Show geneticists the chromosomes in your genome – and they are quite likely to
identify your surname.
This astounding feat has been accomplished by Tel
Aviv University researchers, who have just published their findings in the
prestigious journal Science.
The Israeli researchers, who work at TAU and
at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Boston, developed an
algorithm that makes it possible to identify family names on the basis of
genetic data in the Y chromosome, which – conveniently – is handed down through
the generations from father to son (except for slight mutations along the way).
This discovery has long-term implications, including for the privacy of personal
Since the human genetic code has been cracked, many people
have been trying to learn about their genetic heritage, said Prof. Eran
Halperin of TAU’s school of computer sciences and the department of microbiology
and biotechnology. To meet this need, Dr. Yaniv Ehrlich of Whitehead, together
will Halperin and doctoral student David Golan of TAU’s statistics department,
built the computer algorithm that could determine the individual’s family line
only from his Y chromosome.
A sample of 900 American men were examined
for data on their Y chromosome that was stored in the Internet databank with the
genomes of 135,000 people. This comprised an accurate representative sample of
surnames, especially those of European ancestry.
The algorithm identified
the surname of one in eight tested, said Halperin.
In one case, the
researchers managed to identify the name and the fact that he lived in
California, all according to his Y chromosome. They also found the chromosome Y
information about famed geneticist Craig Venter, who headed the Genome Project,
after narrowing down the identity to only two men in California.
significance of the research, said Halperin, involves “more than a handful of
useful applications such as locating relatives and identifying bodies in natural
disasters and other calamities. But there is also something sinister, as if a
person publishes his genome on the Internet, even if done anonymously, his
identity could be exposed, and this was from only one chromosome and not from
all 22 pairs,” he added.
Despite this shortcoming, the researchers regard
the discovery as positive. People who disclose their genome must be made aware
of the risk of exposure, said Ehrlich. “We believe that legislators must take
special care when they plan such databanks.”