National Geographic is telling the human story with DNA

Credit: Alice Truong/DVICE

A few cheek swabs can unlock the mystery of your lineage.

Personal genomics has become a burgeoning field, with interest on the rise and costs steadily plummeting. In fact, these days, you could get your genome sequenced for as little as a Benjamin.

National Geographic has been a player in the game for a while, launching its own Genographic Project in 2005 and following up with a 2.0 beta last December, which features a more robust sequencing chip. "In the first phase, we were using technology that was very cutting edge when it was launched back in 2005," says Spencer Wells, project director of the Genographic Project, which touts about 580,000 users as of mid-February. "Of course, times have moved on."

Its GenoChip, designed from the ground up, is reflective of this new era. To be sure, this isn't the most robust kit on the market, and it doesn't focus on genealogy or health. But the 150,000 DNA markers it analyzes were chosen for studying ancestry from an anthropological perspective, Wells says.

I took the service for a spin, and about eight weeks after I sent in my swab samples, my results were ready.

The Human Story

The earliest humans started leaving Africa about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, likely in response to the Earth's sudden cooling. The Genographic Project features a stunning map that traces the route of our ancestors' migratory patterns using haplogroup data, which contains shared genetic markers on our lineage tracing back thousands of years.

In visualizing this, NatGeno begins in Africa about 70,000 years ago with the root of the haplogroup tree, displaying arrows to show the paths our wandering ancestors took. The common direct maternal ancestor (Mitochondrial Eve) all women have today produced two descendant lineages, L0 and L1'2'3'4'5'6, the latter of which eventually gave rise to L3, a haplogroup branch of mine, in East Africa. Because I lack a Y chromosome and don't have any male relatives on the service, I only have analysis of my maternal line. Women will find this limitation across all personal genomics services. For many, getting a father or brother on the service will open up a trove of data, but given my homogenous ethnic background, it's unnecessary for me.

The next step of my ancestors' journey is the N branch, considered a western Eurasian haplogroup. The map expands beyond Africa to show arrows pointing toward Europe and Asia. The third part of this interactive is a heat map that shows where people who share my haplogroup are today. Each step along the way is accompanied by an analysis that delves into genetic and anthropological detail that includes how our ancestors lived, and best guesses on specific paths taken relative to environmental conditions.

Ancestry

The service does a stellar job visualizing migratory paths, but studying haplogroups isn't exactly cutting edge. The primary limitation to this information is that the data drops off to several hundred years ago, before intercontinental travel and when populations were relatively intact. With the help of globalization, the face of populations around the world has changed dramatically during this period of time. NatGeno supplements its haplogroup data with autosomal analysis, which adds more recent information about the last six generations of a person's ancestral history, allowing the Genographic Project to show your ethnic makeup. For me, this information is very straightforward (my results are reflective of Chinese and Japanese populations), but this is something Americans seem particularly interested in (especially those who identify themselves by fractions — an eighth Irish, for example, or a sixteenth Native American).

Overall, NatGeno's analysis breaks down to nine broad regional groups — Native American, Northeast Asian, Southwest Asian, Southeast Asian, Northern European, Mediterranean, Oceanic, Southern Africa and Sub-Saharan African — and uses that information to estimate which two reference populations out of 43 you're closest to. Though ethnic makeup is a component of most personal genomics services, the level of detail NatGeno is able to provide is still a work in progress — something to keep in mind for potential customers shopping around for DNA testing kits based on this consideration. 

One of NatGeno's most intriguing features is hominid ancestry, which tells you what percentage Neanderthal and Denisovan you are based on your DNA. We might be familiar with Neanderthals, but there was a group of lesser-known cave people that was discovered just a few years ago. After a pinky bone and tooth were found in a Siberian cave in 2008, they were sent to a lab for sequencing. From this, we learned of a distantly related hominid that had split from the Neanderthals about 400,000 years ago. Lacking further evidence to prove if this was indeed a separate species, scientists named them after the Denisova Cave the remains were found in.

"I like to think of them as the Asian branch of the Neanderthals, split soon after they left Africa," Wells says. "They moved to Asia and in their own direction. This was the first time we've ever seen any evidence of them."

According to the project, I'm 2 percent Neanderthal and 1.9 percent Denisovan. While Neanderthal percentage is a feature of some other direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits, Wells says the Denisovan component is unique to the Genographic Project. As a 23andMe user (disclosure: my partner is a software engineer for this Mountain View-based startup), I already had access to my Neanderthal percentage (2.7 percent or 63rd percentile, slightly higher than the average East Asian user at 2.6 percent). Wells explains my discrepancy is likely due to the project's inclusion of Denisovan data, considered the most experimental of NatGeno's features and still being refined.

Stories

The Genographic Project is focused as much on our individual stories as the greater human story. Participating in this multi-year non-profit project means contributing to scientific and anthropological research, and a portion of proceeds go to the Genographic Legacy Fund, which offers grants for language revitalization and culture projects in indigenous and traditional communities.

A major feature of the project is Our Stories, which encourages users to share their knowledge of recent family history. Of the more than half million members, about 1,800 have publicly shared family stories on the service as of February. This figure does not include those who have contributed but chose not to make their stories available to the greater community. However, since these family history snippets sit in a table, browsing through thousands of entries can be an unwieldy process. Our Stories serves as the site's only community feature. Though usernames are associated with these stories, members lack a way to connect with one another or follow up with those who are related.

Bottom Line

The people who participate don't choose the Genographic Project because it offers the most comprehensive analysis. The project is very much a work in progress, with data points that need further refinement. Lacking health and lineage components, the Genographic Project doesn't aim to be the most robust personal genomics service, instead it focuses on ancestry and building a product that beautifully synthesizes this data. At $200, it's not the cheapest service on the market, either (though we should marvel at how technology enables us to learn so much about ourselves for a few hundred dollars).

Still, we don't necessarily judge value based on number of features or data points analyzed. The hundreds of thousands who have chosen the Genographic Project do so for the same reason they pick up the magazine: There's something alluring about the National Geographic brand, its telling of the human story and contribution to the preservation of indigenous communities.

Images by Alice Truong for DVICE with screenshots from the Genographic Project.

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook