For over 10 years, a team of scientific researchers from the University of Oxford have been studying the genetic makeup of more than 4,500 volunteers. It’s all part of the ambitious People of the British Isles (PoBI) project, and the results could help shape the future health of the nation.
Who do we think we are?
In 2004, Professor Sir Walter Bodmer and his team set about the task of exploring potential genetic differences between regions within the UK, and their work has now been likened to a modern-day Domesday book, chronicling a substantial DNA database.
Speaking to university publication, Oxford Today, Bodmer states: “Genetical evidence such as this gives us information about what happened to the whole population – the small man, not just the leaders and the elites that history and archaeology tend to focus on.”
Indeed, whereas the popular historical theory had claimed an Anglo-Saxon invasion wiped out the Romano-British population, the DNA data indicates that, although there was a definite influx of Anglo-Saxons, there was also intermingling and co-existing rather than all-out genocide.
In order to paint an accurate picture of the differences between each region, samples were only taken from volunteers in rural areas where all four grandparents had been. Bodmer affirms: “In order to really understand the British population genetically, you can’t just go into the high street and look for someone who says they are British. You need to be more specific about where you look.”
The results were then analysed and grouped together according to their genetic similarities, forming a map of the British Isles.
The same, but different
Essentially, on a genetic level, Britons are very similar from top to bottom. However, there are some slight, but very real, geographic variations.
- Orkney islanders have Norwegian ancestry and are most different from the rest of the British Isles
- The DNA of central and southern England is closely related to that of Belgium, Denmark and Germany
- The Cornish and Welsh genetics share similarities with the modern French
- Northern Ireland and Scotland has links to Irish ancestry
Also speaking to Oxford Today, Professor Peter Donnelly, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, commented: “We can see clear signs of certain patterns which are present in the DNA of samples from all over the British Isles – this means that they are likely to be very old, and is what we have termed the ancient British DNA.”
The PoBI findings have been said to form a ‘control’ sample that could be used to compare the makeup of people suffering from serious illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer. “This can be used in future research into the genetic components of susceptibility to a number of diseases,” says Bodmer.
Bodmer and Donnelly are now collaborating on a project to learn how genes dictate our facial features, leading to some commentators predicting that police will one day be able to issue suspect descriptions based purely on DNA samples found at crime scenes.
it may sound like science fiction, but so did DNA testing not so long ago.
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