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General Health Channel
Reported June 4, 2010

Genetic Threads Explain Jewish Ancestry

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Using sophisticated genomic analysis, scientists have probed the ancestry of several Jewish and non-Jewish populations to better define how contemporary Jewish people are related. The research may shed light on the question, raised more than a century ago, of whether Jews are a race, a religious group or something else.

The genetic, cultural and religious traditions of contemporary Jews originated in the Middle East more than 3,000 years ago. Jewish communities have since migrated from the Middle East into Europe, North Africa and across the world. The migration of Jews is known as the Diaspora. This study shows that although Jewish people experienced genetic mixing with surrounding populations, they retained a genetic cohesion along with a religious one.

"Previous genetic studies of blood group and serum markers suggested that Jewish groups had Middle Eastern origin with greater genetic similarity between paired Jewish populations," senior study author, Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor of pediatrics, pathology and medicine and director of the Human Genetics Program at NYU Langone Medical Center, was quoted as saying. "More recent studies of Y chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA pointed to founder effects of both Middle Eastern and local origin, yet, the issue of how to characterize Jewish people as mere coreligionists or as genetic isolates that may be closely or loosely related remained unresolved."

Dr. Ostrer and colleagues performed a genome-wide analysis of Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi Jews and compared these results with non-Jewish groups. The researchers identified distinct Jewish population clusters that exhibited a shared Middle Eastern ancestry, proximity to contemporary Middle Eastern populations, and variable degrees of European and North African genetic intermingling. The two major groups, Middle Eastern Jews and European Jews, diverged from each other approximately 2,500 years ago.

"We have shown that Jewishness can be identified through genetic analysis, so the notion of a Jewish people is plausible. Yet, the genomes of the Jewish Diaspora groups have distinctive features that are representative of each group's genetic history," said Dr. Ostrer.

"Our study demonstrated that the studied Jewish populations represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters with genetic threads that weave them together," lead author Dr. Gil Atzmon, assistant professor of medicine and genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, was quoted as saying. "These threads were observed as identical strands of DNA that were shared within and between Jewish groups. Thus, over the past 3,000 years, both the flow of genes and the flow of religious and cultural ideas have contributed to Jewishness."

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SOURCE: American Journal of Human Genetics, June, 2010

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