Further reading

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 susceptibility.

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 cities.

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.

Phenotype questionnaire

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.

Face shapes

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 genetic variations.

Surname history

Do you know where your surname comes from, or how many people you share it with? Use the Great Britain Family Names Profiling website to trace the geography and history of your family name.

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 file.)