Africans have world’s greatest genetic variation

By | April 30, 2009

Africans have world's greatest genetic variation

Africans have more genetic variation than anyone else on Earth, according to a new study that helps narrow the location where humans first evolved, probably near the South Africa-Namibia border.

The largest study of African genetics ever undertaken also found that nearly three-fourths of African-Americans can trace their ancestry to West Africa. The new analysis published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science.

“Given the fact that modern humans arose in Africa, they have had time to accumulate dramatic changes” in their genes, explained lead researcher Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania.

People have been adapting to very diverse environmental niches in Africa, she explained in a briefing.

Over 10 years, Tishkoff and an international team of researchers trekked across Africa collecting samples to compare the genes of various peoples. Often working in primitive conditions, the researchers sometimes had to resort to using a car battery to power their equipment, Tishkoff explained.

The reason for their work? Very little was known about the genetic variation in Africans, knowledge that is vital to understanding why diseases have a greater impact in some groups than others and in designing ways to counter those illnesses.

Scott M. Williams of Vanderbilt University noted that constructing patterns of disease variations can help determine which genes predispose a group to a particular illness.

This study “provides a critical piece in the puzzle,” he said. For example, there are clear differences in prevalence of diseases such as hypertension and prostate cancer across populations, Williams said.

“The human genome describes the complexity of our species,” added Muntaser Ibrahim of the department of molecular biology at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. “Now we have spectacular insight into the history of the African population … the oldest history of mankind.

“Everybody’s history is part of African history because everybody came out of Africa,” Ibrahim said.

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