Press release

Genetic map of the UK sheds light on history of Ancient Britons and modern day disease

A study funded by the Wellcome Trust and aimed at developing a genetic map of Britain has begun to shed light on how the ancient populations of Britain – the Celts, Anglo Saxons and Vikings – moved into and across the country.

Initial findings, presented in the Channel 4 series 'Face of Britain', support the notion that the Viking invasion of Britain was predominantly from Danish Vikings, with particularly Orkney being invaded by Norse Vikings.

Volunteers from across the UK have been donating samples of their blood to help scientists at the University of Oxford study genetic differences, known as genetic variation. Some of this variation contributes to inherited differences in susceptibility to many common diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

Working with researchers across the country, Professor Walter Bodmer and colleagues have already collected some 1,500 samples from volunteers and are looking to more than double that figure. In particular, they are interested in collecting blood samples from volunteers living in rural areas whose four grandparents were born in the same location, within a radius of approximately 30 miles.

"Our aim is to characterise the genetic make-up of the British population and relate this to the historical and archaeological evidence," says Professor Bodmer. "We are collecting samples from people in rural areas with all four grand parents from the same area so as to avoid the recent mixing up of populations in urban areas and to reach back in time as far as possible.

"Our samples will provide a valuable control for studies on disease susceptibility which depend on comparing the frequency of genetic markers in disease groups with that in control groups. If we are able to eliminate genetic markers linked to geography rather than disease, then we should be able to minimise the risk of finding spurious associations."

The researchers have already carried out some analysis of the samples they have already collected and will be presenting their initial results on 'Face of Britain'. By studying the Y chromosomes from their male volunteers, the researchers have been able to show where the Viking invasions of Britain originated. One variant of the Y chromosome, known as M17, is found in 20% of people from Norway, but is very rare elsewhere in Western Europe. However, in the Orkney Islands, almost one in three men have this variant, supporting the belief that Norse Vikings settled there. In contrast, the M17 variant is not found in areas where the Danish Vikings settled, suggesting that Norse and Danish Vikings were significantly different.

In other findings to be presented in the series, the researchers have found that two rare versions of the gene MC1R occur with a much higher frequency in areas where the Celts were settled than where the Anglo Saxons settled. These rare versions of the gene, found predominantly in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and regions of south west England, are associated with red hair.

People wishing to find out more about the project or to take part in the study can register online.