Tuesday 30 October 2012

Dr Michael Hammer on archaic admixture

I've had the pleasure of listening to two talks presented by Dr Michael Hammer at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show in London in recent years. He is always a very entertaining speaker and has the knack of explaining difficult concepts in an easy-to-understand way. An after dinner talk that Dr Hammer presented at the African Genetics International Conference earlier this year has now been posted to YouTube. The talk is entitled "Beyond Eden: The Significance of Archaic Admixture in Africa". He explains the latest theories on early human origins and looks at the contributions made to our gene pool by archaic Neanderthal and Denisovan populations. Enjoy!

Saturday 27 October 2012

Shareholders sue Ancestry.com over proposed buyout

Further to the announcement earlier this week that Ancestry.com was to be sold to the European equity firm Permira, it now transpires that Ancestry shareholders have sued the company and are contending that they will be "shortchanged" by the proposed $1.6 billion buyout.

Business Week reports that investor John Heck has "asked the court to block the buyout as currently proposed and to consider awarding damages and legal fees". They further comment that Heather Erickson, an Ancestry.com spokeswoman, "didn't immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment on the lawsuit".

The full story can be found here.

Debbie Kennett

Friday 26 October 2012

Ancestry's autosomal test is now on general sale in the US

Ancestry's new autosomal DNA test has now gone on general sale in the US. There was no official announcement other than a post last night on Ancestry.com's Facebook page. Ancestry initially offered free DNA tests to around 10,000 people in America in order to kickstart their testing programme. In the beta-testing phase the test was offered at the special price of $99 on a first-come first-served basis by invitation only. It is estimated that around 40,000 people were able to order the test at this price. The beta-testing was only actively advertised in the US. I was able to order the test from the UK but I know of no one else outside North America who has yet ordered the test. If you click on the DNA tab on Ancestry.co.uk you are taken to this page:
You then have to go to dna.ancestry.com on the US site which takes you to a big splash screen about the new test. For Ancestry.com subscribers in the US the test is being offered for $129. This is shown as a reduction on the usual price of $199 though the test has never been on sale at the higher price and Ancestry misleadingly do not make it clear that $199 is the standard price for non-subscribers. If you are in America and don't have an Ancestry subscription there are three options:

1)  Buy the test without a subscription for $199
2)  Buy the test with a 6-month Ancestry.com World Explorer subscription for $249
3)  Buy the test with a six-month Ancestry.com US Discovery subscription for $189

Note, however, that as Peter Calver of Lost Cousins has pointed out, if you are in America, Canada or Australia it is currently much cheaper to order an Ancestry worldwide subscription from Ancestry.co.uk. The advertised six-month subscriptions in this new DNA deal are very expensive as it is possible to order an annual worldwide subscription from the UK site for around $218. However, if you order your subscription from the UK site you will probably not be able to order the DNA test. I would be interested to know if anyone in America who has taken out an Ancestry sub via the UK site has been able to order a test.

As you can see from the chart below, if you take the test and don't take out an Ancestry subscription your options are extremely limited. You will be able to see the names of your matches and contact them, but you will seemingly not have access to the trees of your matches so there will be no easy way to filter the matches to find the ones of interest.
CeCe Moore reports that she contacted Ancestry for clarification on this issue. The rep she spoke to was not sure of the answer but did suggest that the trees might be made accessible since "that is an important part of the service". However, Ancestry trees have never before been made accessible to non-subscribers and it seems to me unlikely that Ancestry will make an exception for people who have taken a DNA test, especially when they are selling the test as a loss leader with the aim of encouraging more people to take out a subscription.

There are probably many people who are still on the waiting list who did not received the invitation to order the test at $99. Ancestry have put a comment on their Facebook page that they will honour these invitations. Customers are asked to ring Ancestry's toll-free number 1-800-262-3787 to make the arrangements.

Ancestry subscribers outside North America are not currently able to place an order and it is not known when or if the test will be made available elsewhere. Although I was able to purchase the test from the UK during the $99 beta-testing period, as reported in a previous blog post, it appears that this is no longer possible. I have heard from people in Australia and Ireland who have been unable to order the test and I am sure the same situation will apply in the UK.

The Ancestry autosomal DNA test has a number of limitations compared to the rival products from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. Ancestry do not currently allow customers to have access to their raw genetic data, though it has since been announced that this will be possible some time in 2013. Furthermore, Ancestry do not provide any details of the matching DNA segments. Without the segment data you have no way of identifying which segments have been inherited from a particular ancestor. Tim Janzen reported on the ISOGG list last night that he had rung Ancestry to ask about the segment data and was told "Ancestry.com might not do that, but that they might create an "opt in" option that would allow people to share the matching segment data if they are interested in doing so".

There are significant problems with the ethnicity percentages provided by Ancestry and this situation has yet to be resolved. If you are interested in having ethnicity breakdowns the most advanced test on the market is the new Geno 2.0 test from the Genographic Project. This test will also give you haplogroup assignments for mtDNA and, if you are male, for Y-DNA. The first results from the new Geno 2.0 test should be reported in the next few weeks. It is surely no coincidence that Ancestry have chosen to put their test on the market now rather than wait until the problems have been fixed as they will undoubtedly lose market share to the Genographic Project when the Geno 2.0 results start to become available, and reviews start to appear in the newspapers and the blogosphere.

The fact that Ancestry have restricted the test to North Americans is another significant disadvantage. I was told by an Ancestry representative that 99.9% of the database is in America. Although Americans will benefit from matching other Americans in the database, they are often much more interested in making connections across the pond, and it therefore seems very short-sighted to restrict the test to the American market. If the test is made available elsewhere it will now have much less appeal. It will be like trying to find a needle in a haystack wading through pages and pages of American matches in the hope of finding a match with someone from your own country where you will have some chance of finding the genealogical connection. At the moment Ancestry do not have any tool to filter matches by surname so you have to open up the tree for each match individually to check for surnames of interest. And of course you will only be able to see the trees of your matches if you retain your Ancestry subscription.

If you're thinking of doing an autosomal DNA test I cannot recommend the Ancestry DNA test in its present form, and especially with the geographical limitations of its database, unless of course you're like me and wish to experiment with every test that is available! If you are interested in learning about your health and traits you should take the 23andMe test. If you are looking for genealogical matches you should consider taking Family Tree DNA's Family Finder test. If you have already tested with 23orMe and/or FTDNA then the Ancestry test is only likely to be worthwhile in the short term if you are American or are seeking to make connections with lost relatives in America. In such a situation it is always worth casting the net as widely as possible. If you're particularly interested in having ethnicity percentages then the new Geno 2.0 test will be the best option. With the Geno 2.0 test you will be able to transfer your results to the Family Tree DNA database and participate in the many surname, geographical and haplogroup projects.

*Important update*
CeCe Moore has advised me of an important update regarding Ancestry DNA.  She has spoken with another customer service rep today by the name of Jeremy. He told her that "Connect with your DNA matches" from the options chart does NOT mean that you will be able to contact them unless they contact you first. However, you will be able to see the match and review their family tree. So, non-subscribers WILL be able to see their matches' family trees, but they will NOT be able to initiate contact with them. CeCe has also been told that the test is now out of beta, but some features of the site are not (like an additional log in for people who have their test on your account and moving test results to a separate account).

© 2012 Debbie Kennett

Wednesday 24 October 2012

What next for Ancestry.com?

The big news in the family history world this week is the announcement that the genealogy website Ancestry.com is to be acquired for $1.6 billion by the European private equity firm Permira. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the company. Ancestry's third quarter accounts were released today, which show that the company continues to make a healthy profit and, as of 30 September 2012, had around 2,020,000 subscribers. Within the genetic genealogy community we are wondering what impact this acquisition will have on Ancestry's DNA testing programme. In the official press release Ancestry and Permira stated the following:
There are no anticipated changes in Ancestry.com's operating structure. Ancestry.com's focus will continue to be on investing in content, technology and its user experience, expanding its product offerings in areas like DNA, and building the Ancestry.com brand and the family history category, all on a global basis. Ancestry.com will remain headquartered in Provo, Utah, with a continued large presence in San Francisco, Dublin, London and other international markets.
Ancestry started offering Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests in 2007 after acquiring the assets of the now defunct company Relative Genetics. These tests are no longer being actively marketed, and Ancestry have instead focused all their attention on their new autosomal DNA test which was launched in May 2012. It remains to be seen whether this test will be marketed outside the US. As I commented when I reviewed the test on this blog earlier this year, it is very much geared towards the American market with its emphasis on ethnicity percentages. The database is also 99.9% American and anyone who does not have Colonial American ancestry will gain little if any benefit from the test at present.

A significant drawback of the Ancestry autosomal test, in comparison with the equivalent offerings from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, is that you are not able to access your raw genetic data and you are also not given any segment matching data. This makes it impossible to interpret your results in any meaningful way, and prevents you from uploading your results to third-party tools such as GedMatch for further analysis. I wrote to Ancestry about this problem in August. Other bloggers, including CeCe Moore and Judy Russell, have also been campaigning for Ancestry to make the raw genetic data available to customers. It is therefore gratifying that Ancestry have listened to the criticisms and have now announced that they will make the data available to customers some time in 2013.

However, the problems with Ancestry's admixture tools have yet to be resolved. My own documented ancestry, as far back as I can trace it, is all from the British Isles, yet according to the Ancestry test I am 58% Central European, 25% British Isles, 13% Eastern European and 4% unknown. I wrote about this aspect of the testing in more detail in a previous blog post. In contrast many of the Americans who are my genetic cousins have much higher percentages of  "British" ancestry, despite having a large proportion of their documented ancestry from other European countries. For example, the American blogger Roberta Estes, who has also commented on the deficiencies of Ancestry's admixture results, reports that according to Ancestry she is 80% British Isles, 12% Scandinavian and 8% unknown. However, Roberta's genealogy research shows that only 22% of her ancestry is from the British Isles, with her remaining known ancestry being from a variety of different European countries. There is, of course, a perfectly simple explanation for these discrepancies. The ethnicity predictions are based on a very limited number of publicly available datasets from reference populations, and the sequences that are in the public domain often have little in the way of accompanying ancestral information. For those people of British ancestry more detailed analyses should be possible once the People of the British Isles Project start to publish their results later this year. Other companies are more open about the limitations of the tests and publish details of the reference populations they use. For example, Family Tree DNA use a population from the Orkney Islands as a proxy for British DNA. Ancestry unfortunately have not released details of the reference populations they are using for their calculations. They have access to the same public datasets as the other companies. In addition, Ancestry purchased the assets of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) in March 2012, and may have access to data from the SMGF database. However, they almost certainly do not have any data from any large British reference populations and it seems that the most plausible explanation for the bizarre results that we are seeing from Ancestry is that their "British" populations are probably Americans from Salt Lake City with mixed European ancestry rather than people living in the British Isles like me with many generations of documented British ancestry.

We are all aware of the limitations of these tests, and there will no doubt be many improvements in the years to come as more reference populations become available allowing the companies to provide more accurate results. Ancestry's autosomal test is in any case still in the beta-testing phase as is FTDNA's Population Finder tool. I am, however, concerned that Ancestry are compounding the problem by presenting the data in a very misleading and dishonest way. A link was posted on the ISOGG Project Administrators' mailing list this week to a new video that is now available on Ancestry's YouTube channel.

In this presentation Ancestry's blogger Crista Cowan provides a somewhat dumbed down overview of the Ancestry autosomal DNA test. However, what is of most concern is that nowhere in the video does Crista admit the limitations of Ancestry's admixture result. Instead she is trying to suggest that the reason why people are getting these unexpected percentages is because they haven't yet researched all their family lines. In other words it is not Ancestry's fault but the customers' for not doing their research properly! We are supposed to believe, for example, that there was some significant migration from Germany to Scotland which might account for some of these unexpected results. I was told by an Ancestry rep that there might have been a large migration from Eastern Europe to account for the 13% of my DNA that is supposedly from Eastern Europe. This is all of course total nonsense. It might well suit Ancestry's purpose to encourage people to search for their phantom ancestors throughout Europe to explain their mysterious DNA results. They are undoubtedly selling their test at $99 as a loss leader and are hoping to make up the deficit by increasing their subscription revenue. It is in their interests to encourage people to renew their subscriptions and to reduce the churn level. I just hope that most people have the good sense not to be taken in by this misleading hype.

For anyone who has had unexpected results from the Ancestry test I would advise that you provide the company with feedback and, more importantly, ask them to publish the information about the reference populations they are using. If enough pressure is brought to bear on Ancestry then perhaps they will make this information available so that the admixture results can be put into context.

© 2012 Debbie Kennett

The Surnames Handbook

I've just received an advance copy of my new book The Surnames Handbook from the History Press. It's very exciting to see it in print at long last and it is looking really good. The book is now available from the History Press and should be arriving in bookshops, Amazon and other online stores in the next week or so. It will be a few more months before it becomes available in the US, Australia and other countries and I don't yet have a firm publication date. There will also be a Kindle edition.
This is essentially the book that I would have liked to have had available when I started out on my own surname research. It's intended as a practical guide to all the different aspects of surname research, but I've also provided some background on surnames in general, drawing on the research from all the many different disciplines that are now involved in surname research, emphasising in particular the contribution that can be made by the family historian. The focus is on surnames of  the British Isles. I would very much have liked to have written more but I was restricted to a maximum of 85,000 words and I ran out of both space and time! The book includes links to hundreds of relevant websites, an extensive bibliography, and numerous detailed appendices with information on all the essential resources for a surname study both online and offline. The text is supported by a long list of 190 references. The contents are listed below. I hope you like it!
Foreword by Derek Palgrave, President of the Guild of One-Name Studies 
Chapter 1: The history of surnames
Chapter 2: The classification of surnames 
Chapter 3: Variants and deviants 
Chapter 4: Surname mapping 
Chapter 5: Surname frequency 
Chapter 6: Has it been done before? 
Chapter 7: Laying the foundations - the key datasets 
Chapter 8: Surname origins - pre-1600 resources 
Chapter 9: DNA and surnames 
Chapter 10: One-name studies 
Appendix A: Genealogy websites 
Appendix B: Surname websites 
Appendix C: Lay subsidy rolls 
Appendix D: Organisations and journals 
Appendix E: Linguistic resources 
Appendix F: Place-name resources 
Appendix G: Population statistics 
© Debbie Kennett 2012