SYDNEY (Feb. 4, 2010)—It is something that Charles Darwin himself may never have imagined. The man who penned “On the Origin of Species”, the seminal work that hypothesised that all humans evolved from common ancestors, could now discover his own “human deep ancestry”.
Today, 200 years after his birth, DNA technology has helped determine who Darwin’s ancient ancestors were. Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Chris Darwin, 48, who lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, took a Genographic Project public participation cheek swab test analysing his “Y” chromosome. According to Dr. Spencer Wells, project director of the Genographic Project, a research partnership between National Geographic and IBM with field support from the Waitt Family Foundation, Darwin’s deep ancestry shows his ancestors left Africa around 45,000 years ago.
“I couldn’t wait to find out my family’s deep ancestry. I suspect that most people would be fascinated to know their family history over the past 60,000 years. After all, how can you understand who you really are, if you don’t know where you have come from?”, Chris Darwin said.
The test revealed that Chris Darwin, and therefore his paternal great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, are from Haplogroup R1b, one of the most common European male lineages.
“Approximately 70 percent of men in southern England belong to Haplogroup R1b, and in parts of Ireland and Spain that number exceeds 90 percent”, Wells said.
The Genographic Project’s test results show that Darwin’s paternal ancestors would have migrated out of northeast Africa to the Middle East or North Africa around 45,000 years ago. Diverging from this Middle Eastern clan, a new lineage emerged in a man around 40,000 years ago in Iran or southern Central Asia. Before heading west towards Europe, the next mutation, which defined a new lineage, appeared in a man around 35,000 years ago. Men belonging to Haplogroup R1b are direct descendants of the Cro-Magnon people who, beginning 30,000 years ago, dominated the human expansion into Europe and heralded the demise of the Neanderthal species.
Chris Darwin, son of George (known as Erasmus), grandson of William (Billy) and great-grandson of the astronomer George, who was one of Charles Darwin’s 10 children with Emma Wedgwood, migrated to Australia from England in 1986. A Blue Mountains guide and adventurer (Chris often takes tourists on the Charles Darwin walk through the mountains to Wentworth Falls), Chris said that he was excited to find out his family’s true history.
The Genographic team also tested Chris Darwin’s mitochondrial DNA to provide an insight into his mother’s genetic heritage. The result shows Chris Darwin is part of Haplogroup K — and likely directly descended from the women who crossed the rugged Caucasus mountains in southern Russia to reach the steppes of the Black Sea.
“What National Geographic and IBM are doing with the Genographic Project is incredibly important. The project is one way to show us the true story of humanity, of how we migrated across the world and that we are all related, tracing back to a small group of men and women who lived in Africa”, Darwin said. “There are over 100 direct descendants of Charles Darwin who attended a family reunion in London last March”, he continued. “I can’t wait to share this with them”.
The Genographic Project seeks to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species and answer age-old questions surrounding the genetic diversity of humanity. At the core of the project is a global consortium of 11 regional scientific teams following an ethical and scientific framework and responsible for sample collection and analysis in their respective regions.
Members of the public can participate in the project by purchasing a public participation kit (U.S. $100) from the Genographic Web site where they can also choose to donate their genetic results to the expanding database. Sales of the kits help fund research and support a Legacy Fund for indigenous and traditional peoples’ community-led language revitalization and cultural projects.
The Genographic Project’s consortium including the principal investigators from around the world are in Sydney this week for their annual scientific conference. Among the population geneticists are Australian principal investigator, Associate Professor John Mitchell from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and Professor Alan Cooper, who heads up the Ancient DNA Centre at Adelaide University, as well as Sydney-based ethicist Dr. Simon Longstaff, who chairs the global advisory board for the project.
There are currently 265,000 public participants who have actively consented to be included in the scientific database. “With the quantity of data and new methods of analysis that the Genographic Project team at IBM are pioneering, we are able to deliver insights into our past that were simply not possible before,” said Dr. Ajay Royyuru, the leader of IBM’s computational biology team.
Today’s announcement of Darwin’s deep ancestry was held at the Australian Museum in Sydney, where a panel of Genographic scientists, including Wells, Royyuru, Mitchell and Longstaff, also gave a public presentation. A project exhibit sponsored by IBM details the three key elements of the project — field science, public participation and the Genographic Project’s Legacy Fund, which benefits cultural preservation and education projects in indigenous communities around the world. The exhibit will be on display at the Australian Museum until the end of February 2010. Genographic Public Participation kits also will be on sale at the Australian Museum during February.
In Sydney – Kim McKay: +61 418 440 626 / firstname.lastname@example.org
In Washington, D.C. – Glynnis Breen: +1 202 857 7481 / email@example.com
Photographs of Chris Darwin swabbing his cheek and other Genographic Project images are available: http://ftp.nationalgeographic.com/pressroom/geno/ username: press; password: press
About National Geographic: Founded in 1888, National Geographic is one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” the Society’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. National Geographic reflects the world through its magazines, cable television channels and programs, films, music and radio, books, videos, maps, live events, interactive media, expeditions and merchandise, reaching as many as 375 million people each month.
About IBM: IBM is the world’s largest information technology company, with more than 80 years of leadership in helping businesses innovate. It has a long history of innovating on behalf of society, and in recent years has launched a series of major research initiatives designed to overcome many of the remaining “grand challenges” of science, including the Deep Blue chess-playing computer and unraveling the mysteries of protein folding with BlueGene, the world’s fastest supercomputer. IBM Research is the world’s largest information technology research organization, with more than 3,000 scientists and engineers at eight labs in six countries.
About the Waitt Family Foundation: Established in 1993 by Gateway Computer founder and now chairman Ted Waitt and his wife, Joan, the Waitt Family Foundation focuses on humankind’s past, present and future. Specifically, the foundation funds projects aimed at making discoveries about our past that will help inform the way we are today and reveal untapped possibilities for the future.