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The Mapping of Humanity's Family Tree

 

The Genographic Project is a landmark project to reconstruct the history of human migration by analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people living today. Launched in April 2005, the collaboration between IBM and the National Geographic Society is creating a comprehensive knowledge base of our shared genetic heritage, a unique resource that continues to refine our understanding of human history.

Within each of us, DNA carries a record of our descent from the earliest humans on earth in Africa some 60,000 years ago. Because small variations are passed on to all succeeding generations, a history of human migration from our common origins could be reconstructed from these “markers of descent” found in the DNA of living people—if enough samples could be collected globally, and the technology to analyze them was available.

As project director Dr. Spencer Wells said, “The greatest history book ever written is the one hidden in our DNA.”

As the Genographic Project’s lead collaborator, IBM provided expertise from across the company, including its Computational Biology Center, and the advanced technology required to construct and analyze the first ever database of global genetic patterns and variation. IBM’s emerging technologies team collaborated with the project team to develop the software that logged samples collected in the field. The IBM Foundation provided funding for IBM’s work on the project.

Dr. Ajay Royyuru is senior manager of IBM’s Computational Biology Center at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. He led IBM’s engagement, which included new ways of analyzing vast quantities of genetic data. “Not only are we finding patterns of ancestry in this data that are surprising,” he said. “but the IBM Research team is developing entirely new methods of DNA analysis that could open the doors to insights that simply weren't knowable before."

National Geographic undertook the DNA collection, coordinated by 11 regional centers worldwide, each supervised by a local researcher. The project sought samples from its field teams, with a particular focus on collaborating with indigenous populations. Because modern society has enabled wider migration and a greater mix of genetic markers, the pool of distinct DNA that might help trace our origins is decreasing with every generation. Communities that have remained in one region were therefore vital to identifying genetic differences originating in millennia past.

The Genographic Project began as a five-year effort but is now a multi-year initiative with analysis continuing past 2011—and its unique database will be available to researchers and serve as a resource for further studies for many years. Although the general story of human migration was known, the Genographic Project is adding details that expand our understanding of our ancestors’ long, winding roads out of Africa. For example, there are genetic indications that the earliest humans may have split into separate populations for thousands of years before rejoining. And traces of a European DNA signature found in the Middle East may date to the crusades between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.

Beyond the 100,000 participants originally sought, the Genographic Project is also open to the public. More than 395,000 individuals responded by purchasing a kit that enables them to submit a DNA sample for analysis to discover their own genetic heritage in anonymous results available online. Public participants were encouraged to allow their results to be added to the global database, voluntarily and anonymously.

Among them was Ajay Royyuru, along with 14,500 other IBMers. His results, he said, “did prompt me to think and reaffirm my belief that all diversity we see today—in languages, caste, rituals etc.—is fairly recent on historical timescale, and that the people on this planet are a lot more closely related than the apparent differences would suggest.”