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DNA marks the spot

by Nicholas Mazur - Campus Talk Editor
Tue, Apr 17th 2018 09:15 pm

Science is something that we tend to associate with the future; we feel it pushing the boundaries in front of us into new frontiers and discoveries. It can, however, pull us back toward our past, both remote and recent. For this, we can turn to DNA, the stuff of life. 

Packed inside those double helix miracles is almost the entire history of life on earth, all packed into the trillions of cells that make up you, me and all the other bickering seven billion people on the planet. DNA has recently helped scientists in Mexico trace back heritage and culture to better illuminate the history of this part of the world.

According to Science Magazine, a graduate student at a university in Mexico has recently been tracking the genomes of several samples of Mexican people to better confirm the historical facts of Asian-based immigration to Mexico during the time in history in which railroads were being constructed in certain regions by Chinese immigrants. 

What this graduate student, Juan Esteban Rodríguez, found was that this historical fact was corroborated by the DNA of that region. However, it also revealed that immigration was more widespread than was previously believed. DNA from Asian decent appeared in other samples taken from different regions of Mexico, 2,000 kilometers away. Rodríguez also discovered a larger-than-thought presence of African DNA in samples, proving Asian immigrants’ role in Mexican history as well.

Before we dive into the implications and importance of this, let’s have a little discussion about DNA. Last week in “Beaker Speaker,” we mentioned that DNA is viable for about 1 million years before it is more or less useless. Luckily for us humans, history does not stretch that far back. However, I’m sure as soon as humans got together to start making history, one of them wanted to “make caves great again.”

But seriously folks, DNA is a great tool for discovery. It’s basically a library, or search history for genes. When DNA changes, it does not so much get rid of code as it does shut it off. As a result, we all have countless genes in our DNA that once served a function, but are now shut off. In this case, however, we are not going from species to species, but generation to generation. Specific genes present in certain cultures can be tracked from place to place, allowing us to understand where someone came from. 

For instance, you might be able to track a melanin based gene back to a European country. When humans began to migrate north, their skin grew lighter due to the lack of sunlight that required their skin to be able to absorb. This simple and subtle genetic shift can be tracked and allow scientists to see where someone is from based on migration. This same principle is what allowed these Mexican-based scientists to track the genealogy of Mexican citizens and their ancestors. Specific genes can be used to trace who has contributed to your specific genetic makeup.

So what does this all add up to, you ask? Excellent question, reader! Practices and efforts like this in science help us to understand where we come from, what we’ve done and where we’ve done it. They say history is written by the victors. Maybe so, but the facts are preserved in science, in our very DNA. Efforts like Mr. Rodríguez’s help preserve a history of immigration and exploitation that we might be tempted to sweep under the rug and forget about. Yet, with just a little science, we can reveal some of the truth again. 

Science is a vertical practice. It is foundational and you cannot proceed to the next level without finishing the one you are on, nor without having built up from the ground. History does not have the same reassurance. Anyone can say what happened, and we can believe it. Sure it may not be what happened, but that misconception does not have the same repercussions as if we all started believing gravity isn’t real. Apples would still fall from trees and all the rest.

History and science are both noble endeavours for truth. With that in mind, it is good to know that they have each others’ backs now and again. In a world full of people who want to benefit off of lies, we need as many truth seekers, as many facts checkers as we can get.

 

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