‘Where do I come from?’

5 min read

Students, others, learn about their origins from genographic experts

Harvard graduates often return to the University to let their professors know what they’ve been up to since they finished their degree.

But it’s not every day that a student can show up and tell a former professor that he may be carrying a Y chromosome inherited from Aaron, the brother of Moses.

That, however, is just what Spencer Wells of the National Geographic Society did to Richard Lewontin this week (Feb. 5).

Wells was on campus to provide an update on the Society’s Genographic Project, of which he is the director. He and his colleagues are engaged in unprecedented sampling of DNA from populations around the globe. They are looking for genetic markers to trace the migrations of homo sapiens out of Africa and into the four corners of the world.

Scientists today are finding much evidence of early human settlement not in archaeological digs but in the blood and saliva of ordinary people. Wells contrasted the “fascinating possibilities” of paleoanthropology with the “scientific probabilities” that DNA research presents.

“The basic story is known at this point,” Wells told his audience at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, “worked out by connecting dots on the map.” Now, he added, he and his colleagues are “working to build the largest database we can to get a higher resolution of data.” He likened the effort to building a large telescope to study the stars.

Their field research has focused on sampling the blood of genetically stable populations — indigenous and traditional peoples who have stayed put in one place for thousands of years. The project is now about at the halfway mark. “We’ve sampled on every continent, and we expect to have 45,000 to 50,000 samples by the end of the year,” Wells said.

But the project also has a public component. The Genographic Project has offered a DNA testing kit ($99.95 plus shipping and handling) so the public can submit anonymized samples and then check the results on a National Geographic Web site, using a special ID number.

Which brings us to Lewontin, Wells’ longtime mentor at Harvard, and now, it appears, a possible descendant of the biblical Moses and Aaron.

Lewontin’s test identified him as part of the J2 group. This group left Africa but then “stuck around in the Middle East for 45,000 years,” and around 10,000 years ago became some of the world’s first farmers, Wells explained.

The research also found that Lewontin is a perfect match for the Cohen Modal Haplotype — an indication of connection to the Jewish priestly caste. While acknowledging that the connection was speculative, Wells said, “It’s possible, Dick, that you are carrying Moses’ Y chromosome.”

In his lecture, Wells also talked through the results of a couple of Harvard Foundation students. Matthew Clair ’09, he explained, was descended from the first group to settle West Africa. Senior Marisol Pineda Conde’s family came from Mexico. “Your family took a very long journey,” Wells told her: out of Africa, across Asia to Siberia, and then across the Bering Sea to North America. Her subgroup is “one of the founding lineages of Native Americans.”

The Genographic Project has also given this writer a good look at her own family’s trek out of Africa and into Europe by way of the Middle East. The DNA test identified me as descended from the first modern humans to have left Africa. Subsequent generations were part of the Cro-Magnon people, who crowded out Neanderthals and put up with some tough conditions during the ice ages.

The European connection was no surprise. But suddenly all those cave paintings in France have become part of the family art collection. And I now have a genetic justification for why New England winters don’t particularly faze me.

Wells calls the Genographic Project, “Science 2.0, a new model for big-science projects — collaborative, interactive, and culturally relevant. It’s not just an ivory tower project. It’s the story of everybody.”

The project is a partnership between the National Geographic Society and IBM, whose Blue Gene computer (“the fastest supercomputer in the world,” Wells called it) is providing the computational biology for the program. The Waitt Family Foundation is underwriting the field research. Sales of the testing kits to the public generate revenues for the Legacy Fund, which is making grants to support indigenous cultural undertakings.

Sharing information with participants is an important element of the program as well. For instance, in the coming months, research teams that sampled the Zanzibari population of Africa in 2006 will return to explain their findings on the effects of Indian Ocean trade on the Zanzibari gene pool, according to Himla Soodyall, principal genographic investigator for Sub-Saharan Africa.

For Saba Zaidi ’10, who was born in Pakistan but now calls Closter, N. J., home, the whole thing is “absolutely fascinating.” Her own family has been in Pakistan and India in recent generations, but the DNA tests confirm what her mother has told her about their being originally from the Middle East.

The Genographic Project’s message of one family of man meshes well with the Harvard Foundation’s message of unity amid diversity, she suggested in a brief interview after Wells’ lecture. She acknowledged, however, that not everyone sees it this way. “Someone could misinterpret the research,” she said.

“And what do you say about where you are from? Is society really ready to deal with the results of this research?” she wondered aloud.