A GENETIC LINK TO IDENTITY: DR. BRUCE JACKSON AND THE ROOTS PROJECT
BY JENNA PELLETIER
"Whether you're African-American, or European,
or Native American, there is nothing more American than knowing
what your heritage is," said Dr. Bruce Jackson in his spacious
office on one of the top floors of the Boston University Medical
School. "So there's always a great deal of excitement about it."
Tacked on the wall directly across from the research professor's desk is a poster-sized map of Africa. The continent is not only always in sight, but it is also always on his mind, because Dr. Jackson is studying Africans right down to their genes as part of the molecular anthropology project that he created in 2001.
Ten-thousand African-Americans have donated DNA samples to Jackson's project, hoping for a resolution to an unanswered question that most Americans take for granted: Where does my family come from? It is often overlooked that as a result of the slave trade most African-Americans do not know which ethnic group their ancestors belonged to. Only knowing that you emanate from someplace in a huge continent has not provided enough of an answer, or connection, for these individuals.
Now, as a result of scientific advancement, Jackson and other researchers are using DNA as a new tool to solve old questions. In an attempt to fill in the blanks for African-Americas, Dr. Jackson founded The Roots Project with Dr. Bert Ely of the University of South Carolina. They are mapping and trying to correlate the genes of thousands of African-Americans with DNA samples collected from various African ethnic groups.
For Jackson, an African-American, the project is personal as well as professional. He has made discoveries that he says will probably change history textbooks, but has also learned new things about his own ancestry. He learned that he descends from a white woman; He traveled for first time to Africa; and he is using the project as an educational tool by involving African-American school children so they might consider scientific careers. Jackson has not only brought back DNA samples from Africa, but a message for African-Americans: Africa is in trouble, and African-Americans should not let the rest of the world stand for such a high prevalence of corruption, poverty and disease in the country they emanate from. He hopes that if African-Americans know more about their ethnic roots, they will feel more connected to Africa, and as a result, will help enact change within the widely suffering population.
THE PROJECT AND ITS FINDINGS
Jackson's dedication is reflected in the bags under his animated chocolate-brown eyes (likely a result of his 18 hour work days). He has radiant light brown skin, a round and youthful face and a mustache that is beginning to grey just on the top few hairs. He and his team of ten scientists are studying two types of DNA: mitochondrial DNA to find maternal lineage, and Y-chromosome DNA to find paternal lineage. These genes are a direct link to lineage because they do not change from generation to generation as most other DNA does when it is reshuffled every generation in the process of recombination. Jackson said that the approximately 10,000 participants have donated samples through a simple cheek swabbing procedure, which may lead scientists to information about where members of extended families may still reside.
"Ahh, look at this. See the mutation here?" Jackson said, placing his fingertip on a computer monitor in his laboratory on the second floor of the Boston University Medical School. He closely examined the base pairs represented on it in alternating colors, and explained that the computer database sorts out their findings, categorizing the DNA of people with the most similarities together.
While the main goal is to connect individuals with their ancestry, the research has yielded some interesting new information about African-Americans and Africans as a whole that Jackson says will be used to change misinformation reported in textbooks.
"We are surprised that our data is indicating that African-Americans did not come from West Africa, which is what they think, they came from Central Africa, from the interior," he said.
Recently, the project teemed up with black historians in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to test mysterious remains discovered last fall by construction workers. Through the DNA analysis, they confirmed what historians had suspected; The 300 year old remains were indeed African. Jackson said that this was their most exciting discovery yet, and they found a new African genetic marker.
"This deletion we have seen in over 90 percent of Africans, African-Americans and Caribbean blacks, and it existed in these bones" he explained. "You don't know how exciting this is for us. That means that the mutation is conserved in nature. It's a true marker that we didn't have before, an African marker."
He said that since the mutation existed so long ago, it is a true genetic marker and now they will be able to predict people's ancestry with much more fidelity and confidence.
The researchers said that the project is currently limited; they cannot determine exactly which ethnic groups African-Americans belong to, but can usually narrow it down to about 4 or 5 groups. Jackson said that the "en masse" matching will not occur until years in the future, likely when he and his partner Dr. Ely have "gone to glory." The researchers said that they are setting the foundation for the project to advance as more is discovered about mapping human genetics.
Jackson criticized other similar projects, saying that they already tell people which ethnic groups they emanate from, when science has not yet advanced far enough to be certain.
"I think it's very wrong--plugging people into groups that there's no way in the world they can belong to," he said. "So we're very careful of that. We can tell you very quickly whether you're European or African, but to find within the group is going to take a lot more work," he said.
The Roots project is in good company. According to an August Sacramento Bee article, there are now five other similar DNA testing facilities in America, and genealogy is the second most popular hobby (after gardening) in the country.
Jackson's 15-18 hour days are filled with experiments, meetings, grant writing and report reading and writing. Although he said that he enjoys the work, he also said that he sorely misses the ability to spend more time in the laboratory.
"I would kill to be a post doc again, because once you get your first grant, you start doing science by proxy," he explained. "That's the hard thing about science. I've got a great group of people so that makes it a lot easier for me, but I would love to go back to just bench work."
Jackson's partner Dr. Ely conducts the same DNA sequencing process in his South Carolina lab. Ely said that they teamed up after he heard Jackson speak about his idea for the project at a conference in Washington, D.C. Even though the labs are far from each other, Ely said the distance does not hinder the project.
"We are in constant email contact and get together periodically," Ely said. "Business has never been a problem."
Last year, Jackson and his team traveled to Africa to begin collecting DNA samples. He said that it was the first time he had made the trip and that the experience was "eye-opening."
"People think that because you're African-American, you're automatically going to plug back into Africa, and that's not true," Jackson said. "I am a New Englander, really. You have certain concepts of the world which come from being a New Englander. I may have different thoughts about it because of my heritage, but it was quite a culture shock."
Dr. Ely said they had expected to collect more samples while in Africa, but Air France lost their checked luggage which contained most of the test kits(not to mention clothing), and this has limited the project.
"We really learned what it means to travel light," Ely said.
Jackson said that while he found Africans kindhearted, and the country beautiful and full of potential, he was also very saddened by both the AIDS epidemic and the corrupt leaders that govern several African states. He said he thinks African-Americans in this country should speak out against both African and American governments for not dealing with these problems more effectively (even though he said it is not politically correct among African-Americans to criticize African governments). He criticized many African leaders, or the "gun-wielding thugs who rape loot and steal everything that is not tied down," and said that more action needs to be taken to enact change.
"You cannot have these kind of knuckle heads running the continent that we emanate from," he said. "As the African middle class has quadrupled, we need to start, we, taking more of an active, loud role in Africa. Not only criticizing this government, but criticizing the African governments for their shortcomings, and not being afraid to do that."
As African-Americans learn more about their heritage through projects such as this one, Jackson said they may feel more tied to the continent and be more compelled to try to help Africans.
"I would hope that as African-Americans begin to know exactly where they were from, they will take a greater interest in that country and in resolving these problems because these problems are great," he said.
Jackson said African-Americans also have other, perhaps more selfish, reasons to work for change in Africa. He said that if the AIDS epidemic is not dealt with more effectively, they will not be able to connect as many people with their roots because whole families are dying from the disease.
"If you look at it from my perspective, when whole families die off, our trial gets cold," he said. "You have whole lineages dying off, and so understanding the history of Africa is being diminished by one disease."
THE PERSONAL SIDE OF THE RESEARCH
"I'm just here putting my own pieces together, as everybody else is," Jackson said. "This is just as much fun for me as it is for everybody else. It also gives me something to be empathetic with, as opposed to sympathetic, because I'm doing the same thing for me."
In Jackson's family, ancestry always garnered a great deal of discussion and debate. He said that he is luckier than most other African-Americans, because his family has been able to trace his father's lineage back to about 1765, to a descendent who they think was a whaler in New Haven, Connecticut. His mother's lineage, however, was less certain until his own DNA testing cleared up a long standing mystery. There was an old family rumor that a white woman was the progenitor of his mother's family, but Jackson said that no one believed it, because at the time, if a white woman had a child with a black man, the black father probably would have been killed.
"When we did my DNA testing, we found that my Y-chromosome is indeed African, but my mitochondrial is European--so the story is clearly true," he said. "Now we're trying to figure out how this happened."
The family now suspects, Jackson said, that the mysterious woman was an Irish indentured servant who was working closely with black slaves in Virginia.
Jackson said that he first considered creating the project while working on post-doctoral Alzheimer's disease research at BU. He said he realized that because of scientific advancements, he might be able to genetically trace ethnicity for the many African-Americans who, like him, wanted to know more about their identity.
The project has received a lot of media coverage--he has been featured in a New York Times article and on FOX evening news, among others--but Jackson's lab assistant, Elizabeth Sylvestre, said that he has mixed feelings about the newfound attention.
"He says all of the media coverage has been both good and bad," she said.
Jackson unabashedly admitted his frustrations, "The amount of misreporting of what we do here has been unbelievable," he said. "We try to dispel the myth that this is something I had planned to do since I was a child. I wanted to play for the Yankees when I was growing up, a first baseman, but that didn't pan out."
Jackson became involved in science through a mentoring program at Yale University Medical School in his hometown of New Haven, and now he is using his own success to create mentoring programs for young African-Americans, so that they too might go into scientific careers.
"I started working at Yale Medical School making plates and washing glassware and that's how it started," he explained. "I caught on from there. I would not be in science had it not been for that program."
Jackson has created programs that are similar to the one that sparked his interest in science; He teamed up with charter schools and after school programs in primarily black neighborhoods in and around Boston. The elementary school children were taught about DNA structure and then sent home with cotton swabs to collect cheek cells from their parents.
"There are so few African-American, Native American and Hispanic scientists, and we hope that, and think we have, used the project to at least get them to consider a career in science," he said.
Jackson has also devised several other mentoring and outreach programs. One, executed through a grant from St. Cyprain's Episcopal Church, his church in Roxbury, is the Diving Buddies Program. It stemmed from his love of the sport, and pairs troubled minority youth with minority professionals as they learn to scuba dive together.
"Mentoring is key," Jackson said. "Mentoring is probably the greatest teaching tool ever devised by man."
WHAT MAY COME
Jackson hopes that the project will not only lead to a greater understanding of the identity of African-Americans, but of humanity as a whole, since it is believed that human life originated in Africa.
"I hope that we will also come to a newer understanding about the origin of human beings in general, not only Africans, but humans, and how we all began, where the branching occurred among human beings and that will be exciting as well," Jackson said.
Elizabeth Sylvestre, a lab assistant, said that she thinks that the project is only in its infancy.
"He's a great educator, and I'm sure the project will go on for years to come after he's gone," she said. "I feel very fortunate to be working on the study. I do hope that we are able to make many matches."
Jackson's most recent undertaking is in a realm quite different from the laboratory. He is in the process of applying to become a delegate at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
"Yeah, I'm trying to become a delegate," he said shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. "I'm almost there. So far I have gotten all the way to the final round."
If Jackson makes the cut, he will somehow have to pull himself away from the lab for awhile. This may turn out to be his most formidable challenge yet.