Does Ancestry Test Y-DNA or mtDNA? A Strange History

AncestryDNA is the largest seller of autosomal DNA kits to consumers, but does Ancestry test Y-DNA or mtDNA? You may not be aware that the company has tested all three types of DNA in the past.

Does Ancestry Test Y-DNA or mtDNA?

Ancestry.com does not currently sell DNA test kits for Y-DNA or mtDNA. They offer autosomal DNA testing, which is effective for researching recent generations of your family tree through DNA-matched relatives.

Ancestry has ventured twice in the past into Y and mitochondrial DNA kits (mtDNA). Will Ancestry go back into these markets? Before we look at Ancestry’s history and future, I’ll tell you where you can get these alternative tests right now.

Which Consumer DNA Companies Offer Which DNA Tests?

Here is my summary of which types of DNA tests are offered by the five main vendors.

atDNAY-DNAmtDNA
AncestryYesNoNo
MyHeritageYesNoNo
23andMeYesYes (Haplo)Yes (Haplo)
FamilyTreeDNAYesYesYes
LivingDNAYesNoYes (Haplo)

FamilyTreeDNA is undoubtedly the leader in comprehensive testing across all types. They have several versions of tests for Y-DNA and mtDNA at different pricing levels.

Where I’ve noted (Haplo) in the positive category, this is limited testing that gives you haplogroup information. However, the vendors do not offer DNA-matching with relatives for this type of test. Only FamilyTreeDNA can offer that service.

With that out of the way, let’s look at Ancestry’s checkered history with Y and mtDNA testing.

Ancestry’s First Attempt at Y-DNA and mtDNA Tests in 2002

I knew that Ancestry offered Y-DNA tests for several years within the last decade. But as far back as 2002? That surprised me. Back then, Ancestry was all about “old-fashioned” genealogy and growing its subscription-based record archives.

A few hours of research turned up some old news coverage of this early foray into the brave new world of genetic genealogy. And then I realized why I hadn’t come across this piece of Ancestry history. Were you also unaware? Well, if you blinked you might have missed it. It started and ended the same year.

Ancestry Launches Genetikit

In January 2002, Boston hosted a major conference on genetic technology. Relative Genetics, who operated a DNA laboratory in Salt Lake City, made waves with its announcement. Their major news was a suite of consumer DNA kits in partnership with “MyFamily.com”.

With who? Well, that was Ancestry – which had several brand names and websites. It would eventually consolidate under the Ancestry.com brand.

The Genetikit was a cheek swab kit priced at about $220. Several tests were offered:

  • Y-DNA tests for men and their paternal lines
  • mtDNA test for maternal lines of all testers
  • a test aimed at Native American ancestry

Ancestry’s Early DNA Matching

Scott Woodward was the Lab Director of Relative Genetics. He was also leading a non-commercial project at Brigham Young University to build a world-wide genetic database of DNA tests. This research project was funded by the philanthropist James Sorenson, and we’ll call it the Sorenson database. Remember the name, it’ll crop up again.

The Sorenson database was growing through volunteer DNA testing at the university, at genealogy centers run by the Church of Latter-day Saints, and through international projects. Unlike Ancestry’s offering, these volunteer kits were blood tests. Volunteers were also asked to fill in family trees, with a focus on ancestral surnames and places.

Every consumer DNA matching company starts with the same problem: customers looking forlornly at an empty list of DNA matches. The Sorenson database could be Ancestry’s jump on the competition. As NBC reported:

For a little more than $200, Ancestry.com will send out a kit that you can use to swab a sample from the inside of your cheek. When you send the sample back, DNA from your sample will be checked against the BYU database for potential matches in your direct paternal or maternal line.

How could it possibly fail?

Ancestry Ditches Y-DNA and mtDNA Tests in 2002

Ancestry suspended sales of the DNA kits in the mid-summer of 2002 but continued to process the received orders. It then canned the entire venture in March 2003. Why? Brad Reagan did a write-up in the Wall Street Journal that September. By that time, only about 500 people had bought the test kit.

The journalist cited two issues for Ancestry stopping the project. Most importantly, customers rarely got DNA matches. The Sorenson database was still too small to deliver a meaningful experience.

Another reason is also interesting when we compare it to today. Customers complained that they only saw the few DNA matches when they got their results. There was no notification if subsequent matching tests turned up, and apparently no easy way of checking.

I haven’t seen the interface that customers were offered. But I assume it was nothing like the current listings provided by the major DNA companies. I guess Ancestry knew that this issue would be an easy fix. But there was no point piling money into a slick user interface on top of a trick of DNA matches.

Ancestry’s Second Venture into Y-DNA and mtDNA Tests in 2007

The Sorenson database project continued as a separate entity when Ancestry departed. Relative Genetics hosted a website that facilitated surname projects for Y-DNA testers and searching for DNA matches for both Y and mitochondrial DNA.

When Ancestry went back in the water, they jumped in with both feet. In 2007, it wasn’t a partnership with Relative Genetics. This time, Ancestry purchased the DNA company outright and started selling their DNA tests through the Ancestry.com website.

Ancestry closed down the Relative Genetics website and moved searching and surname projects to its own hosting. They also got the price of DNA kits down below $200.

Ancestry would continue to sell Y and mitochondrial DNA tests for another seven years.

DNA Matches – Then and Now

There are some interesting contrasts to how things work currently with Ancestry’s autosomal DNA kits. Mitochondrial DNA matches were rare, but there was a great chance of customers getting Y-DNA matches. The match lists weren’t integrated with family trees. A click on a match name brought up a profile page with a contact button to send a message.

But what stands out for me is that customers could download both mtDNA and Y-DNA match lists to local files. We can’t do that now with our Ancestry matches!

Another aspect that caught my eye: people who tested with other DNA companies could transfer their results to Ancestry’s databases. Can people do that now? Nope!

Ancestry Moves Into Autosomal DNA Testing in 2012

There were murmurs in 2011 that Ancestry was going to start autosomal testing. They signed up a few thousand customers during a pre-launch phase.

In May 2012, Ancestry officially launched its atDNA service for residents of the United States. It rolled out to other countries over the new few years.

This time, Ancestry integrated DNA testing with its genealogical services. Customers could link their DNA to their family tree and use both DNA matches and record archives to research their heritage.

They also made a big deal out of the ethnicity estimates, which proved to be very popular.

Ancestry Buys the Sorenson DNA Databases in 2012

Remember the Sorenson project out of BYU? A collection of X, Y, mitochondrial, and autosomal databases supplied by volunteer donors?

The project was financially backed by a group called the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. They had purchased a DNA lab called GeneTree, which had started as a paternity testing outfit. GeneTree was now the commercial wing for the Foundation (why am I thinking of Asimov?).

In 2012, Ancestry purchased GeneTree along with its DNA assets i.e. the Sorenson DNA databases.

The outcome could have been awesome (or terrifying, depending on your point of view). The lofty aims of the Foundation were to establish a genetic genealogy blueprint that connected all the peoples of the world. By 2012, it had gathered over 100,000 DNA samples on a not-for-profit donor basis.

But think of where Ancestry is in 2020, with over 18+ million DNA tests sold worldwide. What would you get if you combine Ancestry’s commercial drive (and massive private-equity backers) with the idealist fervor of adherents to the Foundation’s principles?

Well, we never found out. Because Ancestry bought the Sorenson databases and quickly shut them down.

To be fair to the corporate giant, I don’t think that was the original intention. But they would get very spooked by events in December 2014. Before we get there, let’s look at 2013.

Ancestry Winds Down Y-DNA tests and mtDNA Tests

I took a wander down the memory lanes of the Ancestry message boards. It’s fascinating to read the threads on non-autosomal testing around this period of 2012-2014. Enthusiasts were noticing that the new atDNA test was getting all the Ancestry love.

In contrast, the older Y and mitochondrial tests were left to languish. The main competitor, Family Tree DNA, was improving its tests, such as increasing the number of DNA markers. Ancestry didn’t seem interested in keeping up.

Ancestry Y- and mt-DNA testing seems to be moribund. Their project sites have not been updated since they took over from Relative Genetics and they have not added any new markers.

Post on Ancestry Message Boards, 2013

The autosomal DNA matches got sleek modern web pages with powerful search features. Y and mtDNA customers had difficulty finding their results.

it is virtually impossible to find the pages for Y- and mt-DNA testing. You have to read an advertisement for autosomal testing first.

Post on Ancestry Message Boards, 2013

Ancestry Ditches Y-DNA and mtDNA Tests in 2014

In the summer of 2014, Ancestry announced that they were retiring their Y-DNA and mtDNA.

They explicitly stated that they aimed to focus on the new autosomal DNA test.

I doubt that many existing customers were surprised. I didn’t purchase a DNA test from Ancestry until 2017, so I don’t have any personal adverse experience. My take on it is that it’s a pity to lose a competitor in the DNA space. But Family Tree DNA had a superior offering for Y and mtDNA tests.

Ancestry gave a window for customers to download their data. And FamilyTreeDNA stepped up with special offers to accept transfers.

So, at this point Ancestry wasn’t selling its own Y-DNA and mtDNA kits. But it owned and managed the Sorenson repository of Y and mitochondrial tests. This included a website for searching the DNA data. Yep, that was next for the hammer.

Ancestry Shuts Down the Sorenson DNA Databases in 2015

In December 2014, Ancestry was contacted by police with a warrant for information about a DNA customer. The law enforcement agents had used the Sorenson Y-DNA database to search for DNA matches to a crime scene sample. Ancestry was legally obliged to comply with the court order.

The negative publicity blew up into a snowstorm surrounding Ancestry and the privacy of its DNA customers. Ancestry’s reaction was a swift sledgehammer.

The company revoked public access to the Sorenson data and put up an announcement on its website. “We regret to inform you the site you have accessed is no longer available.”

It then put the Sorenson databases on ice.

I mentioned in the previous section that Ancestry gave a window for customers to download the results of their  Y and mtDNA tests purchased from Ancestry.com. No such window was given to Sorenson donors.

Ancestry, Y-DNA, and Mitochondrial Testing – Is There A Future?

I can’t say that there signs that Ancestry might get back into Y and mtDNA. But would I be shocked if Ancestry announced tomorrow that they had purchased an existing outfit for that purpose? No.

But then again, I wouldn’t be shocked if they shut down the venture the following year! Ancestry has an interesting history of buying genealogy services and retiring them after some time. I wrote an article about the slow decline of RootsWeb in recent years.

Here’s where I see a possible reason for Ancestry to revive the alternate DNA tests. The expansion of the autosomal DNA market has slowed in the last couple of years. Both Ancestry and 23andMe laid off staff in 2020. Where are the future avenues of growth?

One possible source is through cross-selling to existing atDNA customers. The other two tests can be useful with family research, but are generally less effective than atDNA with uncovering recent generations. They also may require more effort to interpret and use the results.

Might it just be a small percentage of Ancestry’s customers who would be interested? But a percentage of 18 million might be worth Ancestry’s while to return to these tests.

More Articles on Ancestry and Family Research?

Margaret O'Brien

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