On Sunday 13th December I was privileged to attend a lecture by Dr Spencer Wells at the National Geographic Store in London. Spencer Wells is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and the Director of the Genographic Project, an exciting five-year scientific research programme which is attempting to compile the evolutionary human family tree by collecting DNA samples from around the world. The historical information in our DNA can also tell us about the migratory journeys of our ancient ancestors who left Africa some 60,000 years ago. This brief video provides an introduction to the Project.
The Genographic Project was launched in April 2005. To date over 60,000 DNA samples have been collected from indigenous populations around the world. The general public are also encouraged to take part in the project by purchasing a public participation kit. The response has been overwhelming, and has exceeded all expectations. Over 10,000 kits were sold on the very first day! Today over 330,000 public participation kits have been sold in 130 different countries. The research team have only just started to mine the data from the public kits, and scientific papers are promised in due course. All the data from the project will eventually be made public.
The Legacy Fund is an important component of the project. Proceeds from the sales of the kits are used to fund further field research and to support indigenous conservation and revitalisation projects. Dr Wells showed us some examples of the type of projects supported. In Sierra Leone funds have been used to document the oral poetry of the indigenous population. In South America work is under way to catalogue the native plants and their traditional uses. In Australia work is being done to record and archive traditional music.
Dr Wells gave us a fascinating insight into the difficulties of collecting samples from some of the more remote countries in the world. Many of the countries visited have been off limits to outside researchers for a long time because of civil war or rebel activity. He found Chad in central Africa to be a particularly interesting place to visit. The country is known as the crossroads of Africa as it occupies a strategic position in the centre of the continent. The north of the country is largely desert whereas the south is a more fertile savanna zone. Dr Wells travelled across the Sahara in temperatures of 136 degrees Fahrenheit to collect samples from the remote tribes. Wherever possible blood samples are taken from indigenous peoples because more DNA can be extracted from blood, and it is not known if an opportunity will ever arise again to visit these remote places. For the public participation programme a simple cheek swab is required. For the most part the local population are thrilled to participate in the research and are fascinated to learn more about their history through their DNA. There have however been problems in countries which were once under colonial rule, especially where land rights are involved, and the project is working closely with Native Americans and Aborigines to increase their participation.
At the end of the lecture there was a very lively question and answer session, and it was clear from the questions that the subject had inspired the public interest. Dr Wells was available after the talk to sign copies of his book Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. He also told us that he has a new book due out in June 2010 entitled Pandora's Seed: the Unforeseen Cost of Civilisation which will focus on society and culture rather than genetics. Dr Wells is now starting to work on The Genographic Source Book, a huge compendium of all the data generated from the project, which is scheduled to be published in 2011.Further information can be found on the Genographic Project website. Public participation kits can be purchased in the UK from the National Geographic online store for £68.94 plus £4.95 for postage and packing. Kits are also on sale at the National Geographic Shop at 83-97 Regent Street, London, W1B 4E1, but are much more expensive at £99 (the same price in sterling as the retail price in dollars in the US!). Not surprisingly, therefore, very few of the people attending the lecture actually bought a kit on the day. If you are interested in purchasing a kit I would therefore recommend ordering direct from the National Geographic online store. Outside the UK, kits can be ordered direct from the Genographic Project website in America. The shipping costs are however very expensive for anyone not living in the US or Canada. For many people it will be more economical to test first through a surname or geographical project at Family Tree DNA and then transfer their results to the Genographic Project. To do so visit your FTDNA personal page, click on the Genographic Project link under Tools and follow the instructions. You will be asked to agree to the Project's consent terms, and there is a nominal fee of US $15 per test. Proceeds from this fee will be directed to the Legacy Project. For those people who test first with the Genographic Project I would recommend transferring your results to the Family Tree DNA database, where you can join the relevant surname, geographical and haplogroup projects, and order upgrades and further tests as required.
The Genographic Project will test either your mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child and reveals your direct maternal ancestry; or your Y chromosome (males only), which is passed down from father to son and reveals your direct paternal ancestry. I've already had my own mitochondrial DNA tested through Family Tree DNA, and have added my results to the Genographic Project database. I shall follow the progress of the project with interest and shall look forward to reading the research papers as they are published.