Population movement indeed seems to have accelerated changes in human DNA. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA found that genes have changed more in the past few thousand years than in the past few million because of altered living conditions. Govindaraju emphasizes that this change is ongoing and does not limit itself to historical populations. A gene that powerfully influences someone’s asthma in India, say, might be irrelevant when that person is living in the U.S. “A population is only a population,” he explains, “in that environment.”
Govindaraju has helped convene a working group funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., that brings together specialists from evolutionary biology, human genetics, anthropology, public health and medicine. The team will start by analyzing data collected in the Framingham Heart Study to document microevolutionary changes over three generations.
Typing people by race or even ancestry, Govindaraju adds, locks clinicians into a static understanding of genes and health. Instead he hopes they will begin to see an individual and the network of genes within the body as an integrated product of family, generation, location and history—and as an organism that is still evolving.
This article was originally published with the title From Race to DNA.