Borders-based DNA researchers help comic Izzard trace ancestors

COMEDIAN Eddie Izzard is the latest celebrity seeking to trace his earliest ancestors by having his DNA tested by the specialist Borders company set up by local historian, author and broadcaster, Alistair Moffat.

In a new BBC documentary entitled ‘Meet the Izzards’, the comic is seen collaborating with scientists at the University of Edinburgh and staff of the Melrose-based research team at BritainsDNA.

A simple saliva test was the starting point that let experts trace Eddie’s origins back to Africa – over 200,000 years ago.

“I was very keen to film a documentary following my own DNA because it not only tells me who the hell I am, but also, as we go back thousands of years, who everyone else is,” Izzard explained.

Some time after 70,000BC, a small group of people detached themselves from the Central African communities of hunter-gatherers and began to walk northwards.

And it was members of this tiny group that would eventually populate the whole of the rest of the world.

Dr Jim Wilson, who set up BritainsDNA with Mr Moffat early last year, says he found the making of the ‘Izzards’ film very moving.

“Meet the Izzards is a wonderful exposition of how the science of genetic genealogy can trace our ancestral journeys across the globe as Eddie retraces the footsteps of his and our ancestors all the way from Africa to England,” he explained.

And the basic scientific concepts behind the series appealed strongly to the comedian’s own sentiments: “It takes us back 200,000 years, with our genetics, and as you go further back, it’s not my genetics, it’s not the family genetics, it’s all of our genetics.

“And we all come out of Africa, and we come from the same people. So we were a small group of 10,000 people and then we’ve turned into seven billion people on the planet,” he said.

Dr Wilson added: “While Eddie clearly has many ancestors, if we want to trace a family line back through the generations, there are two ancestral lineages that we can learn much more about than the others, that of the father’s father’s father and the mother’s mother’s mother, and so on back in time.

“The fatherline is traced using the Y chromosome, a block of DNA a bit like a surname or a family crest that is handed down from father to son, and the motherline is tracked using a piece of DNA which is passed from a mother to her children, and it is known as mtDNA. Eddie retraces his motherline in the first episode and his fatherline in the second.”

The first programme from the two-part Meet the Izzards aired last night on BBC One, with the second due to be broadcast this evening.

Mr Moffat and Izzard have both come a long way since they first met many years ago: “What’s lovely about the Eddie Izzard films is that when I was running the Edinburgh Festival Fringe all those years ago (1976-1981), I met Eddie when he was just starting out,” Mr Moffat told TheSouthern this week. “It’s great that a company based in Melrose seems to have this huge reach, not only geographically, but also in terms of the techniques and skills our people have.

“This sort of knowledge-based business is surely the sort of thing we should be doing in the Borders.

“In the 14 months we have been operating we have done the DNA of lots of well-known folks – Tom Conti’s, Fred Macaulay’s, Jeremy Vine’s, Michael Johnson’s – and now Eddie Izzard’s.

“It obviously publicises what we do, but it also extends our range. Every day we are dealing with customers from all over the world and at the same time building a store of new data, something that changes the way we see our history and ourselves.”