Testing Blood to Track History
By Stephen Leahy
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,67250,00.html
02:00 AM Apr. 19, 2005 PT
An ambitious and controversial genetics project that uses blood
to trace the migration patterns of ancient humans faces a possible
boycott as it launches this week.
The Genographic Project will collect 100,000 blood samples from
indigenous populations and analyze their DNA. Through this project,
researchers hope to answer questions about where the aborigines
of Australia came from, or whether it's true that Alexander the
Great fathered the blue-eyed blonds who have been in Afghanistan
for more than 2,000 years.
But collecting the blood may not be so easy. Burned by earlier
for-profit DNA collectors who patented indigenous people's genes,
a small but influential organization, the Indigenous Peoples Council
on Biocolonialism, has asked indigenous people to boycott the
project and its sponsors.
"We're not in the blood-selling business," said Debra
Harry, the group's executive director. "We don't need this
speculative information -- we already know where we come from."
The Genographic Project is the brainchild of the National Geographic
Society and features IBM as its key partner in building the world's
largest and most sophisticated human DNA database. The program
will cost at least $40 million over five years and includes support
from the Waitt Family Foundation of San Diego (which was founded
by Gateway founder and chairman Ted Waitt).
The first humans are believed to have left their birthplace in
northeastern Africa and spread across the globe between 50,000
and 60,000 years ago. Using DNA samples from indigenous peoples,
researchers believe they can trace the various routes these early
people traveled to reach the four corners of the Earth.
The key to this genetic archeology is that some components of
our DNA change very little from generation to generation. Each
parent contributes half of a child's DNA, which combines with
the other parent's DNA to form a new genetic combination. This
gives each of us a unique set of attributes: hair, eye and skin
color; our athleticism or lack of it; and so on.
But not everything genetic goes into the mix. All males have
Y chromosomes as part of their DNA, and these are passed from
father to son unchanged for generations, except for random mutations.
In a similar fashion, both sons and daughters inherit mitochondrial
DNA, which also does not change from generation to generation,
directly from their mothers.The naturally occurring random mutations
in DNA provide unique markers that geneticists use to trace the
DNA back to the point at which a particular mutation first occurred.
If it tracks back to a particular region, then the genetic lineage
with those unique markers can be used to track prehistoric migration
Time is running out, however, because more and more indigenous
people are leaving their ancestral villages and heading into the
great genetic mixers called cities.
"It's a large and technically challenging project, but nothing
IBM hasn't done before," said Saharon Rosset from IBM Research.
IBM will create a secure, scaleable database that will store the
data centrally, and will provide sophisticated online collaboration
The results and data will be made public through the National
Geographic and Genographic websites so that both indigenous people
and the general public can follow and participate in the project,
Rosset said. "While the data will be public, privacy will
The project is making extensive efforts to obtain informed consent
from indigenous people, as well as establishing a legacy fund
so native communities can benefit from the project, he said.
Harry, of the Indigenous Peoples Council, is irked by the considerable
references to how the Genographic Project will help indigenous
peoples. "I can think of better ways to help us," she
said. She doesn't think informed consent is possible with some
of the very vulnerable native communities who likely won't understand
the ramifications or implications of the project.
The whole project is fraught with ethical issues, said Harry.
Similar issues killed a similar venture, the Human Genome Diversity
Project, 10 years ago.
"What's to stop some company from taking information from
the Genographic database and using it for commercial purposes
without compensation to the original donors?" she asked.
This a historical and geographic project, Rosset said. "We're
not looking for genetic markers of medical interest. There is
no medical research going on here.
"I think many people around the world are very curious about
their story, their people's story and our story as a human family,"