Citizen Scientists unlock Europe’s genetic history

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U. SHEFFIELD (UK) —A group of citizen scientists from Europe and North America are helping to identify vital clues to tell the story of Europe’s genetic heritage.

Citizen scientists don’t have a scientific background or training, but possess a passion for their subject and are increasingly being empowered by the scientific community to get involved in research.

“Understanding European history since man first arrived on the continent is a huge challenge for archaeologists and historians,” says Andy Grierson, from the Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) at the University of Sheffield.

“One way that scientists can help is by studying the genetics of European men. All men carry a Y chromosome that they inherit from their father, which has been passed down the generations from father to son for thousands of years. So most men in Europe will share common ancestry at some point in the past, and we are able to investigate this shared ancestry using genetic studies of the Y chromosome.

“However, up until recently, there have not been many genetic clues on the Y chromosome to allow scientists to be certain about identifying different populations.”

The team of citizen scientists addressed this problem by downloading human genome data obtained by the 1000 Genomes Project from the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. Then, working on their home computers, they managed to extract 200 novel genetic variants from Y chromosomes of the most numerous group of western European men.

By determining the patterns of these markers in each of the 1000 Genomes Project samples, they were able to draw up a new family tree for the majority of men in Western Europe.

The group hopes that this resource, reported in the journal PLoS One, will allow a much more detailed analysis of migration and expansion of populations in Europe. For example, some of the new genetic markers may help to study the origins and movements of different historical and cultural groups such as the Celts.

“This community-led approach to genetic research could easily be adopted by other research areas. In particular, the 1000 Genomes Project has made the whole genome sequence of more than 2,000 individuals freely available for research purposes. These sequences potentially contain new information that will give important insight in diverse disciplines such as clinical medicine and evolutionary biology,” Griesrson says.

“One problem is that the amount of data analysis involved is huge, so working in partnership with citizen scientists allows us to move forward far more rapidly. There are thousands of science graduates, who for one reason or another have pursued non-scientific careers.

“Getting involved in citizen science projects is one way that these people can re-engage with research. Likewise many people with careers in IT and computing already have the sorts of skills required for analysing whole genome sequences in projects like ours.”

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