The Gene Rush : Staking Claims to the Genetic Wealth of Italian Villages

By Power, Carla | Newsweek International, February 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Gene Rush : Staking Claims to the Genetic Wealth of Italian Villages


Power, Carla, Newsweek International


The mayor of Gioi walks the streets of his village like a doctor making the rounds in an intensive-care unit. He greets the few people he meets with forced heartiness, because Gioi is in danger of dying. Pitched at the top of a mountain in the rural Cilento region south of Naples, the town of shepherds and farmers has been pretty much left alone by modernity and the Italian government alike. Agriculture no longer pays, the mean age has risen to about 55 and young people are unemployed, if they stay at all. But Andrea Salati thinks he may have found a key to the town's rebirth: its genes.

Now that scientists have read the complete sequence of DNA in a human genome, as they announced last week, the race is on to figure out which genes trigger what diseases. To do this, you need to compare the DNA of many people who suffer from a given disease, but picking a population to study is tricky. People from a broad gene pool might have dozens of mutated genes that trigger a single disease, making the task of analysis difficult. People from a narrow gene pool, such as a family, share too much genetic material, which means scientists have to sort through vast stretches of common DNA. Ideally, you want a population whose members have descended from common ancestors and thus inherit the same disease- causing gene mutations. You want the members to be distant enough so that they share a modest amount of DNA. And you want good ancestral records going back hundreds of years. In short, you want a village like Gioi.

The Cilento region recently became the latest part of Italy to offer itself up as a so-called genetic park--a living laboratory for genetics research. In Gioi's church and town hall, researchers are combing through records of births, deaths and marriages that date back to 1625 and piecing together the town's genetic history. Then they plan to combine it with information on the genetic traits of the residents. These data will enable them to locate people who suffer from particular diseases and get them to donate DNA samples for analysis. In the process, the town's isolation and insularity could lead to a genetics-driven renaissance. As researchers clamor to mine the genetic data, villagers could get an opportunity to reap the economic and medical benefits that come with being test subjects. They could even find themselves the object of bidding wars between competing scientists. "With genetic research, the land could get a new life," says Salati.

Cilento is the second genetic park started by geneticist Mario Pirastu of Italy's National Research Council (CNR). Pirastu's first experiment started five years ago on the island of Sardinia, where he identified nine villages ripe for genetics research, and he wants to encourage more of them all over Italy. He is not the only one tapping the genetic riches of isolated peoples. Similar efforts are underway in China, Newfoundland, Costa Rica, Estonia and Iceland. The for-profit firm deCODE, which used data from Icelanders to isolate genes for schizophrenia and heart disease, announced last week that it had targeted proteins and enzymes that may soon lead to new drugs.

The village of Talana, in the remote Ogliastra region of Sardinia, certainly doesn't look like a frontier of scientific research. Old women still wear the island'straditional long black skirts; their sons are goatherds or farmers, and their grandsons often go to the coast in search of work. Five years ago Pirastu came here and started his first gene park. Armed with the promise of the mayor's good will, the local doctor's records and the blessing of the town priest, Pirastu's researchers pored over spidery script in the church records.

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