‘Genographic Project’ to Track Human Migration

The National Geographic Society and IBM today announced the Genographic Project to collect, analyze, and study 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous people from around the world to better understand the history of human migration.

“We see this as the ‘moon shot’ of anthropology,” said Spencer Wells, the project’s leader and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. “Our DNA carries a story that is shared by everyone. . . . We'll be deciphering that story, which is now in danger of being lost as people migrate and mix to a much greater extent than they have in the past."

The National Geographic Society notes that most of what is known about anthropological genetics is based on donated DNA samples of about 10,000 members of indigenous populations from around the world. The goal of this new project is to look at more than 10 times that number of samples over the next five years.

“National Geographic has been exploring and mapping the world for 117 years,” said John Fahey, president and CEO of The National Geographic Society. “Now, we are deploying state-of-the-art science and technology to map our journey across the planet.”

Fahey’s remarks were in a statement released this morning about the project. He added: “We hope this ambitious and important project will increase our understanding and appreciation of our shared history.”

The project’s goal is to create a global database of human genetic variation and associated anthropological data including such things as language and social customs.

To that end, the Genographic Project will establish 10 centers around the world to collect DNA blood samples from indigenous peoples.

The collected DNA samples will be analyzed for specific “markers of descent” to help researchers study historical human migration. The project aims to discover the details of how various indigenous groups migrated from Africa to their current locations.

Behind the Scenes
National Geographic’s technology partner in this project is IBM. IBM will host the Genographic Project public website, will develop the project’s database, and will provide computing and algorithm development services. “We saw this project as a grand challenge at the nexus of the life sciences and computing,” says Carol Kovac, industry general manager, IBM Life Sciences.

Additionally, IBM is providing funding for the project through its IBM Foundation. And researchers at IBM’s Computational Biology Center will work to help interpret the information derived from the samples. IBM is also helping with the promotional efforts associated with the project.

The field science and research part of the project is funded by the Waitt Family Foundation. The field research is where the DNA samples will be collected. The idea is to collect samples from indigenous populations whose DNA contains genetic markers that have not changed over hundreds of generations. These markers will be used to study migratory patterns.

The project also has a public participation aspect, too. Anyone interested in donating a sample and tracking their roots can buy a Participation Kit. Using the kit, a person performs a cheek swab and sends in the swab to the project’s collection center. Participants can then track the progress of the project and learn about their own migratory history.

Proceeds from the sale of the Participation Kits will help fund the Genographic Legacy Project, which will include future fieldwork and educational programs.

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