Mapping the Origins of Human Migration
The Genographic Project is a collaborative project with The National Geographic Society, IBM, and the Waitt Family Foundation being the principal backers. The purpose is to establish what the routes were by which humans populated the planet.
As you've probably noticed, we humans can be found pretty much anywere you look--for better or worse--but at some point in time we were in just one place. So, how did we get from that one place to being
This project, initially funded with $40 million(US) of private funds, takes buccal samples (swab of cheek cells) from indigenous populations worldwide. The project started in April 2005 and is slated to finish in 2010. Unique to this project is the ability for private individuals to add their buccal samples to the database albeit at a cost of $100(US).
These collected cheek cells will be processed which involves DNA extraction, amplification, sequencing, and bioinformatics mapping. With this developing database of DNA information, researchers will be able to trace mutations which will indicate the time and location of population movements. Pretty neat.
This sort of research has only been possible very recently. DNA/RNA amplification has been around for a few decades since Kary Mullis invented the PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) technique in 1983--and received a Nobel Prize for it in 1993 but the means to analyze huge amounts of DNA has only recently arrived. The development in the past decade of DNA Microarrays has enabled scientists to analyze thousands of genes quickly to determine which genes have been up or down regulated. The development of Real Time PCR has also given us an ability to quantify amplified product of the PCR process which allows for quick confirmation of genes found by Microarray. All of these techniques are what I do in my lab. I use them to compare patients treated with drugs for cancer and normal samples with no chemotherapy--and see which genes have been altered. The Genographic Project does much the same thing but they're analyzing changes over 60,000 years whereas I am only concerned with what's happening right now.
The actual method to analyze human population movement is to track changes to the DNA in the Y-chromosone (for paternal lines) and the mitochondria (for maternal inheiritance). The DNA from each of these is only inheirited from one parent so any mutations in the DNA will only appear in the progeny. These mutations are referred to as SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) and that just means that one of the nucleotides that the DNA codes for has been changed.
By looking at the DNA of individuals around the world, it's possible to cluster everyone into "families" that share the same mutations. Since these SNPs don't happen often, anyone sharing one has descended from a common ancestor.
As for spending the $100 to check out the migratory pattern of your ancestors, I can't recommend it. At this point in time I just don't see the generated information as being that specific. And no doubt it'll be free and much better documented in another 5 years or so.