Hacker creates 13-million-member family tree

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A savvy hacker created what many believe is the world's largest family tree. With more than 13 million members, the tree is larger than the population of many small nations.

It stretches back to the 15th century, when the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, European explorers first discovered the "New World" and the Inca and Aztec empires were at their peak.

Calling himself a "genome hacker," computational biologist Yanic Erlich culled data from genealogy websites, including 43 million public profiles on the site geni.com. Many of the profiles includes birth and death locations, as well as photos.

Erlich's team used the data to create a repository of trait and gene information. All names have been removed in order to protect privacy.

It is a vast improvement from the traditional method of gathering dates of birth and death from church records and family interviews.

Erlich and his team expect the extensive tree to help biologists and genealogists better understand how genes contribute to specific traits, such as longevity and fertility. By looking at a lineage, researchers may be able to tell when a trait started to shift, and if a few genes are more influential than others.

He presented his work at the American Society of Human Genetics annual meeting in Boston, on Oct. 24. It was also detailed in the journal Nature on Oct. 28.

At least one geneticist in the audience for Erlich's presentation said she's cautious to rate the scientific value of the 13-million-member tree.

"Everyone wants to trace their family back to royalty," Lisa Cannon-Albright, a geneticist at the University of Utah, told Nature. "For these giant pedigrees, we just don't believe them beyond a certain date." She names the year 1500 as the cut-off mark.

Previous family trees, or pedigree databases, typically topped out at a few hundred thousand family members.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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