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Project to map genetic paths of student origins

Tue, 01/25/2011 - 11:23am
Cornell University

Despite our remarkably diverse community, all of us can trace our ancient genetic origin back to East Africa, the cradle of humanity.

To explore Cornell's ancient genetic paths, the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project will test the "deep" ancestry of undergraduate volunteers from across campus and sponsor discussions concerning the promise and scientific and social concerns raised by genetic testing.

The project is directed by Professor Charles "Chip" Aquadro, director of the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics, and Spencer Wells, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor at Cornell and director of the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project.

The DNA of 200 randomly chosen Cornell undergraduate volunteers will be tested at no cost to them. The National Geographic Society's Genographic Project, a multiyear research initiative, will then map the students' ancestral footsteps, as inscribed in their DNA, to show the paths their common ancestors took in their different journeys from Africa. The Cornell project will focus exclusively on genetic makers limited to "deep" human ancestry that have no medical or clinical relevance.

These genetic markers identify which haplogroup a person belongs to; each haplogroup is linked by a common ancestor with one or more single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) mutations. These mutations occurred anywhere from a few thousand to 100,000 years ago.

The project will kick off with a public lecture by Aquadro and Wells Feb. 1 at 4:30 p.m. in Call Auditorium, followed by the Genographic Project DNA sampling of the undergraduate volunteers. Men can trace their patrilineal deep ancestry through Y-chromosome testing, or their matrilineal ancestry through mitochondrial DNA; only mitochondrial DNA testing is available for women.

The DNA sampling involves a painless cheek swab with a toothbrush-like device. The samples will be sent to the Genographic Project lab for analysis. Immediately following the lecture, members of the public can purchase a DNA testing kit for $99.95, some of which will be donated to the Genographic Project Legacy Fund that helps support indigenous communities.

On April 14 at 4:30 p.m., a follow-up "ancestry revealing" event in Call Auditorium will include a lecture by Wells and a report on the test results of the 200 undergraduates.

An important goal of the project is education, says Aquadro: "Genetic information is moving into our daily lives much like personal computers have," says Aquadro. "While genetic testing can offer many benefits, it is also fraught with opportunities for misuse by individuals and society. We want our students to be prepared to wisely consider relative risk versus benefit and to be able to appreciate divergent opinions and concerns."

He adds, "We hope to engage students from culturally and ethnically diverse communities on campus. Our goal is to foster respect for cultural diversity and viewpoints, while highlighting humanity's underlying genetic similarity."

Throughout the semester, courses and other activities across campus will partner with the project to explore the implications of genetics through science writing, ethics, policy and management, anthropology, nutritional genomics, evolutionary biology, population genetics and more. Senior lecturer Marilyn Rivchin's "Documentary Workshop" class will document the project.

In addition, 20 teachers from local schools will participate in the project and have their DNA tested to enable local science classes to participate in the project through their teachers.

The initiative was inspired by a similar National Geographic project that tested the DNA of 200 people on a single block of Queens, N.Y., and found them to represent all of humanity's major ancient migratory paths.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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