Journey of a man

''Every drop of human blood contains a history book written in the language of our genes.''
—Population geneticist Spencer Wells

Eight years ago, an obscure village, nestling among hills and surrounded by paddy fields near Madurai was cause for much excitement for a project team from the US. It was on a mission to trace human roots to a single origin. An unremarkable farmer's son and the placid Jyotimanickam village shot into the limelight when renowned population geneticist, Spencer Wells, landed on its dusty square.

Wells had hoped to prove that a few descendants of the first humans from Africa, trekking through India to reach Australia, had settled in south India. It took him several days to collect about 700 samples from in and around Madurai and put them through the DNA sequencer. But his search paid off. Virumandi Andi Thevar, an 18-year-old student, now a librarian, whose family had settled in the village for generations, was discovered to have the rare 'NRYM130' genetic mutation or 'marker' found in the first exodus out of Africa. The same marker was also found in some aborigines in Australia.

This discovery shot Spencer Wells to fame and he convinced the National Geographic Society, IBM and The Ted Waitt Family Foundation to fund a massive global project called Genographic. The project was officially launched in April 2005. The project hopes to unravel the mysteries of what compelled a band of their descendants to leave their home continent and spread across Eurasia. Field scientists will fan out across six continents to gather close to 100,000 samples from interesting and ancient isolated populations of the world. India is a critical link in this project.

Experts in ten regional research centres in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Lebanon, Russia, South Africa, UK, US and India will collate and interpret their findings. In India, the project roped in immunologist, Prof Ramasamy Pitchappan, chairman, School of Biological Science and Head of the Department of Immunology, Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU), and a key contributor to the discovery of the first coastal migration through India 50,000 years ago. Pitchappan had helped Wells in his Madurai project in 1998.

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