Adam Piore, in Nautilus, tells the fascinating story of Decode, the company founded in 1996 to collect and study Icelandic DNA, using the genetics of that island nations’s small and closely-related population to find genetic links to common diseases.
In the ninth century there was a Norwegian Viking named Kveldulf, so big and strong that no man could defeat him. He sailed the seas in a long-ship and raided and plundered towns and homesteads of distant lands for many years. He settled down to farm, a very wealthy man.
Kveldulf had two sons who grew up to become mighty warriors. One joined the service of King Harald Tangle Hair. But in time the King grew fearful of the sonâ€™s growing power and had him murdered. Kveldulf vowed revenge. With his surviving son and allies, Kveldulf caught up with the killers, and wielding a double-bladed ax, slew 50 men. He sent the paltriest survivors back to the king to recount his deed and fled toward the newly settled realm of Iceland. Kveldulf died on the journey. But his remaining son Skallagrim landed on Icelandâ€™s west coast, prospered, and had children.
Skallagrimâ€™s children had children. Those children had children. And the blood and genes of Kveldulf the Viking and Skallagrim his son were passed down the ages. Then, in 1949, in the capital of Reykjavik, a descendent named Kari Stefansson was born.
Like Kveldulf, Stefansson would grow to be a giant, 6â€™5â€, with piercing eyes and a beard. As a young man, he set out for the distant lands of the universities of Chicago and Harvard in search of intellectual bounty. But at the dawn of modern genetics in the 1990s, Stefansson, a neurologist, was lured back to his homeland by an unlikely enticementâ€”the very genes that he and his 300,000-plus countrymen had inherited from Kveldulf and the tiny band of settlers who gave birth to Iceland.
Stefansson had a bold vision. He would create a library of DNA from every single living descendent of his nationâ€™s early inhabitants. This library, coupled with Icelandâ€™s rich trove of genealogical data and meticulous medical records, would constitute an unparalleled resource that could reveal the causesâ€”and point to curesâ€”for human diseases.
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