Colossal family tree reveals environment’s influence on lifespan

By Erika Check Hayden

Did you forget your mother’s birthday this year? Brace yourself: your family tree may now include the birthdays of 13 million people.

Computational biologist Yaniv Erlich of Columbia University in New York City and his colleagues have used crowdsourced data to make a family tree that links 13 million people. The ancestry chart, described today in Science1, is believed to be the largest verified resource of its kind — spanning an average of 11 generations.

Erlich’s team analysed the birth and death dates of the people in this tree, and calculated whether individuals were more likely to have died at similar ages if they were closely related. The group concludes that heredity explains only about 16% of the difference in lifespans for these individuals. Most of the differences were down to other factors, such as where and how people lived.

“This is a real tour de force,” says genetic epidemiologist Braxton Mitchell of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “This is a great example of using large, publicly available data sets to do interesting research.”

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