Race, Religion and DNA

Barbara Spindel in the Barnes and Noble Review:

WANDERINGGENE_AFThe Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion and DNA spans continents and millennia but takes place largely in Colorado's barren and impoverished San Luis Valley, which, author Jeff Wheelwright notes drily, is “not a place you would expect to find a flare-up of Jewish consciousness.” But the San Luis Valley is home to the Medinas, a large Hispano family of Spanish and Native American descent, and many of them have tested positive for the BRCA1.185delAG gene, the breast cancer mutation considered to be unambiguous evidence of Jewish ancestry.

The heart of Wheelwright's alternately fascinating and painful book is Shonnie Medina, who was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at age twenty-six and dead by twenty-eight. What fascinates is the author's account of how the Jewish marker first came to be and how it eventually showed up among the Catholics of the American Southwest. Scientists believe that the mutation, discovered in the mid-1990s, is 2,500 years old and that it entered the Israelite gene pool via a single founder. (Unlike recessive genes like those that cause the deadly Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disease affecting Jews, this mutation acts alone, requiring only one parent to pass it down.) Wheelwright, a science journalist whose previous books were about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and illnesses afflicting Gulf War veterans, explains that in a bitter twist, some of the early Israelite strategies to survive in the face of oppression, including preserving “sacred separateness” and “blood purity,” led to genetic isolation and the concentration of the mutation.

More here.