Changing Planet

Is Genetic Genealogy the Next Facebook of Science?

While millions of people spent last weekend dumping buckets of ice water on their heads and documenting it on Facebook to raise money and awareness for ALS, a few us genetics geeks gathered and talked about haplogroups*  A, L and S, among others.

*Never heard of a haplogroup? Don’t worry, it’s not because you have a brain freeze. A haplogroup is a branch on the human family tree. All people belong to a haplogroup based on genetic markers carried in their cells. People belonging to the same haplogroup trace their descent to a common ancestor and a specific place where that ancestor once may have lived.

Dr. Spencer Wells talking about human ancestry. Photo courtesy of

Last Saturday morning at the first International Conference for Genetic Genealogy in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Genographic Project Director and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells delivered the Keynote to an audience of 300 genetic genealogists.   He spoke about the popularity of the field and how fast consumer genetics has grown since the launch of The Genographic Project in 2005. “In 2013 the one-millionth person tested their DNA,” explained Wells, “just twelve years since the first human genome was sequenced. But this summer the two-millionth person has already tested their DNA.” The growth has been exponential, thanks in great part to the interest and promotion by those who gathered at the conference.

Dr. Wells explains the trends in genetics
Dr. Wells explains the trends in genetics. Chart courtesy of Spencer Wells

In addition to Dr. Wells, the Genographic Project was represented by Russian scientist, Dr. Oleg Balanovsky. Dr. Balanovksy talked about his efforts in mapping the world’s genetic diversity, and how his scientific partnership with the Genographic Project has informed questions like “If we are all related, where did our shared grandpas come from?”

Several leaders in the field of genetic genealogy also spoke, including Jim Bartlett, Katherine Borges, Rebekah Canada, Tim Janzen and Cece Moore. Doing his part to promote population genetics was blogger and PhD candidate Razib Kahn, who spoke about piecing together the puzzle that is ancient ancestry. Ancestry DNA was well represented by biologist Dr. Julie Granka who explained how they use DNA to help match their participants with relatives. And Dr. Joanna Mountain shared with the audience her efforts with 23andMe.

Razib Kahn talks about how we study ancestry through DNA
Razib Kahn talks about how we study ancestry through DNA. Photo by Miguel Vilar

Of the many topics discussed, it was clear that citizen science was the hot topic in this field. The public is generally more comfortable talking about their personal genomic details and a general interest in science has increased. As a result, people are encouraging friends and family to test and study their DNA. Who knows? As more people participate and find new connections and matches, genetic genealogy could become the new Facebook of science!


Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • Sheri Hathaway

    It already has! I belong to a closed group on Facebook of Haplogroup T’s from around the world (but mostly Europeans). It appears that more people outside of the US are doing their DNA testing than in?

  • @finchtalk

    You need a Facebook model to be a Facebook like experience. Genealogy is great and fun, but comments like Sheri’s “I belong to a _closed_ group on Facebook,” and the fact that several companies have their individual’s DNA in proprietary DB’s kind of limits the Facebook experience. Or, perhaps, we are on our way – the companies do offer ways to connect – which is more like the pre Facebook days.

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