EUGENE, Ore. -- We've all seen the commercials, promising to unlock your genetic code. For around a hundred dollars or less, companies like AncestryDNA claim they can reveal your origins. Are you western European? African? Perhaps you're part Asian?
But what is DNA? And what do scientists think about these home kits? For answers we went to Streisinger Hall, the center of molecular biology research at the University of Oregon.
"I like to think of DNA as a set of instructions, or a cookbook that makes each of us who we are," Diana Libuda, assistant professor of biology at the University of Oregon, said.
Libuda described DNA as a four-letter code from the alphabet. String enough letters together and you have a sentence, which is like a gene. Those genes form chromosomes which we inherit from our parents.
"We have 46 chromosomes,” Libuda said. “Twenty-three we inherit from our mom, and 23 we inherit from our dad."
Libuda said that before modern travel our ancestors rarely strayed far from home. Over thousands of years each part of the world developed its own genetic markers that scientists can detect.
“You can also think of it as a dialect that's evolved for a specific region," Libuda said.
“I’ve always been told that I’m a quarter Scottish, and I know there's some Irish and German and British in there," Stephanie Villiers, a producer for KEZI 9 News, said.
We wondered what would happen if we gave a person three different tests from three different companies. Villiers, our volunteer, ordered tests from AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23 and Me.
“I'd be surprised if there's something from outside of Europe," Villiers said.
We spent about $290 for the three tests. 23 and me was the most expensive, followed by Family Tree and Ancestry.
Two of the three tests make you spit in a test tube. But one, Family Tree, allows you to do a simple cheek swab. But they all have easy-to-follow instructions and a handy package to mail your sample to the lab.
About six weeks later, we got results from 23 and Me and Family Tree.
Family Tree said Villiers is 50 percent from west-central Europe, 48 percent from the British Isles, and she has trace amounts from Scandinavia and southeast Europe.
23 and Me also reported 49 percent from the British Isles. But they also said Villiers has a higher amount of Scandinavian origins, plus some DNA from Finland. They also found DNA from eastern Europe and a trace of Jewish DNA, but nothing from southeast Europe.
There was also a twist. According to 23 and me, Villiers has more Neanderthal DNA than 99 percent of other people they've tested.
Three weeks later, we finally got results from Ancestry. Again, it was mostly western European and the British Isles. But gone was the Jewish DNA, and no signs of Finnish, eastern European or southeast European.
More Villiers: “The results were pretty similar across the board.”
So here's the bottom line: Even with their slight variations, all of the results confirmed that Villiers is European.
Back at Streisinger Hall, Professor Libuda says people need to keep the results in perspective.
“I would say this is kind of a glimpse into your ancestry,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a hundred percent accurate or a hundred percent predictive."
But for Villiers and millions more like her, the results have opened a new chapter into her past.
“I think everyone should take it,” she said. “It’s really interesting."
It turns out that all of us have secret stories just waiting to be told -- stories two million years in the making.