IBM and National Geographic to launch DNA database project

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Human Genetics

Genetics researchers announced today that they will beginning a five-year plan to create a map of human migrations based on DNA mapping. The "Genographic Project" will be funded by the Waitt Family Foundation, IBM Corporation, and the National Geographic Society, and plans to collect 100,000 samples of DNA from people all over the world in order to sequence how related to each other they are.

Details on data collection have not yet been specified, but there are implications that some of the data will come from field work among indigenous groups, and that other individuals may purchase kits to submit their own DNA in order to learn about their own genes.

The project has drawn immediate comparison with the failed Human Genome Diversity Project from the 1990s, which ended after controversy over the patenting of the DNA of indigenous peoples. The Genographic Project leaders say that they will make the information from their project public and will not patent genes. Whether or not researchers using the data will be subject to licensing guidelines, or whether they can patent their own discoveries using the data, remains to be answered.

In the last decade, the role of IBM tabulating machines in the Holocaust has been explored and criticized by a number of historians, and National Geographic has often been a target of critical theorists who have seen it as often representing the "gaze" of imperialism and Orientalism.

Previous genetic mapping projects which focused on specific ethnic groups have met with continuous controversy, with allusions often made to the projects of racial anthropometry of the early 20th century which served as the "scientific" backbone to scientific racism and eugenics legislation. Though the Genographic Project participants have tried to emphasize that their project will be to look at the "similarities" between different groups of people rather than the "differences," it seems likely to remain a controversial issue.