Researchers build family tree with 13 million people

Geneticists mine a social network for useful data showing relationships going back centuries, and one of the world's largest family trees.

Family tree
Are we all related? The genealogy website Geni claims over 70 million users. Geni.com

How much do you know about your ancestors? Many people can't trace their family back more than a century, but researchers have grown a family tree with more than 13 million people in it.

Yaniv Erlich and colleagues at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have used data that goes back to the 15th century to shed light on how genetic traits influence successive generations.

In a presentation to an American Society of Human Genetics meeting, Erlich explained how using social networks can be useful for tracing characteristics in very large families.

While it's very costly and time-consuming to conduct large-scale genetic studies, popular genealogy sites can be a useful source of free data for research.

Erlich's team used data from 43 million public profiles on Geni, a social network focused on genealogy, to see how they were related.

Used with permission from the site's operator, the Geni data yielded variables such as longevity, fertility, migration patterns, and, in some cases, facial features from digital photos.

"Using this information, we constructed a single pedigree of 13 million individuals spanning many generations up to the 15th century and validated its quality using unilineal Y chromosome and mitochondira markers," the authors write in the abstract to their study.

"In addition, natural-language processing was used to convert genealogical information into birth and death locations to obtain a proxy for environmental factors."

The country-sized family remains anonymous because all identifying information was removed from the dataset, which is being made available to genetics researchers as a community resource.

That's a good thing, because if they hold a family reunion, mayhem would ensue.

Check out the Erlich vid below showing a map and projections of the births of millions of people through the Middle Ages through the early 20th century.

(Via Nature News)

 

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