Yaniv Erlich has been a white-hat hacker and a geneticist at Columbia University, and now he works for a genealogy company. This unusual career trajectory has led, most recently, to a 13-million-person family tree unveiled [March 1] in Science.
The massive trove of data comes from public profiles on the crowdsourced genealogy website Geni.com, and it sheds light on human longevity and dispersal over time.
Zhang: Your study is published now, but it seems like this is a beginning rather than an end. I’d imagine what you’re really interested in is overlaying genetic data on top of the family tree.
Erlich: Exactly. At MyHeritage, we started to offer DNA tests to users in November 2016. Since then we’ve collected 1.2 million DNA profiles of users.
We’re asking, did you have a heart attack? Are your parents suffering from Alzheimer’s?
What we show is you can ask users to ask about their first-degree relatives [parents, siblings, and children] and since you share half of their genome you lose half of the signal but you get so many people to answer the question that you get back to the power needed to implicate genetic variants.
…[P]eople didn’t understand why I did this study. I got many questions: “Why even do something like that?” And then now, we’ve matured into this data-intensive world, it became very clear this is the right research to do.
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