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Crowdsourced Family Trees

If genealogies and family histories offer potential treasure trove for researchers seeking to study genes over time, genetic diseases, and complex genetic traits, one researcher may have unlocked a Fort Knox-sized vault of data by creating what may be "the biggest family tree ever assembled," Heidi Ledford writes in Nature News.

Yaniv Erlich of the Whitehead Institute turned to genealogy websites to create large family trees, including a pedigree involving 13 million total individuals that could be used to analyze a range of genetic traits, as well as demographics and population expansions.

Erlich, who presented his crowd-sourced genealogy at the American Society of Human Genetics conference in Boston last week, has made the data he and his team amassed available for researchers to investigate and play with, although they have removed the names of the individuals to protect their privacy.

Gathering genealogy data can be a painstaking business, and has required volunteers to scrounge up information from a range of sources. Erlich's group turned to the genealogy website to collect data from more than 43 million public profiles that include general information about births, deaths, and locations. The team then fit these data into family trees that can grow to be far larger than previous genealogies.

While the structures of family trees may offer insights into demographics and population trends, University of Chicago geneticist Nancy Cox tells Nature News, the bigger prize will be finding ways to link these kinds of data to medical information or DNA sequences.

"We've really only begun to scratch the surface of what these kinds of pedigrees can tell us," she says.

But University of Utah in Salt Lake City geneticist Lisa Cannon-Albright cautions that self-reported genealogy data can be unreliable.

"Everyone wants to trace their family back to royalty," she says. "For these giant pedigrees, we just don't believe them beyond a certain date."