Sep 30, 2022

A Family Tree From Ancient and Modern DNA

An intriguing DNA project from Oxford and Harvard researchers promises, “We’re analysing DNA from ancient and modern humans to create a ‘family tree of everyone’”

According to information on the project’s web site:

Did you know that it’s now possible to sequence all of your DNA for about the cost of a smartphone? This will reveal your unique genetic makeup, and can be used to work out the similarities and differences between yourself and other people around the world at a genetic level.

But how can you make sense of this information, and what does your genetic variation tell you?

In our research group at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, we think the key to understanding this is held in our ancestry, and in particular in the genetic genealogy that relates us all. This describes how you and everyone else have inherited different parts of your genome from different ancestors. If we could learn this genealogy and decipher where and when they lived, we could uncover all of the history written in our genes – how our ancestors moved around the world and the evolutionary processes that created us all.

This sounds like a Herculean task. Without the genomes of everyone who ever lived, what could we possibly know about people who lived thousands or hundreds of thousands of years ago?

We’ve approached this task by devising a series of elegant computer algorithms which take genetic similarities and differences in a dataset of many individuals, and accurately reconstructs relationships among them.

Unifying modern and ancient genomes

Building on this approach, in our new research we describe the story of recent evolution among 215 diverse human populations from varying times and geographic locations.

The genealogy – lines of descent from our common ancestors – includes the genomes of 3,601 people from three separate datasets, as well as eight high quality ancient genomes. These came from three Neanderthals (an extinct human subspecies who lived in Eurasia until around 40,000 years ago), a Denisovan (another human subspecies more recently discovered from a shard of bone found in a Siberian cave), and a family of four humans from the Afanasievo culture who lived 4,500 years ago in south Siberia.

The unified genealogy, or “family tree”, explains the genetic relationships of these thousands of genomes to one another.
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