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.
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The dual events of 1492 — Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain — eventually led to a number of Jews who had converted to Catholicism laying down roots in the New World. Although these conversos probably thought they had left their Jewish heritage behind, they actually brought with them one deadly piece of genetic baggage: 185delAG.

In 2008, science writer Jeff Wheelwright traveled to the San Luis Valley to write about the “secret Jews” living there. Geneticists had recently found the defect among cancer patients, and a fierce academic debate had erupted over whether secret Spanish Jewry still survived in this pocket of the country. As Wheelwright wrote at that time for Smithsonian magazine, the DNA didn’t prove that the genetic carriers’ unusual rituals were indeed vestiges of ancient crypto-Judaic rites, but the evidence neatly matched the historical hypothesis.

Outside the halls of academia, the findings also raised some awkward, soul-searching questions for the women who carried the 185delAG mutation — questions of faith, ancestry and religion that Wheelwright couldn’t answer in a shorter magazine article. So he netted a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and traveled back to the San Luis Valley to write an entire book on the topic.

On his second trip, Wheelwright met the Medinas, a family of 185delAG carriers who would form the narrative base of his extended treatise. At the center of the story was Shonnie Medina, who had died a few years earlier. She was a young Catholic-turned-Jehovah’s Witness who developed breast cancer at the age of 26 and died within two years.

In “The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion and DNA,” Wheelwright paints a beautiful picture of the stunning Southwestern landscape and recounts a compelling story about how Medina’s family dealt with her tragic illness. But Medina’s example doesn’t really tackle the fundamental issues that Wheelwright set out to explore vis-à-vis the gene’s Jewish lineage. Her struggle is shaped not by that genetic lineage, but largely by her newfound religion — Jehovah’s Witness. She also seems to wrestle with her Native American ancestry, which rears its head when she tans and her skin turns darker than that of many others around her. But there’s no indication in her lifetime that she was cognizant of any Jewish heritage.

Faced with a growing tumor in her breast, Medina eschewed traditional medicine, putting her faith in alternative therapies and finding solace in the Jehovah’s Witness restorationist principles. In fact, she learned about the mutation inside her only a month before her death, and, in Wheelwright’s account, she never even considered its cultural and historical significance.

As such, the book feels like a forced mash-up of two parallel themes, both connected by 185delAG, but only indirectly: a compelling story of a tragic cancer death and a genetically tagged tale of hidden heritage. Wheelwright valiantly tries to weave together the interreligious ideas into a complex tapestry set upon the backdrop of San Luis’s desert ecology. But the result feels strained, with disjointed chapters that never quite come together.

The best parts of the book are when Wheelwright moves past Medina’s inner circle and considers the larger community and its responses to the possibility of a Jewish past. Many years after Medina’s death, Wheelwright sat in on a genetic counseling session held at the Medina family’s restaurant, in which the extended Medina clan was urged to consider genetic testing, and where many in attendance first learned about the particular ethnic origin of the mutation circulating in their midst. And Wheelwright was back at the restaurant a couple years later when Dr. Harry Ostrer, then head of the human genetics program at the New York University School of Medicine and now a geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, held a blood drive to collect samples for a study looking at the contribution of converso Jews to the genomes of Latin Americans. Indeed, Ostrer did find hallmarks of Jewish ancestry that back up the historical accounts of Jewish migration patterns, as he and his colleagues report in the February issue of the journal Human Genetics.

These social events are the moments when Wheelwright’s reporting shines brightest. Too much of the book, however, is preoccupied with Medina’s personal tragedy, with tenuous winking references to the “gene whispering inside her” that “made her the way she was.” The genetic topic that brought Wheelwright back to southern Colorado was bigger than one person, but alas, “The Wandering Gene” wanders from that gene.

Elie Dolgin is a news editor with the journal Nature Medicine, in Cambridge, Mass.


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