Cornell University Tracing Volunteers’ DNA

January 31, 2011 Updated: February 1, 2011

Cornell University recently announced plans to map the genetic code of 200 randomly selected undergraduate students in an effort to trace human ancestry to the remote past in East Africa.

Directed by professor Charles “Chip” Aquadro of the Cornell Center for Comparative and Populative Genomics and professor Spencer Wells, director of the famous National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project will host a lecture on Feb. 1 at the university. Afterward, a random sampling of 200 volunteers' DNA will be taken by the Genographic Project.

“An important goal of the project is education,” said professor Aquadro, according to the Cornell University Chronicle.

National Geographic’s Genographic Project was designed as a multiyear research study intended to trace the volunteers’ mitochondrial DNA back through the sands of time to East Africa where all humans on the planet share a common ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA can be traced along a maternal line, and indicates that all living people today share one female ancestor, who is naturally called Eve. She lived in what is now Kenya, scientists think.

The original volunteers were from all over the world. A cheek swab kit was available from the National Geographic website, which allowed participants to return their DNA sample to the Genographic Project for analysis. The project was intended to study the migratory pattern of the participants’ ancestors through the ages and in return gave the participants a better understanding of their genetic ancestry.

The Cornell project was further inspired by a sampling of 200 individuals on a single street block in Queens, N.Y. by the National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which found that the block represented all of humanity’s ancient migratory paths out of Africa.

The Cornell project will follow similar methods as the Genographic Project’s original study. They are to focus on genetic markers in our DNA that don’t have any medical importance but can be traced through history. These genetic markers can trace which persons are linked by a common ancestor (haplogroup) with a single or multiple nucleotide polymorphisms (mutation) that occurred from a few thousand to 100,000 years ago.

A mitochondrion in a person’s cells contains DNA. This DNA follows through a person’s female ancestors. For women, this is the only way to trace DNA ancestry. For men, an additional procedure includes Y-chromosome testing.

Testing procedures include a cheek swab, which will then be sent back to the Genographic Project’s lab for testing. Even though students may volunteer at no cost, there will also be DNA kits available for $99.95 on site. Much of the proceeds will go to the Genographic Project Legacy Fund that helps indigenous communities.

A follow-up lecture, the "Reveal Event," will be held on April 14. Wells will discuss the test results from the student volunteers.

"Genetic information is moving into our daily lives much like personal computers have. 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. 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," wrote Aquadro on the Cornell website.

Cornell classes as well as 20 teachers from local schools will participate in the study. Local science classes will be able to participate through their teachers while the university classes will study everything from the anthropological data involved in the project to the ethical ramifications of DNA analysis.