Top Genomic Databases Lack Racial Diversity, Says Maryland Researcher

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DNAProtesters taking on systemic racism often talk about how racial bias and discrimination is woven into the DNA of society. A University of Maryland researcher found that it goes to the genomic level. 

Timothy O’Connor of the Baltimore-based University of Maryland School of Medicine published a paper in the journal Nature Communication this week stating that two of the top genomic databases in use have racial bias. That means the databases in use by specialists favor genetic data European ancestry over African ancestry.

It’s important work as scientists seek to understand the origin of diseases in certain populations. Researchers set out to find whether there was a reason at the gene level that people of African descent in the Americas are more susceptible to asthma. But given the mix of ancestry that many people in this part of the world have, the work has wider implications.

“For example, if an African-American patient walks in the door, he might have 20 percent European ancestry, while another might have 20 percent African ancestry. That difference will dramatically change how many variants are found in their genome, and what disease risks they might encounter,” O’Connor said in a statement from the University of Maryland.

Work has already begun on getting more representation. In the same publication, a team that included researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Colorado Anschutz also conducted the largest ever genome sequencing of populations with African ancestry in the Americas.

In this case, representing everyone in the database is really important. Since the first people existed in Africa, the African genome is the oldest and most varied. It’s literally where we all came from.

Stephen Babcock

Stephen Babcock is the editor of Baltimore and an editor-at-large of Baltimore Fishbowl.

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