Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.
A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Wells is spearheading the Genographic Project, calling it "a dream come true." His hope is that the project, which builds on Wells's earlier work (featured in his book and television program, The Journey of Man) and is being conducted in collaboration with other scientists around the world, will capture an invaluable genetic snapshot of humanity before modern-day influences erase it forever.
Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin. Beginning in 1994, Wells conducted postdoctoral training at Stanford University's School of Medicine with famed geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, considered the "father of anthropological genetics." It was there that Wells became committed to studying genetic diversity in indigenous populations and unraveling age-old mysteries about early human migration.
Wells's field studies began in earnest in 1996 with his survey of Central Asia. In 1998 Wells and his colleagues expanded their study to include some 25,000 miles of Asia and the former Soviet republics. His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.
Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.
Since the Genographic Project began, Wells's work has taken him to over three dozen countries, including Chad, Tajikistan, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia, and he recently published his second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. He lives with his wife, a documentary filmmaker, in Washington, D.C.
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Inside National Geographic Magazine
For the past four years Spencer Wells and his colleagues with National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project have been traveling the globe, collecting DNA in cheek swabs and blood samples from hundreds of indigenous groups.
A new study has found genetic traces of both the arrival of the Crusades and of the expansion of Islam in Lebanon. The findings not only confirm well-documented history but also present a rare genetic trail showing the movement of two major religions into Lebanon, scientists say.
By analyzing DNA from people in all regions of the world, geneticist Spencer Wells has concluded that all humans alive today are descended from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago.
The Genographic Project is seeking to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.
What are Spencer Wells and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
DNA gives us the tool to go back through the generations to find out details about the very earliest days of our species and where we all came from.
Dig deeper into how we all share common ancestors who embarked on different journeys.
Spencer Wells maps the history of human migration by analyzing the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
Listen to Spencer Wells
Hear an interview with Spencer Wells on National Geographic Weekend.
00:06:00 Spencer Wells
How far back can you trace your ancestors? Spencer Wells, director of the National Geographic Genographic Project, joins Boyd in the studio to talk about the project’s latest discovery: It turns out that most people from around the Mediterranean are descended from the Phoenecians, a group of seafarers and traders who founded colonies all over the Mediterranean until they were completely obliterated by the Romans in the second century B.C.
Wells is leading the farthest reaching human-migration study ever conducted.
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