Sheba, NYU researchers to draw genetic map of wandering Jew
A computer-generated illustration of a DNA string. Photo: Courtesy
Geneticists at Sheba Medical Center and New York University have launched the world’s first comprehensive gene-mapping project of the Jewish people, in an effort to trace their wanderings to and from Israel and in the Diaspora over the millennia.
The research may also be used in the future to connect specific genes to certain “Jewish diseases” by providing data on the normal gene to serve as a control group.
Volunteers whose parents and grandparents have the same ethnic origins – including Yemenites, Iraqis, Moroccans, Libyans, Ethiopians, Indians, Georgians, Bnei Menashe, Bucharans and others regarded as close to the Jews, such as Karaites – are being invited to give blood samples and fill out a short questionnaire. So far, 120 samples have been collected, but about 180 more are needed.
The project has been dubbed the “Jewish HapMap” project, “hap” coming from haplotype, a group of closely linked genetic markers located on one chromosome and inherited together.
The project is being carried out by Prof. Eitan Friedman of Sheba’s clinical genetics unit and Prof. Harry Ostrer, director of the human genetics program at NYU Medical School’s pediatrics department, who is an expert in the origins of the Jewish people.
Sheba will collect blood samples only from Jews of Oriental, Sephardi or other non-Ashkenazi origin, as Ostrer is collecting data from Ashkenazi Jews as well as Jews of Syrian and Iranian origin.
“This is our last chance to do this project,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, because of the effects of intermarriage of Jews of different ethnic origins in Israel and intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the Diaspora.
Today, about 50 percent to 60% of Israelis are eligible to participate based on their background, but in another generation, that figure could decline to around 20%, the Israeli geneticist said.
“We are studying normal genes, not mutations, to see what the various ethnic groups have in common and how much admixture there was,” he said.
The 18-month to two-year project is being funded by the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation. When they reach their conclusions, the researchers will write a study for a major science journal.
Data obtained from the tablespoon of blood, says Sheba, will be kept under lock and key. Volunteers have no need to worry about their personal genome being identified, as the researchers are looking only for normal genes, and in any case, since 2002 there has been a law that prevents employers, health funds and others from discriminating against people due to genetic mutations.
The data, says Friedman, will be computerized and compared to achieve “deep and genuine understanding on the basis of genetics of the Jewish people,” with comparisons to be made among the various Jewish ethnic groups, and between the Jews of those ethnicities and the non-Jews who live in those areas.
A recent study abroad, for example, claimed that one-fifth of Spanish residents have genetic links to the Jews who lived there for generations before being expelled in 1492. The Jewish HapMap project could check this hypothesis.
Friedman said that anyone who contributes blood will be able to receive a summary of the research results in “simple, understandable language,” but it will be collective and not present his individual genome.