Magazine article American Scientist

Where Anthropology and Genetics Go Together

Magazine article American Scientist

Where Anthropology and Genetics Go Together

Article excerpt

The source of tuberculosis in ancient Peru, insidious ways that racism can take a toll on health, and the reproductive success of Tibetan highlanders are just a few of the topics that came up recently at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology. One session, sponsored by the American Association of Anthropological Genetics, presented studies of complex phenotypes-that is, traits arising from multiple genetic, environmental, and cultural risk factors.

If anthropology and genetics seem distant from each other on the scientific spectrum, Connie Mulligan-a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida as well as associate director of the university's Genetics Institute- enthusiastically makes a case for bridging the gap. "It's easier not to have to engage with another field's terminology and culture of collection, but I think the coolest answers come from this type of approach," she says.

For example, Cynthia Beall, of Case Western Reserve University, explores how natural selection may be affecting the reproductive success of people who live on the high mountain plateau bordering Tibet and Nepal, about three kilometers above sea level. Although visitors to the area are subject to altitude sickness as the concentration of hemoglobin in their blood increases rapidly in response to the unfamiliar thin atmosphere, native highlanders tend to have hemoglobin levels similar to those of people living at sea level. Without this adaptive trait, Tibetan mountain dwellers would have to sustain higher hemoglobin concentrations throughout their lives, at great metabolic cost.

Beall and her colleagues wanted to find out whether the adaptation was an instance of natural selection. Her collaborators-geneticists, public-health specialists, and biostatisticians as well as anthropologists and translators- collected data from more than 1,000 women, not only in the form of blood and saliva samples but also in lengthy interviews and family histories. The researchers found that the adaptation for nonelevated hemoglobin concentration does boost the success rate of pregnancies, amounting to "about a 2-percent greater probability that a pregnancy would result in a live birth," says Beall. Acting on many successive generations, this seemingly slight advantage could amount to a significant effect from natural selection.

At the University of Florida, Mulligan and anthropologist Lance Gravlee are using a transdisciplinary approach to study the sociocultural and genetic factors that contribute to high blood pressure among African-American adults. …

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