Genetics University of Miami

Virgin IslandsUpcoming holidays likely mean time spent eating and talking with rarely seen relatives – something that could be considered a boon or a trial. One thing I enjoy, however, is the opportunity to learn more about my family history and ancestry through discussions with older family members.

Now, research conducted by Stanford geneticists Carlos Bustamante, PhD, and Andres Moreno-Estrada, MD, PhD, has shown that we carry a surprising amount of similar information in our genes. The strands of DNA include information not just about who our parents, grandparents and great grandparents were, but also about how they mingled with other population groups throughout history. And they did so by studying one of the biggest melting pots of recent past: the Caribbean. The research, conducted in collaboration with Eden Martin, PhD, from the University of Miami, was published today in PLoS Genetics.

The researchers compared patterns of genetic variation found in populations in and around the Caribbean, which has had a particularly tumultuous past since Christopher Columbus stumbled into the Bahamas in 1492. Not only did they identify an influx of European genes into the native population that occurred within a generation of Columbus’ arrival, but they also discovered two geographically distinct pulses of African immigration that correspond to the beginning and height of the transatlantic slave trade.

The study demonstrates how deciphering genetic echoes from the distant past can illuminate human history. But it also helps explain why some populations, like Latinos, who may be classified by medical researchers as a single group, display marked differences among populations in susceptibility to diseases or responses to therapeutic drugs.

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