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Race, ancestry, and genes: implications for defining disease risk.

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  • 1National Human Genome Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 20060, USA.


Geneticists are interested in finding genes associated with disease. Because of widespread health disparities, race is a variable that is often said to be relevant in this context. The idea is that members of a preconceived "race" share common ancestry that may include genetic risk factors. Human variation has been shaped by the long-term processes of population history, and population samples that reflect that history carry statistical information about shared genetic variation or "ancestry." But race is an elusive concept and a term difficult even to define rigorously. Unfortunately, these problems are neither new nor related to recent genetic knowledge. Race is also one of the most politically charged subjects in American life because its associated sociocultural component has notoriously led to categorical treatment that has been misleading and politically misused. There are ways in which the concept of race (whether or not the term is used) can be a legitimate tool in the search for disease-associated genes. But in that context race reflects deeply confounded cultural as well as biological factors, and a careful distinction must be made between race as a statistical risk factor and causal genetic variables.

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