National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Maps Human Ancestry

Genographic Project involves mapping the genetic codes of people around the world

Published: Mar 22, 2011
Spencer Wells, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, comes to The University of Tampa on Wednesday, March 23, to speak to the University community about his Genographic Project.
Spencer Wells, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, comes to The University of Tampa on Wednesday, March 23, to speak to the University community about his Genographic Project.
Most people can count at least one relative who has tried to trace their family’s past, scouring through documents and photos and oral histories.

These days, the Internet has made researching easier and television shows like NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” chronicle celebrities tracing their family histories through time.

But what if you could go back further than 200 years? What if you could go back 200,000 years, tracing our ancestral branches further back than any TV show could dream? That’s Spencer Wells’ mission.

The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence comes to The University of Tampa on Wednesday, March 23, to speak to the University community about his Genographic Project. The five-year research project by National Geographic and IBM involves mapping the genetic codes of people around the world and tracing migration patterns from the place where every human family originates — Africa.

“It should be absolutely fascinating,” said Stephen Kucera, geneticist and UT associate biology professor, of the Wednesday lecture.

Wells, a population geneticist, has been to more than three dozen countries including Chad, Tajikistan, Morocco, Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia, collecting DNA samples from indigenous and traditional peoples. The project is open to anyone willing to take a cotton swab and swipe the inside of their cheek, sending the results back to the Genographic Project lab.

Just as archeologists use artifacts, geneticists use DNA sequencing as a tool to study human migration patterns. Kucera said the sharp decrease in the cost of DNA sequencing has made it more ubiquitous. “Scientists can look at a level of detail in our DNA on a scale that was impossible just four or five years ago. And it is only going to become cheaper.”

The importance for students – for anyone, really – is in recognizing the similarities that unite all humans through our DNA, Kucera said.

“For a variety of reasons, we tend to focus on differences between us,” Kucera said. “However, humans share 99 percent plus of our DNA, nucleotide for nucleotide. The percentage difference between us is miniscule.”

The event is co-sponsored by the International Programs Office and the Baccalaureate Experience. The lecture begins at 6 p.m. in Reeves Theater.

Watch more on the Genographic Project.



Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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