A Genetic Christmas Story

Technology Review
December 27, 2005

Beyond a novel new way to track down your family history, home DNA tests may help unlock the history of humans.

By Emily Singer

? ? Some people may have received an unusual gift this holiday season: an ancestry testing kit that uses a small swab of DNA to shed light on near and ancient family history. It sounds, at first, like a novelty item. But the kit may provide long-term assistance to scientists who are hoping to track the history of the human race.
? ? In one project, spearheaded by National Geographic Society and IBM, participants buy a kit for $99.95, scrape some skin cells from the inside of their cheek, and send the samples in for analysis. Once the DNA is processed, participants learn their haplogroup -- the specific branch on the tree of early human migrations and genetic evolution that their maternal or paternal ancestors belong to. They'll also get a map of the migration routes of those deep ancestors.
? ? Other companies sell kits to test more recent family history. "It?s a novelty educational gift -- you learn some history about Homo sapiens and maybe some genealogical information," says Bennett Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA, a DNA genealogy testing company based in Houston, TX, which partners with National Geographic. ?Sales figures as holiday gifts are through the roof."
? ? The National Geographic kit is just one part of a large-scale research effort, called the Genographic Project, to trace the migratory history of the human species. Scientists will study DNA markers in both indigenous populations across the world and in public participants who want to learn more about their own origins.
? ? IBM is building a large database to house data from both the public participation and indigenous populations under study in the project. ?As more people participate, we can compare the sequences we obtain in a greater degree of detail and identify smaller sub-branches on the tree," says Ajay Royyuru, the IBM scientist who heads the research component of the project. IBM and National Geographic plan to release the scientific findings to the public over the next five years.

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