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From the Chicago Tribune
Your ancestry might surprise you
Global DNA study aims to trace links of distant
people, unravel migration
By Michael Kilian and Jeremy Manier, Tribune staff
reporters. Tribune national correspondent Michael
Kilian reported from Washington, with staff reporter
Jeremy Manier in Chicago
April 14, 2005
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
addresses the failure of the earlier diversity
"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
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."