Genographic Project Director Spencer Wells, IBM Lead Scientist
Answer Questions about Project
The Genographic Project is a landmark, global effort to further
our understanding of the migratory history of our species. A research
partnership of National Geographic and IBM, the Genographic Project
will use cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to
discern historical patterns in the DNA of people from around the
world. Field research conducted by 10 institutions worldwide,
funded by the Waitt Family Foundation, is at the core of the five-year
Spencer Wells, Ph.D., Genographic Project director, and Ajay
Royyuru, Ph.D., chief IBM scientist for the Genographic Project,
discuss their hopes and expectations for the project.
1. Explain the importance to you of having these global organizations,
National Geographic and IBM, along with the Waitt Family Foundation,
as collaborators on the Genographic Project.
Spencer: National Geographic is one of those ‘golden brands,’
trusted and respected around the world. It is almost universally
admired as a research, education and media organization. As a
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, I have what is probably
the coolest job in the world.
IBM is the obvious partner for us as we launch the Genographic
Project — a world leader in information technology, creators
of the world’s most powerful computers and architects of
some of the world’s most important databases. We hope that
the Genographic Project will fall into the latter category as
it progresses. IBM’s research team is also committed to
undertaking groundbreaking new studies such as this, and I look
forward to working with them over the next five years.
The Waitt Family Foundation has given us the critical funding
we need to launch the field research, which is the core of the
project. They had the foresight and chutzpah to take a chance
on the project at an early stage in its development, and we are
deeply indebted to them.
Ajay: Innovation by its very nature is open and collaborative,
so this project gives us the chance to challenge ourselves to
attempt something together that none of us could do by ourselves
— certainly not something this innovative and on such a
scale. To be able to work in partnership with world-class leaders
in human population genetics, so that we can reveal a deeper understanding
of human diversity, is exhilarating.
2. Talk a bit about the consortium of scientists and researchers
you have assembled for the field testing. How did you go about
selecting them, and how will you coordinate and supervise their
Spencer: We assembled a team of top human population geneticists
from around the world — 10 principal investigators focusing
on indigenous peoples around the world, plus one focusing on ancient
DNA, from the USA, Brazil, UK, France, Lebanon, South Africa,
Russia, India, China and Australia. They are all experts in their
respective fields, very thoughtful scientists, and passionate
about the work they do. I’m lucky to be collaborating with
them – it’s like having the “dream team”
of human population genetics.
Coordination will be through direct contact, as well as semi-annual
written reports and an annual conference. We want to be as collaborative
as possible. Given the recent advances in information technology,
it is now possible to envision a global, decentralized effort
such as this that retains a significant amount of day-to-day interaction.
IBM will be helping us out with this, designing a dedicated online
chat room for all of the researchers. The overall goal of this
infrastructure is to allow the consortium as much freedom as possible
to set regional research agendas while maintaining the common
vision of the project and its goals.
3. How will you work with the field researchers and IBM scientists
to coordinate the input and analysis of the DNA information?
Spencer: I am now based at National Geographic headquarters in
Washington, DC. I’ll make regular trips to meet with the
IBM team, helping to guide the analyses. We’ll also have
a significant amount of input on this part from the scientists
at the regional centers. I will also try to get out in the field
as often as possible. I tend to get kind of “itchy”
if I’m trapped behind a desk for too long, and love working
with the local scientists and indigenous populations who will
form the core of the project.
Ajay: I will lead a core team of IBM scientists who will devote
most of their time to this project. As the project evolves, and
as needed, we will tap IBM’s vast resources of IT and Life
Sciences specialists for assistance. Spencer and I will work closely
together to supervise the input and analysis of field research
and public DNA samples. And, as someone who understands both the
computational and biological aspects of DNA research, I hope to
be able to provide valuable input and insights to the project.
4. What do you see as the primary possible outcomes of the Genographic
Spencer: There are three main outcomes I see from this project:
(A) Scientific. We will discover many new things about the history
of our species — origin, migration routes, and explanations
for the current patterns of diversity.
(B) Cultural. We will raise awareness about the issues facing
indigenous peoples around the world, and perhaps help to halt
the loss of indigenous cultural identities through the legacy
(C) Educational. With the public outreach we have planned, we
will educate the general public about genetics and anthropology.
Hopefully the idea that we all share common ancestors in our recent
past will help people to overcome some of the prejudices they
Ajay: Everyone involved — National Geographic, IBM, the
Waitt Foundation, the field investigators, and the public —
has a common goal: to better understand human diversity.
I also hope one of the outcomes will be a deeper appreciation
for the indigenous peoples of the world, through revelations borne
of the field research and the analyses that demonstrate just how
closely related we all really are.
From a scientific and technology point of view, I hope we can
build a statistical model for human variation and migration through
genotype and phenotype. The field research will validate or improve
this model. There are a host of questions, for example, that are
unique to each indigenous population — language, dialects,
appearance — we want to answer. What correlations will we
find? Can we trace how these particular characteristics are unique
to individual indigenous groups?
5. How does the Genographic Project differ from the Human Genome
Diversity Project (HGDP) proposed over 14 years ago?
Spencer: While the goals of the two projects overlap to some
extent, there are major differences in the clarity of our missions
and the way we are carrying out this project.
The Genographic Project is studying the human journey -- how we
are all related, and how we arrived at where we live today. There
is no medical research of any kind in The Genographic Project.
Also, we will not patent any genetic data resulting from the project.
The information belongs to the global community and will be released
into the public domain.
Ours is a true collaboration between indigenous populations and
scientists. Helping communicate their stories and promoting preservation
of their languages and cultures is integral. Before any field
work begins, we have been and will continue to seek advice and
counsel from leaders and members of indigenous communities about
their voluntary participation in the project.
In addition to answering questions of scientific interest to
indigenous populations and the general public, we feel it is imperative
to give something tangible back to the participating communities
through Genographic's legacy project, which will include educational
activities and cultural preservation projects. Proceeds from the
sale of the participation kits will help fund the legacy project.
The Genographic Project will actively involve the public; we
want everyone to understand the goals, methods and results.
Fourteen years ago when the HGDP was first discussed, the language
of DNA and genetic anthropology was foreign to all but a few scientists.
Today that language is more familiar to many of us, and many of
the ethical and privacy issues are more clearly understood by
the global community.6. What do you think your greatest challenges
will be over the course of the project?
Spencer: I suspect it will actually be the sampling logistics.
While the laboratory analyses are tedious and involved, great
strides have been made as a result of the Human Genome Project,
and with the division of labor among the 11 regional centers we
will be able to do the laboratory work quite efficiently in parallel.
Making contact with the populations we hope to sample, getting
the necessary government permissions, arranging the logistics
of the collections will all take a huge amount of work. This is
why we are going to be taking blood samples from the indigenous
groups — with all of the legwork involved in getting out
into the field, we want to sample as much genetic material as
possible when we get there.
Ajay: There will be many moving parts to this project. It is
multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary, vast in scope and scale, and
taking place over a five-year period. Our challenge as an investigative
team will be to stay organized and focused, and to be able to
appreciate incremental progress as it occurs.
7. Aside from the follow-up work conducted through the legacy
project, do you have any hope that the outcomes of the Genographic
Project might somehow slow the disappearance of indigenous populations?
Spencer: I hope so. Members of indigenous groups, like the rest
of us, move primarily for three reasons: lack of viable opportunities
at home, better opportunities elsewhere (be they economic, cultural
or familial), or forced resettlement. We hope that a combination
of direct educational aid, coupled with a cross-platform media
campaign aimed at raising global awareness about the issues faced
by indigenous peoples, will help us to slow these processes in
the cases where the people themselves want them to be slowed.
We’re not trying to trap anyone in a tourist time-warp —
only provide opportunities for people to live the way they’ve
8. You’ve talked about the puzzling theory that, after
Africa, the next place that modern humans can be found is in Australia
— yet no archeological evidence has been found along a land
route to support that. Do you think the Genographic Project will,
in some way, help substantiate that theory?
Spencer: I hope so, although there is already quite a bit of
data to substantiate it. The issue of the routes followed when
we left Africa — was there a single route along the coast
that later split, or were there two distinct routes — is
an important one. As with all of these questions about early dispersals,
it will help us to understand how and possibly why some populations
left Africa when they did.
9. To the person on the street, what do you think the most exciting
or relevant outcome might be?
Spencer: To understand his or her connection to people around
the world — that we are all linked to each other by a genetic
thread, and that our threads are interwoven through the migrations
of our ancestors. The results will reveal connections we probably
didn’t know about, and show us the routes early humans followed
to populate the globe. In this future-obsessed era, it’s
important to seize a snapshot of our past before it is lost forever,
in order to better understand ourselves and where we might be
Ajay: It will be fascinating to discover: Who am I? Most people
know their immediate recent genealogy, but beyond that, they have
no clue. This project will help people better understand how each
of them fits into this global puzzle, and where, along the way,
varying groups of people crossed paths and helped to populate