IBM joins project to reveal the secrets of mankind's migration

All in the DNA, you know

National Geographic has enlisted IBM to help it in a project that will chart the history of human migration through markers in DNA.

The project will span five continents, and will involve genetic samples being taken from over 100,000 people, at a cost of around $40m. The project's coordinators hope the research will reveal the fine detail in the story of humanity's migration from Africa, the BBC reports.

The researchers will be taking samples from indigenous populations - those whose ancestors predate later European colonisation. Their genes contain markers that are relatively unchanged, and provide a reasonably reliable indication of ancient migration patterns. Researchers will be sampling 10,000 people from 10 sites across the world.

Both mitochondrial DNA (passed, unchanged, from a mother to her children) and markers on the Y chromosome (passed from father to son) have been studied extensively in the past, but this is the first time scientists will have a really large sample to work on.

Most studies in the past have had samples of around 10,000 people. This has allowed scientists to establish that we have our roots in Africa, and that we migrated from the continent at some time in the last 60,000 years. However, the fine detail is still unclear, and there is very little information about what has happened in the last 10,000 years.

Team leader Dr Spencer Wells told the BBC that the project was the "moon shot" of anthropology. He added: "We see this as a resource for humanity going into the future. It could potentially become the largest genetic database ever created."

Wells goes on: "There are still many questions we haven't answered. Was there any interbreeding with Neanderthals as modern humans moved into Europe? Did any of the migrations to the Americas come across the Pacific - or even the Atlantic?"

As well as using samples from indigenous people, the researchers are inviting members of the public to participate. Anyone who wants to join in will be able to buy a test kit (a cheek swab) which they can send into the project's coordinators. Volunteers will be able to see their results four to six weeks later.

The total budget of the project will depend on sales of these kits, but any net proceeds will go back into other research, and into projects designed to support indigenous populations. The project's organisers also stress that there will be no patents filed as a result of the project, and that the contents of the genetic database will be publicly accessible. ®

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