Two independent teams of researchers have come up with the most accurate genetic maps ever made — a feat that should make the search for genes associated with diseases easier.
To understand why an accurate genetic map is useful, imagine you are trying to locate a house in Topeka, Kan., but the only map you have is one of the Interstate Highway System. You could probably find Topeka, but finding the specific house you want would take a lot of trial and error.
That's basically the situation researchers find themselves in when they are searching for a particular gene in the long stretches of DNA that make up our chromosomes. The trick to making a genetic map is to make road signs in DNA to tell you where you are.
John Novembre, a geneticist at UCLA, says one way to make road signs is to look for what are called recombination events.
"What you're trying to do is identify locations along the chromosome where the DNA that a person inherits from their mother is different from the DNA they inherited from their father," Novembre says.
And where that switch in a strand of DNA from one parent's DNA to the other parent's DNA occurs is called a recombination event.
But recombinations do not occur evenly across our genetic material, says David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. Rather, he says, "they occur in very small hot spots." These specific hot spots become the road signs along the chromosomes that the researchers used to create the new genetic maps.
If all of this is a scary reminder of what you didn't quite understand from high school biology, don't worry. The point is that the map helps geneticists find their way.
Reich and his colleagues at Oxford University in England are publishing their map in Nature; Novembre and his UCLA colleagues published in Nature Genetics.
'Uniquely Informative' Information
What makes these genetic maps particularly interesting is they were developed using DNA from African-Americans. Most maps created so far are based on DNA from people of European ancestry. Reich says using African-American DNA revealed something unexpected.
"There's a family of about 2,500 hot spots of recombination that are active in people of West African ancestry, like African-Americans, which are almost completely inactive in people of non-African ancestry," Reich says.
Finding these 2,500 hot spots could be particularly helpful for finding genes for diseases that are more common in African-Americans.
"Researchers need maps that are matching the ancestry of their sample relatively closely, and so we're hoping that this map can actually serve as a great tool for disease-mapping studies in African-Americans," says David Wegmann, who collaborates with John Novembre at UCLA.
It hasn't always been easy to recruit African-Americans to research studies. Herman Taylor heads the Jackson Heart Study, an effort to follow the heart health of some 5,000 African-Americans.
"History has shown that African-Americans participating in large studies like ours didn't always get the most benefit," Taylor says. But he says that won't be the case with the Jackson Heart Study, or with the new mapping study. He's a co-author on the Harvard/Oxford study in Nature.
"Studying African-American genetics gives unique information about African-Americans, but also it is uniquely informative to genetics of the family of man," he says. Because Africa is thought to be the place where all modern humans originally came from, it's the DNA from African people that tells the first chapter in the story of modern human genetics.
"I think the people in the Jackson Heart Study recognize that they have an important contribution to make," Taylor says. And with time, Taylor thinks their contribution will bring tangible benefits.