A study conducted by geneticists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) has managed to compile a detailed database of New Yorkers – an endeavour that helps identify historical and current patterns of migration and can even improve scientists’ understanding of historical events that affected these patterns, a press release from the American Society of Human Genetics says.
The team, led by Eimear Kenny, assistant professor at ISMMS, collected voluntary genetic information and electronic health records from 32,000 patients of Mount Sinai Hospital. This genetic information was used to identify as many as one million markers, which were then compared among different populations and individuals, including ancestral populations in the city. These comparisons formed a basis for detecting otherwise “hidden patterns of relatedness” and identifying new groups of genetically related individuals. The results can provide valuable insight into migration patterns in one of the world’s most diverse cities and also be used to enhance public health efforts.
One illustration of the practical aspect of the study is a group of otherwise distantly related New York citizens of Puerto Rican descent, who are more likely than others to have Steel syndrome – a condition that is characterised by dislocation of the hip joints and head, shorter height, and scoliosis. The syndrome was first reported in 1993 and was only found in Puerto Rican children. Now, using the information gathered from this genetic database, the researchers have been able to not just find a group that is especially susceptible to the condition but also identify the gene responsible for it. With the gene identified, medical science can develop screening tests that are targeted much more precisely than they would be otherwise.
With regard to the improved understanding of historical events, the press release mentions an ethnic group, the Garifuna, who come from Central and South America and who are descendants of native communities from the region who mixed with Africans from a slave ship that sank near the Venezuelan coast in the 1600s. What makes this particular group stand out among other New York communities of Central and South American descent is that they have no traces of European ancestry, Kenny is quoted as saying in the press release. This first of all confirms the event that led to the genetic mixture, as well as demonstrating that the community did not mix further with descendants of the European conquerors of South, Central and North America.
Gillian Belbin, lead author of the study, said that New York is an important point of entry and immigration, which makes it a particularly interesting location for research into patterns of genetic relatedness given its complex structure. The full complexity of this structure is difficult to capture using traditional methods such as census, but it has been made possible with the genetic database compiled by the authors, which also includes self-reported ancestry information. Thanks to this approach, the team were able to create a very fine map of the ethnic diversity of the city, down to “neighbourhood level”. The approach, Kenny notes, can be used to reconstruct the genetic history of other cosmopolitan cities in the world as well.
For more information: Reconstructing the population history of New York City
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