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African Genome Project Highlights Migration History

FILE - A biotechnician demonstrates the loading of a genome sequencing machine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, March 29, 2010.

Scientists have been making rapid advances in studies of genetic variations in European and East Asian populations. Now, populations in Africa, the cradle of the human race, are getting the same treatment.

The African Genome Variation Project set out to discover more about how variations in DNA can help in understanding patterns of disease, ultimately leading to better treatments.

Working with other institutions, including partners throughout Africa, the Genome Variation Project has collected and analyzed genetic information from nearly 3,000 individuals representing the diversity of the African experience over many millennia.

Manjinder S. Sandhu of Britain’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, senior author of an article on the project in the journal Nature, said in a telephone interview that DNA reveals traces of the movement of people who originated in Africa, migrated elsewhere, and returned.

“It’s a mass population movement from out of Africa," Sandhu said. "Populations have returned over thousands of years and mixed with population groups. And you see vestiges of those signals in the human genomes of modern Africans today.”

For example, genetic characteristics of Eurasian people were found in today’s West Africans.

Sandhu said the Genome Variation Project might help explain why certain genetic variations make some people more likely than others to develop specific diseases.

“And ultimately, if we understand the biological processes underlying those diseases, we can start thinking about how we can develop new medicines, or use existing medicines, to help combat and control those diseases,” he said.

In a commentary also published in Nature, Raj Ramesar of the University of Cape Town said analyses of more African genomes would open a larger window into “human diversity, evolution ... and disease susceptibility.”