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Gene Research Project Illuminates Human History in Africa

July 09, 2009 08:30 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Conducting one of the most exhaustive genetic research studies ever, scientists in Africa are gaining insight into the continent’s genetic diversity.

“Most Genetically Diverse Place on Earth”

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It’s taken 10 years for a group of American scientists and their African colleagues to start seeing results from an extensive study of “the genetic roots of all humanity,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Working in Africa, the team has traveled to a handful of countries collecting blood samples from distant tribes. Results have provided information about movements of ancient people and the “makeup of modern African Americans,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Researchers looked at genes and languages of thousands of people in dozens of population groups in Africa, along with groups in Europe and the United States. They learned that the African Americans they tested can trace 71 percent of their history to West Africa, which coincides with reports of the slave trade. A small percent leads to another part of the continent. Some had a portion of their makeup that was more than 40 percent European.
The BBC quoted researcher Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim of the University of Khartoum as saying the study represented a “spectacular insight into the history of African populations and therefore the history of mankind.”

The study corrects past impressions of Africa’s people, geneticist Dr. Sarah Tishkoff explained. “In the past, [geneticists] studied just a few Africans, and suggested they were representative of the continent, but we’ve found that no population is representative of all of this diversity.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the research could also help with learning how genetics can make an individual immune or susceptible to disease.

“Our goal has been to do research that will benefit Africans,” Dr. Tishkoff told the BBC. “I hope this will set the stage for future genomics research there, and future biomedical research.”

Related Topic: More answers from genetic research

The Phoenicians

Genetic studies have helped scientists understand more about another group of people, as well. Until recently, the genetic history of the Phoenicians had not been traced, although historians had some sense of their movement and migrations.

The Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage, which was located in modern-day Lebanon. In the first millennium B.C. they prospered as sailors and traders, spreading their genes through colonization and migrations that went as far as Spain and North Africa. Genetic research has indicated that one in 17 men living around the Mediterranean can trace his heritage to the ancient Phoenicians.

Disease Research

DNA research has also unlocked answers to understanding certain illnesses. In 2008, scientists announced that they had discovered an additional 21 genes linked to Crohn’s disease, raising the total number to 32. While there is no way to determine who will ultimately contract the disease, or prevent the condition, the findings will help doctors better identify who is at risk.

Researchers have also pinpointed genetic “brakes” that could slow or stop autoimmune diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Scientists previously believed that “master” genes controlled the growth of cells that cause these conditions. However, the new study found that hundreds of genes interact, and that the variations within this genetic network explain the different ways in which people develop diseases.

Recent Developments: Sudoku principles applied to gene sequencing

Researchers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private, not-for-profit research and education institution on Long Island, N.Y., have issued a report suggesting that the principles behind Sudoku (pronounced soo-doe-koo), a popular math-based, 81-box puzzle game, may revolutionize genome sequencing and the study of medical genetics.

Experts say the method has the potential to analyze specific parts of the genomes of a particular population and identify individuals who carry mutations of a gene that may lead to disease, a process known as genotyping.
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