Friday 19 March 2021

Family History Down Under 2021 - a four-day virtual conference

Family History Down Under is going online for 2021 so everyone can join the conference regardless of where they live in the world. You can watch all the presentations from the comfort of your own home and the recordings will be available until the end of July.

I've recorded two talks for the DNA track. The first talk is entitled "DNA testing and family history: advance your genealogical research" where I provide an introduction to the practical application of DNA testing for family history research. My second talk is "Solving cold cases with genetic genealogy: can we, could we, should we?" This is an extended and updated version of the talk I did at Rootstech 2021. With the luxury of a 50-minute presentation I was able to explore all the issues and developments in much greater depth.

The conference is divided into four tracks: DNA; researching abroad; Australia and New Zealand; and methodology and general. There are lots of excellent speakers lined up covering some very interesting subjects. You can either sign up for individual tracks or you can purchase a mega bundle which gives you access to all four tracks at a discounted price.

In order to recreate the feel of an in-person conference, Facebook groups have been set up for each of the tracks where all the speakers will be popping in from time to time to answer questions. I hope to see you there.

For more information check out the Family History Down Under 2021 website.

Wednesday 24 February 2021

MyHeritage to be acquired by Francisco Partners

News broke today that MyHeritage is to be acquired by the private equity company Francisco Partners. This is likely to result in new investment in the company so that they can expand their market share. Hopefully genealogists will benefit from the investment and we will eventually see the introduction of lots of new features and products.

You can read more about the acquisition in this article from Business Wire.

There is additional information in this article from TechCrunch.

See also the official press release from MyHeritage.

I expect that we will learn more about the plans for MyHeritage at RootsTech Connect. MyHeritage have a number of talks planned for the show. You can find a full listing on the MyHeritage blog.

Update 13th April 2021
The acquisition was completed on 8th April 2021 following regulatory approval. For details see this blog post from MyHeritage.

RootsTech Connect – the pick of the talks and the final countdown

The clock is ticking away and the virtual doors of RootsTech Connect will soon be open. The Expo Hall goes live at midnight UK time on 24th February so I will have the opportunity to have a quick look around before bedtime. Many of the exhibitors might well have special offers for the show or will be announcing new product launches.

The main website is due to go live four hours later at 4.00 am UK time. I am a night owl but 4.00 am is a bit late even for me so I will be logging on somewhat later in the morning to have a look around. Depending on where you are in the world you might get a chance to check out the website before me. One of the joys of a virtual conference is that we are not restrained by timetables and we can pick and choose the most convenient times to participate. And of course all the content will be available online for the rest of the year.

Making connections will be a key component of the show. There will be a chance to chat online with the exhibitors and most of the presenters through the Connect Chat tool. Each class and all of the exhibitors will have their own dedicated chat rooms.

To get the best out of the event I would suggest making a note of all the speakers and exhibitors you want to connect with so you get a chance to chat during the show. Once the website goes live you will be able to make a playlist of all the talks you want to watch.

I've recorded two talks for RootsTech on "Genetic Genealogy Meets CSI" and "Secrets and Surprises: Uncovering Family History Mysteries Through DNA". Do come along and join me for a chat and I will respond as soon as I can depending on the time difference. 

The main stage sessions will be viewable without signing in but you will need to register and have a FamilySearch account to get the most out of the show. 

There seems to be some confusion about the registration process but I found that I could register through my FamilySearch account. Once you've registered, click on the bell icon for the notifications and your registration will be shown.

There are also seem to be lots of informal groups and chats being set up as people do their best to meet up with friends and try to recreate the experience of attending an event in person.

Debbie's pick of the talks
I've been having a look at the English class schedule which is available from this link on the RootsTech home page. Here are my top picks of the available talks.

DNA talks

These are the DNA talks which I am most looking forward to.

The AncestryDNA talk is intriguing and I wonder if this heralds the launch of a new Custom Groups feature for sorting and filtering our matches. [Update: This talk was in fact just a demonstration of how ThruLines works and how to use the coloured dots on the mobile app to make custom groups.]

There are lots of talks for those of you who are just getting started with DNA testing. Diahan Southard of Your DNA Guide is always an engaging and inspiring speaker. She has a good understanding of the science and has the gift of being able to explain complicated subjects in easy-to-understand language. Diahan has recorded a number of talks for Rootstech and I’m sure they will all be worth watching.

There are talks on the basics of Y-DNA testing from MauriceGleeson, Mags Gaulden and Vivs Laliberte. Janine Cloud from FamilyTreeDNA has a more advanced talk on the BigY test which I am sure will be worth watching. Michelle Leonard has recorded a talk on Understanding X-Chromosome DNA Matching. Ugo Perego has a talk on mitochondrial DNA as well as a talk on his personal genetic genealogy. Ugo used to work for the now defunct Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation so I am sure he will have some interesting insights to share. Look out too for Kitty Cooper's talk on "The Basics of Unknown Parentage Research Using DNA".



English genealogy

Australia and New Zealand

Further reading
See my previous blog post RootsTech – a global family history show for further information about RootsTech Connect. 

Monday 22 February 2021

Free upload to MyHeritageDNA from 21st to 28th February 2021

MyHeritage have a very special offer on this week. If you've tested at 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA or Living DNA you can download your raw data and upload to the MyHeritage database to get free access to all the features which are normally only available after paying the upload fee of $29. This includes access to the new Genetic Groups feature. You can see my genetic groups in the screenshot below.

The MyHeritage "ethnicity" estimates have not yet been updated but we are expecting this feature to be revamped later this year. I suspect when that happens my 9.2% Italian ancestry will disappear

MyHeritage have a database of over 4.5 million people and have much better representation in continental Europe than any of the other companies, helped by the fact that they make their website available in many different languages. One of the most useful features at MyHeritage is the ability to filter matches by the countries where your matches live. You will find you get lots of very distant matches from many different countries which are probably not related in a genealogical timeframe but this feature allows you to search for matches in the countries where you do have known relatives. In my case I am primarily focusing on matches in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

MyHeritage have written a blog post which you can access here with more details about this offer.

Answers to frequently asked questions about uploading data to MyHeritage can be found in their Help Centre.

You can also upload your data directly via this link.

The offer is only available until 28th February so if you've not yet transferred your data I would encourage you to take advantage of the offer while you have the chance.

Monday 15 February 2021

Investigative genetic genealogy: current methods, knowledge and practice

I spent much of August and September last year collaborating on a big invited review paper on investigative genetic genealogy. I am very pleased to say that the paper successfully went through peer review and has now been published in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. The paper is free to read and you can access it via this link.

I worked on the paper with Chris Phillips from the Institute of Forensic Sciences at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Daniel Kling and Andreas Tillmar who work together at the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Link√∂ping, Sweden. Daniel also has an affiliation with the Department of Forensic Sciences at Oslo University Hospital in Norway. We very fortunate that Oslo University very kindly provided the funding to pay for the paper to be made available open access. It was a pleasure to collaborate with these researchers. We all had complementary knowledge and skills and we have produced a very comprehensive review of investigative genetic genealogy which also highlights areas where future research and validation are needed. The paper is written for an audience of forensic geneticists and is somewhat technical in places but I think much of it will also be of general interest to genetic genealogists.

2020 was a very productive year for me in terms of scientific publications. I collaborated in 2019 with my genetic genealogy friends John Cleary, Maurice Gleeson, Donna Rutherford and Michelle Leonard on a landmark study in collaboration with the forensic science company Eurofins which helped to validate the genealogical methodology used for investigative genetic genealogy. This paper was published in Forensic Science International: Genetics in the May 2020 issue. The cluster-based methods we used for this study are equally valid for family history research. The study was cited in a publication by the UK's Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group which looked at the potential use of genetic genealogy techniques to assist with solving crimes in the UK.

I also collaborated last year with Gabrielle Samuel from Kings College London on two studies looking at the views of UK stakeholders about investigative genetic genealogy. We found that, although there was considerable support for its use, there were also many ethical concerns raised. While all participants stressed the need for appropriate consent there was less agreement on what the consent process should look like and we concluded that individual consent is not in any case a panacea and that there needs to be societal consent. 

The first of our two papers "The impact of investigative genetic genealogy: perceptions of UK professional and public stakeholders" was published in the September 2020 issue of Forensic Science International: Genetics.

The second paper "Problematising consent: searching genetic genealogy databases for law enforcement purposes" was published online in New Genetics and Society in November 2020.

The above three papers are not available open access. If you would like a copy and don't have institutional access please feel free to write to me.

Friday 12 February 2021

Rootstech Connect 2021 – a global family history show

Rootstech, the world's largest family history show, will take place from 25th to 27th February. For the first time this year it is going online and will be completely free. This will be a truly global event with speakers from around the world and with talks in over 40 different languages. Over 250,000 people from 219 countries and territories have so far registered to attend. 

With the new online format, the talks will be done somewhat differently this year. There will be a main stage with talks from keynote speakers which will be streamed over the course of the three days in a pre-arranged schedule. In addition there are over 800 pre-recorded classes, the vast majority of which will be available online as soon as as the show opens, and you will be free to watch them at your leisure at any time of the day or night over the next year. Think of it as Netflix for genealogy. You will be able to pick and choose the content of interest and watch it at leisure from the comfort of your own home at a time that suits you with the added advantage that you do not have to pay a subscription.

Rootstech have followed the model of TED Talks and most of the presentations will be 20 minutes long, which is considered to be the optimum length for online presentations. There are some longer tutorials which have been divided up into 20-minute blocks. 

I am privileged to have been chosen as one of the speakers at Rootstech Connect and have recorded two presentations: "Genetic genealogy meets CSI" and "Secrets and surprises: uncovering family history mysteries through DNA". There will be an opportunity to chat with the speakers during the show. I'm not yet sure how this is going to work out but do come along and I will be happy to answer any questions arising from my talks. There will be moderators monitoring the chats who will alert us when we get a question.

The organisers have been working really hard behind the scenes to get everything ready for the event and to build the infrastructure for the website. The full schedule has not yet gone up on the website but they have shared with the speakers the schedule for the main stage and the English class catalogue and we've been given permission to share these.

Below is a copy of the schedule for the main stage. You can find biographies of the keynote speakers here

You can download a copy of the English class list from this link. (The pdf is now also available via a link on the RootsTech Connect home page.) These sessions are on demand which means that they can be watched any time throughout the conference or for the rest of the year. The vast majority of sessions will be available on the first day starting at a specific time. Here's a sneak preview of the start of the list.

There are lots of interesting classes which will cater for everyone whether you've been researching for many years or you are just starting your family history research. There are also lots of interesting DNA talks.

Lists of the classes in other languages should be available soon and I will share them here as soon as I have them.

There will also be an Expo Hall where you will have the opportunity to meet with the exhibitors via video or live chat.

If you've not yet registered for RootsTech you can sign up here.

RootsTech Connect promises to be a really exciting event. I can't wait to start watching all the wonderful talks.

Update 23rd February 2021
There are now 433,255 registrants signed up for RootsTech Connect from 235 countries and territories. For a sneak preview of the website check out this short video below from Jen Allen at RootsTech.

Update 24th February 2021

Check out my follow up blog post RootsTech Connect – the pick of the talks and the final countdown.

Also check out this detailed blog post from FamilySearch on Getting the most out of RootsTech Connect 2021

Further reading

Sunday 7 February 2021

23andMe to merge with Richard Branson's company VG Acquisition Corp

It has been an interesting start to the year in the genetic genealogy world. In January came news of the merger of MyDNA with FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene. Then we heard that Ancestry were abandoning their health test and that they had appointed a new CEO and a new Chairman of the Board, potentially signalling a change of a direction and a return to their core business of genealogy.

Now we have news that 23andMe has entered into a deal to merge with Richard Branson's company VG Acquisition Corp (VGAC). VGAC is what is known as a special acquisition company (SPAC), otherwise known as a blank cheque company, which is formed by groups of investors who have set up the company with the sole purpose of making acquisitions and to get them quoted on the stock exchange.

The deal values 23andMe at around $3.5 billion. The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2021. Once the transaction has been completed the new merged company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the name ME.

As a result of this move, the combined company will have access to a cash fund of around $900 million which will be used to invest in "key growth initiatives across 23andMe’s consumer health and therapeutics businesses".

What are the implications for genetic genealogy?
23andMe is now firmly positioning itself as a personalised healthcare and drug development company and it very much looks as though the investment money is going to be used to expand that side of the business rather than focus on genealogy. 23andMe shared an interesting slide deck from a presentation they gave to investors. The ancestry reports are to be used as the "mass entry point to building a revolutionary database". They will therefore need to ensure that these reports are regularly updated and presented in an appealing way.

From a personal perspective I don't think we will notice much difference. 23andMe has never been particularly useful for genealogy because about 90% of the database is in the US and I've never really had any useful matches at 23andMe. I have, however, found the health and trait reports interesting to read and the company provides some very useful educational material.

I'm hoping that with Richard Branson's involvement 23andMe might pay a bit more attention to their customers outside the US. In October 2020 they launched a new subscription service known as 23andMe+. The subscription costs a modest sum of $29 a year and provides access to pharmacogenetic reports, enhanced ancestry features and access to new reports and features, but is currently restricted to US residents.

We probably won't see any changes until the transaction has been completed but it will be interesting to see how the money gets spent and how the company develops in the next few years.

Further reading

Friday 5 February 2021

Changes at the top at Ancestry

At the beginning of December 2020 it was announced that Margo Georgiadis, Ancestry's President and CEO, was planning to step down at the end of the year. Georgiadis joined the company in 2018 and presided over the launch of the short-lived AncestryHealth test in the US which was subsequently discontinued in January 2021. During her tenure the subscriber base expanded to 3.6 million and the AncestryDNA database grew to nearly 20 million people. 

At the end of January, Ancestry announced that Mark Thompson, the former Director General of the BBC, had been appointed as Chairman of the Board at Ancestry.  Here is the text of the press release from Ancestry:
LEHI, Utah and SAN FRANCISCO -- Jan. 29, 2021-- Ancestry®, the global leader in family history and consumer genomics, today announced the appointment of Mark Thompson as chairman of the board.

Thompson formerly served as President & CEO at The New York Times Company, where he led the 170-year-old brand’s transformation into the world's fastest-growing and most successful news digital subscription business. During his tenure, digital subscriptions grew nine-fold to over five million and the company's market cap increased nearly five times.

Thompson’s appointment at The New York Times Company followed an eight-year term as Director General (CEO and Editor-in-Chief) of the BBC. He is widely credited with expanding the BBC’s digital and global reach and overseeing development of the BBC iPlayer. He joined the BBC from Channel 4, where he was Chief Executive from 2002 to 2004.

“I'm honored to be named as Chairman of the Board for Ancestry and excited to support the next chapter in the company's success,” said Thompson. “Ancestry is already the world leader in its category but I believe it has the potential to grow much further. I’m looking forward to working with the board and management team to build the business through innovation, product enhancements and investment in records, technology and data science so that many more people around the world can embark on their own journeys of personal and family discovery."

David Kestnbaum, a Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, and Sachin Bavishi, a Managing Director at Blackstone, said “Mark’s long history of leadership, coupled with his successful track record in leading subscription and content businesses makes him an ideal Chairman. He brings a great deal of skill and strategic expertise to Ancestry. The company and the board look forward to working closely with him to accelerate Ancestry’s next phase of growth.”

Thompson was educated at Stonyhurst College and Merton College, Oxford.

This week, a few day's after the announcement of Thompson's appointment, Ancestry's Board of Directors announced that they had appointed Deborah Liu as their new Chief Executive Officer. Here is the text of the press release from Ancestry:

LEHI, Utah and SAN FRANCISCO -- February 2, 2021-- Ancestry®, the global leader in family history and consumer genomics, today announced that its Board of Directors has appointed Deborah (Deb) Liu as Chief Executive Officer and a member of the company’s Board of Directors, effective March 1.

Liu joins Ancestry from Facebook where she most recently created and led Facebook's Marketplace product group. Prior to Facebook, Liu held leadership roles at eBay and PayPal. Liu is actively involved in promoting diversity and women in technology and co-created the Women in Product​ nonprofit. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of Intuit Inc.

“It’s an honor to join Ancestry. I’m excited to help craft the company’s next chapter, accelerating growth in Family History subscriptions and AncestryDNA by bringing the product to more people around the world,” said Liu. “I have tremendous admiration for Ancestry’s rich history and powerful mission to empower journeys of personal discovery to enrich lives. Finding and sharing our family history and understanding the challenges and triumphs our ancestors faced helps u​s feel a greater sense of connection and belonging and ultimately realize our shared humanity.”

“Ancestry already leads the field in its category but still has the potential to attract many new customers and grow its business still further,” said Mark Thompson, chairman of Ancestry’s Board of Directors. “In the course of an extensive search, it became clear to all of us that Deb was the perfect next CEO of Ancestry. She has a proven track record of product innovation and deep experience in building global consumer technology platforms. She is an outstanding leader able to inspire and motivate teams to achieve their goals.”

David Kestnbaum, a Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, and Sachin Bavishi, a Managing Director at Blackstone, said: “Deb is a terrific leader with a very strong track record of driving innovation and growth, as well as building world-class product and technology platforms. We are excited about Ancestry’s future and look forward to partnering with Deb as she leads the company into its next phase of growth.”
What does this mean?
These moves would appear to signal a welcome change of direction for Ancestry and a return to their core genealogy market with the aim of increasing family history subscriptions around the world and expanding sales of the AncestryDNA test in the international market. Of all the DNA testing companies, Ancestry has the smallest presence in the global market and their test is only sold in just over 30 countries so there is plenty of room for growth.

Friday 15 January 2021

Merger of myDNA with FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene

It was announced last week that the Australian genomics company myDNA is to merge with the genetic genealogy company Family Tree DNA and its parent company Gene by Gene. Dr Lior Rauchberger, the CEO of myDNA, is to become the new CEO of the merged companies. Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, the co-founders of FTDNA, will join the new Board of Directors. Here is the text of the press release.

Pharmacogenetic and Genealogy Pioneers Merge for Historic Partnership

myDNA and FamilyTreeDNA Share a Vision for the Future of Better Living Through the Power of DNA

MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan. 7, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Dr. Lior Rauchberger, CEO of leading Australian genomics company, myDNA, announced a merger with the U.S., Houston-based consumer DNA test company, FamilyTreeDNA, and its parent company, Gene by Gene. Dr. Rauchberger will step into the role of CEO of the merged companies, effective immediately. Gene by Gene co-founders Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld will join the Board of Directors.

FamilyTreeDNA, launched in 2000, has the distinction of being the first company in the U.S to offer direct-to-consumer DNA testing for genealogical research. myDNA, founded in 2007 by Associate Professor, Les Sheffield, started with a mission to improve countless lives by revolutionizing the field of pharmacogenomics, making truly personalized medicine a reality, before expanding into nutrigenomics to deliver actionable, personalized nutrition, fitness and skincare recommendations.

The innovative merger of myDNA and Gene by Gene is built on several shared beliefs about the tremendous potential of genetic information to dramatically improve our understanding, not only of who we are and where we come from, but by providing a scientific foundation for actionable, personalized insights, and how they can guide us in how best to care for ourselves and maintain optimal health and wellness both physically and mentally. The two businesses come together as one of the leading global experts of genealogy, pharmacogenomic and nutrigenomic services.

At myDNA, consumer privacy is paramount. myDNA believes the importance of the consumer's ability to trust in the privacy of their genetic information, and retain control over it, cannot be overstated. Along the same line, Gene by Gene and FamilyTreeDNA will continue acting in the field of Genetic Genealogy, their original business, keeping intact their privacy rules and all terms of service.

According to myDNA CEO, Dr. Lior Rauchberger, an M.D. who practiced medicine for nine years before becoming a leading expert in personalized medicine and the intersection of medicine and technology. "It's thanks to pioneering brands like Gene by Gene and FamilyTreeDNA that consumers see the value in safely and securely exchanging genetic information for personalized services. The Personalized Wellness revolution is only just beginning and we're eager to be able to offer FamilyTreeDNA and myDNA members a box seat to a wider range of services thanks to the merging of these fantastic businesses."

About myDNA -
myDNA is an Australian personalized genomics company that decodes the information in our genes to help us understand the power of our DNA and what to do with that knowledge. myDNA's tests are simple cheek-swabs that can be ordered online and carried out in the safety of your own home. Their vision is to be the world's most trusted provider of personalized, actionable, genetic information.

About Gene by Gene - |
Founded in 2000, Gene by Gene, Ltd. provides reliable genetic testing services to a wide range of consumers and institutional customers through its four divisions focusing on ancestry, health, research, and paternity. Genetic genealogy testing services are provided by FamilyTreeDNA - a division of Gene by Gene and the pioneers of the direct-to-consumer genetic genealogy industry. Gene by Gene is CAP/CLIA registered and, through its clinical health division, offers health, wellness, and regulated diagnostic testing services. The privately held company, along with its state-of-the-art Genomics Research Center, is headquartered in Houston, TX.

The following e-mail has been sent out to group administrators  ̵  the volunteers who run over 10,000 surname, geographical and haplogroup projects at FTDNA  ̵  have received the following e-mail from Bennett Greenspan, the current CEO:
Dear Group Project Administrators:

We hope this finds you and your loved ones healthy in this new year.

Like every small business in the country, the past year has given us pause. We were faced with the tremendous challenge of not only finding ways for the business to survive the pandemic, but simultaneously, making FamilyTreeDNA stronger, more resilient, and ensuring its promising future. A future full of growth not only for ourselves but for the hundreds of employees who rely on our business and the millions of customers around the world who look to us to deliver pioneering advancements in consumer genetics and genealogy.

After many months of consideration, we are delighted to report that FamilyTreeDNA and its parent company, Gene by Gene, have merged with myDNA, a leading Australia-based genomics company whose outstanding reputation, innovative vision, and pioneering genomics technology will allow the company to expand its product offerings.

Most important to us in evaluating this merger's suitability is our shared principle of DNA privacy protections and ownership. myDNA will retain the existing privacy policy and terms of service.

Our customers can expect a seamless transition as our new CEO, Dr. Lior Rauchberger, a respected physician and leader at the intersection of science and technology, takes FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene into an exciting future filled with innovative life-changing advancements while continuing to invest further in FamilyTreeDNA’s genealogy products and service offerings.

Although we will miss being involved in day-to-day operations, we are excited to see the next chapter of innovation and growth as board members. As we leave our roles as executives of the company and pass the baton to Dr. Rauchberger, we send a big virtual hug to each of you and express our sincere thanks to all of our Group Project Administrators. We appreciate not only your dedication to your respective projects but your support of FamilyTreeDNA as a whole over the past two decades. Your contributions have been and will continue to be vital to the health and growth of the company. “Thank you” seems inadequate when, frankly, we would not be the company we are now without your efforts, but we say it anyway.

Thank you.

Just as I was compiling this blog post I also received the e-mail that has been sent out to FTDNA customers. I've copied the text below in case anyone has not received it.

Dear Customers,

We hope this finds you and your loved ones healthy in this new year.

We are thrilled to announce that FamilyTreeDNA and our parent company, Gene by Gene, have merged with myDNA, a leading genomics company that is revolutionizing the field of pharmacogenomics.

The innovative merger of myDNA and Gene by Gene is built on a set of shared beliefs that genetic information has a tremendous potential to give us an understanding about ourselves that we would not otherwise have. In addition to dramatically improving our awareness of who we are and from where we come, we strongly believe that genetic information can give us a scientific foundation for actionable, personalized insights that can guide us in how best to care for ourselves and maintain optimal health and wellness, both physically and mentally.

What does this mean for you?

Day-to-day, it’s business as usual, but we now have new resources and capabilities to continue driving value for you, our customers. In addition, FamilyTreeDNA will retain the existing privacy policy and Terms of Service. 

What does this mean for us?

Our head office and laboratory remain in Houston, Texas, and our dedicated team members will continue to operate as FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene.

Our story continues…

Joining forces, with a company that is as passionate about genetics as we are, is what takes us into the next chapter in our story. Our new CEO, Dr. Lior Rauchberger, a respected physician and leader at the intersection of science and technology, will collaborate with our current experienced and trusted staff to help guide us into an exciting new future. A future filled with innovative, life-changing advancements in genetic genealogy, pharmacogenomics, and nutrigenomics. Stay tuned to see where our growth and innovation takes us from here.

Thank you!

We thank each of you for putting your trust in us over the last 20 years and for bringing us to where we are today. We come to work every day for you. Our developers, product owners, scientists…every one of us is driven by the desire to help build connections while also discovering more about ourselves and humankind. Our commitment to those concepts is stronger than ever during this exciting time.

Thank you.


Who are myDNA?

I had not previously heard of myDNA so I have done some research. According to their website, the company (previously known as GenesFX Health Pty Ltd) was founded in 2007 by Les Sheffield, who was Australia's first qualified clinical geneticist. His vision was "to eradicate the guesswork from prescribing medicines". This is an emerging field known as pharmacogenomics, though such tests seem to have found little practical clinical application. Since then the company have expanded into "other areas of health and wellness". They offer tests which purport to provide personalised diet and and fitness plans based on your genetics. These DNA tests cost AU $ 69 and there is then a monthly subscription of $14.95 a month after an initial free period. The company has a global membership of 85,000.

New ownership will potentially bring benefits to FTDNA with new investment leading to the development of new features and products. myDNA received $10 million of venture capital funding in 2017 so we can but hope that some of that money will be spent on developing the genetic genealogy business, improving the website and developing the IT infrastructure. An overhaul of FTDNA's Family Finder test in particular is long overdue. Most of FTDNA's sales have been by word of mouth and they have done very little in the way of marketing, especially outside the US. There is great scope for a further expansion of the Y-DNA and mtDNA databases, particularly in the international market.

MyDNA have quite a lot of scientific experts on their team who will bring in a different perspective and that can only be a good thing and might perhaps also help to bring a more scientific approach to autosomal DNA matching.

I am, however, concerned about myDNA's emphasis on DNA testing for diet and nutrition which is at the rather dubious end of the DNA testing spectrum, though I am happy to be proved wrong. MyDNA were previously involved in a scheme to offer pharmacy assistants in Australia financial inducements to sell their tests. The programme was withdrawn before it had even started so let's hope they have learnt lessons from their mistakes.

FTDNA was previously involved with Vitagene, a company which offers diet, supplement and fitness reports. These tests were offered to FTDNA's customers as a partner service, and I have always been uncomfortable with this association. Fortunately, the link to buy the Vitagene tests no longer seems to be available through FTDNA, though customers who previously ordered the reports still appear to have access.

Privacy implications

myDNA have stated that "consumer privacy is paramount" and their privacy policy says: "Your DNA sample and data remain your property, are stored on secure encrypted services, can be destroyed anytime at your request, and will never be shared without your consent". It will therefore be interesting to see if the merger will bring about a change in FTDNA's previously lax attitudes to privacy and consent. At the beginning of 2019 we learnt that FTDNA had been allowing the FBI to upload DNA profiles to the Family Finder database without the knowledge or consent of customers. As a result of FTDNA's actions, customers who did not wish to share their profiles with US law enforcement had no choice but to opt out of relative matching altogether, thus losing access to the valuable genealogy service that they had paid for. FamilyTreeDNA did eventually bow to public pressure and in March 2019 they gave customers the ability to opt out of law enforcement matching while allowing access to the regular relative-matching database.

When the law enforcement opt out was introduced, FTDNA made an exception for EU customers and they were all automatically opted out of law enforcement matching to comply with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), though they could choose to opt in again if they preferred. However, FTDNA does not collect postal addresses for anyone using the autosomal DNA transfer programme, so all of these kits, including EU kits, were not opted out. An e-mail was sent out to FTDNA customers, but many people will have changed e-mail addresses and will not have been notified. This means that many international and domestic customers will be sharing their profiles with US law enforcement without their knowledge and consent. For the EU customers affected this sharing is likely to be in breach of GDPR.

Going forwards, new customers can decide when they purchase a kit whether they wish to make their profiles available for law enforcement, though many people feel that the process should be more transparent.

To make matters worse, we learnt from an article in the Los Angeles Times in December last year that the FBI breaches of the FTDNA database were not involuntary as we had previously been told, but that FTDNA had actively collaborated with the FBI and that they had done the testing for the Golden State Killer case and had allowed the profile to be covertly uploaded to their database. FTDNA was treated as a confidential source by the FBI and they invoked a legal privilege to protect their sources so FTDNA was not able to disclose this information. This does of course raise all sorts of questions about the transparency and accountability of the FBI and their extra-territorial reach. It is completely unacceptable and disproportionate for the FBI to demand access to the profiles of non-US customers without consent to solve a crime in the US. This is also of particular concern given that the US is one of a minority of countries which, in a major breach of human rights, still uses the death penalty. 

Unexpectedly it transpired that many people were in fact very happy to share their profiles with law enforcement. This was perhaps not so surprising after all given the massive failings of the US justice system which has resulted in tens of thousands of prisoners and sex offenders who are missing from the national CODIS database. In addition there are backlogs of thousands of untested sexual assault kits.  As a result it is estimated that there are 250,000 unsolved cold cases in the US and over 100,000 unsolved missing person cases along with 40,000 unidentified human remains. We all want to see crimes solved and to live in a safe society, so if the US government has failed to take action then it's perhaps understandable that people want to help in any way they can. However, this needs to be done in a responsible way and with suitable ethical and regulatory oversight.

Australia has similar privacy laws to the UK and a privacy regulator in the form of the Australian Information Commissioner who appears to play a similar role as the Information Commissioner in the UK. Rather than retaining FTDNA's existing privacy policy and terms of service, I'm hoping that the merger will be the catalyst for change to comply with EU, UK and Australian privacy legislation. FTDNA's mis-steps with law enforcement have damaged consumer confidence in the company and have probably affected sales too. Of the big four companies, FTDNA have by far the smallest autosomal DNA database, despite the fact that they were the second company to launch such a test way back in February 2010. The merger is an opportunity for change. Let's hope that they take full advantage for the benefit of us all.

Further reading

AncestryDNA's health test is to be discontinued

Bloomberg News reports that Ancestry are discontinuing their health test after just over a year to focus on their core family tree business. This will lead to the loss of 77 jobs. These job losses are on top of the 100 redundancies announced in February 2020 which were attributed to “a slowdown in demand across the entire DNA category” now that “most early adopters have entered the category.”  

There has also been speculation that sales of DNA kits have slowed because of privacy concerns and the use of genetic genealogy databases by law enforcement agencies in the US, though this effect has been difficult to quantify. Ancestry's Guide for Law Enforcement states:
Ancestry does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement. To provide our Users with the greatest protection under the law, we require all government agencies seeking access to Ancestry customers’ data to follow valid legal process and do not allow law enforcement to use Ancestry’s services to investigate crimes or to identify human remains.
However, the media reporting often conflates Ancestry with FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch, the two ancestry companies that do permit law enforcement access so there might well have been an indirect effect. 

Ancestry's health product, known as AncestryHealth, was launched to a great fanfare in October 2019, but the test was only ever available to customers in the US.

It was announced in August that Ancestry was to be acquired by the investment company Blackstone, though GIC, a sovereign wealth fund in Singapore, would continue to maintain a minority stake in the company. The $4.7 billion acquisition was duly completed in December 2020. At the same time, we learnt that Margo Georgiadis, Ancestry's President & CEO, was going to leave the company at the end of 2020. A new CEO is expected to be appointed in early 2021 who will "drive the next phase of the company's ongoing growth". Georgiadis was only appointed in 2018. In a blog post announcing her departure Ancestry said that during her tenure:
the company has grown to more than 3.6 million subscribers and built the largest consumer DNA network in the world with nearly 20 million people. Ancestry’s core Family History subscription revenue, which anchors the company, has reached $1 billion. The company has also dramatically strengthened margins and delivered record-setting cash flow.
Clearly sales of AncestryHealth have not met expectations but this may be good news for genealogists and we might well see more investment in the genealogy and genetic genealogy side of the business.

Blackstone's acquisition of Ancestry was apparently done with an eye on expanding Ancestry's appeal in international markets. The AncestryDNA test is currently only available in just over 30 countries, and is not sold in some major European countries such as France, Italy and Spain. The test was at one time sold in Belgium but was withdrawn last year for undisclosed reasons. The market might well have reached saturation point in the US but there is still plenty of scope for expansion in the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming year.

Update 22nd January 2021
Three further articles provide more information about the discontinuation of AncestryHealth:

Monday 11 January 2021

Oxford Ancestors have ceased trading

It was announced back in March 2018 that Oxford Ancestors would be closing down in the summer.  Bryan Sykes, the company's founder, announced that he would be leaving Oxford "to live abroad and write more books". It turned out that the reports of the company's demise were premature, and they continued to accept orders for a further two years. However, sadly Bryan Sykes did not get the opportunity to write another book. His health deteriorated and we learnt recently that he passed away on 10th December 2020. An obituary was published in The Guardian and also in the New York Times.

Oxford Ancestors ceased trading on 31st December 2020. The following announcement is currently shown on the company website.

The following is the text of the announcement:
It is with great sadness we announce the death of Professor Bryan Sykes on 10 December 2020.

Bryan was the inspiration for the founding of Oxford Ancestors in 2001 and all the science behind it. His passion for translating the excitement of scientific discovery into enjoyment for all was immeasurable.

In the last few months, Bryan made sure that systems and training were in place within Oxford Ancestors such that the Company could operate in his absence except in cases of unusual results or unusual queries needing his expert interpretation.

Nevertheless Oxford Ancestors will cease trading on 31 December 2020.

All orders placed up to and including this date will be processed as usual.

All samples received up to 31 March 2021 will be analysed and results reported in the usual manner.

Access to the company database will remain open until 30 September 2021.

Communications should use the webform facility accessed through our website here.

Oxford Ancestors, 18 December 2020.

Oxford Ancestors was one of the first two companies to offer genetic genealogy tests direct to the consumer. They launched in May 2000 in the same month as FamilyTreeDNA started their company in the US. Oxford Ancestors specialised in Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing, building on the publicity generated by Sykes' book The Seven Daughters of Eve. However, the company failed to keep up with the times and, unlike FamilyTreeDNA, who continued to develop their products and now provide advanced tests for genetic genealogists at competitive prices, Oxford Ancestors carried on offering the same low-resolution tests which they sold at highly inflated prices. Nevertheless it is sad to see the demise of one of the pioneering companies. The Seven Daughters of Eve was a popular science book and despite the lack of solid science was an entertaining read and it introduced many people to the world of genetic genealogy.