NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – National Geographic has halted sales of its Geno DNA Ancestry Kits, and plans to wind up the service next year. The kits enabled consumers to participate in NatGeo's Genographic Project, a 14-year endeavor to use genetics to map patterns of global human migration.
NatGeo said on its website that while it ended sales of its kits effective May 31, it will continue to conduct research using its database, which includes data on roughly a million individuals.
NatGeo is owned by National Geographic Partners, a joint venture between the Walt Disney Company and the nonprofit National Geographic Society. Disney gained a majority share in the venture when it closed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox earlier this year.
It is unclear if the decision to shutter the Genographic Project was related to Disney's acquisition.
A NatGeo spokesperson said the Genographic website will close by Dec. 31, 2020, as Genographic will "no longer have the … infrastructure in place to maintain it and ensure a good customer experience."
NatGeo commenced the Genographic Project in 2005, initially offering participants Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing to determine the haplogroups of their paternal and maternal lines, respectively. It also made an effort to obtain samples from indigenous populations around the world, and its database eventually included more than 70,000 samples from indigenous participants from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.
From its inception until 2015, the project was led by Spencer Wells, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, before he left to found Austin, Texas-based Insitome.
In 2012, the Genographic Project launched Geno 2.0, an array-based autosomal DNA testing service that provided consumers not only with their Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroup data, but also an ethnicity breakdown. Geno 2.0 originally relied on a 130,000-SNP custom Illumina array to genotype participants, but the project eventually upgraded to a higher-density array before opting to sell the service on the Helix marketplace at the end of 2016.
According to NatGeo, those Genographic customers who tested with the project prior to its move to the Helix platform can transfer their data to Family Tree DNA. Clayton Conder, director of marketing for Houston, Texas-based Gene by Gene, the parent of Family Tree DNA, confirmed that Genographic customers may transfer their data into Family Tree for free.
Conder said that the same resources and services available to Family Tree DNA clients will be made available to Genographic customers. "Upon transferring, customers will receive their haplogroup information as well as access to special discounts — created specifically for Geno transfers — on additional tests," she added.
Customers who took the test via the Helix marketplace can download their raw data via the Genographic website for uploading into third-party software, NatGeo's representative said. Data generated for use in the Helix marketplace is generated using sequencing and not currently accepted by Family Tree DNA and other genetic genealogy firms that allow customers to upload their array data.
While NatGeo will no longer make results available to customers, it does plan to continue research on them.
"Qualified anthropologists, data scientists, and genetic genealogists can apply for access to the Genographic database of DNA to conduct research on human evolution and history, human migration, and human genetic diversity," the representative said.
'End of an era'
For industry observers, the decision by NatGeo to wind up the public participation phase of the Genographic Project came as a surprise. While the project pioneered the use of first Y-DNA and mtDNA testing to provide consumers with information about their ancestry, followed by an expansion into autosomal DNA testing, its database was soon dwarfed by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, the latter of which recently reported that it now has 15 million people in its DNA network.
The Genographic Project also retained a focus on the deep ancestry of customers, while other providers diversified into areas like health and personal traits. Still, for many, the Genographic Project was their gateway to consumer genomics, and introduced many people to the idea of taking a direct-to-consumer genetic test.
"To me, it's the end of an era," said Wells. "It's sad to see something like this come to an end," he said. "National Geographic is not ultimately in the consumer genomics business though, so I suppose the business decision was made by Disney or Fox not to continue," he remarked.
Wells noted that the origins of the project actually date back to 2003, when he entered into discussions with NatGeo following the success of his TV documentary The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey and 2002 book of the same name. "Sixteen years is a long time," Wells noted. He said that his firm Insitome, which is in the process of transitioning into a nonprofit, might eventually offer Genographic customers the ability to upload their data, though he declined to elaborate further on Insitome's plans.
"If other companies can take over, and if Insitome in its new nonprofit version can help people who have been tested to visualize what their results mean, that would be fantastic," Wells said. "We will have to wait and see."
He did note that Helix recently raised its kit price to $125 for a first purchase, plus the cost of any app on top of it, meaning that Genographic kits were priced well above competitive offerings in the market, which can cost less than $100. Helix itself is undergoing its own transition. It recently announced plans to close two of its offices, reduce staff, and focus on population health.
Other industry observers expressed dismay at the winding up of the project. Roberta Estes, a genetic genealogist and author of the blog DNAeXplained, said that the announcement "felt like a gut punch" and likened the end of the project to the "sudden death of a friend." She noted that Genographic introduced many consumers to the idea of using DNA to learn about their ancestry.
She added that having NatGeo's backing had lent the nascent field some credibility.
"Having DNA testing included and featured in that iconic yellow magazine provided the then-infant field of genetic genealogy with legitimacy, a confirmation of what was possible, and increased awareness that served to fuel the direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry as we know it today," she said.
Estes said she was concerned that the end of the public participation phase would "remove the Genographic Project from the public eye" and lower public awareness of the need for research. "Providing an avenue for participation meant ongoing buy-in from people who were proud to participate and interested in the outcome," Estes said. "I hope alternatives are still being sought."
Debbie Kennett, a genetic genealogist and honorary researcher at University College London's department of genetics, evolution, and environment, agreed with Estes that the project had encouraged early interest in ancestry testing, and had for many been their first encounter with consumer genomics. It also served, she noted, as a catalyst for genetic genealogy, as Geno customers transferred their results to Family Tree DNA and got involved in various projects.
However, Kennett noted that the Genographic Project has trailed competitive offerings for years. She noted that the first version of Geno 2.0 used arrays with far fewer SNPs that Ancestry or 23andMe arrays, and did not offer other genetic genealogy services, such as relative matching or a chromosome browser. "It wasn't enough to derive useful reports and the reports customers got weren't that meaningful," Kennett said.
She noted that in comparison Ancestry and 23andMe have invested heavily in genetic genealogy, providing a more diversified customer experience. "Ancestry can now tell you what region in Ireland your ancestors came from, while Genographic is still providing broad matches to reference populations," Kennett noted. "I don't think they got the right output and there was too much competition from other companies."
Kennett also said the decision to move to Helix had largely made Genographic "irrelevant" in the eyes of genetic genealogists, as they could no longer transfer their data for third-party analyses. "The partnership with Helix seemed to be a big mistake," said Kennett. "Once they partnered with Helix, you got the reports, but you couldn't access your raw data," she said. "To get your raw data, you had to pay," she said. "That put the stop on transferring data to Family Tree DNA."
Still, Kennett said that the ongoing research using the Genographic collection should produce "useful and valuable" research. "We haven't seen all the fruits of all those samples," she noted.
Kennett also pointed out that this is not the first time a consumer genomics service has been shut down. Ancestry, for instance, in 2014 decided to discontinued its Y-DNA and mtDNA testing service. Other offerings, such as DeCode Genetics' DeCodeMe service, have also been shuttered.
"There have been a whole load that have come and gone," Kennett said. "There is no guarantee the current companies will survive," she added. "There could be another company that comes along and dominates the space."