In a project that uncharacteristically takes IBM Life Sciences outside the scope of human health, Big Blue has teamed up with the National Geographic Society to use population genomics in a study of human migration patterns. It wasn’t IBM’s idea, however. National Geographic approached IBM back in the fall of 2003 for help in managing the estimated $40 million effort, called the Genographic Project, which aims to apply SNP and gene marker analysis in indigenous populations to studying how humans populated the globe.
The science behind the project will focus on markers from the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA collected by 10 centers — in China, Russia, India, Lebanon, the US, Brazil, South Africa, the UK, France, and Australia — from indigenous populations located in those areas. Each center will process about 10,000 samples, and the project, led by National Geographic population geneticist Spencer Wells, is also encouraging the general public to participate by selling $99.95 kits that will allow people to submit their own cheek swab samples. The five-year project is funded by the Waitt Family Foundation.
IBM’s contribution will involve building and maintaining a database of the information collected by the 10 centers, as well as providing statistical and data-analysis support, says Carol Kovac, the industry general manager for IBM Life Sciences. “This is truly a massive undertaking, and a lot of the computational work will be done by scientists at the Watson Lab,” Kovac says. “It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible to collect [data] about people — whether that’s genotypic or phenotypic — and store it in a secure, private way, and allow individuals to control what happens to their data.”
— John S. MacNeil