Gene Pinpoints Heritage, Causes Concern

BRCA1 Prompts Some Difficult Questions for a Hispanic Town

By Elie Dolgin

Published February 21, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA
By Jeff Wheelwright
W.W. Norton and Company, 260 pages, $26.95

A diagnosis of breast cancer presents a lot of questions. Should you start with chemotherapy, or opt for surgery right away? Do you remove the tumor alone, or the entire breast? What about prophylactic surgery to remove the other healthy breast before the next tumor strikes?

Such questions can be daunting for any woman in the face of a life-threatening illness. But what if the questions raised by such a tumor go beyond how to control the disease? What if the cancer also fundamentally challenges the notions of your race, religion and personal identity?

w.w. norton and co.

Such was the case for a small group of Catholic Hispanos living in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. In addition to coming to grips with a hereditary form of breast cancer plaguing their community, this population of Spanish and Native American descent had to deal with their DNA, and a peculiar mutation that pointed unexpectedly to an ancient Jewish heritage.

That genetic defect goes by the name BRCA1.185delAG, so-called because of a deletion (del) of the chemicals adenine (A) and guanine (G) at site 185 of the DNA encoding the BRCA1 gene. It’s known, with dread, as the BRCA (pronounced “bracka”) mutation, and a woman with it has a greater than 50% chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer over her lifetime.

The 185delAG mutation arose some two millennia ago among the Hebrew tribes living in the Middle East and spread through their gene pool, rising in frequency. Currently there are two working hypotheses for this higher prevalence: first, that it rose in frequency by chance alone, because of the Jews’ small gene pool; second, natural selection caused the gene to rise. A recent study, published in the journal Biology Letters, suggests that having the mutant BRCA mutation may have boosted fertility in the days before birth control and that the evolutionary fitness of the gene was largely unaffected by its fatal consequences in later life. Whichever is the case, the mutation now affects about one in 100 people of Ashkenazi descent and, intriguingly, some isolated non-Jewish populations of Spanish descent, too.

About a decade ago, scientists began noticing the deletion of those two letters of DNA in several non-Jewish communities, including a Spanish Gypsy population, a Chilean family and Hispanic groups living in the Los Angeles area. All these people identified as Spanish or Latin American and had no knowledge of any Jewish ancestry. But DNA revealed what culture and history had lost.

Scientists typically refer to 185delAG as an “Ashkenazi” mutation, thanks to the gene’s most prominent carrier population today. But considering that Iraqi and Moroccan Jews carry the mutation at noticeable frequencies, chances are that the Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula harbored the genetic red flag, as well.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.