January 25, 2007
CHICAGO (AP) - Sixteen-year-old Diamond Howard is learning about world history, anthropology, sociology and biology using a one-of-a-kind tool: her own DNA.
By contributing cells scraped from the inside of her cheek to the Genographic Project, the Chicago 10th-grader is adding her genetic code to a database that traces human migration back 60,000 years to Africa.
Diamond, who is black, knows that some of her family came from Alabama, but her parents don't know much more about her family tree. She's curious whether some of her family might have traveled from Africa to the Middle East or other areas of the earth before coming to the United States.
"It's great how science has evolved, it's a privilege to be linked back and prove we're not different, we're the same," she said. "We (classmates) might learn we're related, too, and not just friends."
Chicago is the first public school district in the United States to partner with Genographic organizers to collect samples, officials said at a news conference Tuesday.
"When their results are ready, each student will discover how his or her ancestors journeyed from the cradle of humankind in Africa to populate the world," said Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist and director of the project, which has collected more than 200,000 DNA samples in less than two years.
About 1,000 students from five Chicago high schools and their sister-city schools in England, Jordan, France, South Africa and China will add samples to the nonprofit project.
DNA contributions are voluntary, kids need parental consent and results are anonymous and only accessible through a personal pin number, officials said. If the student and parents agree, results will also be included in the Genographic database.
The tests, which involve "glorified Q-tips" rubbed against each side of the mouth, are painless, Wells said. The Genographic Project has sold more than 185,000 swab kits to the general public, at a cost of $99.95 per kit, plus shipping and handling.
Part of the fee goes to the Genographic Legacy Project, which supports cultural preservation programs among indigenous populations.
After about two months, students can log into a Web site, enter their personal code and see their "genetic journey" - details about the migratory routes of their early ancestors based on clues in their DNA.
For example, scientists know certain DNA markers are exclusive to indigenous populations in the Middle East or Europe. If a person's DNA contains those markers, someone in their family came from that area.
Results can't be used for medical or criminal analysis, officials said.
Parents "hear DNA, all they think about is 'CSI.' It's not like that at all," said Brian McKay, who teaches European history at the Charles A. Prosser Career Academy and scraped his own cheeks for cells on Tuesday. "Our kids are going to get a lot out of this. (Students) are very positive, they're very excited."
The partnership didn't begin with a scientist or geneticist, but with a cellist.
Performer Yo-Yo Ma became interested in the Genographic project after reading an article about it. He approached Genographic organizers after launching Silk Road Chicago, a yearlong celebration of world cultures symbolized by the ancient Silk Road that connected East Asia and Europe.
"I wish I'd had this at school," Ma said Tuesday.
Diamond's school, Prosser Academy, and four other Chicago schools were chosen based on their involvement in the Sister School Abroad Program and on the diversity of the student population, officials said.
"Chicago is a melting pot, a multicultural melting pot, it's a great place to illustrate how interrelated we are," Wells said.
If Chicago's experiment is successful, it could expand to other schools, Wells said.
"It's certainly something we would be open to," he said.
The $40 million Genographic Project is sponsored by the National Geographic Society and IBM, and field research is funded in part by the La Jolla, Calif.-based Waitt Family Foundation.
How it works
Here is what happens to the DNA once it's swabbed:
After conducting the cheek scrape, participants mail their anonymous DNA sample to Family Tree DNA, a genetic genealogy company.
Family Tree DNA works with the University of Arizona Research Laboratories to process and analyze the samples.
Participants can add their results to the main Genographic database.
After about eight weeks, participants can go online (at http://www.nationalgeograph
ic.com/genographic) and access their own personalized history using a code.
Over the course of the five-year project, participants can return to the Web site to see if their history has been updated.
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