Where are You From?
(September 6th, 2016) Genetic studies, high school students and gambling. How does that link together? In Denmark, an initiative by the university of Aarhus has genotyped the DNA of 800 high-school students for a large-scale genetic study – funded by the national lottery.
Everybody seems to do it nowadays: scientific outreach is a hot topic, especially in times of social media. It’s a win-win situation for researchers: they inform the public about their work, building public trust in science, and in turn get funding for their lab. In Denmark, it has long since been tradition for public outreach activities to be funded not by any ordinary fund but by profits from the national lottery “Danske Spil”. Each year, groups can apply and receive funding within six months. That's exactly what a group at the country’s largest university, the University of Aarhus, did. Their very outstanding plan: recruiting high-school students to study the genotypes of a representative population across the country. But in the classical scientific outreach sense, they also wanted to give something back, i.e. scientific education to the young students, raising their interest in science, and information to the public.
And their plan worked out. After advertising the project in a Danish magazine for high school biology teachers, 40 high schools came forward and joined the project. In the end, over 1,100 students (aged 15 – 20) participated and, of them, 800 were selected for genotyping – that's how many they could afford to analyse from the lottery money.
For the biology teachers, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to spice up boring biology classes, as Frank Grønlund Jørgensen from the Tørring Gymnasium in Jutland remembers, “The students from my class generally were very interested in the project.” Thus, he teamed up with researchers from the University of Aarhus, including Thomas Mailund, for the nationwide project “Where are you from?”.
The researchers sent a kit for DNA collection from saliva to the 40 participating high schools; the researchers, who handled the kit, gave it to their students during biology class. Frank Grønlund Jørgensen explains that the students only had to spit into a container, which was then sent back to Aarhus University for DNA extraction and analysis. “In our class, the students that wished to volunteer their DNA, and were chosen to do so, provided the sample and filled out a questionnaire in class.” The questionnaire asked where they were born, where their parents and grandparents were born as well as general information on age, body height and BMI. Finally, the DNA sample was sent to personal genomics company 23andMe, where it got genotyped.
For the researchers at Aarhus University, this was an easy way to collect good data from a wide range of people across Denmark. But what did the students and the public get back from it? The students, for one, got to travel to Aarhus University to hear two symposia, one before and one after spitting into the containers. The symposia dealt with basic genetic concepts and preliminary scientific results, “Intriguing for the students,” remembers Frank Grønlund Jørgensen. “Some of the topics taught at the symposia are not usually taught in a high school setting. But it is my belief that the students, nonetheless, were able to understand most of the advanced topics at an impressive level.”
And the public can access all information online; for example, teaching material and software to analyse genotypic data. From the study's results, the project participants also put together a nicely condensed overview of Danish genetic history and geography, which is available online. For analogue people, there is even an exhibition in the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus.
Last but not least, the students helped to answer the question where they come from. Not for each person individually but for the whole Danish population. Resulting in a Genetics publication, Thomas Mailund et al. surprisingly discovered that the genetic make-up of the Danish population is remarkably homogenous. Also the influence from the neighbouring countries Britain, Sweden, Norway, Germany and France was less than expected.
The authors are very satisfied with the study because they could show that high school students are an extremely suitable target group for these kinds of studies. Moreover, they covered one in approximately 10,000 inhabitants of Denmark. Quite a large number, compared to a similar study in the UK, where only one in 16,000 inhabitants was genotyped. Future public outreach projects for genetic studies might even incorporate more environmental or disease-related data. For this, people must keep playing the lottery, though ;)