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Image of the Week: Genetic map of the British Isles

20 Mar, 2015
Image courtesy of Stephen Leslie et al and Nature

Image courtesy of Stephen Leslie et al and Nature

Legend: Map of the UK showing clustering of individuals based on genetics, and its striking relationship with geography. Each of the genetic clusters is represented by a different symbol (combining shape and colour, with legend at the sides). There is one symbol plotted on the map for each of the individuals in the study. The ellipses give a sense of the geographical range of each genetic cluster.

A landmark new study into the genetic makeup of the UK has revealed that there may be scientific evidence underpinning those local ties that so many of us feel. This colourful map of the British Isles shows the genetic clusters that exist across the country, and how in many cases, local populations share a similar genetic makeup.

Researchers from the People of the British Isles project, supported by the Wellcome Trust, used DNA samples from 2,000 people, all of whose grandparents were born within 80km of each other, resulting in a map of the genetic makeup of late 19th century Britain.

Among the findings is the intriguing discovery that sometimes a geographic or political boundary can also correspond to a distinct genetic boundary. In Devon and Cornwall the map shows a clear distinction between the genetic makeups of the two counties, with a separate cluster present either side of the modern county boundary.

Samples taken from Wales show that the Welsh are the most similar to the earliest settlers of the British Isles, but also that the three defined genetic clusters exist in the North and South of the country as well as along the border with England.

Orkney also emerged as the most genetically distinct from the rest of the UK with 25% of DNA from Norse ancestry – perhaps unsurprising given its history of Norwegian rule.

In total 17 distinct clusters were identified across the UK. Along with an understanding of the historical migrations into Britain, the researchers used a further 6,000 samples from modern day Europe to help explain how these genetic clusters may have emerged.

You can find out more about People of the British Isles on the project website and the full study was published this week in Nature.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. George Jones permalink
    28 Mar, 2015 4:03 am

    Wellcome Trust and the PoBI used confusing Consent Forms to obtain Participant DNA samples and has not even notified the Participants to which of the 17 PoBI Clusters they are in. These persons were more interested in genetic ancestry research than genetic health research.

    Furthermore, various senior persons on the PoBI team had promised those in the Genetic Genealogy community the release of anonymized and macro level Cluster data so as to use BGA – Bio Geographical Analysis to best fit a Cluster.

    There is a vast gulf between citizen scientists doing Genetic Genealogy research and academic scientists doing Genetic Health research, Population Genetics research etc.

    The Wellcome Trust Board of Governors should address this issue.

    • 30 Mar, 2015 4:28 pm

      Thank you for your comment. The results of the People of the British Isles (POBI) study certainly seem to have captured the imagination of the public and have generated a lot of interest from those understandably interested in tracing their own genetic ancestry.

      However, the Wellcome Trust funds such studies as biomedical research, not genealogy. The POBI study itself was set up to look at the patterns of differences in people’s genetic make-up around the UK with two clear aims: to contribute to our understanding of genetics in health and disease, and to shed light on ancient migrations within the British Isles. It was not intended to investigate genetic ancestry at an individual level and the study wasn’t set up to return specific results to individuals (see study FAQs:

      All of the 4,500 volunteers who generously donated a blood sample to the POBI signed a consent form at the outset, which stated clearly the aims of the study and how their sample would be used. This included the important guarantee that their data would be anonymised, with no possibility of individual identification.

      The researchers are very grateful to the participants for volunteering to be part of this study, and have kept them informed throughout about general results via regular Newsletters, including one on the most recent publication in Nature.

      The more detailed data from the study is freely available through the European Genotype Archive to those working in bona fide research institutions. This ensures that the data is kept in a safe, controlled environment. Potential data users can apply for access to the dataset and must sign a user agreement that enables us to take action if any misuse of that data occurs.

      The Wellcome Trust is committed to ensuring that data from our projects is shared as widely as possible among the research community. We also take the responsibility of protecting participant privacy extremely seriously, particularly when that data contains sensitive information about an individual and their genetic make-up. This is why it is not possible to share the full, anonymised data with members of the genetic geneology community, unless they belong to research institutions and will be using the data for studies that could benefit human health.

  2. George Jones permalink
    10 Apr, 2015 4:49 pm

    The March 30, 2015 reply from Hannah and the Wellcome Trust concerning the “two clear research aims” of the PoBI study are very telling:

    “The POBI study itself was set up to look at the patterns of differences in people’s genetic make-up around the UK with two clear aims: to contribute to our understanding of genetics in health and disease, and to shed light on ancient migrations within the British Isles.”

    On the first aim of “contributing to our understanding of genetics in health and disease”, I assert that this particular PoBI study in Nature contributed practically nothing. Was there even one mention of a disease and its genetic linkage in this particular PoBI study? The answer is a clear No. Was there even one mention of a higher genetic based Odds Ratio for a disease such as diabetes in any of the 17 PoBI clusters? Again, the answer is a clear No. The general public knows that are many other factors than just genetics affecting health and disease such as: environmental – lifestyle – dietary – economic – etc. For the Wellcome Trust not to mention these other factors is shameful and misleading. I contend that the Wellcome Trust Board of Governors should reallocate their priorities and focus on providing the poor in the British Isles charitable funds to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables.

    On the second aim to “shed light on ancient migrations within the British Isles”, I contend that citizen scientists in the Genetic Genealogy community are much ahead of the PoBI researchers in this aspect.

    First of all there are many specialties within the Genetic Genealogy community that Hannah cares little about.

    The Genetic Genealogy community can be segmented into two distinct groups: (1) ‘Genetic Genealogy Recent Ancestry’ concerns the largest group seeking to fill in ‘their own’ family trees over the past 600 years (1400AD-2000AD). This period covers about their last 20 generation of ancestors. For those of us with British Ancestry in the USA, we need to research our ancestors born in the USA as well as in the British Isles.

    The second distinct group” ‘Genetic Genealogy Ancient Ancestry’ concerns a much smaller citizen scientist group seeking to learn more about the migratory patterns and geographic origins of their ancestors from about 5000BC to 1400AD. This 6400 year period covers about 220 generations. Unlike the recent PoBI study which looked at only Autosomal DNA, we also look at uni-parental Y-DNA unique to men which is passed from father to son as well as mt-DNA which a mother passes to both female and male children. These uni-parental Y-DNA and mt-DNA markers / SNPs / STRs / CNV / etc do not recombine as does Autosomal DNA and are thus much easier to trace via advanced NGS – Next Generation Sequencing DNA tests which many in a group such as Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b-L371 investigate. This particular Hg is ‘Ancient British’ from NW Wales and dates to about 3100BC.

    The PoBI study fails as it did not seek to verify some of its Autosomal DNA Cluster age narratives with Y-DNA and mt-DNA evidence.

    So, on the second aim to “shed light on ancient migrations within the British Isles”, I contend that those in the citizen scientist group concerned with ‘Genetic Genealogy Ancient Ancestry’ in the British Isles has far surpassed those in the academic community who did research on the US$5 million PoBI study.

    The PoBI researchers could and should release annoymized macro level Cluster data to qualified researchers in the ‘Genetic Genealogy Ancient Ancestry’ community. Until this is done, I call on members of the public to refrain from participating in any research funded or sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

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