Bruce Winney, University of Oxford
Kat - I understand that you are carrying out a large project funded by the welcome trust which is trying to find out where the British people came from, what’s in our genes. Can you tell me more?
Bruce - That’s right, we’re looking to collect about 3,500 blood samples to collect DNA from people throughout the UK. We’re then going to look at a lot of genetic markers to get a genetic map of the British Isles.
Kat - What sort of markers are you looking for?
Bruce - We’re basically looking for markers which might give us differences between different parts of the regions, So some that are maybe more common in the North East than the South West, or vice versa. Typical ones that people might think of that we may look at are things like the ABO blood grouping system that most people know about; they’re either: A, B, O or AB. There’s another marker system which is involved in your immune response, so how you respond to pathogens and things and it’s also involved in rejection of tissues and tissue typing. This is known as the HLA system, one of the most diverse genetic markers there are in humans. Another interesting one is called MC1L, the Melano-cortin 1 receptor. It’s involved in skin colour and also associated with red hair. So genes involved in hair colour or skin colour might give us differences between different regions, so these are the sort of markers we’re looking at.
Kat - Where are you looking across the country?
Bruce - We’re looking throughout the UK but we’re particularly looking for rural communities; we’ve actually got quite strict criteria. We’re looking for people who have four grandparents born in the same area, a 30-40 mile radius. We’re looking in rural areas rather than the major cities, because with places like Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham etc, over the last 500,000 years there’s been a lot of movement and mixture of people into those cities from throughout the countryside and indeed throughout the world. So by focussing on rural areas, and by focussing on people who’ve got four grandparents born there; those volunteer’s families are likely to have been there for many generations and will be good representatives of the area.
Kat - So what do you think you’re going to find? Are you going to be able to look back and say: “well, you’re a Viking…” are you hoping to find that far back?
Bruce - Well, there’s various things we can do, we’ve done some preliminary analyses on a small number of samples and there’s a couple of interesting things that come out of this. One is that there’s a marker that’s on the Y chromosome, the chromosome that defines maleness, and there’s a particular version of that which is found in about 25% of Norwegians and then as you go further Eastwards along Northern Europe, it gets more and more common. It is also found in the Orkney Islands; 33% of men in the Orkney Islands have this version but in the rest of the UK and in most of the rest of Northern Europe it’s actually incredibly rare. So here we have a very rare and unique but specific marker which is associated with the Norse Vikings. In general its actually a lot more complicated than that as this example isn’t something that happens all the time but you can look at collections of genes and collections of markers and look at the frequencies in different places. We are beginning to show that we can see differences between the Celtic fringe, which represents the ancient Britons in the Neolithic times before the Anglo-Saxons came in, and also the Anglo-Saxons themselves. So we are beginning to look at historical differences.
Kat - And I understand that as well as looking at where the populations have come from, there are health aspects. What other things can you find in our genes?
Bruce - Well the main reason for doing this is from a medical point of view, which is why the Wellcome Trust have funded it. We’re going to use this sample set to help us search for genes that make people susceptible to diseases and these are in particular the common diseases and the complex ones such as heart disease, cancer and mental health diseases. To understand how we can do that, you need to think about how researchers tend to do these sorts of experiments. A researcher might be working on diabetes and over the years she will have built up a collection of diabetes patients. She’ll then get a group of people who don’t have diabetes and look for genetic differences between the two groups. So anything that is more common in the group of patients is likely to be associated with the disease. So what we’re doing is we are setting up what we call a UK control population so this is an average selection of people from throughout the UK that can be used in any of these sorts of studies for any of these diseases.
Kat - So if people are interested in taking part in your study, tell us again what the criteria are and how can people find out more?
Bruce - We are looking for people who have ideally got four grandparents born in the same area. By area I mean the same parish, county, 30-40 mile radius or something like that. And we’re looking for rural areas so we are intentionally excluding the big cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and London. We are still recruiting. We have now got about 1900 of our samples and so we are still desperately looking for lots of people. If people are interested and they think they fit the criteria, or know people who might do, they can go onto our website, which is www.peopleofthebritishisles.org and there are details of who to contact and how to volunteer through that.
Kat - Sounds great. So a lot of our listeners are in East Anglia so there might be a lot of rural populations there. So if there’s anyone out in the fens listening… Where in the country have you managed to get people from so far?
Bruce - Well, East Anglia’s been very good for us, particularly Norfolk, we’ve just about got all the individuals we need from Norfolk but we’re still looking for Suffolk. Other counties, Lincolnshire we have just about finished but basically every other county we are interested in so places like Cornwall, Devon, Oxfordshire, South Wales, North Wales, Cumbria and places in Scotland we are still actively recruiting. So basically anywhere in the country where there are rural populations, we are interested in hearing from people.
Kat - Brilliant. So that’s www.peopleofthebritishisles.org. Thanks very much, Bruce.