Scientists Find GPS for DNA

According to a new research paper, DNA markers hold the key to pinpointing your geographic origins. A treatise published in Nature Communications this month details the experiment and explains how, for some populations, DNA can provide point-of-origin accuracy within a few dozen kilometers.

The research, conducted by Eran Elhaik of the University of Sheffield and Tatiana Tatarinova of the University of Southern California, involved assigning a genetic admixture level (reflecting ancestral pool diversity) to each country's population. Looking at the combination of ancestral markers in each subject's DNA provides a good indication of where that person came from.

The graphic depicts different countries based on the diversity of their gene pools.
The graphic depicts different countries based on the diversity of their gene pools.

Live Science's Tanya Lewis explains the story in plainer English:

Elhaik and his team created an algorithm that uses genetics to home in on an individual's country of origin, called the Geographic Population Structure, with the fitting acronym GPS. The method first reconstructs ancestral human gene pools around the world. Then, it analyzes an individual's genome and associates each "letter," or base, in the genetic code with one of the global gene pools, creating a kind of genetic fingerprint. Finally, it matches each fingerprint to the fingerprints of populations that have resided in a specific location for a long time.

As you can see in the graphic, some countries have a high amount of diversity in their genetic pool. Others are fairly homogeneous. Any country that's had an indigenous population for several hundred years or more is compatible with the model.

In a sample of 600 subjects, GPS matched 83% to their country of origin accurately. For some island chains in Southeast Asia, the degree of accuracy sharpened to island of origin. For Sardinia, the algorithm plotted every subject to within 50 kilometers of their point of origin -- and 25% down to the village level.

What about countries where the population is relatively young (like the US) or especially diverse (like Bermuda)? Elhaik told Live Science the test is not as accurate for those places, because it tends to calculate the midpoint between origin points if a subject's parents are from different places. However, a future iteration of the algorithm will be able to predict the country of origin for each parent of a given subject.

Practical applications
Tracing your ancestry back through the centuries seems as though it would add a fascinating piece to the genealogical analytics puzzle, but experts say this type of genetic GPS could also have implications for personalized medicine, forensic science, and population studies. For those who feel a pressing need to have their DNA tested with the GPS algorithm right now, Tatarinova is offering the test to the general public through Prosapia Genetics.

What do you think, members? Are you going to send out a sample to find out where your six-times-great-grandparents did their grocery shopping, or is your DNA too complex a mix of cultures to nail down? I think that, even if today's versions of the algorithm can't account for "mixed" folks, it's easy to imagine a future where your DNA, linked with other data sources, can spell out your whole family history. Share your impressions below.

— Michael Steinhart, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Executive Editor,

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Michael Steinhart, Contributing Editor

Michael Steinhart has been covering IT and business computing for 15 years, tracking the rising popularity of virtualization, unified fabric, high-performance computing, and cloud infrastructures. He is editor of The Enterprise Cloud Site, which won the Least Imaginative Site Name award in 2012, and he managed, a community of IT professionals taking their first steps into cloud computing. From 2006 to 2012, Steinhart worked as an executive editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise, writing and managing research reports, whitepapers, case studies, magazine features, e-newsletters, blog posts, online videos, and podcasts. He also moderated and presented in dozens of webinars and virtual tradeshows. He got his start in IT journalism at CMP Media back in 1998, then moved to PC Magazine, managing the popular Solutions section and then covering business technology and consumer software. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications/journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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Re: Lost Heritage
  • 5/11/2014 9:37:44 AM

Sethbreedlove, yes. I think it has more to do with syllabus rather than analytics being put to use correctly. I am not saying that analytics cannot help in knowing more about history, sure they can. But transferring that knowledge to students is a different story altogether.

Re: Lost Heritage
  • 5/9/2014 6:19:49 PM

WaqasAltaf  , Like analytics, what ancestry gives us is a great story. Actually, this makes me think about how history should be taught. 

I remember back in highschool would drone on about the dull facts, dates and so on.  It was like being giving just raw data.  However, analytics is the story telling of why and how.  Like history should be taught, it is a soap opera. 

Re: Diversity
  • 5/9/2014 1:04:56 PM

Rbaz, true. The ideology of the global village. However, we can't say we all are the same even if we try to be because there are significant differences in the race when it comes to attitudes, temperament and beliefs.

Re: Lost Heritage
  • 5/9/2014 12:50:01 PM

Seth breed love, there is no harm or benefit if your ancestors turn out to be greats or not so greats. It is a general knowledge that can only give you satisfaction that you know what you're lineage is.

Re: admixture
  • 5/8/2014 1:15:51 PM

To wit, Lopate was interviewing New York Times writer Nicholas Wade about his new book:

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History 

Controversial stuff, on the whole, but it does tie into the research we discuss in the blog.



  • 5/8/2014 12:27:08 PM

Turns out genetics and racial traits are hot topics -- NPR's Leonard Lopate is talking about it right now.

Re: For how long
  • 5/5/2014 8:48:18 AM

Right and your family sounds like they were rooted fairly well so they stayed in roughly the same place.  I know that many families in those areas leave.  Ukraine is a very good example.  The region of Crimea is primarily of Russian descent, part of the fear with Crimea is that if Ukraine wanted to be heavy handed and force control of the region the Russian population would be displaced.

Re: Lost Heritage
  • 5/2/2014 10:59:49 AM

Definitely a good story, Seth. I wonder whether he paired the dish with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Re: For how long
  • 5/2/2014 10:56:46 AM

That's an argument I've been having with one of my second cousins, SaneIT -- whether our great-grandfather hailed from Ukraine or Poland. And of course, the answer is both.

On my mom's side, my grandmother used to tell me that they'd wake up in the morning and look out the window, wondering who was in power that day. Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, you name it.

But that's why the algorithm gives you a location, or radius, and then it's up to us to trace its historical affiliation. 

Re: Lost Heritage
  • 5/1/2014 1:06:18 PM

@Michael oh, I haven't even met all my first cousins because my mother was one of ten, and some of her siblings had even more kids than that. I find some of them on FB, and they are scattered around the globe -- California, Utah, England, Sourth Africa, Brazil (that cousin posts in Portuguese, though he was brought up speaking English), etc.

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