History at the Cellular Level

As the story gets pieced together, John Jackson was a black man,
a freed slave perhaps, who came to New Haven, Connecticut, to join
the American Revolution. He fought under Benedict Arnold and, after
the war ended, sailed to Madagascar as a merchant seaman on a
whaling ship. There he met a woman who became his wife, and though
she would die within a year of their move to the United States, she
bore John a son.

John’s boy would have 11 sons of his own, all carrying the mark
of their parentage — a distinctive signature on their Y
chromosomes revealing their grandfather’s African ancestry.

Today, Bruce Jackson, a descendant of John Jackson, is a
molecular biologist at Boston University School of Medicine and
co-director of the African-American Roots Project. Through
Jackson’s efforts, and those of Burt Ely, a molecular geneticist at
the University of South Carolina, the project is helping other
African Americans understand their ancestry.

‘Every African American has major interest in his or her
lineage,’ says Jackson. ‘Among Americans, it’s the most sought
after information — where we emanate from — and especially for
African Americans because of the institution of slavery.’

It turns out that Bruce Jackson’s grandfather was the son of a
black man and a white indentured servant in a Virginia fishing
community. Bruce Jackson’s mother had the marks of her Irish origin
in her mitochondria. And Bruce Jackson himself shows Irish lineage
on his mitochondrial DNA and ancestral African DNA on his Y
chromosome.

All this genetic information connecting the present to the past
can be gleaned from cells inside the cheek. Every cheek cell, like
all cells in the body, contains genetic information about a
person’s heritage. Mitochondrial DNA, found in the cells of both
males and females, is passed down through the mother’s lineage. Y
chromosomes, which are found only in the cells of males, can be
used to trace the roots of the father’s side of the family. By
comparing cheek-cell DNA to a worldwide database of ethnic groups,
Jackson’s team can reveal the donors’ links to Africa.

But Africa has the longest and most diverse genetic history of
any continent, which makes pinpointing a person’s specific region
of origin using only the cheek cell an extremely difficult task.
And Jackson warns against overrating the DNA-reading process in
general. ‘It will probably be the most powerful technology for
identifying human beings, but it was never meant to be used as a
stand-alone tool,’ he cautions. ‘DNA is not a magic bullet.’ When
he was examining his own mitochondrial DNA, for example, Jackson
had the benefit of a strong oral history from his mother’s side as
well as a long record of his father’s family at St. Luke’s
Episcopal Church — both of which made piecing together his lineage
easier.

Still, DNA technology might be an innovative tool when it comes
to luring African Americans to the field of biology. ‘The number of
African American scientists is so small that we want to use the
project as a way of interesting young kids of color during the
years when they’re establishing for themselves what they want to be
in life,’ says Jackson, who believes interest in being a scientist
peaks by the fifth grade. ‘By the time they get to high school,
science isn’t even on their radar screen.’

No one expects the Roots Project to turn all children into
scientists, but Jackson is confident that it will spark students’
interest in science, biology, and the genetic underpinnings of
their ancestry.

Reprinted from Science & Spirit (May/June
2004). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 1319 18th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20036;
www.science-spirit.org

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