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Can DNA testing really pinpoint your ethnicity?

DNA testing in a lab.
DNA testing in a lab.

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DNA testing has become popular in recent years. More and more consumers are excited to learn about their heritage. But is the science behind it accurate?

Some experts say consumers should not see ethnic analysis as a hard science. Ancestry, for example, which has become the world’s largest DNA testing conglomerate, make ethnicity estimates by comparing people's DNA to "reference populations." Ancestry says it has developed a reference panel made up of DNA samples worldwide. After customers submit their DNA, the company examines 700,000 markers in that sample and compares it to its reference panel. Then the company comes up with “statistically plausible distribution of where your ancestors come from," according to the company’s chief scientific officer.

But the list is far from being comprehensive. China, for instance, has restrictions on taking DNA out of the country. Still, many consumers enjoy the charts they receive that break down their probable ethnic backgrounds. But some scientists, however, say these tests are as accurate as looking at yourself in the mirror. sent us this statement: 

“We’re confident in the science and the results that we give to customers. The consumer genomics industry is in its early stages but is growing fast with continuous innovation. We tell customers throughout the experience that their results are as accurate as possible for where the science is today and that it may evolve over time as the resolution of DNA estimates improve.”  


Scott Woodward, molecular and microbiologist who specializes in genetic genealogy and ancient DNA studies; former executive director of genomic study at from from 2012-2015 where he helped build the company's database of ethnic markers; lecturer in biology at the Utah Valley University (UVU), the largest public university in Utah