History project grows into gene machine

September 8, 1995

The rule that technology changes lives, but never quite in the manner foreseen, is rarely better exemplified than in the career of Gerard Bouchard, professor of history at the University of Quebec, at Chicotoumy.

Twenty-three years ago he returned to Canada, after completing a doctorate in Paris, bent on creating a comprehensive database of information for studying a district in the province of Quebec. "The idea of social history as it was developed in the 1960s was to use evidence to understand the composition of society and its evolution over time. This was a good idea, but we needed new investigative tools to achieve these objectives."

But what started as a one-man project, collecting the birth, death and marriage records in a single district has grown into a vast operation combining six universities - with Laval, McGill, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Concordia joining UQAC in the Inter-university Institute for Population Research (IREP) and aiming eventually to cover the whole of the province. There are now 4.4 million life histories in the database.

And while his initial objective of providing raw materials for research on demographic, social, cultural and economic change remains a core element, it has also proved interesting for a very different group - geneticists.

Professor Bouchard says: "With the ability to generate pedigree, it is possible to trace the history of a gene through the population, through time and space. Genes do not develop randomly and it is possible to trace the social, spatial and genealogical factors which determine their progress."

Research can be used to trace ancestors, or groups of ancestors, who introduced mutant genes and to identify groups at risk. "In many cases problems can be minimised if they are identified early," he says. But this also creates serious ethical problems - absolute confidentiality has to be maintained to ensure that living people are not identified.

Professor Bouchard is happy that there has not been a single complaint over confidentiality in 23 years. All research projects have to be approved by three committees, all independent of IREP's researchers. But concern over confidentiality means that future work is more likely to be historical in nature. "It's still very valuable for geneticists to be able to look at the way genes have developed in the past," he says.

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