Ancestry at 23andMe: New Insights for Sheridan

We first met Sheridan* in the fall of 2010. As an adoptee, she was curious about her DNA and what 23andMe might be able to tell her. With the help of old friends and some new ones on 23andMe, Sheridan learned about her global origins, which include an African-American father and a mother of European descent, and connected with DNA relatives. She even discovered that she and her good friend Brian are 4th cousins, which means she has some Irish ancestry. Together, they figured out a branch of her family tree.

For a quick Ancestry primer, check out:

Ancestry at 23andMe: What Can You Learn?

Follow Sheridan’s journey from the beginning:*

Introducing Sheridan
Sheridan’s Global Origins
Sheridan’s Got Relatives
Finding Connections
Old Roots and New Horizons

*Sheridan and her story are works of fiction and any resemblance to actual people or events is purely coincidental.

For Sheridan, learning about herself on 23andMe did more than just kindle a love for the Irish. By combining the information she learned about her ancestral origins with information from some of the DNA Relatives she found, she and Brian were able to fill in the first pieces of her genealogical history.

Since then, Sheridan’s filled in even more of the family tree on her mother’s side. Her second cousin Mike, identified through 23andMe as a DNA Relative, was able to track down the name of his grandmother’s sister — a woman very likely to be Sheridan’s own grandmother. To Brian’s delight, Mike also found the name of his grandmother’s sister’s husband, a Fitzpatrick descended from the same Irish ancestors as Brian.

Brian always kept her in the loop on 23andMe, though. Some more mutual friends joined and they quickly started sharing on 23andMe. Sheridan remembers when the Neanderthal Ancestry feature came out. There was an unofficial contest over who had the most Neanderthal DNA; Brian was disappointed that he was solidly average for a Northern European person. Sheridan tried to cheer him up by pointing out that he still had the most caveman of their friends with mostly European ancestry.

“Besides,” she said, “I only have 2.2 percent Neanderthal!”

“That’s because Neanderthals were never even in Africa to begin with,” he snorted, but he seemed mollified. Sheridan, far from feeling shortchanged, found it fascinating that even a small percentage of her DNA could be traced back to these prehistoric “cousins.”

But Brian’s Stone Age enthusiasm paled in comparison to his excitement over Ancestry Composition. A new and improved replacement for the popular Ancestry Painting feature, Ancestry Composition gives a much more detailed breakdown of a person’s genetic ancestry. Brian called Sheridan at two in the morning when it came out.

“It’s here!” he exclaimed when she groggily answered the phone.

“Unghh wha–?” she mumbled.

“Ancestry Composition! Like Ancestry Painting, but way better. Remember? Your Ancestry Painting was cool, but your Composition is even cooler. Mine’s still kind of boring, though. But you should look at yours! And I can see it split it up by which side I got from my mom and which side from my dad and you can zoom in and out and change the thresholds… hey, you still there? Sheridan? Hello?”

So maybe two in the morning wasn’t the best time for Brian to tell Sheridan about Ancestry Composition. But the next day they met up at the coffee shop to explore the new feature together.

Brian quickly explained that 23andMe had updated its main ancestry feature with lots of examples of people with full ancestry from different parts of the world — like South Asia, France, or Finland. Some of these people were part of research studies and their genetic data is publicly available. But many of the people 23andMe used to develop its ancestry analysis are 23andMe customers themselves.

“Of course, you can only learn what, say, ‘Welsh DNA’ looks like if you have some examples of it,” he said. “The more examples you can learn from, the better your analysis will be. And 23andMe has a lot of different types of examples.”

Brian clicked on the ‘+’ symbol in the “Resolution” bar to zoom in. “It’s still all European for me — no surprise — but now it can break it down into sub-regions.” The list of ancestries on the right of the screen expanded as he clicked and when he hovered the mouse pointer over the darker blue ring the map zoomed in to the British Isles. “See? 99% British and Irish!” he said, puffing out his chest, which today was sporting, perhaps not accidentally, a green “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” t-shirt.

Sheridan rolled her eyes. “Ok, ok, you were saying mine was cooler, though, right?”

“Oh, right. Yeah.”

Sheridan scooted him aside and pulled her Ancestry Composition up on the screen. The rings quickly morphed into concentric stacks of bright colors with a rainbow-colored map in the middle. “Ooh,” she breathed. “Yeah, that’s pretty cool.”

According to the new analysis, Sheridan’s DNA was about 62% European, 37% Sub-Saharan African, and 1.2% East Asian or Native American. The rest of her DNA was unassigned, meaning it couldn’t be mapped confidently to any specific population.

“Africa isn’t broken down into sub-regions yet the way Europe is,” Brian said, pointing to the pink stripe, “but 23andMe is going to update this soon.”

“Hm, I guess I can wait a little longer,” said Sheridan. “It’s nice to see all the European populations, though. Look, there’s the Irish ancestry for me, too!”

She already knew that she probably had some Irish ancestry based on the fact that she and 99% Irish Brian were 4th cousins and they’d traced their Irish family connection through her second cousin Mike, but it was somehow gratifying to see it spelled out so clearly on her screen. She could also see that she had some Eastern European and even a bit of Native American ancestry.

There was also a small dark blue band in her Composition labeled as “Ashkenazi”. “That might actually be interesting,” Brian mused, “Let’s look into that later.”

For now, Ancestry Composition kept them busy as they explored their friends’ results. Miguel had a colorful Composition like Sheridan, except it had much more Native American and much less African. Mesut, Sheridan’s Turkish friend, was mainly Middle Eastern and European.

“Did Camille know she has Native American ancestry?” she asked, pointing to the 3.3% Native American in her Ancestry Composition.

“Not before she did 23andMe,” said Brian. “When she saw that result she did some digging and it turns out that her paternal grandfather was one-eighth Chippewa!”

He went to the drop down menu and selected another friend of theirs, Jamie. “This is pretty cool, too. Jamie’s half Askhenazi Jewish, and since her parents are also on 23andMe you can use the ‘Split View’ setting to see which side of the family it’s from.”

The map in the middle disappeared and the labels “Father” and “Mother appeared on either side of a vertical line splitting the colored rings in half. Sheridan could see that the Ashkenazi ancestry was clearly from Jamie’s mother’s side.

“Wow, that’s cool,” said Sheridan. She thought for a second. “So if I do end up learning who my mother is, and if I’m able to find her, and if she wants to do 23andMe… would this be able to tell me more about my father’s side, too?”

Brian nodded. “That’ a lot of ‘ifs’, but yeah, I think so. You just need one parent for it to tell which half of your DNA came from that parent. Then by default, the other half came from the other parent.”

“Whew.” Sheridan sat back. “This whole genetic ancestry thing just got even more interesting.”

To be continued…


  • Wolfgang Pecota

    my 23andme account says,”Unfortunately, the sample data did not meet our quality guidelines. ” So would it be possible to get a new one?

    • Scott23H

      Yes, you should get a one. The way the process works is that when you send your sample to the lab it is processed and the DNA is extracted. Sometimes during the extraction process not enough DNA is extracted to test. So the process is repeated. The most common cause of low DNA is that the preservative solution is not fully released into the tube. But some people just naturally have low DNA in their saliva. If a customer is sent a replacement kit, and two tries on the new saliva sample still don’t yield enough DNA, then unfortunately the customer probably won’t be able to use our service and a refund is made. Luckily, this is a very rare occurrence.
      I’m not sure where you are in the process but you should contact customer care directly for more information about your sample. You can contact them here:

  • Cydne DeLamont

    Hi I am waiting for my results and wondering how I am going to find out if I am really related to my deceased father? I had my little sister take a test too. Is that how I will find out or what? Thanks!

    • Scott23H

      There might be a couple of ways to do that. First off, you should see if the test reveals that you and your sister are full siblings.
      Another way would be to test someone on your paternal line, that could be your father’s brother, your father’s brother’s son, your father’s father or if your father had a son.
      There are possibly some other ways to figure this out, but they involve triangulating information about yourself and your family and possibly the use of paper records.

  • Everett

    Question on maternal/paternal split. Since both my parents are deceased, would a sample from my mother’s brother allow the determination of this split?

    • Scott23H

      I’m not sure so I’ve referred you question to our Customer Care team.

  • Scott23H

    Yes the matches are from all sides of your family tree.

    • Rose Smith

      Thank you, being that my mother is deceased and I cannot provide her saliva, can my moms hair be used for DNA? Or if my mother’s maternal sister tested in place of my mom, would that help me to decipher between my maternal dna matches verses the paternal dna matches? Thank you

      • Scott23H

        Rose, I’m sorry but we do not use hair samples. That’s not how our lab is set up. We also do not test samples for deceased individuals.
        It may help having your mother’s sister tested. You can see where you and she match up and this may help you identify what comes from your mother’s side of the family and what comes from your father’s side.

        • Rose Smith

          Thank you

  • Scott23H

    This doesn’t happen that often but it does happen. We have a section in our FAQs with more detail (
    But in answer to your question there are a lot of reasons that a sample may fail. We don’t necessarily know why it is more difficult to analyze some samples over others. If necessary, the lab will make multiple attempts at all stages of the process in order to provide results; however, due to biological variability some people simply don’t have a high enough concentration of DNA in their saliva for our technology to process.
    The lab will rerun your sample. Hopefully that will allow them to extract enough DNA to do the analysis.

  • Gina Smith

    Is there a way to reanalyze a sample. My relative’s sample was done — but it shows only half the SNPs analyzed (as shown in trait box) as everyone else I know, which are closer to a million. In fact, even his DNA cousins seem to reflect only half a picture. How does one do this?

    • Scott23H

      We wouldn’t reanalyze a sample in which we’ve returned results. If we’ve returned results then they should be complete. What you are describing sounds very unusual to me so I’ve forwarded your question to our Customer Care team. They will be in touch.

  • michelle

    Exciting! My brother took the 23andme test months ago. Our parents have mailed in their samples and are currently waiting on the results. I may take it too, but I’m not sure if it would be very useful for me. Since my brother and I have the same parents, I would think that my results would be (almost) identical to his, except that I obviously don’t have a Y chromosome, being female.

    • Rekka Riley

      Actually, siblings can be very genetically diverse. Take my biological brother and I: same two parents, and yet people do not believe we are related at all without comparing BOTH of us to pictures of BOTH parents. Even then, the only way they can see us as related is the fact that both of us resemble our parents in very, very different ways. Genetics is pretty random like that.
      As far as doing this kind of test, I kind of saw it as a “sure, why not” sort of deal. Seemed like it might be a fun thing to play with. :)

    • vermontsilkie

      I was thinking the same while so very grateful that my (full) brother had chosen to have his DNA tested – as like you, I am female thus unable to trace paternal ancestry via a Y chromosome. Finally I took one of the tests my brother had, and our ethnicity results differed. While we were both close to half Irish (our father’s side), my brother showed predominantly English ancestry on Mom’s side whereas mine came back as “15% Scandinavian, 24% Western European” which of course reflects the makeup of our English half but in me is apparently expressed differently. The results also depend upon the depth of ethnicity samples the testing company has, and that company was not 23andme. Soon I will test here too, as my brother did. My brother’s 23andme genealogical connections, by the way, have already helped us connect the dots with our hard-to-trace Irish ancestry. My results should be sufficiently diverse to help even more.

  • Alejandro Cabrera

    I’m just looking for my biological family.

    I’m exciting about that.

  • Zeze

    Was not expecting the results to take this long, it took three weeks for the lab to confirm they received the sample and said another three to six to get the results.

  • rossini

    I’m interested in whether I have a predisposition to anxiety. And am interested in whether drugs will make me better or worse. Will 23andme do that for me?

    • Scott23H

      The short answer to you is no. First off, we are not currently reporting health results to new customers in the United States pending a regulator review process with the FDA.
      But even prior to this review process, and in markets like Canada, where we are selling the full product, we do not have reports that are specific to anxiety. In addition we don’t have any drug response reports that are specific to medication that is used to treat anxiety.
      That said there are some studies that look at the genetics behind such things as OCD.

  • joeschmoew

    If I have the testing materials sent to a Canadian address and use that as my address in your files, can I have access to my health information? I’m disappointed that the “land of the free” doesn’t let its citizens have access to their own health information.

    • 23blog

      Our Canadian product is only available for Canadian residents.

  • Doris Hutchens

    I received notification that “not enough DNA was present to analysis” I followed instructions to the letter, I have ordered a replacement kit, but I just happened to check the progress report and discovered it. I feel I should have been notified by Email of this the same way I was notified the sample was received. Not happy.

  • 23blog

    We are not estimating that it will take four to six weeks to process the sample. Thanks for your order and Merry Christmas.

  • Shanna

    When will Africa be broken down into sub regions? If I had known it would not be, I never would have ordered from 23andme. It is tailored for Europeans only.

    • 23blog

      Our ancestry results for Africa are broken down into subregions, but we do not yet get into finer detail that would help identify specific tribal ancestry.

      • Shanna

        Ok. Thank you.

      • Shanna

        Is the breakdown listed by regions or countries?

        • 23blog

          We report by regions.

        • Shanna

          Ok. So your response was misleading. I never asked about specific tribes. I was referring to the fact that you do not list the specific countries in Africa like you do in Europe. Your company should have some kind of disclaimer about that. I am paying the same price for less information. You people are a fraud and I will be filing a complaint with the appropriate agency about your discriminatory business practices.

        • 23blog

          We do disclose what we report out to customers. For people with African ancestry we report out regional information —Sub-Saharan African, West African, East African, Central & South African. We do not report out country level data, which would likely be problematic because of how migration among ethnic groups within Africa. I’m not sure how any of this is discriminatory. As we’ve obtained additional reference population data we’ve been able to improve the level of detail for reporting customers Ancestry Composition. We’ve also worked at improving the diversity among individuals participating in research. Two of our projects, the Roots into the Future and African Ancestry project, both are efforts to improve the diversity of genetic research.

        • Shanna

          Problematic? It’s being done by another company. Thank for responding.

  • 23blog

    Hi John,
    When you look at your raw data, you are looking at all the single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that we test on our chip. These are different variants in your genome and at each of these locations we test for what your genotype is at that location.

    Most SNPs have two different versions or alleles present in the population. The letters in the versions column of your raw data tell you what those two possibilities are. Since everyone carries two copies of most SNPs—one from each parent—your data is reported under the Genotype column as two letters.

    For example, the SNP rs17221260 has two versions: G or T. You can therefore have one of three possible genotypes: GG, GT, or TT.

    More information about the SNP is available at dbSNP (hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information). If you expand the entry by clicking the + symbol and then open the “dbSNP Lookup” link, you will be taken to a dbSNP entry for this SNP.

    Keep in mind that the letters you see in Browse Raw Data may not always agree with what you see in dbSNP. See our FAQ on strand orientation for more details.

  • 23blog

    Hi Mary,
    We do break down African ancestry by regions, but not subregions. This issue there is having scientifically valid reference populations. We want to make sure any estimate we give to customers is well grounded in supportable science. We have several efforts to get more fine grained results on African ancestry. We are collecting more West African ancestry information, for instance, as part of what we’re calling our African Ancestry project. That information could be particularly helpful for African Americans, who most often trace their ancestry to that region of Africa. We don’t have a timeline for when those updates will happen however, but I can say we are currently working on that.

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