Friday, October 21, 2011

By Elise Kigner

Like many American Jews, Barry Shrage has roots in Eastern Europe. But look further back, and you'll find that Shrage's family – again like the ancestors of many Jews here – has done some traveling.

Genetic testing suggests that between three and five thousand years ago Shrage had a female ancestor from the Arabian peninsula. Some of her descendants may have gone to Northern Africa, while others settled in Canaan, which would become the ancient Jewish homeland. The Jews then may have migrated to Central and Eastern Europe, and more than a thousand years later Shrage ended up in Boston, where for the last quarter of a century he has been president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Shrage and six other local Jews agreed to have their genes analyzed in advance of "Genesis to Genetics: The New Science of Jewish Identity" Oct. 25 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

To give context to the individual results, Dr. Yaniv Erlich, head of a research group at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, and Jon Entine, author of "Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People," will speak about what genetics can reveal about where Jews come from, as well as what diseases they are more likely to carry.

The program will be moderated by Paula Aspell, executive producer of NOVA, and is sponsored by the New Center for Arts and Culture. Other test subjects included donors to the New Center and the Whitehead Institute.

The results of Jewish genetics have surprised some people. Erlich recalled his grandmother's reaction when he told her that before living in Uzbekistan, their ancestors may have lived in Sub- Saharan Africa. "This is not our family," she insisted.

In fact, Erlich said, more than 18 percent of Ashkenazi Jews today have paternal lines that trace through North Africa.

But genetics can also confirm elements of a Jewish identity. For example, Erlich grew up being told he was a Cohen, a member of the priestly class. Genetic testing gave him strong evidence for this, as he has the genetic mutation on his Y chromosome that is common among many males who claim to be Cohanim.

Entine, a journalist and founder of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University in Virginia, said 70-75 percent of Jewish males today share a common Near or Middle Eastern ancestry, and 50 percent of females share an ancestry from those areas. The rest, he said, are likely descendants of females who converted to Judaism over the past one thousand years after marrying a Jew.

"One can quibble with many stories in the Bible, but it holds a central truth: Judaism is a surviving ancient tribal religion with roots in what is today Israel. We share ancient DNA with our Arab cousins," Entine said.

The participants in "Genesis to Genetics" were tested in two ways: the subjects swabbed the inside of a cheek, and spit into a tube. To find ancestral lines, the subjects' DNA was compared with DNA of a quarter of a million of individuals in a database maintained by the Houstonbased company Family Tree DNA.

For the males, both the maternal and paternal lines were tested, but only the maternal lines of the women were tested, as they do not carry the Y chromosome, the paternal marker.

The data, Erlich explained, are limited in that even for a male there is no information about hundreds of ancestors, such as his maternal grandfather, and the father of his maternal grandmother.

Shrage and the other participants were screened for diseases prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, including Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis and Joubert Syndrome. Counsyl, a California-based company, provided the testing. Several of the participants learned that they were carriers of Jewish genetic diseases. This means that if they had married someone who was also a carrier, their children might have had the disease.

These tests were not available to the participants – all over age 60 – back when they were having children. Today, however, people are able to get tested for genetic diseases, and then can consider alternative fertility options, or adoption, if they find they are likely to pass along a disease.