The river out of Eden

Family can be embarrassing. In the analogue age, at least, we could be creative in claiming descent from aristocrats or sheep-stealers. The digital world lays all our secrets bare.
We know we are all descended from a single woman who lived 150 000 years ago in Africa. The question that intrigues us is, what happened in between?

In search of an answer, I spent part of an afternoon scraping the inside of my cheek and packing the result in a Jiffy bag pre-addressed to the United States. It is my contribution to a five-year global experiment which, apart from its scientific aim, could reveal much about attitudes to genetic databases.

The Genographic Project aims to discover the migratory history of the human species. It is being car­ried out by the US National Geographic Society and IBM, with funds from a private family foundation.

The project combines the two great turn-of-the-century technological revolutions, the cracking of the human genome and the world wide web. Researchers at 10 labs around the world will collect at least 100,000 DNA samples from “indigenous populations”. By analysing variations in two lines of genetic code, the scientists will trace each population’s genetic river out of Eden, to borrow Richard Dawkins’ phrase. The hope is to discover the routes our ancestors took to get where we are today, and to uncover relationships between different populations and races.

The results will be published online in what National Geographic calls a “virtual museum of human history”.

Individuals are invited to contribute their DNA by buying a $99,95 sampling kit. The anonymous, numbered samples will be analysed to create a personal migratory history we will be able to look up on the web so long as we have kept the sample number. The organisers stress that no personal information is collected, and the kit expressly says: “Do not tell us anything about your health.”

Fortunately, perhaps, genetic population research tends to come out on the side of the angels. We are all migrants. Humans of different races and traditions turn out to be closely related; uncomfortably closely for some. In Japan, for example, research suggesting that the imperial family may be of Korean origin does not go down well.

The Genographic Project can expect flak elsewhere. One contro­versy concerns the uses to which genetic information about indigenous populations might be put. More relevant to Britons, there will be suggestions that the project is part of a softening-up campaign for a national DNA database. If thousands of people are happy to trust a foreign corporation with their samples, what could we possibly fear from the state? - Guardian Unlimited Â

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