History

Iceland was first settled between 870 and 930 A.D. by Norwegian Vikings. Recent research has shown that 20 to 25% of the founding males had Gaelic ancestry. The majority of the females are thought to have come from the British Isles during the time of settlement. At the end of the initial settlement period, the population is estimated to have numbered approximately 30,000 (Halldorsson, 2003). A period of favorable climate conditions sustained a local population growth through the twelfth century, when the estimated population may have plateaued at 80,000. This era was followed by centuries of colder climate, and several periods of substantial population reduction occurred. Two epidemics, of plague in the fifteenth century and several smallpox epidemics in the sixteenth to early eighteenth century, reduced the population of the entire island to as low as 30,000 on more than one occasion. The fallout from a volcanic eruption in 1875 devastated the Icelandic economy and caused widespread famine. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, approximately 20% of Iceland's population emigrated, mostly to Canada and the United States (Jonsson, 1998). This explains why the population of Iceland, which has remained in relative genetic isolation through 1100 years, is quite homogeneous, with many residents sharing common ancestors. Screening for individual mutations in the population is facilitated by the Icelanders' fascination with genealogy. Details of births, marriages, and deaths have been kept in church records for more than three centuries. Extensive computerized genealogy databases have been created, which allow the pedigree of most Icelanders to be traced back to the seventeenth century, and for many further back to the settlement of the island. Islendingabok is the only genealogy database in the world, which covers a whole nation. It includes information on more than 95% of all Icelanders from 1703 onward. It includes information on about 700,000 Icelanders, which is about half of all Icelanders who have lived on the island since its settlement (Islendingabok, 2003). These facts of history lead to a strong founder effect and the genealogy database greatly facilitates genetic research.

Iceland's founder population provides advantages for researchers studying complex disorders such as many of the age-associated diseases. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent years with the discovery of genes and biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease, central nervous system diseases, osteoporosis, obesity, and cancer (Jonsson et al., 2004).

Although Iceland only recently (1944) has become a sovereign state after many centuries of colonialism, it has since World War II transformed from being one of Europe's poorest into being among the richest countries in the world by per capita measures. Its culture and social structure resembles other Scandinavian countries and strong market ties remain to the European market without being a member of the European Union.

Still, in more than just geographic sense, Iceland is closer to North America than most of Europe. It has grown into and benefited from being an ''in between'' country with cultural and strong economic and trading ties to the United States over the last 50 years. Cooperation in health sciences has been steadily growing between Iceland and the United States. A first milestone in this regard was the establishment of the laboratory at Keldur lead by Dr. Bjorn Sigurdsson in 1946 through the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr. Sigurdsson's work resulted in the original concept of slow viral infections (Palsson, 1994).

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