Medical research into how humans work and what makes us ill is going on all the time, and it has been for as long as the first human being dissected another to see how our guts worked. But because of prejudice within the medical community, much of the human research has been done primarily on whites. Gene studies, for instance, have been performed mostly on Europeans and, as the New York Times reports, “[m]ost searches for variant genes that cause disease take place in people of European ancestry.”
But now a team of scientists from China is digging deep into the genes of Black Americans, and what they’re finding is both historically fascinating and medically important, too. Guess what: It looks like slavery may have impacted African-Americans all the way down to our genes!
According to the team, led by Li Jin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, certain disease-causing genes became more common in Blacks brought to America, possibly because they were helpful in the new American landscape. Consider sickle cell anemia, says the Times, which may have something to do with lessening the chances of contracting malaria in the United States: “[T]he researchers say, like the gene for sickle cell hemoglobin, which in its more common single-dose form protects against malaria. The Shanghai team suggests the gene has become less common in African-Americans because malaria is much less of a threat.”
While the Chinese team’s efforts have yet to prove beyond doubt that Black Americans’ diseases — sickle cell, hypertension, etc. — are due to our ancestors adapting to the United States, their research has been enough to earn some interest from their American counterparts. Perhaps it will be enough that the next time this research happens, it’s actually in America, not China.
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