“Largest Family Tree” Is Helping Trace the Entirety of Human History
Researchers from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute have engaged in the most Herculean of tasks and combined ancient and modern DNA to record the largest family tree ever made, dating back a whopping 100,000 years! Published in the journal Human Evolution earlier this week, the study allows individuals to ascertain who their far removed and distant ancestors are, and also links to people alive today.
Just as a family tree shows how an individual is related to their parents or siblings, genetic genealogy reveals which genes are shared between two individuals, says lead author Anthony Wilder Wohns, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
The largest family tree ever created, by the Oxford Big Data Institute, covered over 50,000 generations of humans! (Human Evolution)
The Largest Family Tree Made With 50,000 Generations of Data
"Simply put, what we did was we created the largest human family tree ever," Wohns said. "We have a single genealogy that traces the ancestry of all of humanity, and shows how we're all related to each other today. It's basically understanding the entire story of human history that's written in our genes. Essentially, we are reconstructing the genomes of our ancestors and using them to form a series of linked evolutionary trees that we call a ‘tree sequence’,” Wohns explained.
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This mammoth task would not be possible without the sophistication and computational abilities of the most advanced technology, which has literally revolutionized human genetic research in the past twenty years. Genetic data for hundreds of thousands of individuals have been generated, including thousands of prehistoric possibilities, paving the way for individuals in the most far off and disconnected places to see how they are potentially related to people far away.
The study’s lead authors Wohns and Yan Wong explained, in an article in The Conversation, how they made the world’s largest family tree. This enormous family tree of recent human evolution was "built" from 215 diverse human populations from varying times and geographic locations. The genealogy, lines of descent from our common ancestors, includes the genomes of 3,601 people from three separate datasets, as well as eight high quality ancient genomes.
The ancient genomes came from three Neanderthals who lived in Eurasia until around 40,000 years ago, a Denisovan individual (based on a bone shard found in a Siberian cave), and a family of four humans from the Russian Altai Afanasievo culture who lived 4,500 years ago in south Siberia. Some DNA samples used in the study were 100,000 years old!
From the “root” of the tree successive generations produced a series of 13 million interlinked “tree sequences,” including an estimated 27 million common ancestors.
Samples from diverse times, geographic locations, and populations were processed, sequenced, and analyzed using a variety of techniques. The resulting datasets contain genuine variation but also complex patterns of missing data and error. “This makes combining data challenging and hinders efforts to generate the most complete picture of human genomic variation,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Darwin's "Out of Africa" theory, as shown in this map, was also largely confirmed by the recent "biggest" family tree study. Red is for Homo sapiens, bright yellow for Neanderthals and darker yellow for Homo erectus. (NordNordWest / Public domain)
The Family Tree Study Proves Darwin’s Out of Africa Theory
The recent family tree study also confirms the Darwinian Out-of-Africa evolutionary hypothesis. The study clearly showed that most human evolution took place in Africa, before a large movement was observed out of the continent 70,000 years ago. Additionally, the most genetic diversity and oldest human ancestors are both located on the African continent. Interestingly, the data also threw up instances of unknown human migration from the past. For example, there was an earlier human presence found in North America and Oceania that conflicted with present timelines, reported CNN.
Most importantly, while the data speaks for itself, the larger picture that this research helps paint is shedding light on the complex story of human history.
"It's going to be a really rich resource for future investigation into human evolutionary history," added Wohns. This is because the entire database is available for download online, including instructions on how to use it.
This amazing database will help us to understand larger migratory patterns and more accurately estimate where and when our human ancestors lived.
The database could also be used to study the genealogy of any organism, which includes diseases like Covid, which can help further the study of the relationships between genetics and disease. Wohns acknowledges that this is only a first attempt of such a kind, and future research and analysis will help further this fascinating field of study.
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“This study is laying the groundwork for the next generation of DNA sequencing. As the quality of genome sequences from modern and ancient DNA samples improves, the trees will become even more accurate and we will eventually be able to generate a single, unified map that explains the descent of all the human genetic variation we see today,” concluded Dr. Wong.
Top image: Oxford University's Big Data Institute has used ancient and modern DNA to create the world's "largest family tree" spanning 100,000 years! Source: milankubicka / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Guy, J. 2022. DNA reveals biggest-ever human family tree, dating back 100,000 years. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/02/24/world/unified-human-genome-scli-intl-scn-gbr/index.html
Rice, L. 2022. Oxford researchers create ‘largest ever family tree’. Available at: https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/19946428.oxford-researchers-create-largest-ever-family-tree/
University of Oxford. 2022. “A Genealogy for All of Humanity” – University of Oxford Researchers Create Largest Ever Human Family Tree. Available at: https://scitechdaily.com/a-genealogy-for-all-of-humanity-university-of-oxford-researchers-create-largest-ever-human-family-tree/.
Wohns, A.W., Wong, Y., et al. 2022. A unified genealogy of modern and ancient genomes. Science, 375. Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abi8264
Wong, Y., Wohns, A.W. 2022. We’re analysing DNA from ancient and modern humans to create a ‘family tree of everyone’. Available at: https://theconversation.com/were-analysing-dna-from-ancient-and-modern-humans-to-create-a-family-tree-of-everyone-177603