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What is genetic testing?

From Genetics Home Reference. Learn more

Genetic testing is a type of medical test that identifies changes in genes, chromosomes, or proteins. The results of a genetic test can confirm or rule out a suspected genetic condition or help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. More than 77,000 genetic tests are currently in use, and others are being developed.

Genetic testing involves looking for changes in:

  • Genes: Gene tests study DNA sequences to identify variations (mutations) in genes that can cause or increase the risk of a genetic disorder. Gene tests can be narrow or large in scope, analyzing an individual DNA building block (nucleotide), one or more genes, or all of a person’s DNA (which is known as their genome).  
  • Chromosomes: Chromosomal genetic tests analyze whole chromosomes or long lengths of DNA to see if there are large genetic changes, such as an extra copy of a chromosome, that cause a genetic condition.
  • Proteins: Biochemical genetic tests study the amount or activity level of proteins or enzymes; abnormalities in either can indicate changes to the DNA that result in a genetic disorder.

Genetic testing is voluntary. Because testing has benefits as well as limitations and risks, the decision about whether to be tested is a personal and complex one. A geneticist or genetic counselor can help by providing information about the pros and cons of the test and discussing the social and emotional aspects of testing.