18 April 2005
ByAppeared in BioNews 304
A new project launched by the National Geographic Society and computer firm IBM last week aims to trace the migratory history of human populations. The five-year study, entitled 'The Genographic Project', will establish ten research groups to look at 100,000 DNA samples from people around the world. Members of the public are invited to take part, by paying for a test kit and allowing their results to be included in the project database.
The $40 million (£21m) privately-funded study will look for genetic differences between human populations, data which will provide clues about ancient migratory patterns. However, a similar publicly-funded effort has faced funding difficulties, triggered by political, ethical and technical challenges. The Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), proposed in the early 1990s, faced criticism from indigenous groups worried about the commercial exploitation of their tissues and DNA. Hank Greely, a Stanford University law professor who helped promote the HGDP, told Science magazine that carrying out the project was 'much harder than we expected'.
The Genographic Project, in an effort to avoid similar setbacks, has pledged not to use its data for biomedical research. It will only store DNA samples from individuals, and not cell-lines as the HGDP does - a resource that makes the collection much more useful for research into human diseases. However, the HGDP has only around 1000 cell-lines, most of which had already been collected for previous studies. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the driving force behind the HGDP and now a member of the Genographic Project's advisory board, says the new study will be 1000 times more powerful than its predecessor. It will initially focus on looking at mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited solely via the maternal line, and Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed on from fathers to their sons.
Genographic project leader Spencer Wells describes the study as 'the moon shot' of anthropology, one which will be 'using genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of human history'. Members of the public are invited to take part, by purchasing a cheek-swab DNA test kit for $99.95 (£52) and following their own migratory history via the National Geographic Society's website. Ted Waitt, of the Waitt Family Foundation - which is helping to fund the project - said that 'the more we can improve our understanding of the common origin and journey of humankind, the greater the possibility for all of us to see each other as members of the same family'. Proceeds from the sale of the test kits will go towards a 'Genographic Legacy Project', which will 'support education and cultural preservation projects among participating indigenous groups'.