Science and genealogy unite to profile typical Irish person


GENEALOGISTS AND geneticists have teamed up to try and root out what it means to be truly Irish. The study will map individual families to their ancestral homes, but will also show up the subtle genetic differences between being from Bantry as opposed to Ballinasloe.

“We are trying to understand what is the genetic signature of Irishness,” said biomedical research lecturer Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He has joined up with the Genealogical Society of Ireland to build an “Irish DNA atlas” to be constructed from a combination of conventional genealogical details matched up with DNA samples from those who ultimately take part in the project.

Details of the plan were revealed yesterday when the college and the society shared a stand at the Back to Our Past show at the RDS in Dublin.

The goal is to assemble a collection of DNA samples from people of Irish origin, which will be used to analyse genetic variation in the overall Irish population, Dr Cavalleri said yesterday.

The study should reveal a great deal about the island’s history and population movements that affected it, he said. The main focus is the historical one. Yet it will also have something to say about the Irish gene pool, how “Irish” genes affect general health of the population for good or for ill.

DNA samples contributed by individuals will be sequenced and will be used to assemble a profile of a “typical” Irish person.

At the very least the study should reveal the diversity of the Irish genome and associate this with geographical areas across the island, both North and South. It will also deliver information about the migration and settlement patterns across the island, he said.

This is assured given the way that the atlas will be constructed, said Dr Cavalleri, who devised and will lead the project. Those selected for participation must be able to trace back their family tree to include all eight great-grandparents and also link them to a tight geographical area of say 30km radius. If this information is available, they will also be asked to contribute a DNA sample taken as a simple mouth swab.

The society will co-ordinate the genealogical aspects of the project, while Dr Cavalleri will deal with the DNA. It will be possible for participants to be involved in the historical aspect without having to join the genetic side, he said.

He made assurances that access to DNA – from the 100 to 150 or so people from all parts of Ireland needed to build the atlas – would be strictly controlled. Yet if discoveries were made related to disease diagnosis using DNA in later years or if some genetic issue arose, the person contributing their DNA would be told, he said. “We do explain everything to them.”

More details about the project are available at its family website.