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

(page 2 of 3)

“The Ashkenazim have the advantage that if you reach worldwide there are millions of them, whereas in other [genetically similar] founder populations there are fewer,” says Dr. Alan Shuldiner, director of the Program in Personalized and Genomic Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, who studies Amish populations but is not involved in the Ashkenazi project.

Ashkenazi Jews “are on the Goldilocks end of populations” — just right — Pe’er notes.

By reading every last DNA letter from this cohort, Pe’er and his collaborators have three goals in mind: to get a better grasp of the genetic ancestry of Ashkenazim; to learn about the root causes of disease, and ultimately to apply that knowledge to improve medical practice.

“The Ashkenazi Genome Project has the unique ability to advance all three of those in a more inexpensive and a more efficient manner than most other approaches that are currently available,” says project co-leader Todd Lencz, a clinical psychologist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, a research arm of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset, N.Y. “If we can meet our goal, we could really have some answers in a few years. This is not a 20-year project.”

Pe’er and Lencz’s group calls itself The Ashkenazi Genome Consortium — or TAGC — an acronym that plays off the four “letters” of the genetic code (thymine, adenine, guanine and cytosine). Thus far, the consortium has sequenced the genomes of 137 individuals. The researchers reported on the first 57 of those in November 2012 at the American Society of Human Genetics’ annual meeting in San Francisco. They showed that by comparing Ashkenazi samples with each other they could whittle the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome down to some 30,000 letters that might actually play a part in contributing to disease. Now they plan to sequence many more Ashkenazim to study the genome even more closely.

“The ability to look at the genome and get rid of 95 to 99% of the fluff of the background noise is a make-or-break in terms of finding mutations that are responsible for particular genetic conditions,” says Pe’er.

The preliminary analysis also revealed that some 30 to 35 generations ago — equivalent to less than 1,000 years — Ashkenazim underwent what geneticists call an extreme “bottleneck.” This means that the 11 million Ashkenazi Jews alive today descend largely from only around 400 individuals who lived in the Middle Ages. Comparing the Ashkenazi genome sequences with those derived from individuals of other ethnic origins also showed that these “founder” Jews probably lived in the Levant, a geographic region that now includes Israel and several of its Arab neighbors.

It’s not that these demographic findings are radically different from what scientists had already deduced from more limited DNA datasets. But, says Lencz, “there’s definitely more that we can learn by drilling all the way down into the whole genome.”

In addition to the leaders at Feinstein and Columbia, the consortium includes scientists from several other New York area institutions, including Mount Sinai Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Elsewhere, investigators at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hebrew University are also contributing.


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 it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • 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.