DNA sequencing for genetic ancestry testing

Liz Wood, Alphabiolabs

By Liz Wood, Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 13/06/2024

In this article, we look at how DNA can be used to gain insight into your ethnic background, geographical origins, and even the migration patterns of your ancestors.

What is DNA sequencing?

DNA sequencing is a method used to determine the exact sequence of nucleotide bases within our DNA.

Our DNA is made up of four nucleotide bases (Adenine, Guanine, Thymine and Cytosine) which form our genetic code, and provide all the information needed for us to develop and function as humans.

Finding out the sequence of nucleotide bases in specific sections of DNA (DNA sequencing) has many uses, including for paternity testing, identifying genetic conditions, and for ancestry DNA testing.

There are several different methods that can be used for DNA sequencing including Sanger sequencing, capillary electrophoresis, and next-generation sequencing.

Before DNA can be sequenced, it must first be extracted from a biological sample (e.g. cheek/buccal swab sample). Once the DNA is obtained, it must then be amplified by a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which is used to make lots of copies of the DNA.

The DNA can then be sequenced, and analysis can be performed on the resulting data.

What is a genetic ancestry test?

As DNA is inherited, genetic ancestry testing can be used to trace your ancestry back a very long way.

For a genetic ancestry test, expert geneticists look at specific sections of your DNA using the process of DNA sequencing. An ancestry test can tell you about your geographic origins (where in the world your ancestors came from), or even the migration patterns of your ancestors, depending on the type of test you choose.

The areas of DNA that are analysed in the laboratory depend on the type of ancestry test being performed.

An autosomal ancestry test (DNA Origins Ancestry Test) looks at many different parts of your DNA to assess your genetic ancestry.

A paternal lineage ancestry test looks only at specific parts of the Y chromosome, which is inherited through the paternal line, whereas a maternal lineage ancestry test looks at markers in your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), inherited via the maternal line.

A simple cheek swab DNA sample is all that is required to perform an AlphaBiolabs DNA Ancestry Test.

Once your DNA sample arrives at our laboratory, the DNA is amplified and then sequenced to find out which variants you have at specific points in your DNA. Your ancestral origin is determined by comparing DNA variants detected in your sample with the frequencies of the same variants found in reference populations across the world.

The geographical region that has the highest frequency of the variant we observe in your DNA is where your ancestors are most likely to have come from.

For example, if you have a particular variant that is found in very high frequency in Europe, then it is likely your ancestors originated from somewhere in Europe.

Your paternal or maternal lineage is determined by assessing the variants in either your Y chromosome (paternal) or your mitochondrial DNA and calculating the haplogroup you most likely belong to.

The haplogroup that you belong to gives you an insight into when and where your ancestors originated, and the journey they may have taken thousands of years ago.

What can you find out from doing a genetic ancestry test?

Genetic ancestral testing can provide you with a lot of information about your ancestors. Here are some of the benefits:

Genealogy

If you are interested in genealogy, genetic ancestry tests can help you find out more information about your recent ancestors and aid you in building your family tree.

Ethnic origins

Variants found in your DNA can be compared to variants in reference populations around the world. The geographical region with the highest frequency of the same variants found in your DNA is your most likely geographic origin or ethnic background.

Migration patterns

Ancestry testing can tell you more about how your ancestors travelled across the world thousands of years ago.

Paternal and Maternal lineage

Paternal Lineage Ancestry Tests and Maternal Lineage Ancestry Tests analyse Y chromosome/Y-DNA (paternal) or mitochondrial DNA/mtDNA (maternal) for variants that enable geneticists to assign you a Y-DNA or mtDNA haplogroup.

Because haplogroups can be traced back to an approximate time and place in history where they first arose, learning your paternal or maternal haplogroup can provide a good indication as to the migration patterns of your ancestors.

Calculating the approximate time and place that these haplogroups arose is complicated and multifaceted. Scientists will look at evidence such as the mutation rates per generation for the DNA markers tested, fossil evidence, direct DNA testing from ancient human remains, and where these human remains were discovered.

This enables us to paint a picture of paternal or maternal haplogroup migration, which can give you a deeper understanding of the journey your ancestors took and the lives they might have led thousands of years ago.

What are the different types of genetic ancestry tests?

AlphaBiolabs offers three types of genetic ancestry test.

Paternal Lineage Ancestry Test

The Paternal Lineage Ancestry Test analyses variants on the Y chromosome, which is only found in males, and which is inherited directly from father to son, completely unchanged.

Analysing the Y chromosome enables us to determine your Y chromosomal haplogroup and, in turn, provides a good indication as to the migration patterns of your ancestors through the paternal line.

All males that exist today are descendants of “Y chromosomal Adam” who is thought to have lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago. As time went on and humans began to migrate within and out of Africa, changes (mutations) in the Y chromosome gave rise to new haplogroups.

The Paternal Lineage Ancestry Test is only suitable for biological males, as females do not have a Y chromosome. If you are a female who is interested to know about the paternal lineage within your family, your father or a close male relative would need to take the test.

Maternal Lineage Ancestry Test

The Maternal Lineage Ancestry Test looks at variants within your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited exclusively from your mother.

We are all living descendants of “Mitochondrial Eve” who may have lived in Africa around a similar time to “Y chromosomal Adam”. Over time, the diversification of mitochondrial DNA gave rise to new haplogroups.

Unlike the Paternal Lineage Ancestry Test, which is only suitable for biological males, the Maternal Lineage Ancestry Test can be taken by anyone, as both males and females inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mother.

Your paternal and maternal lineage test can tell you a lot about the pattern of migration your ancestors took. Thanks to different types of ancient evidence, we can approximate where and when these mitochondrial and Y chromosomal haplogroups arose. Evidence from human remains, or even ancient materials such as pottery, can tell us more about the lifestyles your ancestors may have led.

DNA Origins Ancestry Test

Our DNA Origins Ancestry test looks at variants in your autosomal DNA, to provide insight into where your ancestors are most likely to have originated from.

Unlike Y-DNA and mt-DNA ancestry tests, autosomal ancestry tests look at DNA inherited from the autosomal chromosomes, rather than the sex chromosomes (X and Y).

At AlphaBiolabs, next-generation sequencing is used to target specific sections of your DNA. Variants found in specific sections of your DNA are then compared to variants found in reference populations across the world.

The geographical region that has the highest frequency (number) of variants that were also observed in your DNA is the region your ancestors (and you!) are most likely to have originated from.

The results can also help shed more light on your ethnic background.

Where can I get a DNA ancestry test?

At AlphaBiolabs, we offer three different ancestry tests to suit your needs.

Whether you’re looking to find out where your ancestors originated from, or you want to know more about the ancestry of your paternal or maternal line, our DNA Ancestry page has all the information you need.

Simply order your test online and we’ll send your test kit out to you immediately. The test kit contains everything you need to collect your cheek (buccal) swab samples in the comfort of your own home and return them to our laboratory for analysis.

For more information about our Genetic Ancestry Testing, call our friendly, knowledgeable Customer Services team on 0333 600 1300 or at info@alphabiolabs.com

Order your DNA ancestry test

Choose from a wide range of ancestry DNA tests, starting from just £119

Liz Wood, AlphaBiolabs

Liz Wood

Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs

Liz joined AlphaBiolabs in 2021, where she holds the role of Health Testing Specialist.

As well as overseeing a range of health tests, she is also the lead on several validation projects for the company’s latest health test offerings.

During her time at AlphaBiolabs, Liz has played an active role in the validation of the company’s Genetic Lactose Intolerance Test and Genetic Coeliac Disease Test.

An advocate for preventative healthcare, Liz’s main scientific interests centre around human disease and reproductive health. Her qualifications include a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Biology of Health and Disease.