Decoding the Ashkenazi Genome May Offer Clues to Cancer, Diabetes

Study of 1,500 Jews Offers Promising Progress

Thinking Big: Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University is leading effort to decode 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews.
Courtesy of Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Thinking Big: Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University is leading effort to decode 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews.

By Elie Dolgin

Published August 05, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Scientists have long been acutely interested in the genetic idiosyncrasies of Ashkenazi Jews. Like other groups with a long history of marrying from within, Ashkenazim constitute a relatively homogenous population.

This has led to the discovery of a number of genetic alterations, or mutations, that are responsible for diseases found more often in Ashkenazi Jews. Think Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s or other so-called “Jewish genetic disorders.” But the smaller gene pool has also made it easier for scientists to find genes responsible for widespread ailments with complex genetic underpinnings, such as cancer and diabetes.

To date, such work has been done by looking at only a fraction of the genes in the entire human hereditary complement — usually just a million or so scattered DNA letters. But thanks to advances in gene sequencing technologies, and declining prices in their application, the pursuit of disease-causing mutations affecting Ashkenazim is about to advance by orders of magnitude — up to all 3 billion nucleotides that make up the human genome.

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more stories about genetics.

A group of leading researchers from across the United States and Israel is currently raising money to decode the genomes of more than 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews, including healthy individuals and those suffering from breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, schizophrenia and a handful of other common ailments. Most of these disorders in the academic hot seat are caused by multiple genes that, to date, have eluded scientific discovery.

It’s not that Ashkenazi Jews have more defective DNA or suffer such diseases at appreciably higher rates than other ethnic groups — they do not. Rather, because only a small number of ancestors from Central and Eastern Europe gave rise to the millions of Ashkenazim alive today, scientists like those involved in the nascent Ashkenazi Genome Project can compare healthy and sick Jews and, through statistical techniques, more easily pick out which genetic alterations might explain the medical discrepancies.

“With feasible investment and the sequencing of only hundreds of individuals, one can get very good representation of the genomes of millions of people living today,” says Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University and one of the scientists who is spearheading the effort. “This is something that you cannot do in many other populations of interest to geneticists.”

Geneticists commonly study reproductively isolated populations. For example, the Old Order Amish and Hutterites are the subjects of active investigation in the United States, and many European island dwellers in Iceland, Sardinia and elsewhere have had their genomes decoded and analyzed. But these groups are relatively small — usually counted in the tens or hundreds of thousands. As a result, it can be hard for scientists — who need robust sample sizes to yield statistically meaningful results — to find sufficient numbers of study participants who suffer from any given disease.


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!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • 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.