The Genographic Project

National Geographic’s The Genographic Project generated some controversy when it was first announced earlier this year. Billed as the world’s largest collection of DNA samples, the Genographic Project seeks to map human migration patterns and the development of racial groups over time starting at the beginning of humankind.

The Genographic Project has three core components:

  • Field Research – The core of the project is the collection of blood samples from indigenous populations, whose DNA contains key genetic markers that have remained relatively unaltered over hundreds of generations making them reliable indicators of ancient migratory patterns.
  • Public Participation and Awareness Campaign – The general public can take part in the project by purchasing a Genographic Project Public Participation Kit and submitting their own cheek swab sample, allowing them to track the overall progress of the project as well as learn their own migratory history. (Jason Bobe of The Personal Genome has already participated and posted his Genographic Project results.)
  • Genographic Legacy Project – Proceeds from the sale of the Genographic Public Participation Kits help fund future field research and a legacy project, which will support education and cultural preservation projects among participating indigenous groups.

Along with other indigenous populations, the Maori of New Zealand have objected to the use of their DNA on the grounds that it might disprove some of the stories about their origins that have been passed down from generation to generation.

We already know where we came from, thanks very much, they said, and what’s in it for indigenous people? What is the point of challenging generations of oral history and spiritual belief? Why should we give you our blood and the genetic codes which make us unique, and how do we know you won’t sell the information to pharmaceutical companies?

The New Zealand Herald, July 30, 2005

There are also concerns that scientists and other nefarious people will use the information gleaned from DNA to discriminate against indigenous people who are already underserved minorities.

Not everyone agrees with this pessimistic point of view:

More knowledge is always empowering, says Manuka Henare, associate dean of Maori and Pacific Development at Auckland University’s business school.

“It is about a better understanding of ourselves and our past,” says Henare, who deals with fears about genetics in his work as a board member of the Environmental Risk Management Authority.

“This is a good idea that has been badly promoted, but the more we know in the area of genetic knowledge, the more we can help to clarify the issue of origins that is a constant preoccupation of Maori.

Instead of being afraid of the genomic revolution, which is going to happen whether we want it to or not, let’s learn from it and figure out how to use genetic information to improve our health as well as find out a little about our evolutionary past. Regardless of the conclusions the Genographic Project may draw from the DNA data being collected, human history would not be complete without stories about the hardship and triumphs our ancestors experienced. History isn’t made by DNA alone.

In related news, IBM recently provided software and new T42 IBM Thinkpads, with biometrical security fingerprint technology, to Genographic Project researchers in the field. Along with improving data collection methods, the new equipment will make it possible for scientists to write up-to-date blogs on ongoing work starting this fall. If I were just a little younger with fewer strings attaching me to the ground, I’d find some way to be on that team.

Thanks to reader Shai for the heads-up on the IBM news.

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