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Researchers develop DNA GPS tool to accurately trace geographical ancestry


May 1, 2014

Using GPS (but not that
 GPS), scientists can trace the geographic origins of someone's DNA more precisely than ever before (Image: Shutterstock)

Using GPS (but not that GPS), scientists can trace the geographic origins of someone's DNA more precisely than ever before (Image: Shutterstock)

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An international team of scientists has developed a process that allows them to pinpoint a person’s geographical origin going back 1,000 years. Known as the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool, the method is accurate enough to locate the village from which the subject’s ancestors came, and has significant implications for personalized medical treatment.

The new tool was created by Dr. Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield and Dr. Tatiana Tararinova from the University of Southern California. Whereas previous methods have only been able to trace the origin of a person’s DNA to within some 700 km (435 miles), the new method can track worldwide populations back to the islands or villages they descend from, with a 98 percent success rate.

GPS focuses on genetic admixture, a historically common occurrence in which previously separate populations begin to interbreed, creating new gene pools in the process. The new tool models this process by looking at more than 100,000 DNA signatures, known as ancestry-informative markers (AIMs) that are typical to specific geographical regions. The GPS tool uses autosomal chromosomes for analysis rather than mitochondrial or Y chromosomal DNA, as they provide a more balanced picture of an individual’s genetic makeup.

"We were surprised by the simplicity and precision of this method," said Dr. Elhaik. "People in a given geographical area are more likely to have similar genetics. When they also have genetic traits typically found in other, distant regions, the geographical origin of those traits is generally the closest location where those traits can be found.”

In the research study, published in Nature Communications, the team was able to place 25 percent of residents of 10 villages in Sardinia to their specific villages and the remainder to with 50 km (31 miles). Additionally, residents of 20 islands in Oceania were tested, with 90 percent being traced back to their exact island.

The breakthrough has significant implications in a number of fields. Being able to more accurately determine a patient’s ancestry will allow doctors to determine their susceptibility to certain genetic diseases, tailoring treatment and diagnostics accordingly. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that different genotypes may respond differently to certain medical treatments.

The new tool also has implications when it comes to the study of the geographical origin of certain populations, such as the Roma Gypsies or European Jews. In fact, Dr. Elhaik believes that GPS may significantly alter our perception of ethnicity. "It is impossible for any of us to tick one box on a form such as White British or African as we are much [more] complex models with our own unique identities," he said. "The notion of race is simply not plausible."

One of the most interesting aspects of the project is that just about anyone can use the new tool, providing they've already had their autosomal DNA genotyped by an external company (something that costs around US$100-200). Once that’s taken care of, users can upload their DNA data to the website, developed by Dr. Tatarinova, and use GPS to locate their ancestral home.

Watch the video below for more on the new GPS tool.

Source: University of Sheffield

About the Author
Chris Wood Chris specializes in mobile technology for Gizmag, but also likes to dabble in the latest gaming gadgets. He has a degree in Politics and Ancient History from the University of Exeter, and lives in Gloucestershire, UK. In his spare time you might find him playing music, following a variety of sports or binge watching Game of Thrones. All articles by Chris Wood

I'm guessing since this doesn't mention how many generations back it goes that it's probably less than 2. In which case, could you just ASK the person which village or island they came from? It might be cheaper.

Daniel Gregory

He continually refers to ancestral homeland in the singular, shouldn't it be plural, esp. for people like myself with rather diverse ancestry?

Sam Al

I tried their premium DNA GPS, with exported data from 23andme. It shows my ancestors are in the north Atlantic ocean. This means, the closest countries, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, England, are the most likely. Other searches I have used show more often, Scottish, Irish, English as the closest match. I'm not sure it is more accurate or not.


What is the address to the website he has developed where we can upload our autosomal DNA?

Pamela Moore

This article likely plagiarizes the open source work compiled by Dienekes two years ago: http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2014/04/nature-communications-genographic.html

See also: http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-geographic-position-structure-gps.html

Elhaik is a careerist who enjoys stirring up controversy.


@ Pamela, a google search using the search term 'search ancestry GPS' turns up the following website: http://prosapiagenetics.com/index.php.

@groovyguru: there are some islands in the north atlantic, close to Britain. the population is probably mostly of scandinavian origin, due to Viking activity.


Hypothetically, my mother is 50% eight generation Native American and 50% eighth generation English my father is 50% eighth generation Zulu and 50% eighth generation Chinese. How does one determine my origin? This is voodoo science. Mathematically the combination to follow would be exponential, But nothing today’s science I guess the English strain would take precedence since there is only

When some buffoon informs you that they are related to Harriet Tubman, Thomas Jefferson, Kunta Kinte, someone who came over on the Mayflower, Henry IV, Caesar, Moses etc, send them the following:

Family Tree No. of Ancestors Generation Date of Birth (plug in your own) You 0 1st Generation 1946 Parents 2 2nd Generation 1921 Grandparents 4 3rd Generation 1896 Great Grand 8 4th Generation 1871 Great Great Grand 16 5th Generation 1846 Great Great Great Grand 32 6th Generation 1821 Great Great Great Great Grand 64 7ih Generation 1796 Great Great Great Great Great Grand 128 8th Generation 1771 Great Great Great Great Great Great Grand 256 9th Generation 1746 Add a Great to above 512 10th Generation 1721 Add a Great to above 1024 11th Generation 1696 Add a Great to above 2048 12th Generation 1671 Add a Great to above 4096 13th Generation 1646

As a matter of common knowledge, we know that a generation averages about 25 years from the birth of a parent to the birth of a child although it varies case by case. We also generally accept that the length of a generation was closer to 20 years in earlier times.

Skeptic V

"The notion of race is simply not plausible."

If that is what he sincerely believes then it puts a huge question mark to his credibility and, IMO, renders his supposed "research" as highly questionable.

Anthony Rawdon

If you're going to prominently feature an image of the DNA double helix, please - PLEASE - make sure it's not one that turns the wrong direction and has about twice as many bases per turn than it should have.

There's plenty of DNA images on Shutterstock that were not made by scientific nitwits. I'd suggest you request your money back for this one.

And no, I did not read your article. If you can't even get the first image right, I see no reason why I should continue reading...


I believe this is the site and its not quite ready yet.... http://chcb.saban-chla.usc.edu/gps/index.php

Brently Gill
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