Global DNA study aims to trace links of distant people, unravel migration
WASHINGTON -- Your family tree may look quite a bit different from you thought it did. Which is to say, you might well be related to the queen of England--but through a common ancestor who lived in Africa tens of millennia ago.
In pursuit of such knowledge, the National Geographic on Wednesday announced a five-year, $40 million project to trace the evolution and migration of human beings and their cultures over the thousands of years of human existence.
Organized in cooperation with IBM Corp. and the Waitt Family Foundation, the undertaking, which will be launched in May, will involve the scientific identification and computer analysis of about 100,000 DNA samples--prehistoric, historic and contemporary.
Indigenous people in remote locations will be asked for DNA samples, and contributions also will be accepted from volunteers around the globe. This will help determine where groups of people came from, what impelled them to migrate, where they ended up and what happened to them genetically and culturally along the way.
"We want to learn the why of history," said population geneticist Spencer Wells, National Geographic explorer-in-residence and director of the Genographic Project. "Why did people move? Why did these people look a little bit like those people? Why did they speak the same language or a different language? We want to place the genetic information in the context of history and anthropology."
Origins in Africa
The new data and analysis will be combined or at least compared with existing knowledge and theory, such as the fact that, whether we live in Lake Forest, Ill.; Washington, D.C.; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, or the South Seas, we all have a common ancestry dating back to Africa, where the earliest known remains of humans were found.
"That is very clear," Wells said. "That comes out of every genetic analysis that is done. We can trace ourselves back to Africa 60,000 years ago. So, 60,000 years ago, everybody alive is living in Africa."
But the second earliest example of human beings was found in Australia, from as far back as 55,000 B.C., when a lingering ice age connected Australia and New Guinea. So much sea water was drawn up into ice that humans could walk across land from Australia to New Guinea. At the same time, the nearby islands of what is now Indonesia were for the most part connected in a single land mass that joined the Asian mainland, again because of the low sea level.
"We need more data to really nail down the details of how they made this journey," Wells said.
The project, however, raises concerns among some experts who say the organizers may run into trouble obtaining cooperation from native people around the world.
In the late 1990s, opposition from indigenous groups who feared their genes would be exploited for profit helped doom a similar effort, called the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). The leader of that project, Stanford University geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, is chairman of an advisory board for the new effort and has been a mentor of Wells.
`A checkered history'
"This whole idea has a checkered history," said Lynn Jorde, a professor of human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "These kinds of studies are not as easy as just going out, saying `hello' to the natives and taking their DNA."
Many of the project's goals are worthwhile, Jorde said. Studies of genetic markers have contributed to knowledge of how people moved around the globe. For example, genetic studies support the idea that the Roma, also called Gypsies, originated around northern India.
"If it is done properly and with appropriate safeguards, this would be a wonderful addition to our library of human genetic variation," Jorde said.
Organizers of the new project say they have eliminated many of the problems that led to the downfall of the earlier one. The new study will not attempt to produce medical applications from rare genes--a potentially key point for ethnic groups that want to control any commercial use of their genes.
The new project's Web site (www.nationalgeographic.com/genographic) specifically addresses the failure of the earlier diversity project.
"Fourteen years ago when the HGDP was first discussed, the language of DNA and genetic anthropology was foreign to all but a few scientists," the site says. "Today that language is more familiar to many of us, and many of the ethical and privacy issues are more clearly understood by the global community."
Yet other old concerns have not gone away, experts said. Some native groups fear that new findings about migration patterns and ancestry could spur legal challenges to their historical claims to their lands, said Morris Foster, a medical anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma. He said it's unclear whether the privately run effort would offer the same ethical protections that academic research would, such as an independent institutional review board.
"I don't anticipate that many native people will contribute to this project," Foster said.
In Spencer Wells the project found a leader whose talent for self-promotion has left some geneticists and anthropologists unimpressed. Wells, 34, is perhaps best known for hosting a public television mini-series, "The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey."
"He's quite a showman," Jorde said.
To gather research data, the project is establishing field centers in the U.S., Britain, South Africa, India, Australia, France, Lebanon and Brazil.
Field work is `core'
Wells said, "The core will be the field work they'll be doing with indigenous populations, that is, populations that have lived in place for a long period of time, for generations, or perhaps dozens or hundreds of generations, that are in some way unique and contain the context in which genetic diversity arose. They give us a first glimpse of the migratory paths of our ancestors."
Volunteers from all parts of the world also are being sought because their stories and DNA samples are needed for comparison with the historic ones to complete the picture.
Though the project will bear the cost of the research into indigenous peoples, other participants will have to reach into their own pockets. For $99.95, the project will provide those interested with a Genographic Public Participation Kit, which includes instructions on how to obtain a good DNA sample with the kit's cheek scraper and information on what happens afterward.
Scientists are able to track back through populations genetically because every so often over generations small changes or mutations occur in the DNA that mark those who came before and those who came after.
"When they're passed down through generations, they mark a line of descent because they occur so rarely," Wells said. "If you share a marker with someone, you share an ancestor in the past. It's by looking at the pattern of these variances . . . that we can trace people around the world."