Global Gene Project to Trace Humanity's Migrations

Hillary Mayell for National Geographic News
April 13, 2005

New DNA studies suggest that all humans descended from a single African ancestor who lived some 60,000 years ago. To uncover the paths that lead from him to every living human, the National Geographic Society today launched the Genographic Project at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The project is a five-year endeavor undertaken as a partnership between IBM and National Geographic. It will combine population genetics and molecular biology to trace the migration of humans from the time we first left Africa, 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, to the places where we live today.

Ten research centers around the world will receive funding from the Waitt Family Foundation to collect and analyze blood samples from indigenous populations (such as aboriginal groups), many in remote areas. The Genographic Project hopes to collect more than a hundred thousand DNA samples to create the largest gene bank in the world. Members of the public are also being invited to participate.

"Our DNA tells a fascinating story of the human journey: how we are all related and how our ancestors got to where we are today," said American geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells, the project leader. "This project will show us some of the routes early humans followed to populate the globe and paint a picture of the genetic tapestry that connects us all."

Wells, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, feels a certain sense of urgency. Wars, environmental disasters, and increasing globalization are causing more people to move, and the world is gradually becoming less culturally and genetically diverse.

"We need to take a genetic snapshot of who we are as a species before the geographic and cultural context are lost in the melting pot," Wells said. He cites language as a measure of the disappearance of cultures. "There are around 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, and by the end of the century, between half and 90 percent of those are going to be gone."

IBM, as the technology partner of the project, will participate in collecting the data, storing it, and analyzing it.

"We have some indications, from prior studies about the migration of people, how the diversity and similarity that we see in peoples of the world might have happened in the last 50,000 to 10,000 years," said Ajay Royyuru, a senior manager of IBM's Computational Biology Center. "But what is missing is the detail, the ability for everyone on the planet to be able to see, understand, exactly how they got to be where they are."

Tracking Genetic Markers

Each human parent contributes half of a child's DNA, which combines with the other parent's DNA to form a new genetic combination. This so-called recombination gives each of us a unique set of attributes: hair, eye, and skin color; athleticism or lack thereof; susceptibility to certain diseases; and so on.

However, the chunk of DNA known as the y chromosome, which only males possess, is passed from father to son without recombining. The y chromosome, therefore, remains basically unchanged through generations, except for random mutations. Similarly, women pass mitochondrial DNA, which also does not recombine, on to both their sons and daughters.

Random mutations to DNA, which happen naturally and are usually harmless, are called markers. Once a marker has been identified, geneticists can go back in time and trace it to the point at which it first occurred. This way, they are able to determine when and where a new lineage began.

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