Team of scientists claims new precision in using DNA to trace origins


Courtesy: Eran Elhaik, University of Sheffield

An international team of scientists says it has developed a “GPS” tool to trace your DNA up to 1,000 years to its region of origin, possibly even down to specific villages or islands.

As described in the natural science journal Nature Communications, the new tool, called Geographic Population Structure, looks at populations around the world and identifies DNA that is typical only of certain areas. It then matches your DNA to the region where yours is most common, showing you where the gene pools that created your DNA were last mixed. In essence, it helps you find your ancestral home.

The tool was created by Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences in the U.K. and Tatiana Tatarinova from the University of Southern California. They detail the research and science behind it in the journal.

Elhaik puts it in layman’s terms in a statement on the University of Sheffield’s site:

If we think of our world as being made up of different colors of soup – representing different populations – it is easy to visualize how genetic admixture occurs. If a population from the blue soup region mixes with a population from the red soup region their offspring would appear as a purple soup.

The more genetic admixture that takes place, the more different colors of soup are introduced, which makes it increasingly difficult to locate your DNA’s ancestry using traditional tools like Spatial Ancestry analysis (SPA), which has an accuracy level of less than 2 percent.

What we have discovered here at the University of Sheffield is a way to find not where you were born – as you have that information on your passport – but where your DNA was formed up to 1,000 years ago by modelling these admixture processes.

What is remarkable is that, we can do this so accurately that we can locate the village where your ancestors lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago – until now this has never been possible.

Until now, scientists have been able to locate where DNA was formed only within about 400 miles. But this new technique has been 98 percent successful in locating worldwide populations to their right geographic regions, according to the research, which was also described in Science Daily. For example, in the research study, the team placed 25 percent of people of 10 villages in Sardinia to their specific villages, and the remaining number were placed within 31 miles of their villages.

In a larger context, beyond simple curiosity, what does it all mean? According to the scientists, being able to accurately pinpoint a person’s ancestry could one day help doctors determine his vulnerability to certain genetic diseases or his response to medical treatments. It could help abductees find their way home or assist authorities in returning lost children to their countries of origin. It even has the potential to help discover the source of ivory to assist in the fight against poaching and illegal trade.

But perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of the project is that anyone can do it.

The researchers’ Web site, a company called, Prosapia Genetics, explains:

Get your autosomal DNA genotyped by an external company like Genographic, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, or others. Make sure you order an autosomal DNA kit (not just your Mitochondria or Y chromosome). When your results are ready, download them from your vendor’s website and upload them to our website. Then, simply select a package and run GPS.

After you upload your DNA file and choose a test you will get the GPS coordinates in text and on a map. You will see the point where your DNA have originated on that map and an explanatory text on how to read them.

There’s a fee for the service.

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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