Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic and IBM. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.
Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin.
His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.
Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.
Question: Is genetically modified food safe?
Spencer Wells: Well, you know, I’m not an expert on genetic modification, it’s certainly not the sort of genetics I do, it is possible to do some very interesting and perhaps depending on your perspective, scary things to genomes these days including inserting genes that were never before, you know, the standards I think should be relatively tight for allowing these things to get out into the food supply. The problem is, you know, often that the tests don’t go on perhaps as long as they should, so how long is long enough, we don’t know, that’s one of the big questions. I mean is two years long enough, is five years long enough, is 20 years long enough, you know, I think that again is part of the social debate that we need to be having and I think, you know, citizens, people who should be able to vote on these possibilities, these topics, should be part of the debate, need to understand the pros and cons, you know, by inserting genes into plants, maybe we can up the protein content and that, you know, saves another hundred million people a year living in Sub Sahara in Africa. On the other hand, you know, is it possible that we’re inserting the wrong genes or that they might do something that, you know, we can’t anticipate at the outset, it’s a possibility, we need to know, you know, what those possibilities are, how this stuff really works, you know, the underlying mechanism I think that is part of being a scientifically literate citizen today.
Recorded on: 5/22/08