A new DNA study in Iceland suggests that the country's main lineage may not be all Viking. Testing of ancient teeth from an Iceland museum suggests the country's first Viking settlers may have brought women from the British Isles with them. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with the lead author of the study, Kari Stefansson.
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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. When we think of the people of Iceland usually the image is of blonde hair, blue eyes: the Viking stereotype. But thanks to thousand-year-old teeth that perception is changing and Kari Stefansson how did teeth help you change your view of the genetic makeup of your people?
KARI STEFANSSON: We actually did a fairly large study of variations from the sequence of the DNA, Mitochondria in teeth from about 70 Icelanders from the time of the settlement.
WERMAN: And we're talking several centuries, ten centuries old teeth. You're the founder of Decode Genetics based in Reykjavik, Dr. Stefansson. And Decode develops drugs and DNA-based testing to improve the treatment and prevention of common diseases. So tell us what was different about this study, Dr. Stefansson. What was the methodology?
STEFANSSON: The methodology is in many ways very different from what we usually do, because we had to extract DNA out of old teeth which is both arduous and somewhat delicate. But when we looked at it, Mitochondrial DNA, it turns out that the majority of the Mitochondria are Celtic.
WERMAN: And explain Mitochondria for us.
STEFANSSON: The Mitochondria are all the enzymes, all the proteins and lipids that go into putting together this final power station for the cells. And the mitochondria passes from the mother to children, so the mother has a little bit more influence on the making of the child than the father. So Iceland was settled by young Norwegian boys who went to the British Isles, picked up women, and went up to Iceland and settled down.
WERMAN: Are we talking the original mail-order brides here?
STEFANSSON: [CHUCKLES] I am not entirely sure that these were mail-order brides, you know, it is not clear how eager these women were moving up to Iceland. But it is interesting because this study shows that the settlers of Iceland were actually more similar to people who today live in the British Isles than they were to modern Iceland. We have changed because of what is called "drift" which is basically a random sorting of chromosomes during the formation of germ cells.
WERMAN: I think one thing about plumbing the roots of one's own DNA is that there are fascinating things to learn, but there are possibly are things that you don't want to find out.
STEFANSSON: I am not necessarily in agreement on that. I find it absolutely fascinating that when we study the genesis of common diseases we get an insight into our own history as individuals as well as the history of our species. And I don't think there is any knowledge that we should avoid. It may be threatening, it is sometimes not particularly nice to look in the mirror in the morning, but still you do that. You want to know who you are and it is amazing how much impact this information that is handed to you from your past, how much impact it has on your life from the day you were born and until you die.
WERMAN: Dr. Kari Stefansson, the Founder of Decode Genetics in Reykjavik and lead author of this new study of 1,000-year-old Icelandic DNA. Thank you very much for your time.