Out of Africa

Map showing movement of ancestors over time

A while ago I ordered one of those DNA test kits because I was very interested to see what they would make of my walrus heritage. I used the Genographic Project which is far from the cheapest, but I am a big fan of National Geographic and wanted to support the Genographic Legacy Fund. Some of the money I paid to get my DNA tested went into this fund, which has been used over the years to provide support for “community-driven projects directly preserving or revitalising indigenous or traditional culture”. Also my DNA, which was provided without compromising my anonymity, is now part of some scientific studies to help understand our roots and our movements. I love all that stuff.

The DNA collection process involved scrubbing the inside surface of my cheeks using the tool provided, popping it into a little glass vial and then sending it off to the USA for analysis. It takes at least 6 weeks for the report to appear online and it is accessed using a code which is unique to the sample. As long as you know your kit code you can access the report and find out some interesting things.

One thing I found out straight away was that as a male, and therefore a bearer of both X and Y chromosomes, my ancestry can be traced back along both my father’s and mother’s lines, so I learned about both my paternal and maternal haplogroups. Women who want to know their paternal ancestry would need to get the DNA of their father or brother or their father’s brother.

Anyway, I was surprised to discover that I share 1% of my DNA with Neanderthals! Apparently this is quite low. Going by the amount of body hair I have I was expecting it to be closer to 10%. This trace Neanderthal material dates back to very early times when humans bred with them (shortly before wiping them out).

We all came out of Africa. Every man alive today has a common direct ancestor who was born in Africa between 300,000 – 150,000 years ago, often called “Y-Chromosome Adam”. He was not the first human male nor was he the only human male at the time, but it just so happens that he is the only male who’s Y-Chromosome lineage is still around today. We are all related, folks, if you go back far enough. So be nice to each other 🙂

There is also a common direct maternal ancestor to all women alive today, often called “Mitochondrial Eve”, who was born in East Africa about 180,000 years ago. Humans gradually migrated out of Africa and eventually populated pretty well every piece of land on the planet. In my case the women in my maternal haplogroup settled in all of Europe and Scandinavia and the men in my paternal haplogroup mostly ended up in Ireland (no surprise given my surname).

This has nothing to do with bees but every so often it is good to branch out into other areas, methinks. I am developing a growing interest in genetics as applied to bees though, and at some point I will study it, I think. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to run a breeding program but I very much believe in breeding from good queens and killing off the bad ones; if all beekeepers did that we would be going in the right direction.

I discovered another wonderful use for my DNA. There is a company called Vitagene, based in San Francisco which can generate a “Wellness Report” from DNA data uploaded to their site. This is the future of diet and exercise, because based on certain markers in your DNA they can find out all sorts of useful information and make personalised recommendations based on your particular genetics. I found out that I am better suited to power exercises than endurance, and that I am unlikely to be able to convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, so I should get my vitamin A from animal sources. Good to know. Part of the report listed out the best supplements to take and naturally the company will sell them to you, but not if you live in the UK sadly.

The whole biotechnology thing is really taking off in the 21st Century. I know there are dangers, but I’m excited by all the amazing discoveries yet to come. I don’t know if anyone reading this is a fan of Blade Runner, but I certainly am, and I sincerely hope that as a species we get our act together to ensure a less bleak future than the one predicted in that movie. If we could just remember that we are all related maybe we could start to behave in the interests of the whole species, not just our particular clan or tribe.

What do you think?

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