You from around here?

April 25, 2005

IN THIS NATION peopled by those who could best describe their pedigree as "mutt," the latest genetic detective project is guaranteed to spark some eager curiosity. Who wouldn't want to know which paths their far-far-far-forefathers took to get here?

Aiming to fill in the branches on humanity's family tree, the National Geographic Society announced this month its Genographic Project. By collecting and analyzing a tiny segment of the DNA of more than 100,000 people around the globe, researchers expect to have an answer for donors who, for instance, may wonder when "their" family split from its brethren in Africa as far back as 60,000 years ago and where they went. The data won't tell a donor who his or her father or mother, or grandfather or grandmother, are. But it could show, perhaps, that he came from tribes who crossed the Bering Strait 40,000 years ago, or floated over to the Pacific Islands, or hiked up to Russia, or just hung out around Africa until recently.

It is possible to trace deep ancestry genetically because DNA sequences "blip" every so often over generations, creating some small mutation that can be used to mark who came before and who came after.

Grant funding will pay for researchers to try to get 100,000 samples from the few indigenous tribes around the globe whose relative stability, reflected in their DNA, can serve as a strong basic pattern. But they also want something from just regular folks - $100 and a bit off the inside of the cheek.

Researchers will send paying volunteers a test kit to make the donation at home. No name or address is attached to the sample when it is mailed back, just a randomly generated ID code. Only the part of the gene sequence that shows migration markers will be retained, then discarded at the project's end.

The swab, in a kit mailed out and back to researchers, will offer bits of history to the data-crunchers. The money will pay for the testing and fund a program to preserve indigenous peoples' ways of life.

These kinds of projects can bring pure science directly into daily life. Instead of scientists in some secret lab manipulating mice parts, all can participate, watch the data-gathering, see the results and decide what they mean.

It also could help us redefine how we look at other tribes, those down the street and those across an ocean. It's likely that many people may find they shared lives and paths with their "enemies" for thousands and thousands of years. Cosmetic changes, such as the shades of our eyes and faces, the shapes of our toes and fingers, are merely beautiful surface anomalies; at core we are one.

That's a good thing to remember from time to time.

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