My small international community of amateur geneticists recently raised more than $100,000 to fund research into ancient European tribes.
Partly, this is a tribute to the ever-expanding power of the Internet to aid the formation of new online societies. Not long ago, any sort of heavy-hitting scientific investigation could only have happened within academic confines. Mostly self-taught and lacking easy access to major universities, nine-tenths of our group would have been entirely shut out of an intellectual field that instead is a centerpiece of our lives.
It also hinges on another new technology - affordable DNA sequencing. In a matter of a few years, the cost of analyzing genetic codes has plunged to where base pairs on the Y chromosome (which determines maleness) can be commercially sequenced for about half a cent each in bulk, compared to as much as $39 each when ordered one by one.
This means that anyone can take a detailed look at their own ancestry, as revealed by the patterns of adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), or thymine (T) twined along the double helix strands contained in each of our cells. Once in every few generations, random mutations result in a substitution of one letter for another in this chemical recipe of life. Sometimes this is disastrous in terms of birth defects, sometimes it is beneficial, and often it makes no difference at all but serves as a helpful signpost or clue to forgotten human migrations.
Because these changes happen so rarely and are then passed on from father to sons when they occur on the Y chromosome, carefully studying them allows us to discern the ethnic/tribal origins of our distant forefathers. This is still very much a work in progress, but new useful tribal markers are being discovered every few weeks in the Walk Through the Y project that we have self-funded. A new one just emerged in the past couple weeks that appears to split out an important Irish subpopulation.
In other cases - mine for example - we're still waiting for our special DNA marker. We may continue doing so until complete genome sequencing comes down to what we can afford. The first human genome was a multimillion dollar operation involving scores of scientists and support staff earlier this decade, but we expect that it will be possible for anybody to obtain their complete chemical recipe for $1,000 or so by the end of the next decade.
All this doubtless sounds hopelessly wonkish until you realize that we're talking about fundamental bonds between children and parents stretching back to the dawn of time. This is family, or more specifically, forgotten family. Unraveling these ancient genetic mysteries puts meat on the bare bones of our imaginations.
Just think about being a typical American. You may not even know who your great-grandparents were, far less where their immigrant ancestors came from. The Y chromosome research that we are participating in might soon be able to tell you, for example, that a hundred-odd generations ago the man who founded your family line successfully raised many sons on the coast of Denmark after a multigeneration migration across Europe from the Black Sea. I think that's pretty darn exciting. Consider the adventures they had!
Other types of genetic research hint at the overall sources of each person's DNA. A leading company affiliated with Google suggests my genes are mix of Norwegian and French. This seems unlikely, considering I have no known family from either place going back several hundred years. But it may reflect that the bulk of my distant ancestors belonged to the same tribes that ultimately settled in those places.
In view of the human propensity for hating each other's guts based on ethnicity, there's some potential for mischief in all this. But what the tests reveal is that there is no pureblood anything. We're each a complex mosaic of the unpredictable love affairs and marriages and one-night stands of a thousand generations of traveling people. A slender thread can sometimes be traced all the way back, but we're otherwise tightly woven fabrics of chance and choice.
This weekend, when so many families gather to strengthen their connections, is a perfect time for you to ask or teach about ancestors. These are the people who made us. We owe them everything. They deserve to be remembered.
Matt Winters is the editor of the Chinook Observer.