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A Q&A about Our DNA with Geneticist Spencer Wells

Q&As

Mapping individual genomes has enormous potential—from shedding light on human evolution to fine-tuning personalized medicines. On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, Curator Rob DeSalle will moderate a discussion of the methods, results, and implications of DNA sequencing today with experts from the fields of genetics, cell biology, bioethics, and medicine.

We recently spoke with one of the panelists, Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist who as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence is leading the Genographic Project, a not-for-profit, multi-year, global research initiative that works to uncover our collective past by advanced analyses of DNA.  

Spencer Wells

Dr. Spencer Wells of National Geographic's Genographic Project 


What is the Genographic Project?

We are using DNA and modern technology to help answer fundamental questions about where we originated and how we came to populate the Earth. 

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned?

This research is giving us an extraordinary history book to read through. We’ve learned about the genetic impact of the Crusades and the impact of the Phoenicians' trading empire in the Mediterranean. We’ve learned how changes in climate drove apart ancient populations in Africa more than 150,000 years ago. Cultural and archaeological records show how replacement populations in Europe resulted in genetic shifts. We can track these shifts down through the layers in the archaeological record. I’m continually surprised how well our genetic research complements other fields like archaeology and climatology.

Genographic Project

A New York City College student, in the Museum's Grand Gallery, swabs to participate in the Genographic Project as part of the New York City Student Ancestry Project.

© AMNH/ D. Finnin 


You go out into the field to work with traditional communities, and your research also depends on “citizen scientists” who volunteer to buy testing kits and send in their DNA swabs for analysis.  So far, more than 650,000 members of the public have participated. How can people help?

The more people involved, the more likely we are to discover new or rare lineages and populations that are not well represented in our database. It’s all about people contributing their results to our research and becoming involved in the science. They can do this passively by just taking the swab test, or actively by helping us analyze what the results mean by sharing stories about their recent ancestry on the Genographic Project website. Your genealogy can help to provide context both for yourself and for other people, bridge the gap between your recent genealogy and your ancient ancestry. By sharing results, people are discovering new patterns of distribution.

You’ve swabbed. Any surprises? Did your DNA overturn any family folklore?

My results are fairly typical demonstrating northern European descent. I did have some Neanderthal—2.1 percent.

What was your family’s reaction?

I think my wife always suspected.

Learn more about the Wednesday, April 23, 2014 panel Our Genes, Ourselves: What Can Our DNA Tell Us?

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