“I’m part Neanderthal,” Rachel Bruton, a member of National Geographic’s Explorer Programs team, told Medical Daily. “I consider it bragging rights.” Well, hello to you, too, and welcome to the New York City Student Ancestry Project! The event took place last evening in the American Museum of Natural History, where nearly 200 college students milled around the grand gallery, waiting to submit a DNA cheek swab in order to participate in a human population genetics project. Their excited voices resonated within the stone and marble hall, while steps away in the Hall of Human Origins, random bones from Australopithecus and Peking Man lay enclosed in glass.
“I thought it would be a great idea to bring students together to learn how to analyze data,” said Dr. Michael Hickerson, assistant professor of biology at City University of New York. Having won a five-year research grant from the National Science Foundation, he decided to use some of the funding for this project. “I have a research lab and we do community level population genomics of many species, though not humans. So this is a side project to really get people to understand how to analyze and understand genomic information … by using their own data.”
To accomplish this student outreach project, he teamed up with National Geographic’s Genographic Project, a research initiative led by Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist. Launched in 2005, the project includes data collected from more than 653,000 participants in 130 countries and is open to the general public. (Yes, you can participate.) Using advanced genetic and computational technologies, Wells and his team of scientists are analyzing DNA from participants worldwide and learning about their deep ancestry to better understand shared human roots.
"We're in the genomics revolution right now and population data is moving from academia to the mainstream, so what we’re doing, in essence, is explaining the patterns of human diversity found around the world,” said Wells, who is also National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence — a somewhat contradictory term, he wryly noted. “We’re diverse genetically and culturally so how do we explain both our similarities and our differences? And how did we come to occupy every corner of this globe?” In short, the search is for answers to the most basic questions that have echoed throughout the ages as well as in the halls of the museum where students, including Ximena Morocho, a psychology major at City College of New York, patientily waited their turn in the grandiose museum gallery.
Morocho, who is curious about the similarities and differences among the people she sees every day, participated in the project in order to learn more about the wider human family, yet also her own family as well. “My parents are from Ecuador, South America,” she told Medical Daily. “I don’t know much about Ecuador and my parents. ...Well, my dad doesn’t know much about his family, because he was an orphan at the age of 3, and on my mom’s side, there’s not much information either.” Though eager to begin the swabbing process, she calmly surveyed the other students milling around and filling out confidentiality forms.
Asked what each student should expect, Hickerson said, “The genetic data will not say anything of medical relevance.” The DNA swabs submitted by each participant will only be analyzed in such a way to provide anthropological inferences. In fact, the project has recently entered a new phase since its original launch, and is now referred to as Geno 2.0 by Wells, who tinkered with the original DNA test based on what was learned during Phase I.
Basically, there is no one way to run a DNA test. A complete analysis of each participant’s entire genome — the genetic information encoded as DNA sequences within the 23 chromosome pairs — would be too expensive and too time-consuming a process. (According to Wells, if you stacked up all the genetic information within one of your single cells it would stand more than 6 feet tall.) In the case of Geno 2.0, the geneticists will only search for and identify some genetic markers contained on each DNA swab. That said, the laboratory technicians will examine more than 3,000 genetic markers on each person’s mitochondrial DNA (passed down from mother to each child), and in the case of men, more than 10,000 markers found on their Y chromosome (passed down only from father to son). The laboratory will also analyze more than 130,000 other markers from across the entire genome to offer insights into ancestors who are not on a direct maternal or paternal line and to provide a view of the overall regional affiliations for each participant.
But what is a genetic marker? It is a chain of DNA code that occupies a known location on each chromosome and allows geneticists to trace our common evolutionary time line back many generations. According to Wells, blocks of mutated code are passed on from person to person and different populations carry distinct genetic markers. Following the markers through the generations reveals a genetic tree. For instance, it has already been learned that no matter where each of us live today, we all originated in Africa and even share a common African ancestor, who lived only 140,000 years ago.
So, though participants may be hungry to learn about their possible medical conditions or specific questions about their genealogy, the results from each DNA swab will reveal only the anthropological story of their more distant past — the long and possibly complicated journey traveled by their ancestors out of Africa to points beyond. “We expect to find something comparable to worldwide genetic diversity here in New York,” Hickerson said, noting that some students may still be in for a shock or two.
“The most surprising results that people will find is that their genome contains remnants of Neanderthal or Denisovans, two so-called non-human species,” he stated before further explaining that the Denisovan species is “…sister to Neanderthal and thought to be distributed in East Asia while Neanderthal is thought to be distributed in Western Eurasia.” Some of us have ancestral ties to one or both suggesting, according to recent scientific evidence, humans have more than rubbed elbows with these two species. Bragging rights, for sure!