I am soon to embark on the most interesting and unique of journeys; a journey into my ancestral past via my DNA, and I will discover whether or not I am descended from Neanderthals. All of this is thanks to National Geographic and the Genographic Project.
The Genographic Project is a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells. The three components of the project are:
1. To gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world;
2. To invite the general public to join this real-time scientific project and to learn about their own deep ancestry by purchasing a Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit, Geno 2.0; and
3. To use a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 kit sales to further research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which in turn supports community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects.
The Genographic Project is anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication.
With a simple cheek swab, participants submit a sample of DNA to the National Geographic lab. National Geographic then runs a comprehensive analysis to identify thousands of genetic markers on the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child, to reveal a direct maternal deep ancestry. In the case of men, they will also examine markers on the Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, to reveal a direct paternal deep ancestry. In addition, for all participants, they analyze a collection of more than 130,000 other ancestry-informative markers from across an individual’s entire genome to reveal the regional affiliations of ancestry, offering insights into ancestors who are not on a direct maternal or paternal line.
The results will give me an unprecedented view of my lineage as I discover the migration paths my ancient ancestors followed thousands of years ago leading to both branches of my family tree settling in the Mediterranean (Sicily). Most exciting and included in the markers they will test for is a subset that scientists have recently determined to be from our hominin cousins, Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans, who split from our lineage around 500,000 years ago. As modern humans were first migrating out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still alive and well in Eurasia. It seems that our ancestors met, leaving a small genetic trace of these ancient relatives in our DNA.
In two months I will learn if I have any Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in my genome. Stay tuned!