Solving an Old Debate
Importantly, the genetic research has helped to resolve a 100-year-old debate in archaeological research: do cultures diffuse to people, or do people spread cultures? Dr. Wells and his colleagues used unprecedented numbers of individual genetic samples in their answer to this question, and today we know that, at least in this example from Central Europe, it wasn’t cultures moving among groups, but rather the major cultural changes appear to have come about when new people appeared on the scene, carrying novel genetic lineages. “With modern genetics we are able to see the past dynamics,” says Dr. Wells.
The project that has shed so much light on our human heritage was launched in 2005, a joint project of the National Geographic Society and IBM. In the time since, the Genographic Project has enrolled nearly 600,000 people who’ve paid for a public participation kit, and that’s in addition to the 70,000 indigenous people who have also been tested.
The kit itself enables Genographic researchers to process DNA extracted from a cheek swab that participants mail in. In 2005 there were only a few ancestry-informative genetic markers, but the new Geno 2.0 chip can now rapidly process 140,000 markers optimized for the study of ancestry. This includes mitochondrial information passed down from mother to daughter, Y-chromosome information passed down from father to son, plus information derived from the rest of the genome.
There are many exciting parts of this effort, but among the most exciting in his view is the new power of crowdsourcing. The citizen scientists who have joined the project by purchasing public participation test kits are providing the funding not only to continue the project, but also to help fund cultural preservation projects, including such things as languages and cultural patterns.
Dr. Wells is, of course, deeply pleased that after the startup funding, the current public participation model has enabled the project not only to be self-sustaining but it also is now helping fund additional basic research and on-going testing. He’s particularly proud of the fact that there are so many citizen scientists who are willing to support the effort and care about the research involved.
“They’re interested in their own ancestry, particularly what happened before the genealogy their families were able to tell them about,” he goes on to say, “More than 80% of the kits have been sold in the U.S., although 130 countries are represented. We’re a nation of immigrants and many Americans are trying to discover where their ancestors came from.”