We briefly review the current status of anthropological and genetic studies of isolated populations and of their micro-evolutionary and biomedical applications, with particular emphasis on European populations. Thereafter, we describe the ongoing collaborative research project "Isolating the Isolates: geographic and cultural factors of human genetic variation" regarding Italian extant geographical and/or linguistic isolates, aimed at overcoming the limitations of previous studies regarding geographical coverage of isolates, number and type of genetic polymorphisms under study and suitability of the experimental design to investigate gene-culture coevolutionary processes. An interdisciplinary sampling approach will make it possible to collect several linguistic isolates and their geographic neighbours from Trentino, Veneto, Friuli, Tuscany, Sardinia and Calabria. This will be coupled with a shared genotyping strategy based on mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal polymorphisms. The results will be analyzed with a focus on the role of geographical and cultural factors in shaping human biodiversity. The aims of the project go beyond the simple reconstruction of the genetic structure and history of the examined groups. In fact, the study will also include an assessment for future bio-medical studies and the development of genetic and bio-demographic databases. Ethical and educational aspects are also foreseen by the project, by using informed consents together with disseminating activities in loco, completed by the creation of a dedicated web site for both scientific and public audiences.
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