Genetic Geography

  by  |  September 22nd, 2008  |  Published in All, Animals & Life Science, Weird Science


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Genes don’t just tell whom you’re related to or why you look a certain way; now, they can also tell you where you came from. Researchers have created a genetic map of Europe, and they hope to expand it globally, as this ScienCentral News video explains.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: John Novembre, UCLA & Carlos Bustamante, Cornell University
Produced by Joyce Gramza — Edited by James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.
Footage courtesy GlaxoSmithKline; Images and Data courtesy National Archives and Records Admin., and John Novembre

Where You’re From Is In Your Genes
By Heather Mayer

Up until now, a DNA sample could probably tell which continent your ancestors came from. Now a new genetic map could pinpoint a person’s geographic origins within a couple of hundred miles. Biostatisticians John Novembre of UCLA, and Carlos Bustamante and his team at Cornell University, used DNA data from thousands of people across Europe to create the map, which was recently published in the journal Nature.

“I almost fell off my chair when I saw the result,” Bustamante explains. “It was just so stunning that you could take this DNA data — you had no idea where these individuals came from — and smack in the middle was Switzerland, to the south was Italy, to the west was the Iberian peninsula; it was just completely stunning.”

After creating the map, the researchers showed they could use it to locate the origin of an unknown DNA sample, within certain limits.

“We can take DNA of an individual of unknown ancestry and answer the question of what their ancestry is,’ says Novembre. “So we can place them on a map even if we don’t know where they’re from.”

Genes, Drugs and Diseases

The genetic map of Europe was actually a byproduct of research Novembre and Bustamante were conducting for a pharmaceutical company. The researchers were working with GlaxoSmithKline, which had asked them to check and analyze a genetic database to study adverse drug reactions. This database catalogued gene chip data including hundreds of thousands of miniscule genetic differences called SNP’s among people from all over Europe.

GlaxoSmithKline was motivated to perform this study, which collected DNA from thousands of Europeans, to “develop a resource that could be used in our research to understand the genetics of drug response and for the study of adverse drug reactions in particular,” Matthew Nelson of GSK, a co-author of the paper, writes in an e-mail.

Also on ScienCentral

According to Nelson, the study explains, “Population poses a well-recognized challenge for disease-association studies. The results obtained here reinforce that the geographic distribution of a sample is important to consider when evaluating genome-wide association studies.”

Statisticians Novembre and Bustamante plotted the DNA differences with software that didn’t know anything about the map of Europe, using distance to represent the amount of variation. The result matched the map of Europe.

“I was really expecting [to see these results] on one level, but I didn’t expect at all to see the resolution, especially the way you sort of see what looks like the Iberian Peninsula, the Italian Peninsula, the British isles projecting out. It’s quite surprising how nice the resolution is,” Novembre says.

Global Genetic Mapping

This discovery promises to help researchers design better genetic studies of diseases and drug responses, and to teach us more about peoples’ ancestral heritage.

“It would be exciting to look at variations around the whole world and look at many different populations,” Novembre says. “That’s what I’m most excited to see — is this kind of sampling within Europe expanded to a global scale.”

However, there are limitations to this first genetic map because the DNA samples used were from people whose grandparents came from the same country. So right now, if a person has a mixed heritage, for example, their mother comes from Spain and their father comes from France, the map would place this person in Italy, explains Novembre.

“But at the same time, it’s current, ongoing research for us to design an algorithm that will be able to do that, and I think we can do that,” he says.

Bustamante and Novembre have confidence they can take this genetic mapping to a global scale, which will help design better studies of genetics, drugs and diseases, as well as making ancestral research much more accurate.

“I think there are many applications we can envision of this technology, one of which would be to try to understand something about the ancestry of a sample and one of them would be forensics,” Bustamante says. “We’d love to be able to take a DNA test and try to understand, perhaps, do we have French royalty or do we trace our lineages back to Aristotle, and can we find that out with a drop of blood?”

This research was published in Nature advance online publication August 31, 2008 and was funded by: the Giorgi-Cavaglieri Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, US National Science Foundation, US National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline.

Elsewhere on the Web

International Society of Genetic Genealogy

Social, Cultural and Religious Issues in Genetics, from genome.gov


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Responses

  1. Tom_Fishman says:

    September 22nd, 2008 at 1:00 pm (#)

    Pretty cool, but it's a bummer that these studies are limited for those (like me) who would seemingly find it most useful/interesting, i.e., those who descend from a mix of countries. Chances are, if both of your parents are from the same country, the genetic information isn't telling you anything you don't already know, right?

  2. Joyce Gramza says:

    September 23rd, 2008 at 8:44 am (#)

    They say they are working on an algorithm to tease out more complex origins. This map was just the first.

  3. Joyce_Gramza says:

    September 23rd, 2008 at 11:02 am (#)

    They say they are working on an algorithm to tease out more complex origins. This map was just the first.

  4. Tom_Fishman says:

    September 23rd, 2008 at 11:05 am (#)

    Awesome!

  5. Cristina says:

    September 25th, 2008 at 12:05 pm (#)

    Astonishing, really.

  6. Eric Berman says:

    September 29th, 2008 at 11:03 am (#)

    Something sounds awfully fishy about this. If the data they were crunching already contained information about the country of origin of each of the individuals represented by the data, then all they were really doing was getting the computer to crunch many, many numbers, as computers do so well. The article says “there are limitations to this first genetic map because the DNA samples used were from people whose grandparents came from the same country. So right now, if a person has a mixed heritage, for example, their mother comes from Spain and their father comes from France, the map would place this person in Italy . . . .”
    For a Europe–and a world–experiencing the most far-ranging migrations in history, and for increasingly ethnically and “racially” hybrid populations, the information would be given to huge errors. If I were Barack Obama, for example, I would probably appear to have emerged from North Africa since I am the child of a European American mother and a Kenyan father. Better hurry up and use the system before it becomes even more irrelevant than Social Darwinism.

  7. rypitch says:

    October 16th, 2008 at 2:44 pm (#)

    This is great stuff, yet I wish the studies would give insights for me personally.

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    Any news from here about new algorithms? What about autosomal DNA? Was this considered?

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