With the very slow hotel internet service, there’s no way I can do justice to day 1 of the conference as a whole, so I’m selecting one speaker and one picture, or two, hopefully, and I’ll write a more detailed article after returning home. Please forgive the less than polished text and photos today and join me in a few days for more complete coverage.
This is a history-making event, the 10th year of Family Tree DNAs genetic genealogy conference. Fifteen years ago, this industry didn’t exist at all and today, it’s growing at break neck speed.
Being a part of the leading edge, often bleeding edge, of science is endorphin producing and just plain addictive. We are so fortunate to live in a time when scientific advances support these tools.
Bennett and Max opened the conference as is traditional with a few words.
Max shared with us that initially, he and Bennett were concerned that the Nat Geo 1 project would cannibalize the FTDNA customers, when in reality, just the opposite happened. Nat Geo endorsed the idea of testing for genetic genealogy and helped the entire industry to flourish. Without Nat Geo, Family Tree DNA would not have started their own lab in 2006.
Today, Family Tree DNA is asking themselves how they can prepare for the future and reach out to the international community.
Bennett was obviously quite touched to look out over the sea of administrators who have come to support and learn about the industry that he and Max founded.
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery – today is a gift and that’s why they call it the present. My present today is all of you here.”
Bennett added that never did he imagine 10 years ago that it would not only become a fully matured industry, but a secondary industry would emerge as well, such as several books being authored within the genetic genealogy community.
I’ve selected Spencer Wells as the speaker to feature for today, although I will provide additional photos in a follow-up article when I cover the other speakers as well.
Spencer Wells, Scientist in Residence at the National Geographic Society, spoke today on Consumer Genomics, The 30,000 Foot View.
The goal of Spencer’s work is more than genetic genealogy – it’s to explain the various patterns of human diversity. There are 6000 languages spoken in world today. How are they related? If we understand how languages are related, then we can probably understand how the people who speak those languages are related as well.
This has happened in the evolutionary blink of an eye, 2000 human generations since the emergence from Africa has generated all of these patterns of diversity.
In our blood is the time machine to reunite us with our ancestors.
The key to understanding these connections lay in the veins of isolated populations who have not culturally assimilated and admixed with other people and population groups. That’s who Spencer visits, and his adventures are renowned. In 2005, he missed the conference which was held a the National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC because he was caught in a war in Chad, collecting samples.
There are 7 billion people in the world today. All of the people outside of African descend from about 10,000 people who lived in Africa when a small band decided to leave. That band and their descendants populated the entire rest of the earth. This, the greatest journey, is the history of our species.
Spencer said that 10 years in the lab left him with ten years worth of work that provided more questions than answers. Spencer left academia and retraced the journey of mankind for himself and this is how he became involved with Nat Geo.
One of Spencer’s concerns is that cultural mass extinction is occurring. By the end of the century 50-90% of the 6000 languages will be gone forever, extinct, through process of cultural assimilation.
Cultural diversity is what defined us as a species. When we lose a piece of that cultural diversity we lose a chapter or a volume in the history of humanity.
The Geno 2.0 project is doing very well, beyond everyone’s expectations through a combination of the three aspects of the Genographic project.
- Field Research
- Public participation
- Legacy fund
Today Nat Geo has 75,000 indigenous participants whose DNA has been gathered by the Nat Geo team and 625,000 public participants who have purchased kits.
The third aspect of the project, the Legacy fund, is trying to preserve the accumulated knowledge of 50,000-60,000 years of human history. For example, the use of medicinal plants in South America. If that knowledge is lost, the cure for cancer, aids or ebola may be lost along with that traditional cultural knowledge.
The last aspect, and one that was somewhat unexpected, is that they are harnessing the power of the citizen scientist community.
For example, a few years ago, a woman from Hungary reported to Nat Geo that her test was clearly incorrect, because it reported an Asian haplogroup. Spencer recognized this for what it was, a genetic history of human population migration.
The Hungarian language is related to languages further north and east. Uralic – from the area surrounding the Ural mountains.
The Huns, about the year 1000 AD, invaded central Euro plains and replaced the invaded population within a couple of generations.
Nat Geo decided to look at their 2334 samples of Hungarian origin and found that 2-3% of Hungarian Y and mtDNA are of Asian origin. Hence, the signature of the Huns still resides, even after generations of admixture with other populations, in Hungary.
Spencer was gracious enough to answer questions and indicated that there will be a Geno 3.0 and a new SNP chip, but he can’t talk about that just yet. Stay tuned.
He also mentioned that he’s finishing a 4th book, “The Ghost of Genghis Khan,” reflecting one of his most interesting journeys.
You know, every time I hear Spencer speak, I’m energized again, encouraged and so inspired – I feel like I’ve been to the DNA Church Revival!!!
I’m excited, very excited about our ability to learn and participate personally in this new frontier. The genetics frontier within connects us with the distant, very distant, past and those who lived then that, combined, make us who we are today.