Wednesday 14 March 2018

Farewell to Oxford Ancestors

Update 11th January 2021
The reprieve was short lived and Oxford Ancestors ceased trading on 31st December 2020. See my blog post Oxford Ancestors have ceased trading.

Update 26th June 2018
Oxford Ancestors have since announced that they will not be closing down. See my blog post Oxford Ancestors is not dead yet.

Oxford Ancestors has announced that they will be closing down. There does not appear to have been any official announcement but the following notice from Bryan Sykes, the founder of the company, appears on the website (see also the screenshot above):
Oxford Ancestors is closing down after 18 years. I have enjoyed those years immensely and it has been a rare privilege to have you send me your DNA from all over the world. We started because I wanted people to be able to share in the excitement of the research being done in university laboratories like my own in Oxford but rarely reaching beyond the halls of academe. That has all changed now and cheap DNA tests are widely available, even if their meaning is sometimes dubious. The popularity of ‘ethnic testing’ is a case in point, where even religious persuasion is given a genetic foundation by some companies. Have they never heard of the outrages of ‘racial purity’ and the eugenics movement or is it just one more business opportunity? 
But I digress. Thank you all for your patronage over the years. I am leaving Oxford this Summer to live abroad and write more books and I did not feel the company could be run well like that. 
In practical terms, all outstanding orders will be fulfilled in accordance with our Terms and Conditions and the databases will operate as usual for a few more months. 
Bryan Sykes MA PhD DSc
Oxford Ancestors was launched in May 2000 and was the first UK company to offer genetic ancestry tests direct to the consumer. Family Tree DNA and Gene Tree launched in the US at around the same time. Of these three founding companies, only Family Tree DNA is now still in business.

Oxford Ancestors initially offered a mitochondrial DNA test and later added a Y-chromosome DNA test along with a Male Match service. Both tests were low resolution  – an HVR1 mtDNA test and a 10-marker Y-STR test. Unlike their competitors, Oxford Ancestors did not upgrade their offerings and did not drop their prices as the technology improved.

The current Oxford Ancestors Matriline test costs £199 but still only covers HVR1 (400 bases of the 16569 bases on the mtDNA genome). Family Tree DNA now offers a full mitochondrial sequence test (sequencing all 16569 bases) for US $199 (£142). If you're lucky and you buy the test in a sale, and at a time when the exchange rate is favourable, it's possible to get a full sequence test at FTDNA for just over £100. A full mtDNA sequence test is also available from YSEQ for US $165 (£118) though without the benefit of a large matching database.

The current Oxford Ancestors Y-clan test covers just 26 markers (Y-STRs) which is still insufficient to distinguish between different surname lineages. Family Tree DNA began offering a 37-marker test in December 2003, a 67-marker test in August 2006 and a 111-marker test in April 2011. YSEQ also offers a range of Y-STR panels. It's now also possible to buy comprehensive Y-chromosome sequencing tests such as the BigY from Family Tree DNA and the Y-Elite from Full Genomes Corporation, though the cost of these tests is still beyond the reach of the average genealogist.

Because of the high prices and the low resolution of the Oxford Ancestors tests, the genealogists who had originally started surname projects at Oxford Ancestors gradually migrated their projects to other companies, and mostly to Family Tree DNA. Today FTDNA have a monopoly on surname projects. There are now 9,950 surname projects at FTDNA representing 559,646 unique surnames.

However, despite the limitations of the tests offered by Oxford Ancestors, the company has earned its rightful place in the history of genetic genealogy. Many of the pioneers of the genetic genealogy community were introduced to DNA testing by Oxford Ancestors. Ann Turner, co-author with Megan Smolenyak of Trace Your Roots With DNA, took an mtDNA test with Oxford Ancestors which inspired her to launch the Genealogy DNA list on Rootsweb, the first ever genetic genealogy mailing list.

The groundbreaking paper by Bryan Sykes and Catherine Irven on Surnames and the Y-chromosome  (Am J Hum Genet 2000 66(4): 1417-1419) inspired a number of pioneering genealogists to start DNA projects for their surname. Chris Pomery was the first person in the UK to set up a surname DNA project outside of academia. He started the Pomeroy DNA Project at Oxford Ancestors in September 2000, later transferring to DNA Heritage and then Family Tree DNA. I first heard about DNA testing for genealogy when I joined the Guild of One-Name Studies at the beginning of 2006. I set up my Cruwys DNA Project at Family Tree DNA after hearing Chris Pomery speak about DNA and surnames at a local family history meeting.

The demise of Oxford Ancestors is a timely reminder that nothing lasts forever. In the time I've been involved in genetic genealogy I've already witnessed the demise of three other British companies  – Family Genetics, DNA Heritage and BritainsDNA.  Many companies in other countries have also folded or been taken over. Although the market is now dominated by a few large companies there is no guarantee that any of them will still be here in ten or twenty years' time. Following the LOCKSS mantra (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), I always recommend getting your DNA in as many different databases as possible. If you've tested at Family Tree DNA make sure you fill out the beneficiary form. If you've tested elsewhere you can share your log in details with a trusted friend or relative to ensure that your DNA record can continue working for you in the long term. It's also important to make sure that you download copies of your DNA results and your raw data. If you're running a DNA project make sure you have downloaded all the project data to your own computer for backup.

I think it's unlikely that anyone is now running a DNA project at Oxford Ancestors but, if you are, you will want to make sure you download all the available data while you have the chance. If you're a member of the Guild of One-Name Studies you can contact our DNA Advisor, Susan Meates, and she will help you to migrate your project to Family Tree DNA. See the DNA section on the Guild website for Susan's contact details.

Thanks to Andrew Millard for alerting us to the news in the ISOGG Facebook group.

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