KNOW YOUR HERITAGE:Dr. Rick Kittles Breaks Down DNA
Dr. Rick Kittles
One of the researchers from Dr. Henry Louis Gates'Finding Your Rootsexplains what DNA tells us about our African ancestry and ourselves
. Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating, PBS mini-series Finding Your Roots, traces the ancestries of prominent Americans from Branford Marsalis and Condoleezza Rice, to Samuel L. Jackson and John Legend. But where the genealogical paper trail ends for many African-Americans, due to the history of slavery, the DNA search begins. One of the DNA experts assisting Professor Gates in the series is Dr. Rick Kittles, a brilliant, forty five-year old geneticist, who serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine; division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Kittles also is the co-founder and Scientific Director of African Ancestry, Inc., a nine year-old, ancestry tracing company with a DNA database comprised of over 25,000 African DNA lineages. EBONY spoke with Dr. Kittles about what DNA is, and how it reveals the hidden past, and complexity of our African-American heritage.
EBONY: We’ve all heard of DNA, but give us a thumbnail sketch of what it actually is.
Rick Kittles: DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] is the genetic material – the chemical that’s in every cell of our body, that’s important for coding different physical features and traits. You receive half of your DNA from your mother, and the other half comes from your father. DNA is very instrumental in terms of coding for things that make us human: skin color, hair texture, eye color, and physical features. But it also [shows] susceptibility to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. DNA is important for tracing ancestry because it’s like a record of the history of you as an individual, within your family, community, and within a particular region in the world. We can use that information to trace where a person’s ancestry came from.
We can go all the way back to when humanity started in Africa over 150,000 years ago, or we can look at a more recent window, like for instance, right before the slave trade. Those changes in the DNA are different than the older changes that occurred 150,000 years ago.
EBONY: We know what DNA tells us. What doesn’t it tell us?
RK: It’s not going to tell us if a person who just got accepted into Harvard is actually going to be able to graduate [laughs]. It doesn’t provide useful information for behavioral or psychological traits. Also, as it relates to overall health, DNA plays some role, but it’s not one hundred percent. There are certain changes in the DNA that increase your risk for cancer, but what also plays a very significant role is exercise and lifestyle; what we consider the environment.
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