Genographic Project stirs controversy
National Geographic’s Genographic Project: Whose Blood, Whose History, Whose Gain?
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 9, 2005
On April 13, 2005, the National Geographic Society and IBM announced the launch of the Genographic Project: Tracing Human Roots to a Single Origin, a controversial genetic research initiative that aims to reveal the intimate details of human migratory history. Data from the project will provide a map of world population patterns, originating from Africa and dating back 150,000 years. With funding from the Waitt Family Foundation, field scientists expect to gather close to 100,000 DNA samples from 11 isolated native populations on six continents. Experts in ten regional research centers in Australia, Brazil, China, France, India, Lebanon, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States will coordinate voluntary collection of genetic material. With the samples in hand, scientists for IBM’s Computational Biology Center will use advanced analytical technologies and data-sorting techniques to interpret the samples and to discover new patterns and connections within the data they contain. IBM is also providing the core computational knowledge, biology and technical infrastructure that will manage the hundreds of thousands of genotype codes being analyzed by the Genographic Project.
The collaboration between National Geographic and IBM will be a five-year partnership and include samples of genetic materials from both indigenous peoples as well as the general public. Dr. Spencer Wells, scientific director for the $40 million project, is a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence and a population geneticist by training. Along with a consortium of scientists from prominent international institutions conducting field and laboratory research, he will be collecting genetic samples, analyzing results and reporting on the genetic roots of modern humans. The project is expected to reveal rich details about human migration patterns and trajectories and stimulate understanding about humanity’s connections and differences. Upon the project’s completion, the resultant database will house one of the largest collections of human population genetic information ever assembled, serving as an unprecedented resource for anthropologists, geneticists and historians.
Kaiapo man in the Brazilian Amazon
Photo by Sue Wren
There are three core components to the Genographic Project: Field Research, Public Participation and Awareness Campaign and the Genographic Legacy Project. Field Research will be overseen by Dr. Wells, who believes the application of genetic anthropology will help to fill in the gaps of knowledge regarding ancient human migration. DNA from indigenous populations contains key genetic markers that have remained unaltered for hundreds of generations. Reliable indicators of shared lineage, these markers can be used to trace the movement of humans across the globe. The motivation for the project to begin now is the imminent threat of loss of critical information, as people are increasingly migrating and mixing to a much greater extent than they have in the past.
The Public Participation and Awareness Campaign actively involves the general public. Individuals may participate in the research effort by purchasing Genographic Project kits for $100 through the National Geographic website. DNA material is collected through the submittal of cheek swab samples and personal results will be included anonymously in the genetic database, ensuring participant privacy. National Geographic is amplifying the interactive element by giving participants the opportunity to follow the progress of their own migratory history and the global research process through their website, providing regular updates on project findings. Public participation may be restricted in countries where the export of genetic materials requires government approval, such as China and India, but the project will work with relevant local authorities to achieve the widest level of participation possible. Proceeds from the kits will aid in funding future field research and the Genographic Legacy Project, that will expand National Geographic’s focus on world cultures. The legacy project will support educational and cultural preservation programs among participating indigenous groups. continued…