Cracking the Genomics Code

Genetic research isnít just for prime-time dramas or high-profile criminal cases. Hereís how african american DNA detectives are employing scientific research to change our lives.

For generations, the question of origin has been especially important to African Americans. With ancestors that were transported throughout the New World, stripped of their identities, and enslaved, there was never a way for us to answer the age-old question, “Where did I come from?” That is, until now.

Christopher Rabb, a 36-year-old writer and entrepreneur, began researching his family tree in 1994 armed with stories that had been handed down as well as documents from the national archives in Washington, D.C., that listed his ancestry as African. But Africa is a big continent, and Rabb — who also happens to be a genealogist — wanted to know which country or countries his ancestors hailed from.

“I had hit a brick wall,” he says. Enter DNA testing. Popularized in the early 1990s through celebrity cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the ever-popular TV talk show paternity tests, the science and technology has taken quantum leaps toward helping African Americans locate a history beyond slavery. In 2003, Rabb took DNA tests for both his matrilineage and patrilineage lines through AfricanAncestry.com.

Rabb underwent two DNA tests, and then encouraged, cajoled, and persuaded family members (nine so far) to take the tests as well. Each test cost roughly $350. Through testing, Rabb has discovered 11 ancestral lines. Ten of them go back to Africa, with ancestors from as far north as present-day Morocco to as far south as Cameroon, where he discovered his connection to the Tikar people. “I would never have guessed that I descended from eight or nine different African ancestries,” he says. Rabb adds that the testing has allowed him to “embrace Africa in a more nuanced and deeper way” by driving home the reality that it is a vast land with thousands of different cultures and ethnic groups. DNA testing, for him, is like a bridge that connects histories, continents, and cultures.

No one would argue with the significance of ancestry research for African Americans in terms of recognizing and claiming a culture and history based on a particular place or places, in much the same way white Americans have been able to proudly trace and claim their European heritage. And while scientists are turning ancestry research through DNA into lucrative business opportunities, they are also involved in investigating diseases that plague African Americans at a higher rate and with greater severity such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, Type II diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

The current and potential applications arising from this science are endless. Researchers hope that genetic research can increase life expectancy as well as improve quality of life. Several prominent African Americans are at the cutting edge of this research. Among them: Georgia Dunston, founding director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University; Bruce Jackson, founder of the African-American DNA Roots Project; and Charles Crutchfield, a clinical dermatologist who used genetic research to develop a treatment for psoriasis. Like CSI detectives, these geneticists tackle the prevailing questions of the 21st century in their quest to help us

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