Searching Your DNA with the Genographic Project
By Dr. Michele C. Dávila
I would like to tell you about the Genographic Project, a research partnership led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells and a team of renowned international scientists and IBM researchers that seek to chart the migratory history of the human species. With laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world they can establish historical patterns to better understand our human genetic roots. When DNA is passed from one generation to the other, most of it is recombined through processes that give us our individuality. But some parts of the DNA chain remain intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations which become known as “genetic markers.” These markers allow geneticists to trace our ancestry back through the ages. Believe it or not but what the study has shown up to now is that we are all related-descended from a common African ancestor who lived 60,000 years ago.
The Project is anonymous, non-medical and non-profit, and it has three main aspects: it gathers field research data in collaboration with indigenous peoples around the world; it gathers data through the contribution of the general public to join the project by purchasing a Genographic Project Public Participation Kit (cost $99.95, plus shipping and handling and tax if applicable), and uses the proceeds to further field research and the support for indigenous conservation and revitalization projects through the Genographic Legacy Fund. You can find all the information at: https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html.
Once you have purchased your own kit you can begin the exploration the migration story of your ancestors. It first involves a cheek swab to acquire a DNA sample. You will secure the swabs inside transport tubes and mail the tubes off to the lab using the supplied envelope. If you are a female your mitochondrial DNA will be tested. The mitochondrial DNA is passed down each generation from mother to child and reveals the direct maternal ancestry. If you are a male you have two options: test your maternal side, or through the Y chromosome (that only males have), which is passed down from father to son, test your direct paternal ancestry. You will be able to track your test kit, step by step, through the various stages of DNA sequencing and processing.
When the results are ready, you will receive a personalized genetic analysis, including an online overview of your deep ancestral history. You will know to which haplogroup you are part of, that is, to which particular branch of the human family tree you belong to. The results will reveal how your maternal or paternal ancestors migrated around the world. But beware: this is not a genealogy study. You will not receive a percentage breakdown of your genetic background by ethnicity, race, or geographic origin (like you would receive through an independent pharmaceutical company). Nor will you receive confirmation of an association with a particular tribe or ethnic group. But even though, maybe the result will surprise you, or your family.
My results just came in and, although I really was not surprised, my mother was. My maternal DNA reveals that I am part of the Native American Groups that crossed the Bering Strait to populate the Americas. Since in Puerto Rico we had only one indigenous people, I know that I come from a line of Taíno Indians, a sub-group of the Arawakan Indians that populated the Caribbean Basin when Christopher Columbus arrived. The interesting fact of this is that we are always told in school that the Spaniards killed all the natives of the island pretty early during the conquest. Well, after learning about my family tree I can state that they didn’t kill at least all the female natives. Although I don’t have physically apparent indigenous characteristics (maybe only the teeth, someone told me), the book in my blood says otherwise. The journey of my ancestors doesn’t stop there. Before my specific line (Haplogroup B) appeared in Central Asia, it was before Middle Eastern (Haplogroup N), and before that, African.
Now I am buying the kit for my father so I can be able to trace my other half. In the end, it is just surprising and humbling to perceive how the whole world is inside each one of us, and we are a little bit of everybody. It is the story written in our blood.