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Finding our origins: The Genographic Project uses genetics to map the past

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science Salon
By Carolyn Graybeal
Mar 20, 2015 2:00 PMNov 18, 2019 11:42 PM
Ancient human migration patterns. Source: National Geographic.


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Have you ever tried tracing back your family tree only to get stuck at great great Grandpa Jim? Are you curious about who your ancestors were and where they might have come from? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out National Geographic’s The Genographic Project. Not only will you learn about your lineage but you’ll have the opportunity to contribute to our scientific understanding of the human story.

“The Genographic Project is one of the first projects to use genetics to trace human migration patterns,” says Miguel Vilar, a molecular anthropologist and Genographic’s Science Manager.  Molecular anthropology, or anthropological genetics, uses modern DNA to understand the history and evolution of the human species. While most of our DNA is a combination of our paternal and maternal DNA, there are certain pieces of DNA that remain unchanged from generation to generation. Sometimes, a mutation occurs in these DNA segments and this mutation gets passed down unmixed to subsequent generations.

“We can use the mutations in these genetic markers to calculate how populations are related and estimate when populations might have diverged.  The more mutations two populations share, the more closely related they are,” says Vilar.  “Through this process we can retrace our past as far as 150,000 years, or roughly 5,000 generations.”

To build this large scale family tree the researchers need to collect DNA. This is where the public comes in.

The Genographic Project developed a genetic testing kit called Geno 2.0. The kit analyzes specific regions of maternal mitochondrial DNA, paternal Y-chromosome DNA, and bi-parental autosomal DNA searching for ancestry rich information. This differs from other popular genetic kits which may analyze an individual’s whole genome for trait information like eye color or medical information. With a simple cheek swab and a few weeks time, the Geno 2.0 analysis will give you a report telling you about the migration patterns of your paternal and maternal lineage, and the percentages of your geographic origins. The analysis can even tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Neanderthals briefly coexisted with early humans and apparently intermingled from time to time. “People of European ancestry have as much as 2-3% Neanderthal DNA in their genome. While people of African descent have much less because Neanderthals evolved outside of Africa and never traveled back to Africa,” says Vilar.

Sample report from the Geno 2.0 kit. Source National Geographic.

When you purchase the kit, you have the option to donate your results to the project’s DNA database. DNA information, combined with additional hereditary information you provide in a questionnaire, helps the researchers build the human species family tree. All information is stored anonymously.

Proceeds from kit sales fund research of and conservation efforts for indigenous and traditional groups. These are groups who have been relatively isolated throughout history and whose DNA might hold unique and interesting information. These groups are also less likely to become involved in the project on their own. Proceeds also help fund the Genographic Legacy Fund, that awards grants to community-led cultural conservations projects. Over a hundred grants have been award so far.

In addition to the research, The Genographic Project is supportive of science education and its website has lot of interesting information about the science of human evolution and the science behind the project. There are special resources to help educators including school projects, videos and classroom materials. Educators can also apply for discounts on the Geno 2.0 kits.

Since its start in 2005, The Genographic Project has received substantial interest. Presently, the project is shifting focus towards data analysis, with new and interesting results shared on the project’s blog and newsletter. But there is a lot of data to sort through. The project developers hope to create a managed forum for citizen scientists to help with analysis. In the meantime, interested researchers and citizen scientists are welcome to contact the team at to apply for access to the data.

If you are interested in learning more about your own background, want to know how to contribute, or are curious about our human origins visit The Genographic Project.

Interested in tracking other migratory species? We’ve got you covered! Looking for other citizen science projects? Visit SciStarter and use the project finder to start participating. Join thousands of other citizen scientists and contribute to science!

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