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Scientist helps African-Americans trace ancestry through DNA testing

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Imagine not knowing where your family comes from and where your bloodline originated. This is the plight of numerous African Americans today. Many have no records that indicate where their ancestors resided. But Dr. Rick Kittles, Scientific Director of African Ancestry, Inc., found one way to map out African-American’s familial histories: DNA testing.

On Nov. 4, Kittles spoke about his research at Dominican during the 5th Annual African Heritage Lecture, presented by Dominican’s Elders’ Council. Kittles is known for his research that focuses on the studies of population history through genealogy. He uses DNA to trace the ancestry of African Americans, as well as the history of disease in patients’ families.

During his lecture Kittles spoke about how DNA testing can trace originality to ethnic groups and ancestry. He explained how we get DNA from both of our parents and that Y chromosomes are only from males, and if no male children are born in a family, then the Y chromosome is not passed on to future generations.

Kittles discussed how our DNA affects our susceptibility to disease. Kittles said that genealogy allows you to learn about yourself, your identity and your ancestry and that it helps answer questions of origin and break that barrier.

He also spoke about mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on through women. Men receive it but do not pass it on because it is located inside the tail of sperm. As there is a constant mutation in DNA, Kittles and his team compare nucleotides looking for changes and substitutions. They can trace back up to 80,000 years; the older the strand, the more common it is. According to Kittles, there have not been many ancestral disease findings, as many don’t date back very far.

Kittles talked about working with Oprah, who thought she was originally kin to the Zulu tribe of South Africa, which was why she funded a school there. But after working with Oprah, Kittles found through DNA testing that she is actually from a very specific part of Liberia.

The work of Dr. Kittles and his team can be life-changing. Kittles says that if someone is raised to believe one thing and finds out they actually originate from elsewhere, it impacts their lives emotionally: they need to reconcile who they are and who they thought they were.

Katherine Kulpa, Editor-in-chief

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