The genetic map of Mexico

By Fernanda Duque Hernández

Tracking Mexican ancestors for health improvements.

Mexico is a diverse country, culturally and genetically speaking. Geneticists of the University of California and the University of Stanford have managed to trace the history of Mexico using a genetic map, which could be used to transform medical diagnostic tools and treatments.

The team of researchers created a blueprint of Mexico’s genetic diversity, using a sample of 20 indigenous genomes from all over Mexico and 11 from people from Mexico and the southwestern United States with mixed indigenous Mexican and European ancestry – commonly known as mestizo.

According to Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist at Stanford University, because of geographic barriers, indigenous populations have developed many genetic differences which can represent a problem for their descendants, mainly because these variants can increase their risk of disease or resistance to medicines. After an analysis of 511 indigenous individuals, the team concluded that “the most divergent indigenous groups in Mexico are as different from each other as Europeans are from East Asians”.

indigenous Mexican

As a consequence of the Spanish conquest, indigenous communities interbred with European and African populations and their descendants now make up the current population of Mexico. Thanks to the collaboration of the Mexican National Institute of Genomic Medicine, Bustamante’s team could learn that rare gene variations in indigenous people were also present in the mestizo population, making it even possible to track their indigenous ancestors.

An easy example of this are the genetic Maya markers found in people from the Yucatan Peninsula. These markers are also present in people from Veracruz, which reflects the trade and migration routes both populations shared.

Beyond the historical and social benefits that this investigation can have, its main objective is to determine how genetic variation could influence the health of the current population. Esteban Burchard, a pulmonologist at UC’s San Francisco campus, analyzed the results and concluded that “depending upon the type of Native American ancestry you have, it can dramatically influence the diagnosis of lung disease, in a good or a bad way”.

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