Bid to trace African roots with DNA called premature

Howard University steps back on ancestry project

May 30, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Generations of black Americans have longed to reconnect with their African roots, frustrated by the improbability of knowing where their ancestors lived on the vast continent.

So when Rick Kittles, a young geneticist at Howard University, proposed using DNA testing to pinpoint the region or tribe of their forebears, hundreds of blacks contacted his lab with expectations that a $300 blood test could link them to their long-lost lineage.

Like a dream too good to be true, such hopes remain impossible to grasp.

Kittles and Howard University are in the embarrassing position of backpedaling on their African Ancestry Project, which was scheduled to debut with large-scale genetic tests this summer.

They also are scrambling to find explanations for government funders and others in the scientific community about how the university could have promoted so ambitious a proposal without adequate supervision.

A Web site featuring images of African culture and urging prospective black American blood sample donors "to find out more about ourselves by examining our genetic makeup and developing a genetic fingerprint" has been dismantled.

Kittles and other Howard officials connected with the African Ancestry Project declined repeated requests for interviews with the Los Angeles Times.

While some scientists predict soon they might achieve what Kittles advertised on the Web site, many experts familiar with DNA research say the technology is too new to market to the public.

"Someone has taken someone else's half-baked cake and started selling slices to the public," said Michael Blakey, director of the African Burial Ground Project, a federally funded effort to study slave remains found in New York City.

Blakey, who teaches anthropology at Howard and Brown universities, said it is "eminently possible" to do what Kittles is proposing.

In fact, he said, Kittles got the idea from their collaboration on the New York project, where a scientists are attempting to match the DNA extracted from skeletal remains found eight years ago at an urban construction site with genetic samples of Africans dispersed across the continent and the Caribbean.

Additionally, the group is building a computer database of DNA samples from American Indians, Europeans and other ethnic groups that might have commingled with African slaves.

Kittles, a molecular biologist, was involved in the New York project, supervising the DNA lab work involved in linking the remains to Africa. But he left the project late last year after a dispute with Blakey, according to researchers who worked on the project.

He returned to Howard to pursue his research on DNA and prostate cancer mortality among black American men, taking with him some of the data he worked on at the New York project.

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