DNA Methylation is beginning to have profound impacts on society and is a breakthrough for genetics. Several published studies on the controversial scientific branch that looks into heritable changes in gene function have been shaking up our notion of individual uniqueness. As humans, we like to believe that we are way different from each other. Red hair, blond hair; blue eyes, brown eyes; freckled skin, dark skin—phenotypes are easy to understand, but there is something deeper that lies in our genetics that tells us how we’re all connected.
The bigger question now is, how similar are we? DNA is a complex thing to comprehend, but it provides us insight into something about ourselves beyond our family history. Yes, perhaps we’re unique on a physical level, but we’re still unquestionably linked by genetic ancestry. The further back we go, the more we will see how connected we are, according to science.
Scientists say that no matter where you’re from or who you identify as your ancestors, you are 99.9 percent genetically identical to all human beings on the planet. The human genome has more than 3 billion base pairs, and 2,999 billion of these are similar between you and another person. However, the tiny percentage that we’d normally think as negligible is enough to substantiate information about our geographic ancestry.
Methylation is an epigenetic mechanism used by cells to control gene expression. This mechanism can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence. Physician-scientist Esteban Burchard from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), explains methylation as the fingerprint in our DNA that can be modified by either the environment and genetic ancestry.
Biomed research and clinical studies categorize populations into racial and ethnic groups with distinct cultures, traditions, histories and religions. However, the scientific community is debating the use of ethnicity and race alone in clinical researches. As a way to answer the debate, researchers now use genetic ancestry as an alternative category. In the case of the researchers from the UCSF, they analyzed differences in methylation patterns of Latino children and found that 75 percent of the methylation signatures could indeed be traced to their genetic ancestry. However, 25 percent stems from environmental and social factors. What this is telling us is that while we get our genes from our parents, these genes could also be altered by our environment.
Linking Back to Our Past is Not Only About Feeding the Curious Cat
Two hundred students from Cornell University lined up to participate in a DNA testing sample for the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project. The question posed by the project was: How would the participants compare with the genetic diversity observed among people at the street fair at Queens, New York, arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world?
The randomly chosen Cornell undergraduate students volunteered to provide DNA cheek swab samples, which were later presented at the project’s reveal event two months later. The public lecture summarizing the analyses of the lineages and migration stories revealed in DNA of the volunteers showed surprising revelations about how the participants and their ancestry fit into the picture of humanity’s migration history.
The results demonstrated that the random samples representing all seven colleges at Cornell showed that they are as genetically diverse as the sample taken from the street fair in Queens with respect to deep ancestral lineages. Professor Chip Aquadero, Director of the Cornell Genetic Ancestry, emphasized that all humans need to understand genetics because “it’s going to become a fabric of our life”.
One of the goals of the scientists conducting researches and studies in genetic ancestry is to find ways to improve our quality of life. The more we understand our genetic makeup, the more we can become proactive in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.
Another essential question that the study of genetic ancestry answers is our origin. Did we really come from Africa? Scientists say they don’t quarrel over the idea because it’s what the study on genetic ancestry has taught us — this, and everything else that the interminable study of genetics will tell us in the future.
Just a point of curiosity, how much do you know about yourself?