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First of the Robert P. Benedict Lectures in the History of Political Philosophy, October 15, 5:15 p.m., SAR 102

Week of 10 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 5

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Tracing genetic roots
DNA project helps African-Americans search for ancestry

By Brian Fitzgerald

Bruce Jackson


Bruce Jackson


Author Maya Angelou once said that Africa “is more than just glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”

For Bruce Jackson, an assistant research professor of biochemistry at the BU School of Medicine, Africa is the source of not only his paternal ancestors, but also those of people he’s trying to help in a search for their roots. And he’s using DNA technology to do it.

A three-year-old molecular anthropology project conducted jointly by Jackson and Bert Ely, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina, seeks to reunite black Americans with their African origins. Known as the African-American DNA Roots Project, the effort is matching ethnic-specific genetic signatures (called haplotypes) of African-Americans and Caribbean people of African ancestry to those found in ethnic groups in West Africa.

Jackson says it’s a tragedy that many African-Americans are disconnected from their beginnings. But that’s what happened to families during the slave trade in pre–Civil War America, when Africans were kidnapped in their homeland, brought to the United States, and forced to forget their homes, customs, and where they came from.

“There is nothing more American than knowing what your heritage is,” he says. “And that’s something that many African-Americans don’t have. We’re helping make the connection again.”

The African-American DNA Roots Project is creating a computer databank of DNA haplotypes from the African nations where many black Americans are believed to have come from, such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Uganda, Benin, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast. The goal of Jackson and his colleagues is to collect thousands of profiles.

Learning history — and science

Because there are so few black scientists in the United States, Jackson and Ely have also used the Roots Project as a vehicle to inspire a passion for science among K-8 children. Both scientists insist this is the critical age at which children will either choose or dismiss science as a career. “Our philosophy is that you either make or unmake a scientist by the fifth grade, so we’re trying to make an impression early in their lives,” says Jackson.

Initially, the project teamed up with the Young Achievers, an after-school program run by the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston. In subsequent years this effort was expanded to include K-8 children in area charter schools with large minority populations. Scores of Boston area schoolchildren have played an active part in the project by using cotton swabs to collect DNA from the inside of the mouths of their parents.

“Currently, we can tell participants if their paternal and/or maternal lineage is African or not,” says Jackson. “The ability to actually find the precise ethnic group to which participants belong and the family within that group is still down the road, scientifically and technologically.” Nonetheless, both scientists and their teams were greatly encouraged by their recent successes, which allowed them to clearly distinguish four ethnic groups in Sierra Leone that have lived in close proximity for centuries. This work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Physical Anthropology. Over the next year Jackson and Ely hope to be able to genetically distinguish additional ethnic groups from West Africa.

The project is using two types of DNA analyses. One tests mitochondrial DNA, which is genetic material passed from mothers to daughters, and the other profiles Y-chromosome DNA, which follows the male line. According to Ely, these unique genetic elements are useful for learning about the past history of human populations, because they trace a direct line of paternal and/or maternal descent. “Once the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA are characterized, they are compared to reference lineages to identify matches,” says Ely. “From that point, it should be relatively easy to identify the continent of origin for many mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome sequences.”

Jackson and Ely add that a match being found is no guarantee that it will have geographic significance. The result represents only a single portion of the person’s ancestry — possibly less than one percent. And of course many people have migrated to different areas over the centuries.

Both professors say they use great caution and take pains not to promise participants too much, reminding them that DNA technology is still evolving, and linkage to an African family could take many years. Potential misuse of DNA analysis is of great concern to them, especially after a series of scientific debacles and scandals that rocked police departments and the forensic world in 2002, says Jackson, who is also a forensic DNA expert in the courts. “People should take the same great care when selecting a genealogical company that charges a fee as they would choosing any other service online,” he says. The Roots Project is free for all participants.

Jackson insists that DNA technology isn’t a magic path to the past. History, ethnology, traditional genealogical research, and families’ written and oral histories also come into play. “The good thing about doing such research in New England is that, unlike the South, African-Americans here were included in all the civic record-keeping — births and deaths and so forth,” he says. “And fortunately for our efforts there are huge and productive African-American genealogical societies with thousands of members and voluminous information.”

Jackson, a New Haven native, can trace his family on this continent all the way back to the colonial era. “A man who took the name John Jackson came to New Haven around 1770,” says Jackson. “We don’t know if he was an escaped slave, or he had bought his freedom, or he was set free. We know he fought in the American Revolution, and his first commanding officer was apparently Benedict Arnold, who was also from New Haven.” Jackson has been able to determine that his own father’s Y-chromosome originates in Western Africa, but he has yet to discover which ethnic group. Also, commensurate with his maternal family’s oral history, Jackson’s mitochondrial DNA is European, indicating that his maternal lineage includes a 19th-century white woman in Virginia. Jackson, who is also searching the woman’s ethnic origins, believes she may have been an Irish indentured servant.

Like Jackson’s, some black Americans’ roots extend to continents other than Africa. In fact, 3 out of 10 people who have been using the project discover European ancestry on their paternal side, another consequence of the institution of slavery. Therefore, the databases might not be able to determine the African heritage of some participants. Nonetheless, Jackson thinks it’s important for African-Americans to discover their lost histories.

He points out that genealogical research has become the second most popular hobby in the United States, and those who start researching their lineage find it hard to stop. The more researchers know, the more they want to know. “Americans in general are very passionate about their roots,” he says.


10 October 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations