WASHINGTON – Researchers are aiming to learn more about how the Earth was populated by collecting and analyzing genetic samples from 100,000 people around the globe.
The five-year Genographic Project (search), being announced Wednesday, will use sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA to figure out the patterns in which people moved from one part of the world to another. It is sponsored by the National Geographic Society (search) and IBM (IBM).
"We're trying to figure out where we came from. It's a very simple human question," said Spencer Wells (search), the project's director and a population geneticist known for groundbreaking work in this field.
Researchers plan to collect blood samples from 10,000 indigenous people — those whose ancestors inhabited a land before Europeans or other outsiders arrived — at each of 10 sites around the world.
Because indigenous people trace their ancestors back to the same land over considerable time, their DNA contains "key genetic markers that have remained relatively unaltered over hundreds of generations," project scientists said. That makes their genetics reliable indicators of ancient migratory patterns.
Most of the work that's been done so far has been based on genetic data from about 10,000 people, Wells said. That has helped establish that people came from Africa within the last 60,000 years, but little is known about what migratory routes they followed off that continent or what happened over the last 10,000 years, he said.
Genetic fingerprints help establish the patterns, enabling scientists to trace variations in genes to their origins, he said.
For instance, scientists are not sure how the Americas were first populated, said Ajay Royyuru, the lead scientist for IBM. The first people may have come from Siberia and eastern Asia, or they may have been Europeans migrating over a frozen north Atlantic, he said.
"The goal of the project is to learn the journey that our ancestors traveled and hopefully answer the question of who we are and how we happened to be where we are," he said.
The project is also inviting participation from the general public, for a fee. People may buy a kit for $99.95 (plus shipping and handling) that will allow them to scrape the matter from the inside of their cheeks and send it in.
They will receive information about their own migratory history, and their data will be included in the master database. Participants will receive updates on the project and other materials as well.
All information in the master database will be anonymous and researchers promise to keep individual identities confidential.
Wells said he is not concerned that the database might be skewed with samples from people who can afford to pay nearly $100 to participate, saying even nonrandom data will help scientists understand migration patterns.
Part of the proceeds will help fund the Genographic Legacy Project (search), which will support education and cultural preservation efforts among participating indigenous groups.
Project organizers said the result will include scientific papers, educational programming and a public database that can serve as a resource for scientists and researchers.
Blood samples will be collected from indigenous people by researchers based at 10 sites around the world: Shanghai, China; Moscow; Tamil Nadu, India; Beirut, Lebanon; Philadelphia; Johannesburg, South Africa; Paris; Melbourne, Australia; Minas Gerais, Brazil; Cambridge, England.
The $40 million is being funded in part by the Waitt Family Foundation (search).