The Genographic Project: Frequently AskedQuestions

Edited by Bob Ranger

Updated: February 1, 2019

The following is the official FAQ of the Genographic Project and the National Geographic™ Society's scientific team.
The Genographic Project is a research project of the, which encompasses work carried out by National Geographic™ Society's scientific team to elucidate new patterns of human migration, as well as public testing through the participation kits. Testing focuses on deep ancestry from an anthropological perspective. It is not primarily a genealogy testing service, although you do have the option of seeing how you are related to other participants in the program. The genetic technology used for testing is a custom-designed genotyping chip optimized for the study of ancestry rather than medical testing.

1. WHAT IS THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT? The Genographic Project uses advance DNA analysis to work with indigenous communities and the general public to help answer fundamental questions about where we originated and how we came to populate the Earth. The project is a not-for-profit, non-medical, multi-year, global initiative by National Geographic™ that uses genetics as a tool to address anthropological questions on a global scale. Launched in 2005, the first phase of the Genographic Project enlisted a consortium of 11 global regional scientific teams who, following regional institutional review scientific protocols, undertook sample collection and DNA analysis in their respective regions. More than 1,000,000 members of the public have taken part in the first phase of the project by purchasing a Genographic Project DNA Public Participation Kit to trace their own ancient ancestry. Building on the science learned from the first phase of the project and using cutting-edge technology, the Genographic Project entered its second phase in 2012. Participants can choose to submit their data to the Genographic database while participating in this real-time research initiative.

2. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE NEW TEST AND THE PREVIOUS TEST? The first-generation Genographic Project Participation Kit gave participants the choice to trace either their maternal or their paternal results but not both (only males can test their Y chromosome since women do not carry one). Results determined each person’s haplogroup, or ancient line of descent.

Geno 2.0 will run a comprehensive analysis to identify more than 3,000 genetic markers on your mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child, to reveal your direct maternal deep ancestry. In the case of men, we will also examine more than 10,000 markers on the Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, to reveal your direct paternal deep ancestry. In addition, for all participants, we will analyze a collection of more than 130,000 other markers from across your entire genome to reveal the regional affiliations of your ancestry, offering insights into your ancestors who are not on a direct maternal or paternal line for both males and females.

Included in these markers is a subset that scientists have recently determined to be from our hominid cousins, Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans, who split from our lineage around 500,000 years ago. As modern humans were first migrating out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still alive and well in Eurasia. It seems that our ancestors met, leaving a small genetic trace of these ancient relatives in our DNA.

3. WHO IS DR. SPENCER WELLS AND WHAT ARE HIS CREDENTIALS? Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist, a National Geographic™ explorer-in-residence, and director of the Genographic Project. He obtained a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University in 1994. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University between 1994 and 1998, where he trained with famed geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, considered the “father of anthropological genetics.” It was there that Wells became committed to studying genetic diversity in indigenous populations and unraveling age-old mysteries about early human migration.

His field studies began in earnest in 1996 with his survey of Central Asia. In 1998 Wells and his colleagues expanded their study to include some 25,000 miles of Asia and the former Soviet republics. His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia at Oxford University where he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics.

Since the Genographic Project began, Wells’s work has taken him to over three dozen countries, including Chad, Tajikistan, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia. He recently published his second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project.

4. IS THIS A GENEALOGY STUDY? This is not a genealogical study, and your DNA trail may not lead to your present-day location. Rather, your results will reveal the anthropological story of your ancestors—where they lived and how they migrated around the world over tens of thousands of years. The autosomal results will reveal insights into recent admixture over the past six generations—for instance, if you have one parent of Asian descent and another from Western Europe, this mix will be reflected in your results.

5. HAS THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT RECEIVED ANY OUTSIDE REVIEW AND APPROVAL? Yes. The Genographic Project received full approval from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Pennsylvania Office of Regulatory Affairs on April 12, 2005. The IRB operates in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and ethical standards necessary for research involving human participants. Furthermore, the research protocols are reviewed by Institutional Review Boards in North Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Middle East, East Asia, South America, and Australia. Each research institution prepares, reviews, and submits the protocol, informed consent form, and any applicable revisions to their respective IRBs and to other pertinent organizations for approval. During the second phase of the project, any proposal that is submitted for a Genographic scientific grant will need to demonstrate relevant IRB and/or ethical committee oversight prior to funding.

6. ARE ANY PHARMACEUTICAL OR INSURANCE COMPANIES INVOLVED IN THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT? No. Individuals own the rights to their own samples and can withdraw from the project at any time and ask for their data to be removed from the database. This right extends to communities where the consent has been communal in character. The genetic data will not be treated as inventions and will not be patented.

7. WHO IS INVOLVED IN THIS PROJECT? Three main organizational groups oversee the Genographic Project:
National Geographic™ Society: A core team at National Geographic™ developed the concept of the Genographic Project with its Explorer-in-Residence and Project Director, Dr. Spencer Wells. The Society provides overall coordination for the project, including management of the grant.

Genographic Consortium: In the first phase, internationally recognized experts in human population genetics and related disciplines, located at 11 research laboratories and universities, led regional efforts to obtain and analyze DNA samples from indigenous populations during the first generation of the Genographic Project. One additional scientist focused on DNA collected from ancient samples. The participating centers are located at: the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (USA), Institut Pasteur (France), Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain), Russian Academy of Medical Sciences (Russia), La Trobe University (Australia), Fudan University (China), Madurai Kamaraj University (India), National Health Laboratory Service (South Africa), University of Auckland (New Zealand), Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil), and the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide (Australia). Members of the consortium continue to be involved with the project at various levels during the second phase.

International Advisory Board: An international advisory board, composed of leading global authorities in a number of related disciplines along with representatives of indigenous communities, ensures the adherence to strict global and regional sampling and research protocols, following the principles of free, prior, and informed consent. Members of the board also help define the community-led initiatives of the Legacy Fund.

8. HOW DOES THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT DIFFER FROM THE HUMAN GENOME DIVERSITY PROJECT (HGDP) PROPOSED IN THE EARLY 1990S? The Genographic Project has been designed from inception to consider the limitations of other studies such as HGDP—especially in terms of objectives, approach, and methodology. The Genographic Project is studying the human journey—how we are all related and how we arrived at where we live today. There is no medical research of any kind in the Genographic Project. It is nonprofit, nongovernmental, nonpolitical, and noncommercial. All the information belongs to the global community and is released into the public domain. The scientific consortium authors scientific papers based on their analysis, and the data associated with the research is made public. The Genographic Project is a nonprofit effort, and its noncommercial focus is fully supported by all its partners.

We have sought and continue to seek advice and counsel from leaders and members of indigenous and traditional communities about their voluntary participation in the project. It is an integral part of all outreach and the modus operandi of the project. The Genographic Project global community is a true collaboration between indigenous and traditional populations and individuals, scientists, educators, and communicators and connectors.

Transparency is also a key attribute. We aim to be accessible and have people be able to understand our goals, methods, and results. When the HGDP was first discussed over 15 years ago, the “language” of DNA and genetic anthropology was foreign and closed to all but a few scientists. Discussion and third-party review was less open and frank. Today that language is more familiar to many of us, and many of the ethical, privacy, and communication issues are more clearly understood by the global community.

9. IS THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT GOING TO PUBLISH ITS RESULTS IN BOOK FORM OR ON TV? All results are and will be published into the public domain following scientific peer review and other relevant community permissions. At present, Spencer Wells has published two books that document past and more current research: Journey of Man and Deep Ancestry. The results of the Genographic Project may be presented on television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and other media including books.

10. HOW DO I CONTACT THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT? If you have questions about your DNA analysis or your results, please email us at Email service allows our team to provide you with the most information. If you are unable to use email, you may call the Genographic Project at 713-868-1807.

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Copyright © 2019 by Robert Ranger, Wilmington, North Carolina.