New research reveals how families can identify themselves as Roma from their blood

At a press conference this morning scientists presented results of a new study that has allowed them to map and compare DNA signatures that could not be previously obtained from humans. The researchers extracted…

New research reveals how families can identify themselves as Roma from their blood

At a press conference this morning scientists presented results of a new study that has allowed them to map and compare DNA signatures that could not be previously obtained from humans. The researchers extracted DNA from the blood of 933 Spanish Roma people and compared the DNA of almost 7,500 Roma people from around the world who came to the UK for medical and educational purposes over a period of three weeks. The results of the study will be published in a recently-published paper in Science and the researchers who conducted the study say the information could lead to a great improvement in the treatment of people with inherited disease, and help to prevent prejudice against the Roma. The key finding of the research was that persons from the highly marginalised Roma population carried more genetic changes than those from any other group.

The study entitled “Analysis of paternal and maternal genetic contribution to thousands of Europeans” in the journal Science shows that 934 people from Spain identified themselves as Roma. 574 had at least one father or mother with a Roma background and 563 had three or more. From the group of people that identify themselves as Roma, the researchers identify 6925 pairs of Roma fathers and Roma mothers that are mostly matched to 5271 father-only and 513 mother-only pairs. Similar analysis of the genes produced a slightly higher ratio of genetic variations in the DNA of Roma men and women. They report that one example of a distinctive genetic change in the DNA of women with Roma background was an increase in the Y-white DNA of the mother. Y-White is a DNA variant common in Caucasian people of European heritage. Many scientists estimate that about 10% of Europeans have this variant. The research team says that further investigations will help to determine the significance of this change.

The team behind the research says the findings are “by far the most extensive analysis of DNA from native minorities in the world and perhaps the best ever done for a single ethnic group. The data are the most complete set of genomic information on Roma people that has ever been analysed and could lead to a wide range of changes in the management of genetic diseases, including a better understanding of how genes can be broken down and increased diagnostic ease in a way that will make prevention easier.” It adds that the changes will “help illuminate genetic variation in people from diverse groups” and “potentially lead to new strategies to treat, prevent or minimise diseases that are caused by genetic variation.”

A team led by David Reich at Harvard University found last month that African-Americans can shed gene variants that increase their risk of Parkinson’s disease in a large number of older African men. As such, they provide support for the controversial hypothesis that it is genes that account for the vast majority of the disease risk for any race. In his group’s study the findings of two key genes came to light, one that drives a hyperactive form of the brain cell gene dopamine and the other that’s important for turning on a protein called alpha-synuclein. Researchers have been unable to show the same pattern of genetic findings in people of South Asian origin, which made the African-American results stand out.

The study, which also involved researchers at Harvard and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Bethesda, US, used data from more than 8,700 African-American men who were taking part in the Million Dad Project, an ongoing, long-term study of African-American families and their children. Some 814 of the men had Parkinson’s disease. Their data was collected between 1997 and 2012 using three separate genetic tests to examine key genes. Although the results of the genetic tests have not yet been published, in an accompanying article to the study the medical journal Nature says the findings “markedly improved the ability to define the association of genes with Parkinson’s disease”. This could pave the way for further studies examining genetic variants associated with other diseases including schizophrenia, dementia and others, the authors say.

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