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Despite Some Interest Abroad, Array-Based Ancestry Testing Remains Concentrated in US

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Two times in the past four months, members of National Geographic's Genographic Project have traveled to communities in Europe to collect specimens to be genotyped for ancestry informative markers using Illumina microarrays.

In May, the project collected samples from 100 volunteers in the province of Asturias in northern Spain, and in June it collected samples from another 100 volunteers, including Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, in County Mayo, Ireland.

According to Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project, the events in Spain and Ireland were undertaken to both raise awareness of the effort and to obtain data that can be used to inform its research.

"It's a combination," Wells told BioArray News. "In some cases we want those samples for scientific reasons, in other cases we are approached by the municipality" to do the testing.

In the case of the County Mayo event, the Genographic Project will use the data collected to create an Irish reference population, that can later be used for comparison with other customers' samples to perform a biogeographical analysis.

However, even though Geno 2.0 — the second, array-based phase of the Genographic Project — has conducted outreach activities in a few European geographies, Wells said that the bulk of submissions come from the US, Canada, Australia, and other countries where English is spoken.

In addition, he said that while the Genographic Project was made available in multiple languages when it first launched in 2005 using microsatellite genotyping, the international response was minimal, and Geno 2.0 has instead been carried out solely in English.

"We did that with the first phase of project," Wells said of National Geographic's multilingual overtures, "and the numbers were so small that it didn't justify doing it again."

International approaches

National Geographic is one of four major providers of microarray-based ancestry testing services. Like the others — 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and Family Tree DNA — it relies on Illumina-manufactured chips to conduct its services. With all offerings priced at below $199, Illumina has recently touted the consumer genetics market as a growing opportunity, projecting that it will generate about $50 million in consumer genetics-related revenues by the end of the year (BAN 7/30/2013).

Reykjavik, Iceland-based Decode Genetics did offer a similar array-based service called DecodeMe, but it was discontinued after Amgen acquired the company late last year.

Expanding into markets outside the US could be a seen as a way to encourage even wider adoption of these new genetic genealogy services. In addition, as National Geographic has done, the firms could use samples collected from different populations to inform their analyses.

23andMe spokesperson Catherine Afarian told BioArray News that the Mountain View, Calif.-based firm currently ships its kits to 50 countries, including the US, and that most of these countries are in North America and Europe.

While the company does not provide details on its sales or customer base by country, Afarian said that the majority of 23andMe's customers are in the US, and the firm is focused on growing the US market.

"Since our site is currently only available in English, we have seen the strongest response in other English-speaking countries but we do have customers around the globe," Afarian said.

She noted that, like National Geographic, 23andMe is using the genetic ancestry information from volunteering customers to serve as reference data for its ancestry tools and features.

"The more diversity we have in our customer base and the more people we have participating, the better and more accurate our ancestry features become," said Afarian.

One player in the ancestry testing market that might already have the resources to attract more international customers is Ancestry.com. The 30-year-old company maintains British, Canadian, Australian, Italian, French, Swedish, and German subsidiary sites. In partnership with the Shanghai Library, it also offers Chinese customers access to family history records via Jiapu.com

Launched last year, the company's array-based genetic genealogy service, AncestryDNA, is currently available only in the US.

Ken Chahine, Ancestry.com's senior vice president and general manager of AncestryDNA, said that the company has not yet publicly outlined an international approach for offering the service, and said that there are "many factors to consider when offering a DNA test on a large scale internationally."

According to Chahine, these include issues relating to international logistics and regulations, which Ancestry.com is reviewing. "It is our hope to offer AncestryDNA internationally and we will let our members know as soon as an AncestryDNA test is available in their market," he added.

Chahine also said that the company already has access to samples from different populations. In March 2012, it acquired access to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation's DNA assets. The nonprofit's DNA database contains "tens of thousands of DNA samples with documented family histories in more than 100 countries on six continents," Chahine said.

"This DNA database gives AncestryDNA test-takers an expanded family history genetic resource, and should enable new levels of discovery about people's family backgrounds," he added.

Elliott Greenspan, Family Tree DNA's IT manager, told BioArray News that the firm maintains affiliates throughout Europe and the Middle East to reach customers.

"We think that our ancestry customer experience is greatly enhanced by collecting data from participants around the world," Greenspan said.

He added that the firm maintains a "strong involvement at international conferences, and not just those in the US."

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