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Tracing Our Ancestry with Genetics

Tracing Our Ancestry with Genetics
Dr. Spencer Wells, Biology '88, in Chad. Photo from National Geographic.
Dr. Spencer Wells in Chad. Photo from National Geographic.

Geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells (Biology, ’88) leads National Geographic’s ambitious Genographic Project, which uses participants’ DNA to map and trace migration patterns of humans who lived thousands of years ago.

The five-year, $50 million effort aims to collect 100,000 DNA samples from around the world.

“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to answer some of the big questions like: Where did we come from? How did we produce these patterns of diversity?” Wells says. “For me, many of those questions started during my undergraduate studies at UT. I took Professor Mark Kirkpatrick’s evolutionary biology course and I was hooked.”

From the snow-covered Tibetan highlands to the burning windstorms of the Sahara desert, Wells traverses the globe collecting samples from indigenous groups in the world’s most remote locations.

“When humans first ventured out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, they left genetic footprints that are still visible today,” Wells says. “By mapping these ancient ancestral clans called haplogroups, we create an atlas of when and where ancient humans moved around the world.”

As of April, the project has collected 22,000 samples from roughly 100 indigenous groups across five continents. An additional 200,000 people, mostly from North America, have submitted samples for testing. For about $100, The Genographic Project will test your DNA and reveal a few aspects of your deep ancestry, the ancient migratory paths of one of your lineages. Wells cautions that this is not an individual genealogy study. You won’t receive a breakdown of your genetic background by ethnicity or race or geographic origin.

So why are we as Americans so fascinated by our ancestry? Wells believes it’s because of our history as a nation of immigrants.

“A lot of people came here running away from something, or they came against their will. It’s very human to want to find connections, to feel like we belong to a place and a people,” Wells says.

Written by Jennifer McAndrews
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Friday, 27 January 2023

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