The first half of my birthday present arrived yesterday, even though it’s not my birthday till February. But that’s OK, because by then the second half of the present should be ready. What I received was a small package, about the size of a video mailer, containing a DVD, a couple of leaflets and a couple of buccal swab kits to take a DNA sample from the inside of my mouth.
It may seem a bit odd, but I’m very excited, and it was just what I wanted. In a couple of months I should know where my family came from. Not London, England, as I already know that, but where our ancestors originated. This kit is part of the Genographic Project:
a five-year effort to understand the human journey — where we came from and how we got to where we live today. This unprecedented effort will map humanity’s genetic journey through the ages.
I watched the DVD today, and it was fascinating. It showed geneticist Spencer Wells travelling the globe to take DNA samples from people in some extraordinarily remote places so he could link how humanity travelled from our origins in Africa to wherever we are today. it was a fine detective story, and showed how he had to draw in expertise from many fields, such as linguistics and archaeology to not only find the right people to contribute their DNA but to tease out how the one group was related to others.
When DNA is passed from one generation to the next, most of it is recombined by the processes that give each of us our individuality.
But some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations which become “genetic markers.” These markers allow geneticists like Spencer Wells to trace our common evolutionary timeline back through the ages.
I must confess that even after reviewing the literature and the DVD I’m still more than a little hazy on the technical details of genetics, but I can see that it all fits. It was also extremely interesting watching Dr Wells explaining the genetic concepts to African bushmen. If the intricacies of genetics research are tricky for a western educated person to follow (Y chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA) then how does one explain it to the bushmen? Dr Wells drew an analogy with the twigs, leaves and branches of a tree.
In a shrinking world, mixing populations are scrambling genetic signals. The key to this puzzle is acquiring genetic samples from the world’s remaining indigenous peoples whose ethnic and genetic identities are isolated.
… But we don’t just need genetic information from Inuit and San Bushmen — we need yours as well. If you choose to participate and add your data to the global research database, you’ll help to delineate our common genetic tree, giving detailed shape to its many twigs and branches.
I’m excited about making my contribution to the story, even if I’m not a member of some remote tribe.