The Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project
Who are we? And where do we come from? The story of humanity’s journey can be found within each of us—encoded in our DNA. The Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project was launched Spring 2011 by Dr. Chip Aquadro, Cornell Professor and Director of the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics (3CPG), to engage the Cornell community to learn about and share in the discussion of the promise, challenges, risks, limitations and science behind genetic testing for ancestry and medicine, as well as the diverse social, legal and ethical implications raised by its use. An important goal has been to foster respect for cultural diversity and viewpoints, while highlighting humanity's underlying genetic similarity.
The leadoff event of the Cornell project was inspired by a study conducted by Dr. Spencer Wells and the Genographic Project, which was captured in the 2009 National Geographic documentary, The Human Family Tree. This documentary followed the Genographic Project as they sampled DNA from 200 people at a street fair in Queens, NY. The researchers found that this random sample of people represented a huge proportion of human genetic diversity with respect to deep ancestral lineages – in fact, these 200 people represented all of humanity's major ancient migratory paths.
The question posed by the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project was: How would 200 undergraduates from Cornell compare to the genetic diversity observed at the street fair Queens, NY, arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world? To answer this question, 200 randomly chosen Cornell undergraduate students volunteered to provide a DNA cheek swab sample on February 1, 2011 on the Ithaca campus for genetic testing by Dr. Wells and the Genographic Project. At a "Reveal Event" on Thursday April 14, 2011, Professor Aquadro and Dr. Wells presented a public lecture summarizing the analyses of the lineages and migration stories revealed in DNA of the Cornell student and campus volunteers and how they fit into the picture of humanity's migration history. Impressively, the results demonstrated that the random sample of 200 undergraduates representing all seven colleges at Cornell is fully as genetically diverse as the sample taken from the street fair in Queens with respect to deep ancestral lineages.
Two hundred undergraduates had their DNA sampled to analyze their "deep genetic ancestry" as part of the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project. The results of the project revealed the students' genetic histories. This documentary shares the stories of three students whose DNA led to some fascinating insights at the final reveal event as well as coverage of the entire event.
The Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project does not stop with our Spring 2011 events. We are working to raise the funds to engage, via participation, another 200 students during Spring 2012, and to build on the results and reactions from 2011 and future years to help students, their friends, families, and the Cornell and local community gain a deeper understanding of genetic testing so they can make their own informed decisions regarding ways in which genetics can enrich their own lives and increasingly their health decisions. The National Genographic’s Genographic Project continues similar out-reach efforts and public participation to collect hundreds of thousands of DNA samples to build the database for genetic ancestry. The Genographic Project is also constantly being updated, and there is also a publicly accessible newsletter to which anyone can subscribe! Interested people can – and are encouraged – to get involved in the Genographic Project by getting their own DNA tested.
The Science Behind it All
The Genographic Project uses the principles of genetics to trace human migratory pathways. The project uses genetic markers which arise from random changes called mutations to create lineages. Men can chose to trace their maternal lineage through their mitochondrial DNA or paternal lineage through their Y chromosome DNA; women can trace their maternal lineage through their mitochondrial DNA. Data collection in the Genographic Project has lead to the creation of a “Human Family Tree” combining the discovered lineages. This tree leads to migratory routes that can be viewed as an “Atlas of Human History” with humans traveling through history all around the globe. To learn more, visit the Genographic Project's website:
Anyone can participate in the Genographic Project by purchasing a public participation kit and following the steps on the website to access their information about their deep ancestral lineage. Once participants obtain their results, they can decide whether or not to share their results with the Genographic Project and be added to the project’s database. The Genographic Project’s website has further information addressing FAQs about the project, participation, testing, and results, and privacy.