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My favorite XY chromosome

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06/21/2010

My favorite XY chromosome photo 1

My dad is one of those dads who is always forwarding things to me. Mostly his forwards are of funny pictures or terrible jokes or quirky news stories, but one time he wrote to talk about his genetic haplogroup.

My dad is not Jewish, though since he is from New York, people often think he is. My last name (Bergdahl), which most people can’t seem to place, is Swedish: it means mountain-valley, and was made up sometime in the nineteenth century, when my forebears decided not to be Andersons anymore. The reason I bring this up is because I like to kid people about my roots: I’m a Swedish-Irish-Lithuanian Jew raised in Appalachia, which is a little outside mainstream expectations.

The genetics appear to be even more interesting. My father’s brother signed up for one of those haplogroup analysis tests from National Geographic. Haplogroups are how geneticists organize ancestry analysis: one analogy likens them to branches on the Homo sapiens family tree. Certain DNA markers correlate to populations in certain geographic locations. When my uncle’s results came back, we found out that my dad’s family had an unexpected origin: its Y-chromosome is most predominant in Europeans who speak Uralic languages and live close to the Arctic Circle.

“What does that mean?” I asked him. “Does this make me a Lappish Jew?” (Lapps, Finns, Estonians and Samoyeds are examples of Uralic language-speaking peoples.)

“I wouldn’t go that far,” my dad said.

“Am I a Viking?” A Jewish Viking would be pretty cool, you have to admit.

I think he asked if I had ever found myself longing for reindeer. I may have told him I’d check to see if it was kosher.

The genetics on my mom’s side of the family, all Litvaks, are fascinating too. Not because she took a test, but because scientists have just published a massive study of the Jewish genome, if you will, and discovered some amazing things. Researchers took samples from 237 individuals around the world, each of whom had all four grandparents born in the same community, and compared their DNA. As it turns out, Jews really are something special: Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews all share common genetic markers, which point to a Middle Eastern origin, and are more closely related to each other than the communities in which they settled.

Here’s another amazing thing about this study. The researchers behind it hope that their analysis will provide a baseline against which to measure future studies about the origins of genetic diseases and hereditary cancers, not just in Jews but in everybody. Cooler than a Jewish Viking, I’d say.

My dad thought so too. Like clockwork, an article popped up in my inbox the day the study came out. Followed, of course, by photos of people who look like their pets. Love you too, Dad.

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