Tracing Humanity's Genetic Roots

The Genographic Project, a National Geographic Society-IBM alliance, is the first to map our ancestors' migration, using cells the public submits

By Steve Hamm

Nick D'Onofrio has always been proud of his Italian heritage. The IBM (IBM ) senior vice-president of technology is a second-generation American, and his grandparents came from the boot south of Rome. So he was shocked when he learned in February that his ancestry stretched back to the Middle East's Fertile Crescent. "Nobody was more flabbergasted than me at the news," says D'Onofrio. "I said, 'What? I'm Italian!'"

D'Onofrio was a guinea pig in a first-ever effort to trace the migration of humans out of Africa and all over the world. The so-called Genographic Project is a five-year alliance between the National Geographic Society and IBM. D'Onofrio's past was revealed to him very publicly at his company's annual senior leadership meeting in Florida by Spencer Wells, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.


  Now everybody else has a chance to trace their roots -- and perhaps get a surprise like D'Onofrio's. Using a kit that can be purchased for $99.95, plus shipping and handling, online, you collect a sample of cells scraped from the inside of your mouth and send it in. You may then view the results of the analysis later on the Web site.

As more people send in their specimens, an ever-richer picture of our collective past will come to light. Those who check back regularly over the years will get an increasingly detailed map of their genetic roots.

The project emerged out of Wells' work as a real-life Indiana Jones. The anthropologist and geneticist does plenty of research in remote locations. Even when he's back home, he dresses as if he's about to go trekking -- in flannel shirts, jeans, and field boots. He has spent much of the past decade tracing our common lineage back to an "Eve" who lived in Africa 80,000 years ago, and an "Adam" who lived there 20,000 years later. He published the story two years ago in the book Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, which was also made into a documentary movie.

Using gene-sequencing techniques that have only become available recently, Wells sketches out the major migrations through Europe and Asia, and then to the Americas. Now, if millions of people provide genetic samples, the details can be filled in -- and made available for all to see. "We're creating a virtual museum of human history," says Wells. "It's a legacy for the human species."


  Wells approached IBM a year ago, drawn by its expertise in genetic research and computation. Big Blue's scientists are participating in the core research, its supercomputers are being harnessed to crunch the numbers, and IBM has built the Web site.

While the mass-participation aspect of the project will be fun and valuable, the most exciting piece for scientists is their study of indigenous groups. They're setting up 10 research sites around the world and hope to take 100,000 samples from groups such as the Basques in Europe and the bushmen of Africa's Kalahari Desert.

Because these people are relatively isolated and haven't intermarried extensively with other ethnic groups, the genetic markers are easier to trace. "Indigenous populations carry genotypic information that's better preserved and less mixed," says Ajay Royyuru, who heads the IBM research team involved in the project.


  All sorts of connections will come out of this. Royyuru can trace his roots back six generations in India. "Beyond that, it's total darkness. I have no idea where I came from," he says.

Before, D'Onofrio knew his grandfathers worked in Italy as a shoemaker and a truck driver. Now, he's aware of the Middle Eastern connection. He also knows that people with his genetic pattern swung through India at one point in prehistory. This raises the intriguing possibility that D'Onofrio and Royyuru are distant cousins.

If you go back far enough, we're all related. Bringing that fact home in a fractious world may be the most valuable lesson the project can teach.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York

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