New web­site can help trace your an­ces­try

Yorkshire Post - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID BEHRENS COUNTY COR­RE­SPON­DENT ■ Email: david.behrens@jpi­me­ ■ Twit­ter: @york­shire­post

FOR cen­turies, it has been at the root of ar­gu­ments and wars, and it may have been the un­palat­able germ that planted the seeds of Brexit.

But from next month, ge­netic an­ces­try could be no more con­tentious than click­ing a com­puter mouse.

Tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped in York­shire will en­able any­one who has given a sam­ple to de­ter­mine how much of their DNA matches that of Ro­man Bri­tons, Vik­ings or one of five other pop­u­la­tions.

Soon, around 400 other groups will also be avail­able for in­stant com­par­i­son.

A web­site set up by a lec­turer at Sh­effield Univer­sity will com­pare up­loaded DNA with that ex­tracted from 2,200 skele­tons and mum­mies at arche­o­log­i­cal digs and in mu­se­ums.

“Un­til re­cently there wasn’t much to do with those bones out­side of stan­dard ar­chae­o­log­i­cal anal­y­sis,” said Dr Eran El­haik, who lec­tures in hu­man ge­net­ics. “But in re­cent years, pa­leo-ge­netic tech­nolo­gies have al­lowed the ex­trac­tion of DNA from bones.”

The an­cient data has be­come in­com­plete over the cen­turies, but its lim­i­ta­tions have been mit­i­gated by a us­ing sys­tem of ge­netic “mark­ers” in a new type of mu­ta­tion suf­fi­ciently in­for­ma­tive to iden­tify and clas­sify for­mer pop­u­la­tions.

Dr El­haik said the prin­ci­ple was sim­i­lar to that in the novel and film Juras­sic Park.

“We both want to study the DNA to re­con­struct the past, ei­ther in re­al­ity or metaphor­i­cally. They couldn’t re­con­struct the di­nosaur – they had to use frog DNA,” he said. “We don’t do that.”

The prospect of trac­ing in­di­vid­ual ge­netic his­tory by up to 40,000 years far out­stripped

what is pos­si­ble through con­ven­tional ge­neal­ogy, whose limit is around 500 years, he said.

“We wanted to bring pa­le­o­ge­net­ics to the pub­lic and al­low them to ex­tend their re­search on their his­tory by thou­sands and thou­sands of years.

“It’s the least spec­u­la­tive way of do­ing ge­net­ics – it’s the real stuff. You’re tak­ing DNA di­rectly from skele­tons or mum­mies and com­par­ing it to your own DNA.”

The tests will be avail­able on a pub­lic web­site, www. an­cientd­, launch­ing in about two weeks’ time, which will show the ge­netic sim­i­lar­ity of an in­di­vid­ual’s DNA to that of Vik­ings, Egyp­tian mum­mies, Is­raelites, Ro­man Bri­tons, Stone and Ice Age Euro­peans and na­tive Amer­i­cans.

“Some peo­ple will take it more se­ri­ously than oth­ers. It’s some­thing to bring up at the din­ner ta­ble,” Dr El­haik said.

“Our in­ter­est is to en­gage peo­ple in re­search and share the knowl­edge. I don’t think peo­ple will start dress­ing up as Vik­ings in the streets – I see mainly ed­u­ca­tional and recre­ational pur­poses, not the rise of some sort of new na­tion­al­ism.”

Asked how the in­for­ma­tion might be per­ceived, he said: “The dom­i­nant view on na­tion­al­ism is that all na­tions are made up en­ti­ties that con­sist of peo­ple from var­i­ous ori­gins.

“How­ever, parts of the world are lean­ing to­wards pri­mor­dial­ism – Eng­land for the English, Brexit – some peo­ple do be­lieve that they de­scend di­rectly from past pop­u­la­tions.

“But I can tell you right now, no one will come up as 100 per cent an­cient Bri­ton. I would be happy to be proved wrong.”

He added: “Just like Dar­win’s study did not end racism, we can’t pre­dict what peo­ple will do with the re­sults. We’re just re­port­ing the sci­ence.”

I don’t think peo­ple will start dress­ing up as Vik­ings in the streets. Dr Eran El­haik, lec­turer in hu­man ge­net­ics at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield.


GENE GE­NIE: Dr Eran El­haik, the aca­demic be­hind the new pub­lic web­site, at work in his lab at Sh­effield Univer­sity’s depart­ment of an­i­mal and plant sciences.

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