Greetings from the DNA Doc!
Deep inside almost every cell in our body lies information that is tightly packed and highly specific. Called, deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA), this chemical mixture is tightly coiled in 23 pairs of chromosomes which produce a unique signature in each and every one of us. We get half of our DNA (or one of those chromosome pairs) from our mother and the other half from our father which is why we resemble our parents and other relatives. This masterpiece of art and biology predates human history and provides a record of ancestral relationships useful for exploring individual, familial, and population history.
I first became interested in DNA when I was in elementary school. I remember looking around the classroom and wondering why some students looked the way they did. After meeting some of their parents I realized that they resembled their parents for much of their physical features and that they inherited something that was responsible for their shared skin color, eye shape, hair color and lips. That something was DNA.
Growing up I also had a yearning for wanting to know more about my ancestry. In particular, my African ancestry, where and with whom in Africa do I share genetic ancestry with? I was no different from the millions of other African Americans who wanted to know this. However, I was blessed with the opportunity to learn and gather scientific tools and information useful for answering this question.
Using DNA to trace ancestry has been seen by some to be controversial, especially as it relates to African Americans and our longstanding need to re-connect with particular African communities disrupted during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. However, other communities are also eager to learn more about their Jewish, European, Asian, African, and/or Native American ancestors.
The business community has taken notice of this increased attention on genetic ancestry testing. The number of companies have increased over 10-fold since Gina Paige and I started African Ancestry in February of 2003. Our company started because of the demand that African Americans had for trying to find useful tools for uncovering their ancestry. Traditional genealogy tracing has been the gold standard for uncovering ancestry, however its utility is limited for many African Americans like myself who hit a brick-wall in the antebellum south.
Criticism of our work is part of the background of an on-going philosophical debate about the utility of lineage-based markers for tracing ancestry. The debate is fueled and promoted at times by the media which enjoys and profits from the contention science enlists. The public is often left to wonder and confusion continues to abate.
What’s the value of mtDNA and Y chromosome markers given that they represent a small fraction of an individuals overall genetic makeup and ancestry? Why determine one lineage when there are thousands that contribute to your ancestry? What value does knowing one lineage serve when it represents a fraction of your overall ancestry? Why is this so important for African Americans?
The answer is clear. Knowing just a little is better than knowing absolutely nothing.
Here I will discuss these issues and more that relate to the African American experience, so please visit often. We are all part of this shared experience, in an exciting time, and we welcome your comments.