“Geno 2.0” Can Reveal How Neanderthal You Are

Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project speaks to an audience backed by a classic (though simplified) illustration of the human evolutionary path. Photo courtesy NGS.

 

For the past seven years, the Genographic Project has enabled people around the world to read the records written in their DNA and discover the story behind two iconic paths of their genetic history. These paths traced the generations of their mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, etc. or father’s father’s father, etc., stretching back 60,000 years to when fully modern humans began their major spread outside of Africa.

Today, National Geographic is announcing the launch of Geno 2.0, the second phase of this project, which begins to answer two of the biggest questions raised in the first phase:

  • What about the path of your mother’s mother’s father’s mother’s line (and all the rest)?
  • What about the non-fully modern humans these ancestors encountered as they moved across Europe and Asia?

Project Director and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells explained how Geno 2.0 is able to address these issues.

In the first phase of the project, researchers examined a sampling of 12 recognizable markers on the Y chromosome (to trace the male line) or about 150 markers in mitochondrial DNA (to trace the female line). “The Y chromosome markers number is now up to about 12,000. Similarly on the Mitochondrial DNA… now we’re looking at over 3,000.” Most significantly though, now “we’re looking at about 130,000 markers in the rest of the genome.” It’s this sampling of all our other chromosomes that takes us off the single-sex track and fills in the stories of all the rest of our dizzying number of ancestral lines.

Where the Phase 1 Genographic kit traced only markers on Y-chromosome or in your mitochondria, Geno 2.0 samples far more of your 46 chromosomes. Photo courtesy of IBM.

 

For many people though, the most exciting aspect of the new phase of the project will be what it tells them about the non-modern-human ancestors in their family tree. By analyzing DNA extracted from remains of Neanderthals and Denisovans (another extinct close relative found in Asia), researchers have been able to identify distinct markers for those populations as well. Searching for those markers in the DNA of a living person reveals roughly what percentage of their own DNA is inherited from one or both of these groups, or put simply, “how Neanderthal they are.”

 

The Genographic Community and Full Experience

The following text is taken from the official National Geographic Press Release regarding Geno 2.0.

Participants will receive their results through a newly designed, multi-platform Web experience. In addition to full visualizations of their migratory path and regional affiliations, participants can share information on their genealogy to inform scientists about recent migratory events. These stories also can be shared with the broader Genographic Project community; as the number of contributions grows, the experience will become richer, as participants learn more about themselves and their shared ancestry. Results also can be shared as an infographic for social platforms.

Already, project results have led to the publication of 35 scientific papers, reporting results such as the origin of Caucasian languages, the early routes of migrations out of Africa, the footprint of the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean, the genetic impact of the Crusades and the genetic origins of the Romanian royal dynasty that included Vlad the Impaler. The project’s DNA results and analysis are stored in a database that is the largest collection of human anthropological genetic information ever assembled.

“The Genographic Project truly represents another facet of a new age of exploration. The newest Genographic technology will push the limits of our research, inspiring us to learn more about ourselves and leveraging the insights gleaned so far to take citizen science and genetic testing to a whole new level,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president of Mission Programs at National Geographic.

 

Applications from Scientists Welcome     

New to the second phase of Genographic, the project will invite applications for grants from researchers around the world for projects studying the history of the human species, which use innovative anthropological genetic tools such as the custom-designed “GenoChip,” a technology developed by scientists using Illumina’s Infinium iSelect HD BeadChips specifically for the study of human migration patterns. Sample research topics could include the origin and spread of the Indo-European languages, genetic insights into regions of high linguistic diversity such as Papua New Guinea, the number and routes of migrations out of Africa, the origin of the Inca or the genetic impact of the spread of maize agriculture in the Americas.

During Genographic’s first phase, Wells and project scientists traveled the globe to collaborate with tens of thousands of indigenous people, whose genetics are particularly significant in determining human migratory routes. Wells and Pierre Zalloua, principal investigator in the Middle East, for example, collaborated with the Toubou people of northern Chad, whose DNA has revealed insights into ancient migrations across the Sahara. Genographic’s principal investigator in the Oceana region, Lisa Matisoo-Smith, worked intensively with people on the remote south Pacific island of Emirau, collecting DNA samples and sharing the results with them.

The Genographic Project team worked with individuals, institutions and organizations all over the world to find and tell their genetic stories, including the prime minister of Kazakhstan, who invited Wells and his colleagues to collect DNA samples in his country after becoming fascinated with his family story as revealed by his Genographic kit results; the people of Barbados, who requested a study on the pattern of diversity in the country using the public participation kits; and members of the public in South Africa, who learned that they carry links to the region’s earliest inhabitants, the San people, in addition to genetic lineages from elsewhere in Africa, India and Europe.

The project also tested 200 random people on a single day on a block of Queens, New York, to demonstrate the area’s diversity. In a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s multidisciplinary education foundation The Silk Road Project, more than 400 students at four New York City public schools swabbed their cheeks and traced their ancient ancestry.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Genographic Participation Kits funds project research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which awards grants to support community-led cultural conservation and revitalization initiatives among indigenous and traditional communities around the world. So far, the Genographic Project has provided 62 Legacy Fund grants worth $1.7 million. Efforts supported by the grants include the creation of teaching materials on the ancient wisdom of the Chuj in a Maya community in Guatemala and the revitalization of indigenous languages in Nepal, India, Taiwan, French Polynesia, Mexico and Bolivia.

With each generation, changes accumulate, but women in your ancestral line from tens of thousands of years ago would be indistinguishable from these women of today in Tajikistan. Photo by David Evans.

 

‘GenoThreads’ Connects Students, Teachers

A new education program called GenoThreads enables science, culture and geography to be naturally woven into a shared educational experience. GenoThreads connects students and teachers around the world who are using Genographic participation kits; this allows a cross-cultural exchange between students via email and videoconference for a truly global experience. In the first GenoThreads project, high school students in Switzerland are sharing their results with those halfway across the world in Singapore.

Members of the public are encouraged to visit the Genographic Project’s newly created website at www.genographic.com. Featuring National Geographic photography, the website gives Genographic participants the opportunity to learn more about their own ancestry and find ancestral connections. The Genographic Project remains nonmedical and nonprofit, and all analysis results are placed in the public domain following scientific publication. The Genographic Project serves as an unprecedented resource for geneticists, historians, anthropologists and citizen scientists.

Changing Planet

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.