Consumer genetic testing customers stretch their DNA data further with third-party interpretation websites

Back in 2016, Helen (a pseudonym) took three different direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests: AncestryDNA, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA. She saw genetic testing as a way to enhance her paper trail genealogy research, and it panned out when she matched with several new relatives.

DTC companies extract DNA profiles from saliva samples users send in. Sarah Weldon/
Helen is one of over 26 million individuals who have reportedly taken a DTC genetic test. That’s a lot of spit in tubes being mailed to companies that promise customers information about their health, ancestry and family trees.

Notably, the search for genetic insights doesn’t always stop with the interpretations provided by the DTC companies. One of Helen’s matches on AncestryDNA told her how she could stretch her personal genomic information further: by downloading her raw genetic data, that long list of As, Cs, Gs and Ts at each of the DNA sites the DTC company measured, and then uploading it to third-party interpretation tools online such as GEDmatch and to find more relatives.

Helen enthusiastically did so and joined Facebook groups dedicated to helping people use their genetic data to flesh out their family trees. While Helen wasn’t initially seeking health information, on these forums she learned about the third-party tool Promethease and decided to upload her data there as well. She thought, “Well, for five dollars – we’ll see what it says.”

Researchers don’t have a very clear or comprehensive picture of how DTC customers use their raw data and these kinds of third-party tools. As a genetics researcher interested in the ethical and social implications of genomics in research, clinical care and everyday life, I think it’s important to address this knowledge gap – particularly given questions about whether and to what extent these third-party tools are or should be regulated.

Making the most of raw genetic data

I interviewed Helen as part of a larger research study to better understand the perspectives, experiences and motivations of those accessing their raw DTC data and using third-party interpretation tools.

My colleagues and I conducted a survey of about 1,100 DTC customers recruited via social media and followed up with interviews of 10 respondents — to our knowledge, the largest survey of this topic to date.

Eighty-nine percent of our survey participants had downloaded their genetic data from a DTC company, and most of those downloaders (94%) had also used one or more third-party interpretation tools – three tools on average. The most commonly used tools were GEDmatch (84% of tool users), Promethease (63%) and (55%).

One notable aspect of our results is that over half of tool users (56%) used both health-related and non-health-related, such as ancestry and genealogy, tools. We called this phenomenon “crossover” use. These crossover users were significantly different from people who used only one tool type in terms of demographics, which DTC tests they had taken and what initially motivated them to do DTC testing.

For example, the percentage of users who had ordered 23andMe increased from the non-health-only to crossover to the health-only group, with a reverse trend for both AncestryDNA and FamilyTree DNA tests. While this trend is as you might expect, it was surprising how many respondents initially ordered DTC tests focused on ancestry and genealogy – like from AncestryDNA and FamilyTree DNA – who went on to use their genetic data from these companies in health-related third-party tools.

Imagine a DTC customer such as Helen who first focused on genetic genealogy. After matching with some new relatives on GEDmatch, she went on to plug her data into Promethease. There she saw thousands of reports of potentially increased genetic risk for diseases ranging from age-related macular degeneration to restless legs syndrome – quite a distance from where her genealogy quest started.