DNA Day Celebration at Cornell University

“Your DNA contains the greatest history book ever written.”  —Dr. Spencer Wells

Happy DNA Day!  58 years ago today the double helix was discovered.

This milestone comes on the heels of a major campus DNA initiative. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and geneticist Spencer Wells along with members of the Genographic Project are finishing up a week at Cornell University working with 200 undergrad volunteer students who have agreed to be a part of this first ever Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project.

The volunteer students were tested to trace the migration paths of their ancient ancestors.  This campus project parallels the National Geographic Channel Documentary, “The Human Family Tree,” in which the Genographic Project tested the DNA of 200 Queens, NY residents on a single day in a single city block and found them to represent all of humanity’s major ancient migratory paths.

The Cornell University students have found that not only that they represent a microcosm of the world, but also that the person they sit next to in Calculus II is indeed their long lost relative.  Professor and Director of the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics (3CPG), Chip Aquadro, worked with Spencer to develop this semester long and campus wide project.  The goal was to stimulate discussion about the promise, challenges, risks and limitations of genetic testing for ancestry, as well as the diverse social, legal, ethical implications that are raised by its use.

Photo: Mackenzie Malia (left center) and Emile Chang (right center), agreed to share their results in a discussion with Spencer Wells (left) and Chip Aquadro (right) during the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project reveal event on Thursday evening.
Mackenzie Malia (left center) and Emile Chang (right center), agreed to share their results in a discussion with Spencer Wells (left) and Chip Aquadro (right) during the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project reveal event on Thursday evening. Photograph by Colby Bishop
Mackenzie Malia

Mackenzie Malia, one of the volunteer students, discovered from her test that she was a part of mtDNA Haplogroup A, a native American branch.  Coming from Bolivian parents who are blonde-haired, blue-eyed and always identified with their European heritage, she said, “This was all a surprise, a very pleasant surprise. Learning our family’s genetic ancestry will only strengthen our already strong sense of cultural identity.”

Emile Chang

Emile Chang, an offensive lineman on the Cornell University football team, took both mtDNA and Y-Chromosome tests and was also surprised by the results.  Growing up, he said that often when teachers were taking attendance, his last name caused them to confuse him with Korean students. He jokingly referred to himself as the “…other Chang.”  His mtDNA result showed him as part of  haplogroup L2A, which is one of the most common haplogroups of African Americans.  His Y-chromosome result, haplogroup O3, is one that is shared by about 73% of Chinese men. “To tell the truth I had no idea about my mom’s side of the family, and she really encouraged me to participate so we’d have part of that story.”

Spencer took time out before the final results were announced to students to answer a few questions:

How does DNA show that we are all connected?
Spencer: Through the presence of shared genetic markers, we have effectively constructed a family tree for everyone alive today, allowing us to  trace our ancestry back in time. What the research shows is that we all share recent common heritage in Africa, and that we are much more closely related than we ever suspected.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about DNA?
Spencer: Most people think that DNA determines the sum total of who they are, but really it’s only one component of their identity.

How does an event like this at a University compare to sampling in a remote village in other parts of the world?
Spencer: The diversity at Cornell is incredible – it really is a microcosm of the world. We have found most of the world’s major genetic lineages in a sampling of 200 people who are taking classes, working and living together. Whereas most remote villages are much more genetically homogeneous, the Cornell student body is as diverse as it comes.

This year we humans will number 7 billion. What have advances in DNA studies told us about our diversity? How closely are we related?
Spencer: Despite the huge number of humans living on the planet today, all 7 billion of us trace back to a small African population – perhaps numbering only 2,000 or so – living on that continent as recently as 60,000 years ago.

How have your ideas with the project changed over the five years since it began?
Spencer: Public participation has become a much larger component of the project due to the success of the kits. We just sold our 400,000th kit last week! We never could have predicted that level of success at the launch of the project, and it has spawned a broader interest in genetic testing.

More Information

The Genographic Project
Genographic Legacy Fund
Enduring Voices Project


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.