Meet the people of Genetic ParkCenturies of isolation have turned the inhabitants of remote Italian villages into a living laboratoryTen remote villages in southern Italy are this week becoming a "genetic park" where scientists can harvest the racially pure inhabitants' DNA to identify the causes of disease. Isolated for centuries by mountains and forest, the villagers' genetic history stretches back to the Greeks and could hold the key to cures for Alzheimer's disease, asthma, cancer and hypertension.
Villagers crowded into the town hall of Gioi Cilento at the weekend to toast a project they hope will bring visitors and jobs, reversing generations of poverty and emigration. It is one of science's most ambitious attempts to trace the roots of inherited illnesses by spotting genetic differences between a homogeneous people. Similar projects are under way in Sardinia, Iceland, and the Pacific islands.
The villagers agreed to become a living laboratory after it was explained they possessed a unique gene pool that could help create better drugs.Two hours south of Naples, the area, known as Cilento, had no roads or electricity until recent decades. Woods thick with olives, chestnuts, gorges and caves made it one of the remotest parts of the region of Campania.Scientists chose Cilento because its inhabitants, who survive by farming and making cheese, have been undisturbed by large-scale immigration for millennia. Some of the villages, which each have between 600 and 2,000 inhabitants, still speak ancient Greek and Albanian. Another 70 Cilento villages are expected to join the project next year.
The park is protected by Unesco because of archaeological and environmental treasures.
From today a Naples-based team from the International Institute of Genetics and Biophysics will start combing church records, which date back 500 years, to build families' genealogical profiles. Interviews with local doctors, blood samples and DNA analysis will follow. A genetic data bank should be ready within two years.
By comparing genetically similar people it is much easier to spot rogue genes linked to disease, says Graziella Persico, who is heading the team."These people are so isolated they are perfect for research. We're not looking for any disease in particular, that will emerge in time. Then specialists from America and England can come to study." Months of reassuring villagers led up to today's ceremony, which will include mayors, biologists, anthropologists and sociologists. "We had to explain that we weren't going to use them. We will be here for many, many years."The decoding of the human genome in June injected urgency into the search for inherited susceptability to disease.
The project is funded by Italy's national research council but private backers are being sought, a move that could be controversial if profit-making companies are given exclusive access to data.
Iceland agonised over ethical and privacy concerns before handing over the entire population's medical records to the American company DeCode Genetics.
Playing a role in 21st-century medicine is gratifying but Cilento's inhabitants hope the researchers' arrival will reverse an atrophy that has left villages half-abandoned, according to Andrea Salati, mayor of Gioi Cilento. "Many of our children have gone, it's mostly old people, which means our communities are dying. This has given us hope for the future. It is a chance to create tourism."
Domenico Nicoletti, director of the park, has for years been striving to tap its tourist potential. "It is the only realistic way to revive these villages," he says. When approached by the scientists he persuaded them to include an economic angle to the project. Businesses and employer organisations in Naples were brought on board. Experts in catering and accommodation will tour the villages offering workshops on how to set up bed & breakfasts, an alien concept in rural Campania.
Dr Persico acknowledges that studying Cilento's isolation could in fact end it. "If emigrants start returning and tourists hear about what's going on the park is likely to change, we know that. But so be it. That's what the villages want."
For communities on the coast, which survive on fishing and tourism, Cilento has remained an unexplored wilderness fit only for goats and mountain people. Hundreds of caves form elaborate labyrinths populated only by bats. Travellers who come to view the stalactites without guides routinely become disoriented. In 1889 two brothers went missing. By the time they were found, one was dead and the other insane.
A genetic park of two villages in Sardinia set up earlier this year is yielding results, says Mario Pirastu, director of the national research council's institute for molecular genetics. "We've set up a model that will be extremely useful to geneticists. We will be publishing results in the next few months."
Investigations of the DNA of close-knit communities is likely to grow as results become more spectacular. Genes linked to breast cancer have been found among Ashkenazi Jews, hypertension among Turks and diabetes among Finns.
How isolated peoples' DNA can help science unlock secrets of diseaseSicily From the mountain town of Troina, opposite Mount Etna, biologists at the Oasi research centre are on the verge of announcing the isolation of genetic mutations linked to phenylketonuria, a disease that retards babies' development.
Cambridge archaeologists, investigating tombs and artefacts, have helped the biologists by mapping who settled where and when. The mutation is believed to have been brought by a bronze age settler from Anatolia, Turkey
Sardinia A gene data bank of 4,000 people from the villages of Perdasdefogu and Talana is being compiled to unlock secrets of cancer, heart disease, asthma and depression.
The second most homogeneous people in Europe after the Lapps, Sardinians were not diluted with immigrants. People rarely married outside their villages. The population of Talana is descended from eight fathers and eight mothers
Iceland The rogue gene responsible for Alzheimer's disease has been identified in a gene pool directly linked to the Vikings. The island's ethnic balance - 85% Nordic and 15% Celt - has been largely undisturbed for 1,000 years
Pingelap Island Almost all of the western Pacific island's 3,000 inhabitants are descended from the 20 survivors of a 1775 storm. DNA from the 5% of islanders who have a rare type of colour blindness has helped scientists locate a gene for colour vision
Norfolk Island The 1,500 south Pacific descendants of Fletcher Christian and other mutineers on HMS Bounty are being studied to find genetic predispositions to high blood pressure.
The combination of a British diet, Polynesian genes which are susceptible to heart disease, and isolation are expected to yield insights into hypertension