Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Icelanders and their unusual genealogy

Dr. Kari Stefansson can trace his ancestry back 1,100 years. That's almost unheard of in the U.S., but in his native Iceland, where genealogy is a national obsession, it hardly raises an eyebrow, says Time magazine.

The island nation is a genetic anomaly: settled by a few Norsemen and Celts in the 9th century A.D. and relatively free of later immigration, it is among the most genetically homogeneous countries on earth.

And in the late 1990s, when scientists were racing to map the human genome, Stefansson realized that Iceland's genetic isolation and unrivaled genealogical records made it a potential gold mine for isolating genes.

Thus began Iceland's great genetic experiment, an attempt to mine the gene pool of an entire country in search of the root causes of--and potential cures for--some of the world's worst diseases. And after years of controversy, dashed hopes and burst stock bubbles, the effort is finally paying off.

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