Out of Africa: Story of humanity decoded from DNA

Who are we? Where do we come from? What links all humanity?

Social critics say technology removes meaning from human lives, but there is a project underway that will answer many of these eternal questions.

Dubbed the Genographic Project, the five-year partnership between the Washington-based National Geographic Society and Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM is tracing the migratory history of the human species by deciphering the markers buried in our DNA.

Launched in 2005, the project uses IBM’s supercomputers and data-crunching prowess to sift through tens of thousands of DNA samples provided by volunteers globally.

Ajay Royyuru, lead scientist for the project at the Computational Biology Center at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, provided an overview in the keynote session of the LinuxWorld and NetworkWorld conference under way this week in Toronto.

Researchers are able to trace a person’s lineage back thousands of years beyond recorded history by identifying and then aggregating tell-tale genetic markers common in different populations. Comparisons of genetic markers shared with indigenous populations – people who have been rooted in a geographic location for a long time, such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines – allow researchers to tease out the migratory paths of ancestors who left their ancient lands. Correlations are also made with linguistic patterns in populations.

Indigenous groups play a crucial role in deciphering these paths. “They are the anchors that allow us to connect DNA markers to other populations,” said Royyuru.

About 2000 anonymized DNA samples from these groups have been voluntarily contributed to the project. Ethical oversight of the project is provided by the University of Pennsylvania.

These samples are being compared with DNA voluntarily donated from people around the world. Researchers have been overwhelmed and delighted by the response. About 137,000 DNA samples were collected in the first year alone – far exceeding the initial expectation of 100,000 over the course of the five-year project. Projections have been revised to 500,000 participants by the project’s end in 2010.

“People are intensely curious to learn about their common ancestry, and we’ve collected the largest number of samples of human DNA in the world,” said Royyuru. The project is totally data-driven, he said, and the more people participate, the more answers can be derived from the information. “If we do it right, we will only need to do this once,” he said.

For a $99 fee, volunteers who wish to participate can logon to the Genographic Project’s Web site and request a kit that provides cheek swabs for DNA collection and mail-out, and an anonymous ID. Participants can check their results in about six weeks with their secure ID. Results will show the migratory path taken by a person’s distant ancestors on a map, based on their genetic markers.

Royyuru showed his own genographic map to illustrate his ancestors’ path from Africa to India over the course of thousands of years. “People may say, hey, we can tell you’re Indian just from looking at you – what’s the big deal,” joked Royyuru. The point, he explained, is to identify which migration from Africa, as there have been multiple migrations, some with twists and turns in surprising places.

And to lay to rest some fringe anthropological theories. Chinese researchers, for example, have theorized that Asian populations evolved separately from African hominids, based on some controversial fossil evidence. But the DNA markers tell a different story – and this evidence is conclusive. “All humanity originated in Africa,” said Royyuru. “We are all one family.”

About 25 per cent of the proceeds of participants’ $99 fee will be funneled into development work with indigenous people to provide basic necessities such as education and drinking water. The rest goes towards funding the Genographic Project’s data collection and field research at ten regional centres. Participants’ fees don’t fund the actual analysis of the data, which is provided by IBM pro bono, said Royyuru.

IBM is involved in the Genographic Project to demonstrate that innovation matters to the world, he said. Information-based medicine will be a key area in the future, and involvement in the project allows IBM to challenge itself to demonstrate its inventive capabilities in this promising area. “The life sciences are driving IT, and our goal is to develop tools and applications in this space.” he said.

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