In the news: Peter Forster

February 21, 2003

When Peter Forster started compiling the world's most comprehensive database matching mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to geography, people laughed when he said he could tell from their saliva what their ancestors were doing 10,000 years ago.

This week, the Cambridge geneticist has suggested that, based on his mathematical modelling of mtDNA sequences, most published DNA sequences could be inaccurate. MtDNA is separate from cellular DNA and is passed down unchanged from mother to child. Unless a natural mutation occurs, it can be used to trace family histories over thousands of years.

In an editorial in Annals of Human Genetics , Dr Forster claims that more than half the mtDNA sequencing studies ever published contain simple copy errors. This undermines accepted research such as homogeneity of mtDNA of Icelanders or an African origin for mankind, and it has ramifications for all DNA sequences.

Dr Forster was born in London in 1967 and educated in Germany. As a chemistry undergraduate at Hamburg University, he was fascinated by Mitochondrial Eve, the hypothetical woman at the convergence of generations of human mothers. She was described in a paper by Dr Forster's hero, Berkeley researcher Alan Wilson, in 1987.

With a mathematician friend, Dr Forster worked on mtDNA sequences, trying to piece together how humans settled the continents and when. They stumbled across an algorithm that simplified the identification of plausible family trees from the data and began to build the database. In 1999, Dr Forster was invited to set up the molecular genetics laboratory at the Cambridge McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The database, featured in a BBC documentary last week, Motherland - A Genetic Journey , contains more than 20,000 mtDNA samples.

His ancestry-tracing service for the public will go as far back as Neanderthal times.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations