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Faces of Britain

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In 2005 the Wellcome Trust established a £2.3 million project (roughly 4.5 million USD) at the University Oxford to examine the genetic makeup of the United Kingdom. The project would be led by the renowned geneticist and Oxford Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, joined by Oxford Professor Peter Donnelly (a population genetics and statistics expert) and the Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow Professor Lon Cardon.

The goal of the project is to establish a knowledge base for analyzing genes that are linked to disease. To do this, the researchers hoped to gather DNA from 3000 to 3500 volunteers throughout the UK who live in the same area as their parents and grandparents. Each volunteer’s DNA will be tested for 2000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). The data will be combined with each volunteer’s medical history in the attempt to find a link between genetic make-up and the inheritability or susceptibility of a number of diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The data will also be used to isolate DNA sequences that characterize the founders of each region of the UK, be they Viking, Saxon, or Celt.

“Our aim is to characterise the genetic make-up of the British population and relate this to the historical and archaeological evidence,” says Professor Bodmer. “We are collecting samples from people in rural areas with all four grand parents from the same area so as to avoid the recent mixing up of populations in urban areas and to reach back in time as far as possible.

“Our samples will provide a valuable control for studies on disease susceptibility which depend on comparing the frequency of genetic markers in disease groups with that in control groups. If we are able to eliminate genetic markers linked to geography rather than disease, then we should be able to minimise the risk of finding spurious associations.”

To date, the researchers have collected approximately 1,500 samples and have analyzed the Y chromosomes of the male volunteers. The M17 variant of the Y chromosome, for example, is found in 20% of people from Norway but is very rare elsewhere in Western Europe. In the Orkney Island, almost 30% of the tested males have this variant, suggesting that the Norse Vikings settled the Islands. Surprisingly, the M17 variant is not found in areas where the Danish Vikings settled, supporting the conclusion that the Norse and Danish Vikings were genetically different.

Another interesting conclusion of the study so far is that two rare versions of the Mc1r gene occur at a much higher frequency in those areas that were settled by the Celts than in those areas settled by the Anglo-Saxons. These alleles of Mc1r are found in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and regions of southwest England and are associated with red hair. In fact, Mc1r (melanocortin-1 receptor) is a member of the G-protein-coupled receptor family of proteins and it functions at the surface of specialized pigment producing cells called melanocytes. It is one of the key proteins in regulating hair and skin color.

Faces of Britain on Channel 4:

The researchers have also begun to present some of their findings to the public via the television series “Faces of Britain.” Last Saturday, April 14th, Channel 4 in Britain aired a program that highlighted the study’s current findings.

The findings, according to the program, supported the idea that the Viking invasion of Britain was predominately from Danish Vikings while the Orkney Islands were settled by Norse Vikings. Additionally, the results suggest that the Cornish people are a Celtic race that are more closely related to the Welsh than to their British neighbors (or should I say, neighbours).

The next Faces of Britain will be aired this Saturday, April 21st, but if you hurry you can watch the previous episode online for free (until Saturday) at www.channel4.com/od/.

Faces of Britain – The Book:

The study has also resulted in a book published in January of this year – “Face of Britain: How Our Genes Reveal the History of Britain” by Robin McKie. The book is available on the UK version of Amazon but I couldn’t find it here in the U.S.

Here is the publishers synopsis:

“Written into our facial features is a story going back generations. It is the story of who we are and where we are from – the history of Britain through war and conquest, migration and racial integration. The Channel 4 series, The Face of Britain, begins with the largest ever research project into the genetic make-up of the British public. The Welcome Trust has given a GBP2million grant to Oxford geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer to take DNA samples from hundreds of volunteers throughout Britain and find tell-tale fragments of DNA that reveal the biological traces of successive waves of colonisers – Celts, Saxons, Vikings, etc. – in various parts of Britain. These traces in part determine our facial features. In effect, this project will produce a genetic map of our islands revealing where today’s Cornish or East Anglians originally came from. The project is unique in that it uses cutting edge technology to question our accepted notions of our history. Added to this, the series and the book will meld science, history and personal stories to investigate our linguistic history, our surnames and placenames and compare findings with the results of the Bodmer study. The Face of Britain will be a launch pad to explore Britain‘s earliest history while investigating why we look the way we do.”

Thanks to SpiritIndia.

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

8 Comments

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  2. That is really interesting. I know my ancestors came from Sweden, so I can only assume they were also vikings of some sort. Genetic testing can tell us so many interesting things about the way life developed here on Earth.

  3. My boyfriend once told me that his ancestors were Norse Vikings, and that they destroyed cities wherever they went… pillaging to survive. They pretty much took what they wanted whenever they wanted it. He is proud of this, and I suppose that was the way of life back then, but I would personally be embarrassed by such violence.

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  4. He is proud of this, and I suppose that was the way of life back then, but I would personally be embarrassed by such violence.

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