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Dr. Harry Ostrer, Albert Einstein College of Medicine – Ethnicity and Genetic History

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University explains how genetic analysis is shedding light on the global history of entire peoples.

Harry Ostrer is a professor of pathology, genetics, and pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.  His lab seeks to understand the genetic basis of common and rare disorders in order to develop tests that can be used to identify people’s risks for having a disease. He has also spent more than 30 years researching the genetics of the Jewish people and in 2007 started the Jewish HapMap Project, an international effort to map and sequence the genomes of Jewish people. He is the author of Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.

About Dr. Ostrer

Dr. Harry Ostrer – Ethnicity and Genetic History

We can look into our ancestral past by studying our DNA, rather than examining our bones, pottery shards or written tracts. Recently, my colleagues and I studied the DNA of Old and New World peoples -- Jews and Hispanic-Latino. 

We examined the genomes of 15 Jewish Diaspora groups that lived for 2 millennia In Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.  The findings are compatible with bands of people migrating from Palestine across the Mediterranean Basin, into the Persian Empire and along the Silk Road, converting local people to Judaism, and establishing stable communities that were bound by religion, culture and, well, genetics.  These genetic ties are observable as shared strands of DNA both within and across communities.  Within a community, the number of shared strands is what one would observe for cousins – first cousins once-removed for Libyan Jews, third cousins for Iranian Jews.  This Old World genetics of tightly knit communities is observable not only among Jews, but also among the non-Jewish populations of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India. 

We’ve also studied the New World genomes of Hispanics and Latinos from the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.  These groups were formed by the contact of Native Americans with Africans and Europeans.  The degree of African ancestry correlates with proximity to the Caribbean slave trade. Within some populations are tightly knit groups that lived in relative isolation during the past 500 years.  Some even show evidence of Jewish ancestry carrying bits of DNA from Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. 

Understanding our genetic ancestry is important not only for knowing our origins, but also for identifying our genetic risks for disease and responses to therapy. Our emerging American genomic medicine will be a melting pot of Old World and New World genetics, but with the ancestral DNA stands remaining identifiable.

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