© 2019 - All Rights Reserved
“These data suggest that the interplay between race and ethnicity as social constructs and genetic ancestry as a biological construct is more complex than we had realized,” said Noah Zaitlen, PhD, a UCSF assistant professor of medicine and co-senior author on the new study. “In a medical context both elements may provide valuable information.”
“This is a big advancement of our understanding of race and ethnicity,” Burchard said. “There’s this whole debate about whether race is fundamentally genetic or is just a social construct. To our knowledge this is the first time anyone has attempted to quantify the molecular signature of the non-genetic components of race and ethnicity. It demonstrates in a whole new way that race combines both genetics and environment.”
Teasing apart roles of genetics, environment in ethnic differences in disease
“A lot of our research involves trying to tease apart how much of health differences between populations are genetic and how much are environmental,” Zaitlen said.
Epigenetic signatures of ethnicity could be biomarkers for shared cultural experiences
“This suggests that using epigenetics as a biomarker could give you a lot of information about environmental exposures within particular populations that’s not captured by genetics,” Zaitlen said. “Our next step will be to understand how specific epigenetic signatures are linked to particular environmental exposures, and use those signals to understand patient risk.”
“Like a standard family history, ethnicity is association with disease for both genetic and environmental reasons,” Zaitlen said. “If your dad or mom had a heart attack, that tells doctors a lot about your risk for a heart attack. Part of that is genetic, but part of it is that your lifestyle is influenced heavily by your parents’ lifestyle. Your ethnic group is like a much bigger family — it’s partly a matter of genetics, but it also reflects the environment of your broader community.”