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The biggest family tree ever


Ever wondered where your family’s ancestors roamed 60,000 years ago?

Now you can find out by participating in the world’s most ambitious project tracing the genetic and migratory history of the human race. Members of the general public from all over the world can supply their DNA to the Genographic Project, and scientists at The University of Arizona in Tucson will do the genetic analysis. The public DNA sampling is part of a larger undertaking to unravel the origins and migratory history of mankind thousands of years back in time by analyzing genetic samples from at least 200,000 people all over the world.

National Geographic and IBM are embarking on the Genographic Project, a landmark, five-year global study of human migratory history. The project will reveal how our ancestors diversified into different groups and what routes they took as they spread out over the Earth.

One major aspect of the project is doing field research and collecting DNA samples from indigenous peoples throughout the world. The field component of the project is underwritten by the Waitt Family Foundation.

UA is participating in a different aspect of the project, analyzing samples submitted by the public. Individuals can become part of the project and learn about their own ancestors by buying a participation kit and submitting their DNA sample.

"As more people provide their genetic information to the project, researchers will be able to fill in the local details of how people migrated across the Earth," said Michael Cusanovich, director of UA’s Arizona Research Laboratories. Cusanovich added that this is the first time members of the general public can join a genetics project of this scale.

Michael F. Hammer, a research scientist at UA’s Arizona Research Laboratories and UA’s BIO5 Institute, will analyze the general public’s DNA samples. His team will trace people’s lineages using markers encoded into DNA. The DNA samples will be analyzed in UA’s Genomic Analysis and Technology Core (GATC), a facility providing genomic research services to public and private research institutions. GATC has the capacity to process up to 10,000 samples each month. The actual work load will depend on how many people join in the multi-national effort.

"For the first time people all around the world can learn about their genetic ancestry," said Hammer, a population geneticist. One of his specialties is deciphering prehistoric human relationships using genetics.

By comparing the genetic markers, the UA scientists’ work will unveil new aspects of people’s family trees, ones that are almost impossible to discover through traditional genealogical methods. In contrast to written historical records that can be lost or oral histories that can fall into disuse, the information stored in people’s genes persists.

Cusanovich had his own DNA analyzed, which helped him trace his family to a time "when the crusaders were rolling through the Middle East." Many people conduct genealogical research, said Cusanovich, a UA professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and a professor in BIO5. "If you ask around here, you find that every tenth person is building a little family tree at home. They go to all the records and they’re using Web sites to trace back their history."

The UA scientists will analyze a tiny fraction of the participants’ genetic material: the y-chromosome, which is passed on from father to son, and mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on from mothers to their sons and daughters. This enables the researchers to decipher the characteristic genetic markers of both parental lineages.

UA is collaborating in a joint venture with Family Tree DNA, a company specializing in tracing ancestry using genetics. The company has been contracted to process the samples in the Genographic Project. Hammer is a consultant for and holds stock in the company. UA will not generate profits from the project.

People who wish to participate in the Genographic Project can buy a kit at $99.95 (plus shipping and handling) from National Geographic. The kit contains a swab to collect cells from the inside of the mouth and a tube to ship the sample to Family Tree DNA. The company then registers the sample and sends it to The University of Arizona for analysis. All samples are analyzed anonymously to protect individuals’ privacy, and the information will be used only for the project. Participants can obtain their personal results on a Web site.

Participants who want to find out about a whole new set of relatives can do so by disclosing their names to Family Tree DNA and then plan their biggest family reunion ever.

Daniel Stolte | EurekAlert!
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