27 March 2008

DNA: Cracking the Code

Reform Judaism's Spring 2008 issue features "Cracking the Code" on the latest DNA research, while raising perplexing, challenging and controversial questions in terms of Jewish research.

For the answers, the editors interviewed Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People and Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It.

If Entine will be speaking in your area, the article and companion discussion guide will be a great introduction and provide questions to ask the author. I'd also recommend the guide for book clubs, genealogy societies, youth groups and other organizations planning programs on this topic.

There's plenty of food for thought on controversial Jewish survival issues, genetic advances and Jewish history, testing privacy and safety, genetic mapping ethics, gene-testing, cloning, new genes and more.

Among the questions answered in detail:

How did you come to explore cutting-edge DNA research as a window into our Jewish origins? When you talk about different “groups of people” genetically, how does that differ from categorizing by “race”? Besides the fact that Ashkenazic Jews have genes that increase their chances of getting certain diseases, what else have we learned from genetic markers? What was the next step in the quest to trace Jewish origins genetically? Do you mean to say that this is proof that the Abraham of Genesis really lived at that time? Origins of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewry. Can we track the female line of Jews? What does the DNA show about the female ancestry among Ashkenazim? Does that mean many Ashkenazic Jews are descended from gentiles on their maternal side? Might this theory explain why so many Ashkenazic Jews have blue eyes?

Here are tiny snippets of answers to other questions:

What does DNA evidence reveal about the conversos in the Southwest United States?: Although we say there are only about 13–15 million Jews in the world, I would guess that if we tested everybody in the world, tens of millions of people would have traces of a Jewish past. Entine also discusses "hidden" children of the Holocaust, and more contemporary hidden Jews.

Is the study of Jewish genetics making inroads in medicine? : It’s literally saving thousands of lives around the world. There are some forty known “Jewish diseases,” disorders that originated in single Jews and then spread throughout Jewish communities. ... The great breakthrough in genetic disease screening happened a few decades ago, when the genetic markers for Tay-Sachs were identified and a test became available." He adds the essential role played by Rabbi Josef Ekstein in 1983.

You’ve pointed to the very positive aspects of genetic testing. But isn’t it also true that the same technology can be used to discriminate?: Understandably, there’s great fear that because of genetic research, people will be labeled defective and subject to discrimination by medical insurers. ... And if we’ve learned anything from history, science can be hijacked by the purveyors of such racist theories as eugenics. Therefore we desperately need to discuss the implications of human genome research to ensure that its focus is enlightenment and not enslavement.

What is likely to be the next breakthrough in genetic research that can shed light on the Jewish people?: ...The future is focused on curing diseases, and to do that we must get into the prickly subject of human differences based on our ancestry. We are different populations, with differences in brain architecture, appearance, abilities, and disease proclivities. As yet we don’t fully understand how these differences have evolved, but within ten or fifteen years, each of us will literally be able to carry a genetic score card of all the major genetic influences on who we are. This will really help us to address the specific genetic disorders afflicting us as Jews. It’s going to be quite a revelation.

Read the complete article here. Download the excellent companion discussion and study guide here.

The guide explores genetic mapping, anthropology, history and other issues, arranged in three thought-provoking categories: Genetic anthropology provides a new way of looking at Jewish identity, genetic advances shed new light on Jewish history, and genetic mapping raises difficult ethical questions. There's a small section on our favorite subject: genealogy. There are additional resource pointers, but these could have been more up-to-date.

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