Irish DNA Atlas

The Irish DNA Atlas is a population DNA study of the island of Ireland, run by researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in collaboration with the Genealogical Society of Ireland. Participants of the study provide a saliva sample (from which we can extract genetic data) and genealogical data (which provides recent ancestry information). Analysis of this genealogical information by the Genealogical Society of Ireland allows the selection of participants whose eight great-grandparents have all been born within 50km of each other – meaning that the recent genetic and genealogical ancestry each Irish DNA Atlas participant is representative of a specific location within Ireland.

The Irish DNA Atlas is a biobank designed to facilitate research into the population genetics and history of Ireland. Information about a population's past, such as population size, historical migrations and communities within the population, can leave footprints in the collective genome of that population. Studying the current genetic variation can reveal these footprints and shed light on past events. The footprints of this history can also impact the frequency of particular genetic diseases in a population. Therefore, a greater understanding a population's genetic diversity and history can aid the research into the genetics of disease in a population. Such work can help explain why particular communities have elevated rates of specific diseases and provide a foundation for better treatments.

The second aim of the Irish DNA Atlas project is to provide a reference of Irish genomes which can be compared to subsets of individuals experiencing a particular disease. By comparing the DNA profiles of groups of 'cases' (people who experience the disease) and 'controls' (people who do not) it is possible to identify parts of our DNA that predict disease. Identifying such genetic markers can help improve diagnosis and the nature of future treatments.

Through the analysis of the genetic and genealogical data of 196 Irish DNA Atlas participants, the study has already revealed a fine-scale map of Irish genetic variation1. This work has shown subtle regional differences in Irish genetics which echo the provinces of Ireland and show the genetic footprints of migration to the north-east of the island. A following study2 of the same individuals, which combined a greater number of Scottish references representing the major regions of Scotland, showed the genetic links between the north of Ireland and the south and west of Scotland in the greatest detail to date.

Having studied the common genetic variation and landscape of the island, the Irish DNA Atlas is now focusing on both:

  • Recruiting a greater number of participants: A larger sample size allows greater analytical power to detect subtle and rarer genetic variation in the Irish population. It further provides the opportunity to sample participants from communities and regions in Ireland not sampled in the Irish DNA Atlas to date.
  • Comparison to diasporic Irish populations: There are many large worldwide communities of Irish ancestral descent from multiple diasporas from Ireland. Understanding the 'ancestral pool' from which these communities have descended informs on their genetic variation and history. Furthermore, comparison of these diasporic populations to Irish references provided by the Irish DNA Atlas, allows detailed understanding of that diaspora's history.

Therefore, the Irish DNA Atlas has, and will continue to, reveal insights into the history and genetic variation of Ireland and Irish-descent populations around the world. Participants are providing valuable data with which to achieve these aims and research priorities, and this aids our understanding of human history and genetic disease.

Contact

For enquiries or further information about the study, please contact Prof. Gianpiero Cavalleri.

If you think you think you meet the entry criteria for participating in the Irish DNA Atlas study, please contact theirishdnaatlas@gmail.com.

References and further information

  1. Gilbert, E. et al. The Irish DNA Atlas: Revealing Fine-Scale Population Structure and History within Ireland. Sci Rep 7, 17199 (2017).
  2. Gilbert, E. et al. The genetic landscape of Scotland and the Isles. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 116, 19064-19070 (2019).

Dr Edmund Gilbert presented an overview of the results and insights that studying the Irish DNA Atlas has brought to the March meeting of the Genealogical Society in 2020. This talk is freely available to watch here.