Who are the British people? Where did they come from and how have they changed since the end of the ice age, when modern humans first came to the British Isles? How different are the people of Cornwall from those of Orkney or of East Anglia? Why are they different and what determines the differences?
These are questions that can, to an amazing extent, be answered
by studying the underlying genetic differences between the peoples
of the British Isles. This genetic variation not only relates to
the historical information we have about people's movements but may
also be important for studying inherited variation in disease
How it works
Apart from identical twins, all of us are genetically different.
The differences lie in our DNA sequence, which carries the
information that determines our biological makeup. In some
positions along the DNA there are common alternatives, rather like
alternative spellings of the same word (e.g. analyse and analyze).
The relative frequencies of such variations differ between
populations, and these differences determine the genetic
relationships between them.
To investigate the patterns across the UK, the scientists behind
this exhibit have examined DNA in blood samples collected from
individuals who have all four grandparents born in the same rural
area. This avoids the major effects of recent migrations into
The scientists analysed DNA variation at 500,000 DNA positions
in over 2,000 people from all over the UK, which can be
compared with other European countries. This has provided an
extraordinarily detailed genetic map of the genetic variation
between groups of people from different parts of the UK and their
relationships with other countries.
In the current phase of work scientists are searching for
the genetic variations that explain some common normal differences
between people, such as whether there are differences in the
ability to taste certain bitter substances, what may be the
genetics behind left versus right handedness, and what makes people
intolerant to milk, about which a lot is already known. In nearly
all these cases, it is already clear that the differences between
people may have a strong genetic/inherited component. To get some
idea of how these attributes vary in the population members of
the public are welcome to complete this online
questionnaire. A running summary of the answers will
be available so that you can see for yourself what the pattern
of variation in our population is.
One way of pinpointing genetic variations is to look at face shapes and how they vary. We have
been gathering a large set of 3D images of faces from all over the
UK. From the statistical variation of various facial
features, we hope to find anomalies that can be correlated with
Lead image: A genetic map of the UK. Each
small symbol is the place where a sample comes from. Individuals
who belong to a genetically similar group are distinguished by the
colour and shape of their symbol. (Download high-quality version TIFF
image or PDF