Geneticist Searches for DNA of "Adam," the First Human

Hillary Mayell
National Geographic News
for National Geographic Channel
June 24, 2005

On TV: Don't miss Search for Adam, premiering on the National Geographic Channel (U.S.), Sunday, June 26, 8 p.m. ET/PT.

For many of us, the word "genetics" conjures vague thoughts of disease, the human genome, and genetic engineering.

Spencer Wells thought "genetics" and forged a unique career that combines his love for history with his passion for biology. A geneticist, adventurer, author, filmmaker, and historian—the man adds new dimension to the term multi-tasking—he is using the cutting-edge of technology to explore human history.

He has traveled the world, collecting blood samples from people of far-flung cultures: Aborigines in Australia, the Chukchi tundra dwellers of Siberia, farmers in the hills of Afghanistan, and nomads in the deserts of Africa. By studying the DNA of modern humans, he seeks to learn who we are, where we traveled to populate the world, and how closely we are all related.

"Each drop of blood is essentially a historical document," Wells said. "Our DNA tells the story of the journey of our species."

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 launched the Genographic Project, headed by Spencer Wells. The quest for "Adam" is the subject of a new television documentary that airs on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. this Sunday.

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 have received 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," Wells said. "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."

Tracing Human History

"As often happens in science," said Wells, "technology has opened up a field to new ways of answering old questions—often providing startling answers."

One of the old questions that intrigued Wells was the question of human origins. Whether early humans evolved in Africa or elsewhere, when they began outward migration, and where they went, are issues that have been argued among archaeologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists for decades.

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