Edinburgh University experts used volunteers from small communities in the north of Scotland, Italy and Croatia to quickly scan half a million DNA letters – the chemical combinations that make up our genes – and pinpointed in some cases 100% accurately where their distant relatives lived.
Within five years they believe the technique could be developed sufficiently so that a person who lives in a city could trace their ancestors from other towns or countries.
Dr Jim Wilson, a Royal Society research fellow who led the university’s study, said: “This holds out the hope that, with more information, we might one day be able to determine the ancestry of city dwellers.
“There is a vast amount of untapped information residing in our DNA. This is not going to happen tomorrow, but within the next five years, if a database of samples from villages across Scotland is built up, we may be able to achieve this.”
His team analysed the genetics of unrelated people who had four grandparents from the same village on Scottish islands, three Italian alpine villages and two in Croatia. This resulting data was fed into a computer, which then decided which town each of the people came from based on their genetics.
It predicted the correct village of origin for 100% of the Italian sample, 96% of the Scottish sample and 89% of the Croatian sample.
The method cannot yet be applied to people who live in cities, as the industrial revolution and subsequent urbanisation mixed up the gene pool.
Wilson, who conceded that more research was needed, said that during the industrial revolution population movements were much slower.
This meant that whole families lived in small villages and towns for long stretches of time, handing down property from generation to generation and marrying people from nearby.
Wilson added that, if extensive research on rural areas was carried out, the technique could work across the Old World, from Europe to Asia. For example, Americans could trace their roots back to the countries from which their ancestors migrated, although inter-breeding may make this very difficult.
There has been a resurgence of interest in genealogy in recent years, partly thanks to the BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which famous people have traced their roots.
Wilson, who believes the discovery could prove financially profitable, added: “There could be money to be made if someone invested in creating a database, although this would be a huge cost. Just doing this in Scotland would involve collecting samples from every village in Scotland, which would take a lot of time and money.”
Dr Bruce Durie, head of the genealogy department at Strathclyde University, said the discovery could be valuable to anyone wishing to trace their roots.
He said: “It is going to be incredibly useful in pinpointing people’s geographical origin, as opposed to just their ancestral origin. Like all these tests, it will be expensive until it comes down in price as more and more people will take it up.”
Durie said that such technology was at an embryonic stage and would only really
work if more people become involved in tests.
He added: “At the moment, genetic testing is at a similar stage to those first brave people who installed a telephone when there was no-one else to call. Genealogical testing is at its best when there are lots of people of the same surname or from the same place ordering tests.”
However, he also warned that Edinburgh University’s method might only work in rural areas.
“This technique works best in historically isolated populations – Italian valleys and Scottish isles for instance,” said Durie.
“These broke down during the urbanisation of the industrial revolution and the mass diasporas of the 18th and 19th Centuries.”