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Finding the roots of modern humans

DNA study may reveal who we are, where we came from

By Marsha Walton

Spencer Wells meets with residents of Pate Island, off Kenya's coast, to explain the project.

(CNN) -- "Genographic" is not showing up in many dictionaries yet. But two global institutions, IBM and the National Geographic Society, hope the idea it conveys becomes well known in every corner of the planet.

The Genographic Project, launching Wednesday, is a five-year genetic anthropology study designed to chart the migratory history of humans, and help fill in the blanks of how and where people moved to populate the planet.

Population geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, is director of the project.

"Genetics, I think, resoundingly has answered the question of where we ultimately came from, we came out of Africa. And we came out quite recently, within the last 50 or 60 thousand years," Wells said.

"But the question of how we migrated around the planet, how we populated the world, in effect, is still an open one."

Wells has spent the past 15 years studying population migration, gathering about 10,000 samples from around the world.

But he says people today move faster and farther from their roots than ever before, complicating the job of scientists and in effect "blurring the family tree."

"And the goal is to sample DNA from people all over the world, both indigenous populations and the general public," Wells said.

"We want everybody to have a chance to participate in this, because it is really the story of all of us, that's what we are trying to figure out."

IBM is involved in processing the massive amounts of data that will be generated when scientists around he world begin gathering DNA cheek swabs and blood samples.

Dr. Ajay Royyuru, senior manager for the Computational Biology Center at IBM's Watson Research Center in New York, explains the pairing of "genome" and "geography."

"The genome we all carry is the best record. It actually carries the information of each of our ancestors. And as we uncover the markers in the genome, we are able to tell, who your ancestors were and where they possibly come from," he said.

Critical to the study will be DNA samples from indigenous people, distinctive and unique populations who have long inhabited certain geographic areas.

Royyuru says it is important that scientists from the beginning approach these people, many in remote areas, with care.

"The participation of individuals, in any exercise, requires that you respect who they are, what they are, and the reason why you want them to participate. And you make sure that what you give them back is of value to them, which is exactly what we are trying to do with the indigenous populations and the public at large," Royyuru said.

The study is also counting on people around the world who have a keen interest in their own ancestors to take part.

Millions of people are using the Internet to connect with relatives around the world, using a variety of genealogy programs.

The Genographic Project could take that a step farther, adding DNA details to the available information.

Those interested will have to make a serious investment, $99.95 plus shipping and handling, for a "participation kit." It includes a DVD and brochures detailing the five-year global study, plus a cheek swab kit that individuals send back to the study with their own DNA.

Project officials say these tests will be stored anonymously, but individuals will be able to track details about themselves using a number assigned to each kit.

The DNA samples will be gathered from cheek swabs collected from participants around the world.

"You will be able to see, for example, right off the bat if you are in a particular genotypic group, and where is the population of that particular genotypic group in the world today, and what we think are the ways in which this population ended up in this location in the world. And as this data grows, we will be able to make this map, and this journey and this detail richer in content," Royyuru said.

Wells says the project has assembled a "dream team" of scientists, from Moscow to Johannesburg to Adelaide to Paris and Beirut.

Besides the population experts, scientists from many other disciplines will be adding context to the DNA information. One researcher will focus on ancient DNA, studying skeletons hundreds, even thousands of years old.

"So what we can answer [as geneticists] is questions about biology, about biological ancestry. But to make any sense of that historically we have to contextualize it -- the archaeology, the linguistic pattern, even the climatology," Wells said.

"So it really is a synthetic effort to understand our common past."

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