January 30, 2011

Genetics Project to Map Students’ Ancestral Roots

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Correction appended.

Student volunteers will have their genetic ancestral history mapped from a cheek swab as part of the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project, which begins Tuesday.

CUGAP is led by Prof. Charles “Chip” Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, director of Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics and Visiting Prof. R. Spencer Wells, biological sciences and director of the National Geographic Society Genographic Project.

“The major motivation for [CUGAP] is educational,” Aquadro said. “The study of genetic variation … [of] humans has taken off in recent years with a lot of technology advances.”

Although this project only looks at volunteers’ “deep” ancestry over thousands of years, Aquadro said that he hopes it will raise awareness among the University community and the general public about the increasing importance of DNA testing and genetic information.

“Much like personal computers and cell phones, genetic testing is going to be part of the fabric of our lives within a few years,” Aquadro said. “There are many opportunities to enrich peoples’ lives, but with that, there are opportunities for people to be taken advantage of.”

Aquadro said these technological advances would allow researchers to “test peoples’ ancestry for their resistance” to disease, pathogens, their ability to metabolize certain drugs and their “potential risk factors for different diseases.”

However, Aquadro also warned about services that claim to evaluate one’s medical risks through DNA testing. Aquandro said some of these services make claims that are not scientifically sound, while others use statistical risk factors that the general public do not fully understand.

“If you go on the Internet and search for ‘genetic testing,’ there are a variety of companies that provide you — with several hundred dollars and a cheek swab — a profile that suggests risk factors for certain types of diseases,” Aquadro said. “It is important for our students to know what questions to ask and when to ask these questions, so they can get answers that are sound and make their own judgments.”

The project commences on Tuesday, paired with a lecture at 4:30 p.m. in David L. Call Auditorium, when volunteers will will get their inner cheeks swabbed for DNA samples. The samples will be sent to the Genographic Project’s lab and the results will be announced at an “ancestry revealing” event on April 14, the University said.

An email was sent to 4,000 randomly-selected undergraduates, all 1,400 biology majors, and a variety of professors and lecturers to pass down to their students in order to solicit volunteers for the project. As of 8:00 p.m. Sunday, 329 students have applied for the test, according to the organizers.

According to the University press release, 20 teachers from local schools were invited to participate in the project. Through their participation, CUGAP hopes to engage local students’ interest and awareness about the subject of genetic testing, the University said.

Correction: The title for an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that CUGAP was testing for volunteers’ resistance to certain genetic diseases. In fact, the project only tests for “deep” ancestral history and not for disease resistance. The Sun regrets this error.

Original Author: Andrew Hu