One Big Family

Researchers use data from the anonymized profiles of a family history network to develop family trees including up to 13 million individuals.

By | October 29, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, TAKATO MARUIComputational biologist Yaniv Erlich of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute has teamed up with the family history network MyHeritage to supplement the construction of family trees with big data. The project aims to “analyze the extent to which genealogical data can explain different aspects of human life such as personal well-being and patterns of immigration,” according to a press release put out last week (October 23).

“Family trees are basic yet powerful assets in human genetics,” said Erlich, who presented the work last week at the American Society of Human Genetics annual meeting in Boston, in the release. “Until now, the use of large scale genealogy data in genetic research has not been fully tapped. We are extremely excited about this collaboration and hope that this research will contribute to the broad scientific community and to the public good.”

Erlich and his colleagues pulled data on birth and death dates and locations from more than 43 million anonymized public profiles hosted on MyHeritage’s World Family Tree and constructed the world’s biggest family trees—including one containing 13 million individuals and dating back to the 15th century. As an example of how the data can be further explored, the researchers analyzed human immigration patterns starting in the 1400s and depicted the results on an animated world map. (See video below.)

The team made the pedigrees available to other researchers, and invite the investigation of how genealogy contributes to certain traits. “We’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of what these kinds of pedigrees can tell us,” Nancy Cox, a human geneticist at the University of Chicago, told Nature. In addition to human demographics and population expansions, the family trees could eventually be linked to medical or DNA data, for more health-based inquiry.

“People are becoming more willing to contribute data and medical records,” Kári Stefánsson, the founder of the Reykjavik-based genetics company deCODE who has traced his own family tree back to 910, told Nature. “It’s an exciting possibility.”

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