This past summer I spent a few weeks in Israel and then in Iceland (with brief visits to the Oxford workshop on Biological Sequence Analysis and Probabilistic Models, and to IST Austria). This is the first of two posts about my travels.
I have been a regular visitor to Iceland during the past 12 years, and every visit is associated with unforgettable unique and extraordinary experiences. I have climbed volcanos and I’ve descended into their depths. I have enjoyed geothermal heating- both in swimming pools and at the beach. And I have seen incredible Aurora Borealis. A couple of years ago I even got married there.
Iceland is indeed a beautiful place. But the most amazing thing about the country… is a truly remarkable and extraordinary… website. It is called Islendingabók, and is not to be confused with the book Islendingabók (Book of Icelanders) from which it borrowed its name. Islendingabók (the website) is a collaboration between the company deCODE Genetics and a computer scientist Friðrik Skúlason, who together set up a searchable genealogical database of Icelanders. The genealogy can only be browsed by registered users, and registration is currently limited to citizens and residents with an Icelandic kennitala (social security number). Many people have heard that Iceland has kept “good” records, but I don’t think the scope and power of the database is generally understood. Even geneticists I have talked to typically don’t have a clue about how detailed and thorough the database is. At the risk of hyperbole, I am blown away every time I look at it. There is nothing like it in the world.
As explained above, I am married to an Icelander (Ingileif Bryndis Hallgrímsdóttir), and she has kindly given me permission to peek at the data. Before getting to her family tree, just a word about the naming system in Iceland, because understanding it is helpful in parsing the genealogy. Surnames are patronymic, and contain the first name of the father with the appendage “son” for sons, and “dóttir” for daughters. Therefore husbands and wives don’t share surnames, but their first names point to their fathers. Below is Ingileif’s (Inga’s) complete family tree going back five generations:
Another naming convention is apparent in the repetition of names (modulo 2 generations) and its coupling to the patronymic naming system. Notice the switch from Ásgeir Jónsson -> Jón Ásgeirsson -> Ásgeir Jónsson and so on. Traditions run deep. For example, my daughter Steinunn Liorsdóttir is named after her grandmother, Steinunn Jónsdóttir, who is named after her grandmother, Steinunn Guðmundsdóttir, who is named after her grandmother, Steinunn Hannesdóttir, who is named after her grandmother, Steinunn Eyjólfsdóttir (born 1788).
As impressive as this is, the tree is much deeper. Below is the tree for her great-great-great grandfather Ásgeir (on her mother’s side), who was born in 1821:
This tree also goes back five generations (!), and is complete with the exception of three ancestors, who are five generations back (10th generation from my wife). At this point, ten generations back from my wife, we are looking at her relatives born in the early part of the 17th century. There is a lot of annotated information about every individual, not only when and where they were born and died, but also where they lived, and frequently also their professions. Of course the genealogy starts thinning out as one goes back in time and records become more scarce. How far back does it go? For some lines ancestors can be traced back to the 10th century and beyond, with a few lineages reaching kings of Norway ca. 800 AD. Below is the direct line of descendants from Ingólfur Arnarson, first settler of Iceland, to my wife. He is literally one of the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers of my daughters:
Every time I look at Icelandic ancestry chains like this I find my mind forced to stretch to accommodate a broader perspective of history. I begin to think in terms of dozens or hundreds of generations, and what humans have been doing on those timescales. In comparison to Icelandic genetics, other population genetic studies, such as the interesting recent study on Ashkenazi Jews by Itsik Pe’er’s group, are the blur of Gerhard Richter compared to the hyperrealism of Denis Peterson.
The genealogy of Icelanders was partly the rationale for the founding of deCODE Genetics, with the idea that it would be a powerful tool for linkage analysis when coupled with the DNA of Icelanders (in retrospect the genotyping, and now sequencing of a large part of the population means that large swaths of the genealogy can be inferred based on reconstructed haplotype blocks). But another rationale for the formation of deCODE, and one that has turned out to be extremely useful, is the general availability and sharing of records. Of course Iceland has a centralized health care system, and deCODE has been successful in working together with the Ministry of Welfare to perform many GWAS studies for a variety of diseases (it is worth noting that deCODE has by far the best publication record in GWAS in the world), but what is less well known outside of Iceland is the extent to which individuals are prepared to trade-off privacy for the sake of national equality, and the implications that has for genetics studies. To give one example, this summer during my visit the yearly estimates of salary for representative individuals from all professions were published. These are based on tax returns, which in Iceland are publicly available upon request. Here are the salaries of top executives (salaries are reported in thousands of Icelandic Krona per month; at this time 1 USD = 120 ISK):
Also, the income of a number of early deCODE employees were high this year as a result of the sale of the company to Amgen:
Below are some of the salaries for musicians and artists. Sadly, some things are the same in all countries:
Typically the salaries of about 1% of the population are estimated and published (this year approximately 3,000 people).
Along with publicly available tax records, many other databases are public, for example for many years school records of all students (i.e. grades) were published annually. One can start to imagine all sorts of creative GWAS…Again, as with the genealogy, I can think of no other country in the world with anything like this.
Iceland’s genealogy is embedded deeply into the public psyche, to the extent that I think it’s fair to say that the national identity is constructed around it. After all, it’s hard to argue with someone that they are Icelandic when their ancestry traces back to the first settler. At the same time, like many nations in Europe and around the world, the country is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, and the genealogy tree is beginning to look a lot more like a trimmed rosebush. Like many other nations, Icelanders are having to confront the questions “Who is an Icelander? What is an Icelander?” Ultimately, the answer cannot and will not come from genetics.