IBM partners human history project

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National Geographic and IBM have partnered on a five-year research project that will sample DNA from hundreds of thousands of people to map human migration patterns through history.

National Geographic and IBM have partnered on a five-year research project that will sample DNA from hundreds of thousands of people to map human migration patterns through history.

The five-year, groundbreaking Genographic Project that will let individuals trace their own migratory history across continents will use sophisticated computer analysis of DNA to map how the earth was populated.

Sam Palmisano, chief executive at IBM, said IBM and National Geographic were embarking on a historic expedition and "amazing journey" into humans' collective past.

“Our two organisations have long contributed to scientific exploration and achievement, extending in different ways the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding," Palmisano said in a statement.

IBM said a team of international scientists and IBM researchers led by National Geographic explorer-in-residence Spencer Wells would collect genetic samples and analyse results to study the genetic roots of modern humans.

“We see this as the 'moon shot' of anthropology, using genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of human history," said Wells.

"Our DNA carries a story shared by everyone. Over the next five years we'll be deciphering that story, which is now in danger of being lost as people migrate and mix to a much greater extent than they have in the past."

The team would study some 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous populations in 10 research centres around the world. Individuals wanting to donate their DNA could apply for a sample kit, IBM said.

The resultant public database was expected to house one of the largest collections of human population genetic information ever assembled as an "unprecedented" resource for geneticists, historians and anthropologists, IBM said.

Scientists from IBM’s Computational Biology Center would use advanced analytical technologies and data sorting techniques to interpret the samples and discover new patterns and connections within the data they contained, IBM said.

IBM would also provide the core computational knowledge and infrastructure to manage the hundreds of thousands of genotype codes being analysed by the Genographic Project, it said.

John Fahey, chief executive of the US-based National Geographic Society, said the team, supported by Gateway Computer founder Ted Waitt's Waitt Family Foundation, would deploy "state of the art" science and technology to build a "virtual museum" of human history.

"National Geographic has been exploring and mapping the world for 117 years," Fahey said.

IBM said the Genographic Project would involve collecting blood samples from indigenous populations, whose DNA contained key genetic markers that had remained relatively unaltered over hundreds of generations. Such samples were reliable indicators of ancient migratory patterns.

Wells and a consortium of scientists from prominent international institutions would conduct the field and laboratory research. An international advisory board would oversee the selection of indigenous populations for testing as well as adhering to strict sampling and research protocols, IBM said. 

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