at this point as to if and when this will be possible. Further, he explained that it may turn out that AncestryDNA will not be able to overcome the legal difficulties involved with allowing third party access to these samples. Moving forward AncestryDNA is looking into creating an option for designating a beneficiary for current AncestryDNA accounts/samples in order to avoid this dilemma in the future.

Now, to discuss the details of the new release...

What I like most about the presentation of these new ethnicity estimates is that AncestryDNA has worked very hard to make the science transparent, just as the genetic genealogy community has been requesting. They have released an extensive white paper delving into the minute details of their work. You can find it on your ethnicity estimate page by clicking on the little "i" in the upper right hand corner.

The New Ethnicity Estimate home page - click to enlarge

The have also provided the option to click through to simpler explanations throughout the interface. I recommend that everyone takes the time to go through and read each of these in order to get a better understanding of how this feature works. They do such a good job of this, that it is probably unnecessary for me to go into extensive details here. 

As you will see, the graphics are extremely well done in these explanations. For example, the Regional Overlap Chart (below)  helps to explain why it is so difficult to break continental regions into sub-regional categories.

Additionally, the AncestryDNA team has done a very good job of illustrating the reality of this challenge with the graphic depictions of the ranges integrated with the estimates.

There is more detail offered for the customers who wish to "dive down" into the technical details in the click-thru explanations. 

New Home Page
I also like the updated look for the new home page. It summarizes the important details of your results in an easy-to-understand format.

Some customer's pages are really colorful now!

Increased Resolution and Detail
All of the results in my account are much more accurate based on the research that I have done both on my traditional genealogy and in working with my autosomal DNA matches over the last several years. I also got a couple of surprises with the enhanced resolution of this test.

AncestryDNA has increased their coverage tenfold by analyzing 300,000 SNPs in their predictions as compared to the 30,000 that they were using previously. The new version of their reference panel uses "3,000 DNA samples from people in 26 global regions".  In an ambitious attempt, they are the first company to offer customers with African ancestry an estimate of the specific regions in Africa to which their DNA can be traced. I will look forward to hearing the opinions from the African Americans in our community on how well they think AncestryDNA has done with this first attempt. (23andMe will be releasing their own effort soon.)

Coming Soon...
I will examine my results in more depth and share some thoughts and interesting details from my conversation with Ken Chahine.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Thanks for this post, CeCe. The transparency regarding how Ancestry developed these new algorithms is wonderful. I also appreciate the fairly easy to understand interface. I do hope that this is not "the end" of what they are revising, though. I have seen with V2 that there is a difficulty in distinguishing British Isles and Western European admixture. Hopefully Ancestry will get enough feedback regarding this that they are able to adjust accordingly.

  2. CeCe:
    Thank you for the informative posting. I am most impressed with Ancestry's efforts this go-around. 23andMe will have a lot of work to do to stay competitive, especially with regard to the African breakdowns. Ancestry's African analysis tracks very well with some work that I had done a couple of years ago. It will be interesting to see what happens if they are able to gather even more samples in the future.

  3. Cece,
    Do you know if the Ancestry results are reasonably accurate for people of Jewish heritage? According to my FTDNA Family Finder results, my DNA is 100% Middle Eastern.

  4. CeCe,

    Very nice presentation and analysis. Well done. Thanks for all your hard work.