April 14, 2011

Ancestry Project Reveals Results

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At a panel on Thursday, the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Program released the results to the genetic lineages of 200 randomly selected undergraduates.Results from the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project, part of the first university partnership with the National Geographic Society Genographic Project, revealed Thursday that the genetic lineages of 200 randomly selected undergraduates is more diverse than those from Queens, New York — arguably one of the most diverse places on earth.

The idea for the study, which began collecting DNA samples in February, came from the 2009 National Geographic Documentary “The Human Family Tree.” In the documentary, researchers tested the DNA of 200 random Queens, N.Y., residents in a single day on a single city block and found that the DNA represented all of humanity’s ancient migratory paths.

According to the Genographic Project, when humans left Africa about 60,000 years ago, they left genetic footprints that can now be explored by mapping the appearance and frequency of these genetic markers. Such a map traces the migration patterns that lead us to where we are today, said Prof. R. Spencer Wells, biological sciences and director of the National Geographic Society Genographic Project.

Results of the Cornell study reveal regional lineages of 57-percent European, 14-percent East Asian, 11-percent South Asian, 8-percent Middle Eastern, 5-percent Native American and 5-percent African ancestry within the sampling.

“The goal was to see if we can actually pick up most of the world’s major genetic lineages in one potentially interbreeding population. The results from Queens was ‘Yes, we could,’ and wanted to see if that was possible here at Cornell because Cornell is an incredibly diverse place,” Wells said.

Wells said that the results revealed Thursday confirmed his initial suspicions.

“I think it went fantastically well. We captured so much diversity. I was really impressed with the breadth of the genetic lineages that we found in this one random sample of 200 random people,” he said.

Both Mackenzie Malia ’13 and Emile Chang ’12 said the results of their genetic ancestries were so interesting that they would likely sequence their entire genome if they had the chance.

Driven by her interest in genetics and her own ancestry, Lisebeth Forbes ’13 participated in the study as well.  While Forbes was not surprised by her results, which indicated that her ancestors came out of Africa and settled in Europe, she was surprised by how similar humans’ ancestries are.

“It’s really cool to see how … people who look alike can be really different in their deep ancestry and people who don’t look a lot alike can be very similar in their deep ancestry,” Forbes said.

Andrew Seery ’11, who participated in the study, described it as a unique opportunity to uncover his ancestry.

“It shows us that we’re all connected, which is a big thing for human rights nowadays … It’s just really interesting to see the tracks of different people and how we all merge eventually into one specific area,” Seery said.

Some students, such as Dan Klein ’11, were surprised by the results.

Klein learned that although he is an Ashkenazi Jew, he is part of a Middle Eastern genetic lineage, known as J1c3d, that is common among Jewish as well as Adnani Arab tribes. This genetic lineage is also shared by Abraham, the founder of Judaism, along with his oldest son Ishmael, generally considered by the Koran to be the founder of the Arab tribes.

“It’s pretty exciting to hear that you belong to a historically important lineage like that,” Klein said.

Wells, the director of the project, elaborated on the possible religious significance of this work. He said that as researchers gather more information, they are able to confirm some of the stories heard from myths and religious texts.

The National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project is a multi-year research initiative involving Wells, a team of renowned international scientists and IBM researchers.

According to The Genographic Project website, in order to better understand humanity’s genetic roots, the project uses revolutionary genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world. By studying DNA markers and mutations, researchers can track ancient human migratory roots in order to construct a human family tree.  The deepest branches in the human family tree trace back to Africa, where the human species originated as recently as 60,000 years ago.

“It’s only in the last 2,000 generations that we have scattered to the wind to populate the entire planet in the process of generating these branches on the human family tree,” Wells said.

Prof. Charles “Chip” Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, director of Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics, said the Cornell results are not meant to be a direct comparison to the diversity statistics issued by the University or meant to specifically define someone. For example, the Cornell genetic sample, which shows 14 percent migratory lineages from East Asia, does not mean that 14 percent of Cornell is composed of East Asians.

Rather, he said, the data is a reflection of an individual’s deep ancestry.  The Cornell project only focused on the 2 percent of genetic makers limited to “deep” human ancestry, with no medical or clinical implications.

“I have this passion for trying to engage a broader audience of students in understanding genetics, and what better way to do that than to capture their interest with the idea of genetic ancestry. Everybody is sort of curious about their past ancestry,” Aquadro said.

Some members of the American Indian Program, such as Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, criticized the genographic program for overlooking important social and political issues related to race and ethnicity. Cheyfitz did not respond to a request to comment Thursday.

Original Author: Jamie Meyerson