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Q&A: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the Mysteries of His Genome

Q&A: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the Mysteries of His Genome

Photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Institute for African & American Studies, used genetic analysis to explore his ancestry—and those of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, and others—for the PBS television series African American Lives. In March he returns to the subject with a new series called Finding Your Roots, which features such celebrities as Barbara Walters, Martha Stewart, and Robert Downey Jr. As I did for a feature in this week’s issue, Gates had his own genome sequenced. Here he discusses his unexpected heritage, his health, and how genetic data made him cry.

Why did you have your genome sequenced?

Ever since I watched Roots, I’ve dreamed of tracing my African ancestry and helping other people do the same. I was also trying to solve the mystery of why my father’s father looked so white that we called him “Casper” behind his back, because he looked like a ghost.

Was genome sequencing your first foray into genealogy?

No, I’ve been able to trace my genealogy with paper records back into the 18th century. It turns out one of my ancestors fought in the Continental Army, so I was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. I’ve used a company called African Ancestry to try to identify what part of Africa my people came from. And I’ve had analyses from and that look for signature sequences in your DNA, called haplotypes, which can pinpoint what part of the world your distant ancestors come from.

So what did you find?

It turns out that I’m descended on my mother’s side from a white woman who was impregnated by a black slave, and on my father’s side from an Irishman who conceived with a black woman named Jane Gates. I have an Irish haplotype called Ui Neill that goes back to some fifth century king. I was searching for African roots, and they led to an African kingdom called the United Kingdom.

What did your genome sequencing add to that?

My father and I made genetics history. We were the first African-Americans and the first father and son anywhere to have their genomes sequenced. You get half of your genome from each of your parents, so [Harvard genetics professor George Church] subtracted out my father’s DNA, and that gave us a partial reconstruction for the genome of my mother, who died in 1987 at the age of 70. You might ask, What could be so emotional about seeing a bunch of colors on a bar graph? But it was like seeing my mother recreated in a most intimate way. My father cried and I was moved to tears as well.

What did you learn about your health?

I didn’t find anything alarming. My father lived to be 97 and played bridge every day up to the end, so I’ve got a 50 percent chance of living a long life like him.

Lauerman is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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