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Researchers detail possibilities for DNA fingerprinting in anthropology, treating diseases

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

LAWRENCE — Just as when the use of fingerprints and DNA revolutionized our ability to identify individuals, the examination of genetic markers at a population level has profoundly affected the field of anthropology.

Anthropological genetics has allowed researchers such as Michael Crawford, who is head of the Laboratory of Biological Anthropology at the University of Kansas, to delve into the genetic makeup of entire populations of people to help answer key questions about human history, including origin of populations and migration patterns. Crawford said as technological advances continue to improve processes for mapping the human genome, the field is expected to play a significant role in helping treat diseases as scientists and medical experts have more data at their fingertips specific to a person's ancestry.

"Molecular genetics has changed all aspects of anthropology," said Crawford, also a professor of anthropology. "It allows us to test hypotheses and answer questions based on science."

The editors of the journal Investigative Genetics asked Crawford to write an article in honor of Sir Alec Jeffreys' retirement. The British geneticist received numerous awards and is known for identifying noncoding regions of the genome (variable number tandem repeats) for use in forensic sciences. Crawford, however, applied these genetic marker distributions for the characterization of Siberian and Native American human populations.

The Investigative Genetics editors specified that they wanted to detail the past, present and future usage of DNA fingerprints in anthropological genetics, and Crawford invited KU doctoral candidate Kristine Beaty to help flesh out the potential direction for future use of DNA markers. The magazine Biome in February also interviewed Crawford in detail about the field of anthropological genetics.

Crawford did extensive original work with applying DNA fingerprints to an anthropological setting. He was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project, and in 1989 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, he led the first foreign team to conduct field research in Siberia.

Crawford studied DNA samples from the Siberian indigenous population and compared them to blood samples from Native American population to help verify Siberian origins of Native Americans. Using both DNA fingerprints plus an analysis of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome markers, it was the first such study to show the genetic cluster.

"You can do your analysis by reducing the genetic variance into two or three eigenvectors and plot them in two or three dimensions," he said. "Using that, you see they are clustered very closely."

In addition to helping anthropologists identify population origins, DNA fingerprinting has proven useful in studies of human migration patterns, said Crawford, who has a forthcoming project on populations in the Arctic region.

He said similar associations about the understanding of the origin and migration of certain populations could also yield future information about how complex diseases have evolved and lead to a better understanding of genetic predispositions of chronic conditions, like heart disease, breast cancer or diabetes.

"We can find what genes are involved with things like diabetes and which genes are involved with autoimmune conditions," Crawford said. "Because you are looking at the entire genome, you can also do association studies."

Beaty said as technology continues to improve and expand regarding genome sequencing, anthropologists can play a valuable role in investigating and uncovering genetic variation in individuals that could make a person more susceptible to specific diseases. For example, she is studying the Black Caribs, an indigenous people from St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean. They originated from a mixture between Island Caribs and black slaves and some European admixture.

Focusing on a person's genetic history and taking into account the environment of a person's ancestors could help medical professionals better determine the best types of treatment or even diet for an individual, she said.

"Knowing what sort of genetic and cultural combination is successful, especially in a specific environment, could help us better understand what other forms of treatment might be successful in that type of environment," Beaty said, "or maybe what wouldn't be as successful here as far as their overall health."

Pictured below: Researchers used DNA fingerprinting to determine that the genetic makeup of Siberian populations were more closely aligned with Native American groups and were statistically significantly different from European and African-Americans. Michael Crawford, a KU professor of anthropology, did extensive original work with applying DNA fingerprints to an anthropological setting to explore population origins and migration.