Written by Sara D. Davis, CNN
The genetic diversity of the Roma People continues to be misunderstood, according to a team of American scientists. With more than one million citizens in the US, they stress that while the terminology around them may be very different, the subject matters of a conversation with them are not.
“The casualness with which we have the tendency to speak about … religion, politics and social structure … is not common with other racial/ethnic groups who are rarely discussed in the same way as the Roma in the United States,” said Casey Fleischmann, a New York University PhD candidate and the lead author of the study, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Embedded within the Roma people is a long, prosperous history of migration and uprooting. The belief in God is a key aspect of their culture, yet the label “Catholic” or “Buddhist” alone does not adequately communicate the nuanced ways of these religion-focused people. They are not always politically aligned and often hold many faiths at once. But more important than any of these characteristics, said Fleischmann, is that the people’s core cultures have been misrepresented to the broader public.
Fleischmann’s analysis of the DNA sequences of 1,278 members of the Roma community revealed that the people share a broad range of genetic DNA including almost every single gramme of a sheep’s or cow’s genome.
It also sheds light on the details of their shared history. The researchers found that the Roma People diverged from the ancestors of modern humans more than 8 million years ago and have lived in what is now Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. From this gene pool of ancient DNA, the researchers were able to reconstruct the survival rate for each specific group and determine that the Roma people are more vulnerable to diseases. In essence, it suggests that they face a greater risk for pre-exposure prophylaxis in relation to a greater risk of human development of these conditions.
Another key finding was that members of the family share important genetic traits such as lactose tolerance and immune response.
But even though the genetic diversity of the Roma people is highly extensive, there is room for more genetic background research. For example, although Fleischmann’s team found similar patterns of genetic similarity to members of other ethnic groups, the factors behind them are different. For example, certain characteristics of the Roma People are considered biologically heritable — but genetic codes might have been the product of a long, complicated life.
“I know that the word ‘genetic’ has a negative connotation associated with the disease ‘bad genetics,’ ” Fleischmann said. “But the Roma People are actually quite unique in the past and certainly in the present.
“Our genetic research has opened a Pandora’s box of different ways of thinking about these people.”