The popular at-home genetic testing kit can now match your DNA at a county and state level — here's how that works. 

By Richelle Szypulski
January 15, 2019
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For many travelers, there's an endless, unspoken quest of sorts to discover places that feel unexpectedly familiar. Stumbling across a glimpse of “home” somewhere totally foreign is an addictive feeling, but a challenging one to manufacture. Unless, of course, you’re heading to explore the tiny town your grandparents’ grandparents grew up in.

Though ancestral travel is certainly trending — tour operators are offering customized family heritage trips, an Irish hotel introduced Genealogy Butler services — it’s nothing new, per se. But before, this sort of pilgrimage was informed by religion or public records or good, old-fashioned family storytelling. The rise of direct-to-consumer DNA testing services like 23andMe has made it delightfully more sophisticated.

And if you’re one of five million people who have used 23andMe’s kit to map out the origins of your DNA, your dream trip to the homeland just got immensely easier to plan. Today’s update allows you to zoom from country-based results to a county and state level to sharpen the focus on where your familial roots likely took hold.

So, what makes such granular ancestry analysis possible? I spoke with 23andMe ancestry product lead Robin Smith, who explained that it’s really about searching for similarities within your genetic code. “You hear a lot about DNA like, ‘Do I have the gene for this or the gene for that?’ and when it comes to ancestry, it’s not that simple. There is no Italian gene, no Spanish gene; it doesn’t work like that,” Smith said. “We’re all very similar — 99.5 percent similar — but that .5 percent difference is basically the genetic diversity of the world. So certain groups in certain parts of the world have mutations, or genetic variants, that are very common in that group, but are not common in other groups.”

So essentially, the 23andMe algorithm takes your DNA, breaks it into smaller chunks, and compares them, piece by piece, to reference data sets from particular places around the world to ask, what’s the most likely origin of this piece of DNA? 

Courtesy of 23andMe

When 23andMe launched in 2007, it could identify three major ancestry groups, and that was groundbreaking. Today, that total has risen to more than 1,000, but the technology hasn't changed. The data set has. See, the more people who join the service and opt into research, the more refined those location-based reference sets become. This information bank is also bolstered by publicly available data from journal publications and an active recruitment of people with all four grandparents who were born in certain regions where more data is needed through the company's Global Genetics Project.

“Particularly with this update, we could only really do this at this point,” Smith explained. “Only now do we have enough data to break down state- and county-level information. We’re really benefiting from the fact that so many people have chosen to join our service.”

Courtesy of 23andMe

This update also sees a new iteration of the DNA Relatives map, which was done away with in 2015 during a major interface overhaul. Users could already see a list of relatives ranging from close family to distant cousins who share just a small segment of your DNA and the traits they might share — like an increased likelihood of sweaty feet or a propensity for cat ownership. Now, it plots out the relatives who have volunteered their locations onto a map, allowing you to see the ground your extended family covers — and perhaps opening up a few potential guest-rooming or couch-crashing opportunities in destinations on your to-visit list.

Courtesy of 23andMe

There's also a bunch of new storytelling, as well. Each major ancestral population expands into an exploration of its art, traditions, history, food, language, and more. There are also suggested “Sights to See” that highlight cultural pinnacles you won't want to miss on a trip. Also new is a personalized, hardcover book with all of your Ancestry reports and additional context that you can order for $40 plus shipping (or download for free as a preview PDF).

23andMe Ancestry Kit

Courtesy of 23andMe

To buy: amazon.com, $99

23andMe Health + Ancestry Kit

Courtesy of 23andMe

To buy: amazon.com, $199

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