DNA to the Genealogical Rescue, Again

In today’s Washington Post there’s a story about The Boy in the Iron Coffin.This coffin was accidentally discovered by a construction crew in Washington, D.C. in 2003.Research conducted by the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History discovered that the body inside, still wearing a white burial suit, was that of William T. White, about age 15.William, who appears to have had a heart defect that would have made him sickly, died on January 23, 1852:

“The boy was extremely well preserved and clad in white cotton clothing that included a pleated shirt and vest with cloth-covered buttons, flared trousers, darned socks and ankle-length underdrawers.”

According to the article, the body “had been buried in a cemetery that probably belonged to Columbian College, the precursor to George Washington University, in what is now Columbia Heights, and had been a student at the college preparatory school when he died.”

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Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation Collects Panamanian DNA

On the heels of last week’s announcement that Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) will be collecting DNA samples in Mongolia comes new information that the company will be conducting a similar project in Panama.

According to the announcement, SMGF has partnered with the Gorgas Memorial Institute (Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud Panama) and will attempt to collect 1,500 to 2,000 DNA samples with pedigree charts.The project will gather DNA from each of Panama’s nine provinces and three territories and will include individuals from all major ethnic groups, and from both urban and rural areas:

“We are honored to join with Gorgas Memorial Institute, Panama‘s primary institute for health and population studies, to study this country’s diverse, multi-faceted populations,” said Dr. Scott Woodward, executive director of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. “Panama is a fascinating melting pot, its genetic and cultural mix having been influenced by a broad array of Native American populations, Africans from the slave trade, and Europeans and Asians from multiple eras.”

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Genetic Genealogy Spreads Around the World

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Commercially available genetic genealogy isn’t just for Americans and Europeans anymore. Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences, centered in Dubai, recently sent me an email announcing their new venture into the field of genetic genealogy testing.

Although it wasn’t apparent from the email that I received, Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences has partnered with Family Tree DNA to offer genetic genealogy testing. The following sentence comes from a press release at i-newswire: “Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences is proud to be associated with Family Tree DNA to create a database for the Middle Eastern population.”

From the Email:

“Dubai: 09/12/2007-Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences is set to launch a new Wall Chart of DNA Ancestry services to the people of the Middle East to help them invent their deep ancestors from 150,000 years ago. The roots of this tree lie more than 100,000 years in the past, at a time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors were living in Africa. As the branches of the tree multiply, they record the history of our species and the dramatic stories of how pioneering groups of humans explored and populated our planet. The different journeys they made shaped the world we know today.

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DNA Collection Project in South Africa

Dr. Wilmot James, head of the African Genome Project and honorary professor of human genetics at the University of Cape Town, is heading a DNA collection project in South Africa.Dr. James is joined by his colleague Himla Soodyall, a scientist at the National Health Laboratory Service and an associate professor in the Division of Human Genetics at the University of Witwatersrand.On September 9th, James and Soodyall collected swab samples from a number of Capetonians.

The African Genome Project is supported by the South African genealogy website Ancestry24.com (although I was not able to find any information there).One of the goals of the project is to create a public genetic database to examine “how the country became populated over thousands of years” by filling in the gap in current DNA databases.

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What’s on the Web?

  1. Misha Angrist wrote about the implications of personal genome sequencing in “Warts and all.”

  1. I think most everyone would agree that affordable whole-genome sequencing will be around long before we understand the information it reveals.I asked another member of The DNA Network, The Gene Sherpa his opinion on the matter.Genome Technology Online also thought it was an interesting discussion.And by the way, the Genome Technology Online’s daily newsletter is a great way to stay up-to-date.

  1. DNA Consulting is launching an online forum called DNA Ancestor Communities (from Family Tree Magazine).

  1. At Venturebeat: lifesciences, David Hamilton wrote a great post about genome sequencing and insurance – “Personal genomics and the end of insurance.”It received a lot of attention this week, including a mention in Dick Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.

  1. EyeonDNA has a clip of Craig Venter from the Charlie Rose show in 2000, back before Venter was able to browse his entire genomic sequence.

  1. Jay Flatley of Illumina revealed more information about future products being offered by 23andMe.Naturally, it received a lot of attention (be sure to read the comments as well):

oI wrote about it here at The Genetic Genealogist;

oVentureBeat: lifesciences wrote an article, and ended with: “Rumors of yet a third, still stealthy, personal-genomics startup are also swirling around the Valley.”Any ideas?

oAnother early mention came from Megan’s Roots World, who, like me, picked up on the fact that 23andMe is initially focusing on ancestry.

obusiness|bytes|genes|molecules wrote an interesting post.

oGigaOM has a very brief mention.

oGenome Technology Online links back to the Forbes article as well.

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23andMe Partners with Illumina – To Offer Genetic Genealogy?

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23andMe has been the subject of much discussion in the biotech and personalized medicine circles of the blogosphere (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for plenty of information/speculation/discussion).

In August, 23andMe announced (“23andMe and Illumina Forge Consumer Genomics Goliath”) that they have partnered together to offer “consumer genotyping” – more about that in a minute.Illumina produces “SNP chips”, chips that can test a genome for thousands of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) at a time.For example, the company has one chip that tests one million SNPs for as little as $600, and another chip that tests 550,000 SNPs (the HumanHap550) for only $300-$450.Interestingly, Illumina is also able to custom build chips to add specific SNPs if the customer so desires.Additionally, as the announcement touted, Illumina is also exploring the world of inexpensive whole-genome sequencing, suggesting that this partnership with 23andMe could transition from cheap SNP testing to cheap whole-genome sequencing at some point in the future.

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Low-Cost Sequencing Getting Closer and Closer

A very interesting article in the New Scientist published last week by Peter Aldhous examines the approach of affordable whole-genome sequencing. The article mentions 23andme, the recently published genomes of James Watson and J. Craig Venter, and the Personal Genome Project.

“Thanks to the advances in sequencing technology, that might be done for as little as $1000 per person. “DNA chips”, meanwhile, can scan your genome for common “spelling mistakes” for just a few hundred dollars. At that price, the era of personalised genomics is already dawning. “This is the year,” claims [Dr. George] Church.”

Mr. Aldhous’ article doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff either. Although I could potentially obtain my entire genomic sequence if I had $1 million lying around, very little of the information would be interpretable. We still have so very much to learn about our DNA. A great quote comes from Michael Egholm of 454 Life Sciences:

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Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation Collects Mongolian DNA

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A news release announces the completion of a DNA collection project by SMGF (Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation) in Mongolia.The goal of the project is to study the descendants of ancient nomads from the Eurasian steppes.The collection was performed in conjunction with the National University of Mongolia and represents “the most comprehensive [DNA collection project] in the history of Mongolia, incorporating all of the country’s geographic regions and major ethnic populations.”In total, more than 3,000 DNA samples and pedigree charts were obtained from 24 different ethnic groups.

According to the news release, the “global fascination with Mongolian icons such as Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun” played a role in promoting the project:

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Interview with Dana Waring, A Founder of the Personal Genetics Education Project

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dana Waring, a member of Ting Wu‘s lab at Harvard and one of the creators/caretakers of the pgEd, the Personal Genetics Education Project. It was a fascinating conversation about the future of personal genetics and the dire need for more education of the public in this field. You can see a few recent mentions of the pgEd from other members of the DNA Network – EyeonDNA, and genomeboy.com.

I was very interested in Dana’s project, and she was willing to share more information with me and my readers via the following email interview:

TGG: How did you get involved with the Personal Genetics Education Project?

DW: The Personal Genetics Education Project is based in the Wu lab at Harvard Medical School. The main research focus of the lab is in a branch of epigenetics called homology effects, where the presence of homologous sequences can dramatically affect gene expression. Professor Wu wanted to add a new dimension to the lab’s focus, looking at the potential social impact of genetic testing becoming mainstream – personal genome sequencing to be exact.My background in women’s studies, the history of science, and higher education seemed like a good fit to explore some of the ethical, legal, and sociological ways genetics will personally impact people.With the Archon X Prize for Genomics and the Personal Genome Project well underway, it is clear that the science is moving very fast.

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J. Craig Venter and Personal Genetics

Wow, what a day for personal genetics. Yesterday, J. Craig Venter’s diploid genome was released (I’m not sure where the sequence is, but the paper is available at PLoS Biology, a OPEN ACCESS journal!).

I know that many people have their gripe about Venter, but seeing a story about personal genetics on the front page of CNN is important. It educates people and helps alleviate fears about genomic sequencing. I think it’s a great opportunity for the field. Here’s a few quotes from the CNN story:

“Venter has just published almost all 6 billion letters, or 96 percent, of his own personal genetic code in the journal PLoS Biology. From diseases to personality traits, it’s the most comprehensive human genome to date. Venter’s gene map provides a new understanding of his genetic destiny, according to the DNA inherited from both his father and his mother.

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