March 9, 2010

Spencer Wells Explores Cornell

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Five years and over 400,000 samples later, Cornell’s most recent Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, Dr. Spencer Wells, enhanced the public’s view of genetic anthropology.  His work re-traces humanity’s migrations over the past 60,000 years.  This National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and director of the Genographic Project, expands public awareness of science through use of documentary films, books and public participation DNA kits.

Wells recently completed the first stage of the Genographic Project, collecting about 52,000 DNA samples from indigenous people across the world.    “Of course it is not exactly how I imagined it would be,” Wells said.  He cited the 350,000 members of the public that purchased kits online as one of the project’s greatest successes.

Among his largest challenges in sampling indigenous people is the resulting paperwork, regarding issues like land rights. Wells found that most indigenous people are excited by the project, and they have fewer questions than Americans, making it easier to explain the project to them. According to Wells, because they have a close connection with their ancestors, they appreciate the project.

“It tells us about, not only the people you can name in your genealogy, but also people long before that, way back in history and people half way around the world, and how you’re connected to me,” he explained.

Wells possesses respect for the cultures of the indigenous people he encountered, and admires their different ways of life. He described, “I feel this very strong sense of connection to these people; I feel that we owe it to them to give something back to them.”

He emphasizes the desire for westerners to appreciate these unique cultures across the world.

The proceeds of the public participation DNA kits are being contributed to the Legacy Fund, which gives out grants for cultural initiatives and language preservation efforts.  So far, the fund as distributed about $1.4 million to preserve cultural diversity.

“In some ways … it’s a little bit to some people like reading tea leaves, it’s like you’re telling something magical, mystical about their past using these crazy, twenty-first-century technologies in human genetics.”

There is an odd juxtaposition of old and new with the project, using high-tech, modern-day technology within the rich, indigenous landscape. The group uses DNA typing tools to answer historical and anthropological questions about the patterns of human diversity and migration.

“We’re at this amazing point in our study of genetics … where we cannot only look at what has happened to us in the past, but we can actually actively contemplate changing the direction we’re going in,” Wells said in his public lecture on March 2.

With new technologies, like those sequencing genomes in single days, geneticists like Wells can reexamine specific changes in the human lineage that made us modern, like the appearance of art.

What caused that?  What makes us different from the Neanderthals?  “These are very big questions, and potentially Nobel Prize-winning questions, and I think we now have the technology to address them,” said Wells.

Wells characterizes DNA as baggage that someone may carry along, picking up any genetic markers as souvenirs.

The Genographic Project uses y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, which are currently the most useful for tracing migratory roots.  The group hopes to branch out into other parts of the genome.

Wells gave a metaphor of identifying long blocks of identical DNA ­­– imagine if everybody wore a multicolored necklace made up of different colored beads.  Wells looks for a section of the necklace, or chromosome, that has become more frequent among wearers.

Wells obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University, gaining laboratory, academic and field experience.

Wells became dedicated to the study of genetic diversity while completing post-doctoral training at Stanford University under the tutelage of renowned geneticist, Dr. Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

In a lecture on March 4 in Hans Bethe House, Wells described the relationship between science and the media.  He used the documentary medium to explain his science to members of the general public, translating human stories to make the material relevant.

“What you have to do is make your science as compelling as possible,” expressed Wells. “I come at it as a practicing scientist, but also, as a storyteller in science.”

He briefly mentioned the “dumbing down” within the MTV world, where people absorb their material in tiny little bits. This affects his style of filmmaking.

Wells noted that film is a very personal medium, more so than a book.  Instead of talking to a room full of people in a lecture, connections with individuals are formed.  He can explain things in a very nuanced way, translating the science in his head into story form.

The transition from scientist to communicator, Wells noted, is a wonderful privilege, but requires responsibility.

Now that the first stage of Genographic Project is almost complete, Wells and his group are beginning to analyze all the data. The thing that continuously surprises him is how recently Homo sapiens left Africa. According to data, humanity was isolated to Africa until only about 65,000 years ago.  Wells still finds this to be the most amazing, revolutionary result.

Wells looks forward to analyzing the data, spending more time at Cornell, furthering the genetics program in the modern-day context and working on collaborative projects with Cornell students and faculty.

Original Author: Erin Szulman