New Science Impacts Book of Mormon DNA Studies

Ten years ago, population geneticists could study only relatively simple genetic configurations from the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. Since then, there has been a revolution in the methodology available for this kind of study so that now scientists are examining the most complex areas of an individual’s complete nuclear DNA. Using what is called “admixture mapping,” they look at thousands of variant SNPs (pronounced “snips” for single nucleotide polymorphisms) revealing the subtlest influences on an individual’s genetic makeup.

As examples of the fruits of this new technology, researchers have announced several ground-breaking discoveries over the past few months. We have learned that humans and Neanderthals bred with each other 30,000 years ago. We learned that European and African Jews (Ashkenazi and Sephardic) originated in the Middle East and migrated together to northern Italy, where they separated. Native Americans are so closely related, there appears to have been only one migration to the Americas from Siberia some 17,000 years ago.

What about the question of later migrations to the Americas? That issue has received less attention but is equally profound and is being illuminated by the same methodology. For instance, a study by Chao Tian and others, entitled “A Genomewide SNP Panel for Mexican American Admixture Mapping,” in the June 2007 issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, looked at 400,000 SNPs for “ancestry-informative markers.” They wanted to determine ethnic origins for indigenous diseases, but their conclusions have implications for those interested in Book of Mormon studies.

From his office in Canberra, Australia, Dr. Simon Southerton recently commented on “the beauty of SNPs, which is that they don’t just show us someone’s dominant heritage.” Southerton is a molecular geneticist who has written about genetics and the Book of Mormon. “They tell us what ancestors of other ethnic backgrounds are hiding unnoticed in our family trees.”Simon Southerton

Those who believe that the Book of Mormon is a literal history of ancient America assert that seafaring Israelites landed in America and intermixed with local natives. Some Mormon literalists have conceded that since there were so few Israelites among millions of Siberians in the Americas, their genetic legacy is unobservable, while nevertheless remaining convinced that Israelites numbered among the ancestors of Native Americans.

“It’s no longer possible to say that the genetic evidence is unavailable because it became extinct,” Southerton explains. “If there were Lamanites in the Americas, they will be found. If there weren’t, we’ll learn that too. The recent technological advances have changed everything.”

Southerton says that “the cost of genotyping (detecting SNPs) has fallen off dramatically, so scientists now can do what was formerly unthinkable, which is to identify millions of points of difference in nuclear DNA among thousands of humans. The results are impressive. I would have to say to anyone interested in the Mormon angle, hold onto you seats because you’re in for a ride. The results are going to start pouring in.”

It will take time for scientists to sort out which SNPs are indigenous to which regions, but a comprehensive database is emerging. Tien’s study identified 8,144 SNPs found only among the Pimas and Mayas, distinguished for instance from European SNPs. They can be used to determine when “other DNA” (European or, let’s say, Book of Mormon) entered the gene pool of American Indians. In all, out of 24 Mexican Americans in the study, the foreign DNA in their pedigrees originated within the last 10-25 generations, Tien found. Southerton added that “if any of these individuals had pre-Columbian DNA from anywhere in the world, it would have been virtually impossible to miss.”

Two Mormon-oriented groups have found ways to explain away the pre-SNP absence of evidence for ancient Israelites in the Americas. The Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism (FIRM), led by Rod Meldrum and motivated by an attempt to harmonize science with the pronouncements of Joseph Smith, has argued that the mitochondrial X haplotype concentrated in New England tribes shows a pre-Columbian arrival of Israelites.

In response, Southerton says that “the consensus is that the mitochondrial X haplotype came to the Americas by way of Siberia, and there’s not any real controversy over this among scientists. It most likely originated in Central Asia and left a trace as it spread to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and then into the Americas about 15,000 years ago. Rod may think the jury is out on this question, but unfortunately there is no evidence to support his case.”

The other group, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, argues a Central American setting for the Book of Mormon and contends that a small group of thirty people would not leave a genetic trace among millions of Siberians in the Americas, so the absence of evidence is actually positive evidence for the Book of Mormon in that it is what one would expect. “The people at Maxwell House may want to strain that argument to the very last drop,” said Southerton, “but what they haven’t counted on is this explosion of more genetic information, which undermines their apologetic.”

“The genetic tests are now so sensitive,” Southerton says, “that it is possible through admixture mapping to detect a tiny fraction of a percent of the mixed ancestry in a person’s DNA. If a small family of Jews mixed with American Indians 3,000 years ago, the Jewish nuclear DNA would spread throughout the adjacent populations like a drop of ink in a bucket. It would be virtually impossible for it to go extinct. If it is there, we’ll find it.”

A 2010 study by Katarzyna Bryc and others, “Genome-wide Patterns of Population Structure and Admixture among Hispanic/Latino Populations,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the USA, gives an admixture map for over 200 American Indians, showing European chromosome segments in red, African in green, and Native American in blue (figure 3, middle portion). To the untrained eye, it would not be apparent that the lengths of the European, African, or American Indian chromosome segments are significant, but they are. The earlier the introduction of foreign DNA in a Native American’s ancestry, the more fragmented the genetic material, which tells a genealogical story.

“If there were a lot of very short segments of foreign DNA on the admixture map,” says Dr. Southerton, “it would suggest a pre-Columbian entry of that DNA. It would stand out like a sore thumb and be trumpeted around the scholarly world as an amazing discovery.” There is also, according to the article, “a disproportionate contribution of European male and Native American female ancestry” evident in the map, as well as confirmation that European genes came primarily “from the Iberian peninsula.” The goal of the study was to try to isolate genetic heritage associated with certain diseases.

Southerton notes that most information currently coming to the fore has medicine as a priority, “to identify the SNPs that cause genetic disease and improve the health of indigenous people.” What we learn about ancestry “is an unexpected benefit” of these studies, he says. For a primer on DNA and the Book of Mormon, see Southerton’s Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church. For more on Neanderthals and Mormon theology, see Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding. And for those who want to have the latest word on the scientific findings and how they impact the Book of Mormon, Southerton says, “Stay tuned.”

Simon’s Blog