August 22, 2019
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Open-Source DNA Databases: What They Are and How to Use Them

Open-source DNA databases can be used to research your raw DNA data. Users should learn the privacy risks and complexities before starting.
By
Tomohiro Takano

DNA Testing Kits can help you learn about your genetics, potential health issues, and other details. Already taken a DNA test? Are you wondering, ‘How do I put my DNA on a database & get more accurate results?’ If you have taken a DNA test with 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, or any of the other major Genetic DNA testing companies, you have access to your raw DNA file.

This file can be uploaded to several different open source DNA databases, which also offer a number of tools for you to explore the database. Some open source databases allow you to search for ancestry information, while others allow you to research health-related issues.

What is an Open-Source DNA Database?

If you Google “best open source DNA database”, you will find several different services and companies based entirely on open source‌ ‌DNA databases. Some of these, like GEDmatch, allow you to do independent research on your DNA test results to find relatives and research your family tree. Others, like Promethease, allow you to search through a database connecting genetic variants to various health studies.

Unlike the private databases kept by large DNA testing companies, open source DNA databases are available to all people. Researchers, law enforcement, and private individuals can easily access these databases to conduct research, and these platforms typically have various tools for analyzing their datasets.


Open-Source DNA Analysis

While DNA testing companies are the only places where you can actually get your DNA tested, there are a large number of open source DNA databases you can upload your genomic data to. In fact, this Wiki page from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy details the numerous databases available. Most of these open source databases also offer analysis software, including analysis tools for conducting your own bioinformatic research.


Many of these tools focus on SNPs, the genetic data measured by DNA testing companies. This software offered by open source DNA databases is available for free to users. In some cases, small service fees are imposed for the use of a database or a tool, though these prices are much lower than your original DNA test. Using these tools and sites, you can reanalyze your genome sequence and learn for yourself what research can tell you about your family history or health issues.


Is it safe to use an Open-Source DNA Database?

No, at least not entirely. An open source database literally means, the genetic information you provide can be accessed by anyone. While this is not as bad as giving out your Social Security Number to everyone on the internet, it can have negative consequences.

For example, family members of Joseph James DeAngelo uploaded their genetic information to an open source DNA database. Unbeknownst to DeAngelo, this created a serious privacy concern because it led directly to his arrest.

DeAngelo, now indicted for being the rapist and serial killer known as The Golden State Killer, had previously escaped police custody. Though crime scene DNA was found, it could never be matched to the FBI database. Using the DNA evidence, law enforcement officers searched an open source DNA database without a court order. They didn’t need one because of the nature of open source databases.


While this may not seem like a concern to you if you are not a serial killer, you should be a little concerned. The human genome is 99.9% the same across all humans. Your whole-genome only has a tiny amount of changes which distinguish you from everyone else. As technology progresses and more people add their raw DNA data to databases, almost anyone will be identifiable based on their genetics. While solving cold cases and violent crimes is applauded, the potential applications of open source databases are concerning. You can read more about these potential abuses in this article.


Are Open-Source DNA Databases Easy to Use?

Open source is often a monicker for ‘bare-bones’. Open source applications and databases have enormous functionality, but they lack the user-friendly interfaces we are used to from large, for-profit companies. If you are interested in using these open source tools, get ready for a steep learning curve.


If you are not up to the challenge, you may want to look into finding a genetic counselor or genetic genealogist to do the work for you. Genealogists are specifically trained in a number of DNA testing tools and have learned how to analyze DNA profiles, SNPs, and all aspects of your genetic variants.


Another option is sticking with a genealogy website or for-profit genealogy database. While there are fees and subscriptions involved with this, it is often much cheaper than hiring a counselor and much easier than learning the entire science of genetics.


Other Option for Raw DNA Data Analysis

If you still want to research your DNA test results, there are many other options. Many of the companies will take the DNA sequencing results from one DNA testing company and use that DNA sample to give you results in areas which were unreported.

Many of these services are free and can give you information about your health risks, family history, or other information simply by uploading your raw DNA data to their site.

The Bottom Line on Open Source DNA Databases

As we just discussed, an open source DNA database is just that: open. While some open source databases are designed for researching ancestry information, while others have other services, including health information, they are all usually free, and they are also all open to the public. Just about anyone - researchers, law enforcement, and private individuals - can easily use open source DNA analysis software to conduct investigations, leaving the users of these sites open to potentially unwanted or even dangerous attention. 

Here are some of the pros and cons of using open source DNA analysis:

Pros:

  • Open source DNA databases are usually free to use
  • There is a large number of open source DNA sites to choose from
  • Open source DNA databases can help you discover everything from living relatives to family history to genetic health risks

Cons:

  • Open source DNA databases are open to anyone to research, which might concern users who are looking for more privacy
  • Open source DNA databases are usually connected to “bare bones” websites that can be clunky or even complicated to use

It’s clear that many people who are interested in exploring their family history or unique genetics are not put off by what others might see as the cons of open source DNA databases. And it’s not hard to understand why. In fact, some genealogy hobbyists want other people to be able to use their DNA for their own research, as this helps in building family trees or finding living relatives, among other possible benefits. 

Thankfully, if you’re looking for a little more privacy as you embark on your DNA discovery, there are companies that will let you set your sharing preferences and offer other features for protecting your raw DNA data. Reputable sources will list their privacy policies on their websites, and provide you with all of the information you need to know to help you decide how to proceed. If open source isn’t for you, try one of these DNA analysis sites instead:

  1. Genomelink - Delete your data anytime you want from our site - we fully believe that you have complete control and ownership of your DNA.
  2. 23andMe - Read their complete privacy statement, which outlines everything the company does to meet your individual privacy wishes.
  3. AncestryDNA - Uses industry standard security practices when storing DNA samples, test results, and other personal data of its users

In conclusion, only you can decide what level or privacy, DNA sharing, and family discovery is right for you. The good news is, our options for DNA analysis and family research have only grown in recent years, and there is now a wide range of companies and services that amateur genealogy researchers can choose from when they start their DNA exploration. Some prefer to start on the private side, and become more open to sharing as their search progresses. Others feel comfortable opening up their findings right away, or might never feel that way. Find the options that are right for you, and have fun uncovering your unique genetic story!

To find out more DNA upload sites, check out our article "The Best DNA Upload Sites"




Tomohiro Takano
Tomohiro Takano
Co-Founder and CEO