The Driving Force Behind Iceland's Remarkable Genetic Research

The view from our room at Hotel Laxnes
The view from our room at Hotel Laxnes | © Steven Luck/Flickr
Iceland has been called the best place in the world to do genetic research. DeCODE, the Iceland-based genetic research company, has been collecting and researching Icelandic genomes for nearly two decades and has made great feats such as identifying a new Alzheimer’s-associated gene. This, among other genetic discoveries, is part of the important research being carried out by deCODE, whose findings are leading medical research and increasing knowledge about human evolution.

One reason the company is so successful is because of the homogeneous research pool in Iceland from which they take most of their samples. In fact, Iceland is remarkable in the field of genetics as the nation has the Book of Icelanders, an online database where you can see exactly how you and another are related, going all the way back to common ancestors in the 12th century. Because Icelanders can trace their lineage down to just a few common ancestors, there are less genetic variations which mean less interference when geneticists are identifying gene variations.

Íslensk Erfðagreining © Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr

DeCODE has also discovered another extremely beneficial use of Iceland’s homogeneous genetic database. The company has discovered something called a knockout gene, a genetic mutation that disables a gene, in almost a tenth of the Icelandic population. Since Iceland’s gene pool already has the knockout genes in place, this creates an opportunity for geneticists to increase their knowledge of the functions of this gene variant that could prove positive results in terms of disease studies.

Essentially, Iceland‘s gene pool makes the geneticist’s research process much easier. Instead of sifting through patients with a disease for commonalities, the geneticist can look directly at the genetic outliers and see exactly what is happening in the humans who have it. However, Iceland’s small population of 330,000 makes this process have its limits, as the research is limited to the kinds of genetic outliers existent only in this population. A higher volume of samples would be needed to do the same research in more diverse populations. While other countries have developed projects for genealogical research, there is no other place in the world with such complete information as the Icelandic database. In the end, we have to thank the archival impulse of Iceland’s early poets in the 9th century who began the tedious documentation of life in Iceland for the current wealth of knowledge on Icelandic genes and the new discoveries in genetics that are made possible from its database.