Monday, January 27, 2020

Is The DNA Party Over?

The genealogy community was abuzz this past week with the news that one of the major commercial DNA testing companies, 23andMe, has laid off 100 employees. This story is just the latest indication that DNA kit sales have slowed since reaching a peak in 2017 and 2018. The trend appears to be industry-wide. 23andMe's CEO, Anne Wojcicki, speculated that consumer privacy concerns may account for the slowed kit sales. Others have suggested that the DNA boom is a fad which has pretty much run its course. Are either of these speculations correct? Is this the end of the "DNA Party," where genealogists can no longer rely upon a huge volume of testers to aid their research? From what I've read, the causes of this slowdown are currently difficult to pin down with exactitude. And while I fear that the DNA testing industry may be in for some leaner years very soon, I think the genetic genealogy party will go on. Here are some thoughts. 

1. DNA testing has indeed been a fad...and we should be grateful about it.

I think most of us realize that the clear majority of people who purchased autosomal DNA tests in the last few years did so for ethnicity estimates. They really didn't understand or care about DNA as a tool for genealogy. In a sense, the genealogy community should be grateful about this: without these people there would have been no DNA party. They enlarged the pool of testers, and provided the wealth of names/matches we have used to advance our research (in some cases dramatically). They may not have always answered your "how-do-we-relate?" emails, but make no mistake: they were responsible for the kit sales boom. It's been a "fad" from which the geeks have benefited.

2. Prices likely had little to do with the slowdown.

I can believe that Y-DNA and even mtDNA test kits are cost-prohibitive for many people (even though their prices have gone down recently!), but I have a hard time believing that 50 to 100-dollar atDNA kit prices have been responsible for the current market situation. I could be wrong about this, but I don't believe anyone buying these kits to do genealogy research, or to receive ethnicity estimates, was deterred by price. The pace at which these kits sold in 2017 and 2018 alone says otherwise...especially given the frequency with which they've been on sale.

3. Privacy concerns are often overblown, but they may indeed have been a factor.

Here I am going to get a bit sharp with my opinions. First, let's admit that DNA companies have sometimes been their own worst enemies when it has come to their privacy policies and how they've dealt with customer concerns. The recent imbroglios involving FamilyTreeDNA and GEDMatch are cases in point.

This has unfortunately enabled some mischievous behavior from a certain corner of the genealogy world. Some pundits (who shall for the moment remain nameless) seem to like nothing better than to assume moral arbiter roles when it comes to denouncing companies' mistakes and lecturing us all on the "dangers" of DNA testing. They act indignant when you aren't as bothered as they are that law enforcement can use this data. They'll point to some rare case as proof that something nefarious can happen to anyone who gives these companies their samples. They'll admonish us with Orwellian hypotheticals about what could be done with your DNA in the future. All the while, they'll glibly claim that they're only arguing for "informed consent." Sometimes it seems as if they're happier to try to bring down companies they don't like than they are for people to use DNA as the amazing tool that it is. They grossly overstate the risks of testing, much in service of socio-political grandstanding.

For anyone who wants a sober take on DNA and privacy, check out Kitty Cooper's blog and listen to her recent appearance on the Extreme Genes podcast (Episode #309). For now, here's a good nugget from Blaine T. Bettinger's excellent book, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (Family Tree Books, 2016): "Having considered this, many of the concerns you might have about the privacy of your information [are] unfounded. While sending away a DNA sample to a testing company necessarily relinquishes some control over your DNA sequence, you're unlikely to face negative consequences from giving up that control." (pg. 26)

But the alarmists have the shrillest voices, and I'm sure that their constant drumbeat has had at least somewhat of a deleterious effect upon DNA kit sales. They're probably happy about it.

4. The DNA Party is very much ongoing, even if it's smaller.

My instinct is to not be too worried about the present slowdown of DNA kit sales. It may well be that the market is simply shrinking back to a sustainable level in these post-fad days. This may mean downsizing for companies like 23andMe, but I'd be surprised if kit sales don't continue steadily at a more modest clip. This may also mean that big DNA databases don't grow as quickly as they used to. But they're already huge and likely to keep growing, if (again) more slowly. It remains to be seen if health reports and other new measures adopted by companies like Ancestry can significantly draw genealogically uninterested DNA customers. In the meantime, we should strive to get as much value out of these tests as possible, and pursue the kinds of genealogical discoveries that more than justify their cost.


  1. 3. Privacy concerns are often overblown, but they may indeed have been a factor.

    And I know exactly who you are thinking of. She was really mad that she wasn't personally contacted about GEDMatch company plans. Why she thought any business should consult her before they made a business decision is beyond me. But she's done tremendous damage to potential DNA test takers.

  2. Doesn't help that CBC Marketplace did such a one-sided piece on DNA. I don't use it to tell what percentage I am, but do use it to connect with relatives to get their stories and pictures of the family. Wish CBC would tell that side of the story.

  3. 1. Some people, many people, would have tested simply because someone wanted their extra DNA input and are not necessarily interested in the genealogy side of it themselves, so of course they don't want genealogy involved or to answer questions thay have no response to or interest in. I know I would be rapt with a few more family kits to play with.

    2. Price IS a major factor. I am happy to pay for myself, I am not able to pay for others and I cannot expect others to pay tp buy kits for content for what is essentially my hobby, regardless of what they might get out of it downstream. Y-DNA and mtDNA test kits ARE very much cost prohibitive.

    3. Is privacy an issue? Maybe the issue is more about legislating for how any DNA can legally be used, and that shouldn't include and access by third party private sector, commercial, profitable or corporate use EVER in any country or on any continent. Regardless, there are knee-jerk conspiracy nutcases everywhere estatic to be able to get their jollies by swaying the less deep thinking portion of every population with their theories and claim to be doing it for the masses.

    4. People will always come along to continue to want to test, and people wanting others to test. Maybe the industry might pick up if they lowered the cost to their consumer market to a level that made it less of a luxury purchase.