Navigation path

Headlines Published on 13 September 2012

Title Citizen scientists help shed light on European genetic heritage mystery

One of the greatest challenges facing archaeologists and historians is to understand Man's first steps on the European continent. Such a big task almost necessitates the requirement for a big team. This is why the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom enlisted 'citizen scientists' to help them in their crucial research into European genetic heritage. These citizen scientists were not required to have a scientific background or training, but this was balanced out by their passion for the subject. As a result citizen scientists are increasingly being empowered by the scientific community to get involved in research. The study was presented in the journal PLoS ONE.

Chromosomes © Shutterstock
©  Shutterstock

This initiative was led by Dr Andy Grierson from the University of Sheffield's Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), and it enlisted the help of citizen scientists from Europe and North America. Together, they hoped to identify vital new clues that tell the story of Europe's genetic history.

Dr Grierson explained the task: 'Understanding European history since man first arrived on the continent is a huge challenge for archaeologists and historians. 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.'

In response to this knowledge deficit the team responded by downloading human genome data obtained by the 1000 Genomes Project from the Sanger Centre in Cambridge (United Kingdom). Using this data they extracted 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, the team drew up a new family tree for the majority of men in Western Europe.

This information now allows for a more detailed analysis of migration and expansion of populations in Europe.

'This community-led approach to genetic research could easily be adopted by other research areas,' said Dr Grierson. '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.'

Working with the citizen scientists gave the researchers the means to move forward with the study much more quickly despite the huge amount of data analysis involved, according to Dr Grierson. 'There are thousands of science graduates, who for one reason or another have pursued non-scientific careers,' he said. 'Getting involved in citizen science projects is one way that these people can re-engage with research. Likewise many people with careers in information technology and computing already have the sorts of skills required for analysing whole genome sequences in projects like ours.'

More information:

  • University of Sheffield's Institute for Translational Neuroscience
  • PLoS ONE